Vĩnh Long


Our bus pulls into a large parking lot covered in white gravel.  Mr. Song stands up:  “Escuse me,” he says.  “This is a very fancy restaurant where we will have lunch later; right now, we will only have a restroom break.”  It’s been a while since we’ve stopped.  In Việt Nam, tourists drink bottled water.  Usually, if you ask for it, they will ask you if you mean “Mineral water?”  and you nod yes.  Many of the Vietnamese I’ve seen visiting the same places we are, are carrying La Vie or Sapuwa or one of the other big brands.  It goes without saying that at every restroom stop we will all buy water, along with, often, American cola.

The parking lot has plenty of empty space, even for buses.  I take a picture of the gigantic billboard we’re parked in front of.

Huge billboard with Panther/BGI logo

Thirty-two years ago I saw these panther logos everywhere.

BGI billboard on the way to Vũng Tàu

This one, on the road to Vũng Tàu (highway 15, then), made me think it was a brand of soft drink.

33 Beer sign on building in downtown Sàigòn

But the sign above should have clued me in; “33” is “Ba Mươi Ba,” the notoriously awful beer full of formaldehyde and other chemicals that we only drank because it wasn’t rationed.  The brand seems to have disappeared now, to be replaced by “333,” another “Bière Export.”  (I’ve been trying to translate this sign for months, but what I come up with, “Is bottled good quality luxury tiger cub first delicious” doesn’t make a lot of sense; maybe I’ll ask Mr. Song to help me out.)  I’m pleased to have discovered what the Panther logo refers to, but I don’t know what “BGI” stands for, and neither does Mr. Song. 

Thuy Ngo says, “BGI stands for Brasseries Et Glacieres Internationales (International Breweries and Ice-boxes).  It was founded in Vietnam over 100 years ago and is today the national brewery of Vietnam.”

Those are taxis in the picture, “quatre chevaux,” French for four horsepower.  There is an entire website devoted to this vehicle:  http://www.4CV.com/.

Top-hatted frog gazing out over pond

It turns out that when Mr. Song says “lunch later,” he means several days later.  I enjoy the top-hatted frog gazing out on the pond, and the topiary dragons by the entrance.

Topiary dragons

This is one of the places where they want 1,000 đồng to use the facilities, but I don’t find that out until I’ve bought my La Vie and we’re back inside the bus and people mention having to pay.  Outside, a little girl tries to sell us lottery tickets through the window.

Little girl selling lottery tickets, smiling through the hand over her mouth

I wave my camera, signalling that I’d like to take her picture.  She’s shy, but she lets me.  Inside the bus, I notice that Christina’s got a tattoo.  I ask her permission too.

Christina’s Peace-Sign tattoo

Several kilometers further into the Delta, we pass a large Ferris wheel all alone in the middle of nowhere.

Huge ferris wheel in the jungle Huge ferris wheel in the jungle

We can’t figure out what it’s doing there; there’s not even any construction nearby.  Somewhat after the mysterious wheel sighting, we cross a major bridge that only opened in 2000, the Mỹ Thuận.  The name means “Pure Beauty.”

Approaching the suspension bridge

It’s very modern, and a bit of a contrast with the buildings we’ve been seeing.  We are told it’s the first cable suspension bridge in the country.  When we cross, we’re in the actual city of Vĩnh Long.  We’ve been in Vĩnh Long province for a while; I know this because I’ve noticed that every bridge—and there are a lot of them—is marked, not with the name of the river as it would be in America, but with the location of the bridge, including the province in small letters at the bottom of the sign.  There are also red-and-white markers that look like little tombstones by the side of the road that announce where the inter-provincial borders are.

We will be gone overnight, travelling only on boats and staying in the Hotel on Stilts.  We take only one item of luggage with us, leaving excess baggage in a safe place, locked inside the bus’s cargo compartment.  The drivers, we are told, will sleep inside the bus, safe in the Cửu Long Hotel’s fenced parking lot.

From the tourist company's brochure, n.d.
Hotel Cuu Long

We have lunch at the Phượng Thủy restaurant in Vĩnh Long across from the hotel; inside, we have several tables pushed together for us in front of the windows, giving us a spectacular view of the Mekong.  Billed in the brochure as the “Restaurant-on-Stilts,” the name means “Water Phoenix.”

Back row, left to right:  Kate Dahlstedt, Christina Weber (leaning forward, chin in hand), Mark Byrnes, Bill Ridley, Ralph Levering, Joel Leibo and Sara Leibo (in hat).
Group photo
Front row, left to right:  Sandra Hegstad, Miriam (Merry) Levering,
Allison Comport, Ed Tick, Sandy Polishuk, Andrew Hunt (standing),
Mary Kathleen O’Neill (also standing).

Oddly, only some of the fans are running and few of the windows are open.  Soon, we’re all dripping.  I try to get a shot of a raft of water hyacinth as it floats by.

Small raft of water hyacinth

It makes me think of icebergs, and I wonder where the hyacinth glacier is from which these bergs are calving.  Later, I “discover” it; it’s a wall of plants two feet high, covering several acres.

Hyacinth glacier

Off in the distance, I can see the Mỹ Thuần bridge we crossed earlier; it was a joint project between the Australians and the Vietnamese.

Mỹ Thuần bridge

After lunch, we are led to the riverbank, where we board two ten-person, brightly-painted blue-and-white boats from the “Cuu Long Tourist Company.”  I notice that they’ve left the diacritics off the company name on the boats, in deference to the linguistic frailties of tourists, although their logo on the brochure says “Cửu Long.”

Christina, Mary Kathleen, Allison in boat
Left to right:  Christina, Mary Kathleen and Allison;
that’s the restaurant in the background.

We’re not travelling very far on this first leg; we motor by houses like this, and I wonder what they’re like when the place floods.

House only a foot above water level

We’re heading to a pottery factory.  In the picture below showing our other boat, you can see the kilns; they’re those beehive shaped brick things to the left.

Boat with beehive kilns

Andrew has spent quite a bit of time in Utah, so naturally, the first thing he and I think of when looking at the kilns is Utah, because the beehive is everywhere there.  It’s the state seal, so all the Highway Patrol cars have it; parks have little concrete versions; and downtown Salt Lake City maintains a house where Brigham Young lived with some of his wives.  According to the Beehive House website, the beehive “reflects Brigham Young’s belief in a strong work ethic.”  The Church is now playing down polygamy, and tourists are not actually told that Brigham Young had dozens of wives.  In Utah, it's hard to get concrete information about the polygamous relations of the Mormon pioneers, but architecture can tell us a lot.  For example, polygamous African societies often had large central huts surrounded by many smaller and less grand ones—the whole complex surrounded by thornbush fencing, which the Beehive House doesn’t have.  Neither do the kilns.

Kilns on the shore Kilns on the shore

Here by the waterfront, there’s just an open shed to greet us.  We’re helped up onto land by people from the kiln, who’ve been expecting us.  In Vĩnh Long province, tour groups must hire a guide.  Mr. Song is still with us, and we look to him for orders, but he introduces Tony as our official temporary guide.  He’s a brash sort, very personable; likable enough but not someone who warms up to strangers instantly.  I get the feeling that he’d classify you as an acquaintance for the first five years.

Tony

His talk at the kiln is professional and practiced.  Mr. Song is considered just another tourist here.  These big pots are mostly made for export and sold in the same catalogs that offer garden furniture made from genuine rainforest teak that has been sustainably harvested.  Slabs of clay are rolled out and fitted into molds, where they are allowed to dry.  Later, great batches of pots of all sizes are fitted into the interior of the kilns with all the care and precision of honeycomb cells, and fired for several hours.

Fitting clay in the mold
Fitting clay into the mold
Unmolding the green pot
Unmolding
Kiln door
Kiln door
Stacks of pots inside kiln
Inside the kiln
Woman hauling clay in a wheelbarrow
Hauling clay
View of fire and rice husks used as fuel
Firing

Wherever we see fires in Việt Nam, rice hulls are the likely fuel; they’re stored in big bins, and many of the boats on the Mekong are full of the high-bulk, lightweight cargo.  We ask about the large pots with plain glazes we’ve seen at homes along the river.  “Those hold rice,” we’re told.  I wonder how much the plain ones cost here, but don’t get the opportunity to ask.  It’s exceptionally hot underneath the tin roof; there are no fans and very little breeze.  The heat rolls in waves off the kilns that are being fired, like it does from a racehorse that’s just covered a mile at a dead gallop.

Someone asks how much the workers get paid.  Tony tells us they’re paid by the piece; for the bigger pots, the rate is 15,000 đồng, a dollar.  That doesn’t sound bad, but how many of those things can one factory need per year?  I hope more than I think.

We’re ready to go when our clothes start sticking to us; some of us are feeling medium well.  We make our way to the boats, are helped in.  Mr. Song says that now we are going to meet Mr. Tiger, someone he is sure we will all like.  On the water, feeling a breeze at last, I look up the meaning of Vĩnh Long:  “Eternal Dragon.”

Notes

http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~banning/ARH_360files/360Y1.htm has a few floor plans of polygamous dwellings.
While doing research for this page, I ran across http://www.polygamy.com/; offered without comment.

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