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Goodbye Vietnam Day 8

TOM BUTT E-FORUM: Goodbye Vietnam Day 8


I guess I am lucky to have Internet access at every hotel, but dealing with emails is not easy. Thatís why I started attaching these MSWORD files.


We are in the Mekong Delta border town of Chau Doc, and we leave early tomorrow morning by boat, traveling up the Mekong to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


When I was in Vietnam 40 years ago, I never visited the Delta, but the waterways triggered a lot of memories about bridges Iíll explain later.


Driving from Can Tho to Chau Doc is not unlike taking Highway 4 through the Sacramento River Delta. Water, islands and canals are everywhere. Until recently, there were no bridges over the Mekong, so ferries are big business, and the vendors who service long lines of traffic are also big business. But that is all coming to an end. One large cable stayed bridge has been completed and another one will open soon, putting thousands of roadside vendors out of business. In fact, the government is building new limited access expressways parallel to Highway 1 that will change Delta travel forever.


The Mekong River Delta is not only the rice and fish basket of Vietnam but also a major exporter to other Asian countries. Like other parts of Vietnam, the economy seems to be booming, with new construction everywhere.


We got up early this morning to catch the morning floating market of Cai Rang where wholesale growers from all over the Delta converge to transfer fruit and vegetables to retailers, all via boat.


Leaving Can Tho, we split off Highway 1 onto Highway 91, heading west toward Chau Doc. The agriculture turns from fruits and vegetables to rice. As we headed west, we found the road shoulders and front yards being used for drying the recent rice crop. People work it with hoes or just walk through it to keep the rice stirred up for drying. Usually it was on tarps, but often it was on bare asphalt or concrete. Once the rice is sufficiently dry, it is bagged and sent to plants where the husks are removed, and it is polished.


The husks become a major source of fuel and are used to heat kilns where hollow clay tile are manufactured. Hollow clay tile is the major building material in Vietnam and is typically laid up to form walls that are later covered with cement plaster within a spindly concrete frame. If they ever had an earthquake here, there would be nothing left. This is similar to the original construction of the Richmond Plunge that has been removed to increase earthquake safety.


In addition to the smoke from the brick kilns, rice straw is burned in the fields, creating a smoky haze not unlike the smoke from the fires we experienced last summer in California.


We had a delicious lunch at a storefront restaurant in Chau Doc and headed for Nui Sam (Sam Mountain) to walk it off. This mountain pops up unexpectedly from the dead flat Delta kind of like Mt. Diablo. Because of its unusual topography, it is considered a holy place, and its slopes are covered with shrines, grottos, pagodas and ancient tombs. It was a 700 meter climb but well worth it.


After Nui Sam, we were back on the water visiting a huge houseboat community on the Mekong devoted to fish farming. Each large houseboat is also a floating fish farm where fish are fed pellets of food made from fish scraps, rice powder and water morning glories. These folks are ethnic Vietnamese who had settled in Cambodia but were driven out by the Pol Pot Regime.


Nearby, we visited another community resulting from ethnic relocation, the Chams who are Muslims and came originally from Central Vietnam. They live along the river in stilted houses kind of like the town of Locke in the Sacramento River Delta. They are totally different in appearance from the ethnic Vietnamese and wear head gear like Muslims in other parts of the world. Instead of churches or Pagodas, the village has mosques.


Several of the old bridges we passed under by boat were being replaced by new concrete bridges. The old ones were probably vestiges of the Vietnam War and built by American Army engineers because they were Bailey (or panel) bridges, made from interlocking truss sections used to assemble military bridges. What was long gone were the pier protection assemblies that protected every bridge from sappers, made from steel framework and barbed wire. During the war, every bridge has guard bunkers at either end, some left over from the French war, and pier protection standoffs. The guards were always ARVN soldiers who caught whatever fish they need for dinner by tossing a hand grenade into the water and scooping up the stunned fish. Each bridge also had a large flock of geese who were supposed to sound the alarm if a Viet Cong Sapper was trying to sneak up to blow the bridge. Obviously, it didnít always work because a lot of bridges were blown up.


With the huge amount of construction going on in the Delta, I was taken by the piles of crushed rock I saw everywhere. There is no indigenous source of rock in the Delta, and at one time, the 159th Engineer Group operated the only quarries, crushers and asphalt plants in the southern part of Vietnam. All of the rock was allocated to Army construction missions, mostly road building. My shop controlled disposition of this rock, and we had a constant stream of military personnel begging us for rock for some project that had not made the official cut. Most of tem, including Koreans, ARVN and Australians, we turned down, but every now and then we cut someone some slack. Rock could be traded for steaks, shrimp, beer and air conditioners, and the Army runs on barter. I gave an old classmate, Larry Townley from Arkansas some as well as my cousin, an officer in a 9th Infantry Division Aviation company. Remember Yossarian in Catch-22?


Time to go to dinner. See you in Cambodia.