My two kids and I happy-danced in the early dawn light. We were waiting with my American father and Vietnamese mother in front of our hotel for our private tour van to pick us up for a trip to my mother’s hometown of Can Tho and the Cai Rang Floating Market in the Mekong Delta. The van pulled up and our tour guide Linh jumped out. “I am so sorry but we will not be able to see the Floating Market today because of Tet,” Linh said with a shrug. When mom and I had begun planning our vacation the market was one of our must-see excursions. Mom and I looked at each other and then back at Linh in disbelief and disappointment.
“I have arranged for us to see a family homestay in a village further down the river this morning,” Linh said persuadingly. “It is similar to what you call a bed and breakfast in the U.S. but we won’t sleep there. We will see how they grow and cook their food, and your children will be able to play with the animals. We will be able to see how the family and their guests live.” We loaded into the van and the driver took us to our chartered boat.
We stepped into a rickety, canopy-covered motorboat floating in the murky river. Linh introduced us to the owner and captain Tong, a grandfatherly gentleman who spoke no English. My father, children and I don’t speak Vietnamese. It is my mother’s first language and she also speaks fluent English with a Vietnamese accent. Mom was our translator throughout our trip.
Tong cheerfully welcomed us onto his vessel with kind, weathered eyes and a gentle hand to steady us. Mom engaged Tong in a conversation about his life, eager to learn how living had changed since she left for the United States in 1973. “I was Viet Cong during the war. I was a very good fighter,” Tong shared with Mom. The Viet Cong was the faction of plain-clothed soldiers that were recruited by the North Vietnamese Army to win the war against South Vietnam and the United States.
“The NVA said that they would take care of me after the war was over, but I got nothing,” he said. After North Vietnam succeeded in defeating the South and the two sides reunified, Tong found himself abandoned by the government he had fought for. “I also was an enemy to my old friends because I had fought against them.”
“So what did you do?” Mom asked.
“I did odd jobs for people and saved up enough money to buy this boat. Now I drive tourists up and down the river to shop at the market,” Tong said. “I once fought the Americans. Now I appreciate them. They are kind and generous,” he said with a smile. “When I go home at night, my grandchildren run to me and say ‘Grandfather, grandfather! How much money did you make today?’ and sometimes I tell them ‘Oh, I make ten dollars today,’ even if I don’t. I don’t want to disappoint them.” Tong knew that my father was a vet from the “Vietnam Veteran” baseball cap that he wore throughout our trip. He was particularly gentle and gracious with my disabled dad.
“For Tet, many businesses close for up to seven days after the New Year to spend time with family,” Linh told us. When I was growing up Mom always said that Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, was a big deal for the Vietnamese people. Even for poor families that lived hand-to-mouth, money was no object when it came to buying colorful decorations and fireworks for the biggest celebration of the year. I wondered how they could spend their hard-earned dong – the official Vietnamese currency – on party favors and then not work for days following Tet.
We cruised down the river toward the homestay past the houses of the Can Tho residents. They were ramshackle buildings made of rusty corrugated metal, warped plywood, tattered fabrics and thatched roofs haphazardly pieced together and precariously perched on bamboo stilts at the river’s edge. I wondered how many people lived in a single house? Was there electricity? Plumbing? Did they cook over an open flame in such a seemingly combustible structure? Was their human waste in the very water we were floating on?
We came upon two sweet potato barges anchored in the middle of the river. “These guys didn’t sell enough sweet potatoes before Tet. They didn’t make enough money to go back home so they have to wait for the market to reopen and try to sell the potatoes they have left,” Tong explained.
A motor buzzed up behind us. I looked back to see a young woman wearing a non la – a traditional Vietnamese conical hat – in an old wooden fishing boat feverishly trying to catch up with us. Her daughter, nine or ten years old, stood beside her wearing a black and red oversized baseball cap with the words “Girl Let’s Go”. The mother called up to my mother in Vietnamese. There was a makeshift barista stand at the front of the boat and coolers filled with colorful soda and water bottles in the back. Both the woman and her daughter smiled up at us.
We placed the order for our drinks. The young mother brewed five hot ca phe for the adults on our boat and her daughter passed soda to my children. The vendors and my mother chatted in Vietnamese. Mom handed them 100,000 dong – about $4.50 U.S. dollars – in exchange for the beverages. Mother and daughter bowed their heads. “Cam on nhieu, cam on nhieu” – Vietnamese for “Thank you very much”.
“Mom, what did they say?” I asked.
Mom looked at me joyfully. “She say dat today her lucky day because she find us. She say if she not see us today, she not make any money. She say ‘Tank you, tank you’. She so happy.”