Welcome to the Jungle

*(originally posted at boyatlarge.com in 1997)

…while visiting Vietnam, I took a trip out to the country where my grandparents lived in a city called Sa Dec. They had come up to Saigon to see my mom and me into the city but after a week, it was time for them to return home and see to their farm. This gave me the chance to meet the rest of my family (who, all but 25% of them, lived in the country) and a more natural part of Vietnam…

landscp…it took about three hours to get to my grandparents’ place from the city. We had to rent a van and a driver to take us out there. As we drove, I noticed that there was a lot of construction going on, thus, the streets were of very poor quality, so, the three hours seemed to take even longer through all the bumps and holes. The city almost instantly vanished at the end of the city limits and suddenly (after passing the military posts on the outside of the city) the landscape became beautiful countryside. Occasionally, there would be strips of shopping centers that sold mostly fruit and vegetables and rice. We would stop on many occasions to pick up bags of lychees (a sweet tree fruit) and sau rieng (also a sweet tree fruit known as durian in America. This comes in a spiney shell covering but once opened, emits a horrific odor resembling that of sweaty old gym socks. Not a terrible tasting fruit if one can get past the smell) and lots of fresh coconuts, which I drank a lot of the juice (straight out of the fruit) because the water in Vietnam is highly advised against for foreigners whose bodies haven’t been adjusted to their nontreated waters. Even the native Vietnamese rarely drank it (bottled water is the preferred drink)…grpahous

…my grandparents’ house is a modest home — nothing fancy — but a bit more high standard compared to most country homes (the majority of the homes out there consisted of wooden walls and straw roofings. There was no floor in a lot of the homes — just dirt). Their house is made of brick and wood and some straw. The floors are concrete. No shoes were allowed to be worn into the house. There was a water basin out by the front that you washed your feet with upon entering. There isn’t any electricity in the country (unless you live closer to the villagecenters) — they had a battery that they used at night to run lamps around the main entrance of the house. There isn’t any running water. They kept huge water barrels outside the house and when it rained, the barrels would collect the water and it would be saved for later use. There weren’t any roads that led out to my folks’ place. We had to park the van at the nearest village center and take a boat out to the house…

boatwman…the boats used to get out to people’s homes were long, narrow, and almost flat. I, not being used to riding in one, almost lost my balance many times trying to get in and out of the boats. The rest of my family had no problem at all. In fact, they walked on and off of them as if they were just as steady as walking on the ground. I never got the hang of it but I know that these things were safe seeing how they could easily transport our group of nine back and forth numerous times…boattr_1

…these boats could even transport tilling tractors back and forth. Actually, the boats to do this were wider but almost just as flat…speaking of tractors, one moment, while I was in the country, one of my uncles said he had a surprise for me. I went with him and one of my cousins out to his home, where I helped him load his tractor onto his boat and we took it out to one of our rice fields. We then pushed the tractor out onto the rice field and he gave me a ride around in the field on the tractor. It didn’t go very fast and it was flinging mud all over everything (including me). I wasn’t very happy about the experience at the time (because of my impulsive hate for mud) but now that I can reflect back on it, I am glad I did it…

girlwlk…most of my family (aunts and uncles and cousins) live out in the country. While I was there, I was able to meet practically all of them (on my mother’s side). I think I counted about 10 aunts and uncles and two to three times as many cousins. It was funny because, customarily, the oldest cousin is to give money to all the younger ones as gifts upon meeting them. I, being the oldest of them (next to my older brother who didn’t come with me), had that responsibility. I gave out 50,000 Vietnamese dollars to each of them (which is equivalent to about five American dollars). I felt like I was giving out a fortune but in actuality, I only gave out about $200 (that would be 2,000,000 Vietnamese dollars)…

ducks…as I was riding the boat out to my grandparents’ place for the first time, one of the most peculiar things I had ever seen was my uncle’s herd of ducks. I saw this huge crowd of ducks swimming along the edge of the river and on the shore was a man walking alongside them. My mom told me he was my uncle and those were his ducks. Every morning and evening, he would take the ducks out for a “walk” and then they would return to their “bin” which was a small pond off to the side of his house connected to the river. I was told that the ducks were like dogs and cats in the fact that they knew who their owner was and they never tried to escape. Unfortunately, these ducks were being raised for sale at the markets for food but it was still quite a sight to see them swimming along next to my uncle…

umbrel_1…anytime we went out on the boats, my family would bring umbrellas with them — even when it was bright and sunny and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It proved handy because, on occasion, it would start to rain without warning but more frequently, the umbrellas protected them from the sun. I refused to use one because I wanted to experience the full effect of the Vietnam countryside — sunburns and all. Even when it rained, I enjoyed feeling the rain on my face and watching the strong winds blowing on the trees and tall grasses of the river…

…the river would be at its fullest level in the afternoon and evening but at night and early morning, it sank down to a very low level. I noticed one morning that it looked almost completely drained and all that was left of the river was numerous, muddy puddles. But as the day went by, the river would fill itself up again. Many of the villagers bathed in the river (I saw many a topless old lady or naked children splashing in the water). treerootMy grandparents, on the other hand, had a makeshift bath house, which was about the size of an outhouse and made of concrete. It had a basin in it which you filled with water from the water barrels and you would use a bowl to pour water on yourself while you bathed. I wasn’t too fond of bathing in it at first because I was a lot taller than most of my family and the bath house was built for their average sizes, so, I had to crouch a bit while bathing but I got used to it.


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