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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/17/19

The Mekong Retains, Erases

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Can Tho, 2019
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I hadn't been to Chau Doc in nearly two decades, so was definitely looking forward to this trip. Though my wife doesn't travel well, she came along because she wanted to visit Mistress' Temple. All over Vietnam, there are Mistress' Temples, with most dedicated to Guanyin, but the Chau Doc one was built for a found statue whose origin most worshippers are ignorant of, and have no interest in. Scholars have established that it is definitely Cambodian, for the entire Mekong Delta belonged to Cambodia until three centuries ago, a blink in history.

By the 17th century, Cambodia was a shadow of its Khmer Empire greatness. Squeezed by more powerful Thailand and Vietnam, King Chey Chettha II decided to side with the Nguyen Lords (who ruled half of Vietnam), and this fateful decision led to Vietnam eventually swallowing up a third of Cambodia.

Chey Chettha II's antipathy towards Thailand can likely be traced to his being taken hostage by them from age 21 to 31. That would piss me off, too. Chettha II exacted his revenge, somewhat, at the legendary battle of Kampong Chhnang, where his troops slew many Thais. Enthroned, Chettha II married a Vietnamese princess.

Ah, all these obscure figures and places, but then again, what does Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Antietam or Chancellorsville mean to a non-American or, for that matter, recent American college graduate?

Shiloh? Isn't that, like, ah, a Jewish holiday? At my college, we always celebrate Shiloh.

Sovereignty lost, Cambodians in the Mekong Delta became an ethnic minority, and as recently as the 1970's, some were still trying to evict the Vietnamese, but it was way too late. The Mekong Delta hasn't just become Vietnamese, but quintessentially so, just as California, taken from Mexico, is emblematically American, but nothing is final, of course, for maps are constantly being redrawn, at least psychically. One can board a plane for a familiar destination, only to land in a completely alien territory. I don't know what I will see the next time I visit St. Paul, Bolzano or Brussels, for example.

The Mekong Delta has its own singing styles, chamber music, blues, folk theater and perhaps Vietnam's best modernist writer, Ho Bieu Chanh, an author of 64 novels and 12 collections of stories. Marguerite Duras met her Chinese-Vietnamese lover on a ferry in the Mekong Delta. Once colonized, any land breeds an entirely new culture and mythology that erase all that came before them.

Beginning in Tibet, the Mekong flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, before reaching Vietnam. In the 90's, China started building dams on this great liquid dragon, and there are now seven, with an eighth planned for Cambodia. Controlling the river's flow, China has all these yellow countries by the balls.

Porfirio Díaz lamented, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States," and the same can be said of Vietnam apropos China. Their easily crossed border has witnessed many invasions, and even the sea off Vietnam's coast is now claimed by China, so that it can't even extract its own natural gas. Mexico has reasons for hope, for its beefy, bullying neighbor is already decomposing after merely 241 years, but China is as eternal as any nation.

On the way to Chau Doc, we stopped in Long Xuyen for lunch, and the presence of so many itinerant lottery ticket sellers spoke of the relative poverty of the area. The city of 400,000, though, looked much improved from 2001. The roundabout downtown was anchored by an ornamental steel tower that's crowned by four orange stars, four red flames, four street lanterns and four pseudo clocks, and if that description makes little sense, the sight itself was nearly as baffling, but at least it wasn't a brutal socialist statue slapped together with chunky concrete blocks.

Visiting Chau Doc in 2000, my wife and I stayed with a friend, Mrs. Nga, who owned a bakery, cranking out baguettes. The front room had a picture of Mt. Rainer, wrapped in yellowing and slashed plastic. Cobwebs decorated the upper reaches of each wall. Graciously, Mrs. Nga gave us her own bed, with its thin mattress and homey mosquito netting, so everything was fine, except there was not a bathroom in the entire house. Rural Vietnamese used to refer to relieving oneself as "going to the field" ["đi đồng"], so many of them, like Mrs. Nga, never considered a built-in toilet a necessity.

During these pre-cellphone days, the outside world only reached remote Chau Doc via video cassettes, so at night, there were these half-lit oases of men watching, enraptured, Hollywood movies, including Vietnam War travesties.

The stretch from Long Xuyen to Chau Doc used to be particularly beautiful, with verdant fields to one's left, and a river to one's right, with the mostly miserable shacks that lined it not detracting but adding to the picturesqueness. If one doesn't have to endure it, poverty can be charming or even sexy.

In 2019, these shacks are almost entirely replaced by solid, concrete houses, and the buildup mars both sides of the road. The Vietnamese first called their southernmost third Deer Field [Đồng Nai], but there are certainly no deer left, much less tigers, though an image of the fearful beast still guards many temples. Men come, mess up the land, then lie beneath, and after many a summer, croaks the poisoned swan.

We reached Chau Doc without an argument, a rare achievement, for my wife doesn't travel well. An extremely meticulous person, she must micro manage every detail of each second, so the numerous surprises of being on the road often frustrate if not infuriate her. At home, she's always cleaning and putting things in order. For two decades, my wife has clipped my toe nails, for she simply doesn't trust me to do it right. I'm a frightful pig in her eyes. I also suspect that she must control what she can since our lives have been so uncertain, thanks to my writing pursuit.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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