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A sampan tour along a peaceful delta

Where war once rages, nature now prevails

Email|Print| Text size + By Bina Venkataraman
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2006

CAN THO -- Just over 30 years ago, the Mekong River Delta was the center of some of the most intense fighting of the Vietnam War. Today, an American traveler can spend a leisurely day cruising the river with little sense of the bloodshed that occurred here.

As I depart at dawn from Can Tho, a city of 1 million and the largest in the region, the Mekong emerges from the morning fog in all its muddy splendor. Flanked by ramshackle stilt houses and the dense jungle that once cloaked soldiers launching attacks throughout the delta, the river is wide, empty, and peaceful.

My companions and I are on a private , 15-foot-long wooden boat , or sampan, equipped with an outboard motor. It is captained by Han and Ha, a married couple in their early 40s who have been guiding tours along the Mekong for 10 years. Their first mate, a 3 -month-old puppy named Dollar, stumbles around the sampan's planking. Bougainvillea, papaya, and palm trees line the riverbanks, spilling their greenery over the water.

Hiring a sampan in Can Tho costs anywhere from $5 to $20, depending on how long and how far you want to go. Luxury travelers can take a day cruise through Victoria Hotel Can Tho, which offer s a gourmet seafood lunch, complete with white tablecloths, for $25 per passenger.

The smaller, more navigable sampans like ours are suitable for travelers who want to be in the middle of the action at floating markets, while the larger junks circle the perimeter.

As the sun creeps into a hazy sky, the river stirs with activity. Two men load a docked sampan with fishing nets, and a small-scale ice factory starts its turbines. A decaying two-story boat inhabited by a family of six glides along . One of the young girls takes a break from hanging laundry to wave as we pass .

Our first stop is the Cai Rang floating market, where nearly 100 sampans are clustered chaotically . Each boat has a specific product to trade or sell, as advertised on a pole mounted at the helm displaying a sample item. Cabbages, coconuts, eggplant, oranges, and even soft drinks are arranged on the boats in geometric stacks . Ha, the female half of our crew, switches off the motor and navigates the maze of boats using a 10-foot-long branch that she keeps handy . She stops briefly to purchase a bag of rice from a passing rowboat, then maneuvers to the outskirts of the market so we can snap photos.

After discovering that I speak Vietnamese, Ha's husband, Han, gives up on his English, learned from talking to foreign tourists. He tells us that some of his customers were soldiers during what the Vietnamese call the "American War in Vietnam."

Many of the more than 3 million foreign visitors to Vietnam each year are indeed veterans of the Vietnam War, revisiting scenes of their youth and battle sites that stir profound memories.

Increasingly, however, American tourists here range from youthful backpackers to globetrotting families. They come to explore the traditional cuisine and culture and to admire the country's natural beauty -- from the lush rice paddies surrounding the Mekong to the towering karst cliffs along the northern coastline.

Ha and Han invite us to board their friend Mai's larger boat, where piles of freshly picked pineapples crowd the top deck. Mai, a middle-aged woman holding a dull-edged cleaver, quickly cross-hatches a pineapple, cutting away the skin, and then spears it with a wooden stick for easy handling. As soon as I take a bite, the juice squirts all over me. But it is a small price to pay for the sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted.

After reboarding our sampan, we stop at an orchard, where we dock for 20 minutes to explore a few acres of private land dedicated to cultivating bananas, pineapples, and the spiky, green-skinned jackfruit, the largest tree-borne fruit in the world. We walk along pathways overgrown with vegetation, balancing on crooked planks to cross streams.

After a short tour of the grounds, we sit down to enjoy a jackfruit, the pungent taste of which most nearly resembles white grapefruit. We dip slices into chili salt to keep from puckering. A woman stops by our table to hawk handmade magnets modeled after the fruits of Vietnam. I point to the magnet of the exotic, magenta dragon fruit, and ask Han, "Is it good?" He replies, "The Vietnamese say that eating dragon fruit is like kissing your sister. Nice, but not all that interesting."

I am a bit disturbed to see displayed as visitor attractions two monkeys chained to fruit trees and some cobras corralled near the orchard's outdoor restaurant. Han insists the Vietnamese tourists who come here love to see unique animals, even removed from their native habitat.

After leaving the orchard, Ha and Han take us through a series of back waterways, narrow canals that weave through thickly forested areas. Almost instinctively, everyone in the boat falls quiet, as if any speech would disturb the memories of this place. Only a few houses can be found here, and the people appear more guarded. Although their expressions are not threatening, I am somewhat relieved when the boat angles back toward the main channel of the river.

The 12th - longest river in the world, the Mekong originates in Tibet, and runs through China's Yunan province, then into Burma , Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before it reaches Vietnam. It served as an important transport and supply route for northern and Viet Cong forces during the war and the delta was a North Vietnamese stronghold in the south.

Today, it is difficult to imagine the hazards of traveling this river three decades ago, when war raged amid its serene natural beauty and the quiet villages lining its shores. Today, a journey along the Mekong feels like a trip back in time -- but to a far more peaceful one.

Contact Bina Venkataraman, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at bina_venkataraman@ksg08.harvard.edu.

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