Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mekong Delta: Coconut Monks & Unicorns

Vietnam is a country thriving to achieve what it has been denied for centuries – prosperity. For the first millennium it was tangled in a series of battles with the Chinese and Mongols, then came the French and finally the Americans. All of these foes were invaders bent on occupying Vietnam and forcing its people into submission. All failed. For the past thirty years the country has been accelerating, making up for lost time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the energy and optimism of its youth.

Traveling throughout the country from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi has been a blast and an eye-opening experience. In Saigon, the city felt like a more European version of Hong Kong with a dash of Mandalay’s sleepy nonchalance thrown in.

The Saigon River winds around the edge of the old town like a snake slowly uncurling itself from under the city’s simmering heart. Over its surface glides a ferry carrying motorbikes and pedestrians.

Watching the sunset from the rooftop bar of the Majestic Hotel, the lights on the large riverboats flash on and off in the image of huge fish to entice tourists for an evening of dining and drinking.

We took a day trip out to the Mekong Delta and stopped at a Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Tho before taking a boat out on river.

Maitreya Buddha
Our guide, Luc, was a very pleasant guy in his thirties from the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An. He spoke English well and made us feel right at home.

We were given the ubiquitous conical hats making us look like coneheads, and took a boat on the Mekong River over to Unicorn Island.

This part of the delta is known for the small islands named after mythical animals – Phoenix, Unicorn, Dragon, Turtle – and are inhabited by locals selling honey and tea. We were treated to a musical performance by this four-piece ensemble...

...played with a python...

...and then hopped in a smaller boat back out to the main river.

When we came to Phoenix Island we visited the home of the so-called "Coconut Monk". This was one wacky guy who got his name from living mainly on a diet of coconuts. He came from a wealthy family and was basically a charlatan bent on seeking publicity, even if his intentions were good.

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