If you remember way back to August, you may recall that a chance encounter lead me to meet Rob (a doctor in Seattle), who in turn connected me to Mr. Quang (the director of Gia Viet Center), and that’s how I ended up here in Vietnam. Well, last week Rob made his semi-annual trip to Can Tho with his Medical Education Exchange Team – a group of doctors from the united states and other Western countries who come to Vietnam for a week to lead classes at the local medical university. I had planned on getting dinner with Rob and our mutual friend Trang on Tuesday, before he left Can Tho, but at the last minute he invited me to go with him and a few others on a trip to An Giang province. Having no plans for the weekend and a nose for travel, I said yes.
After teaching my university class on Saturday morning, I met up with the doctors at their hotel and set out on a chartered van for Chau Doc – a city on the border of Cambodia. I actually had only a vague idea where we were going when I agreed to the trip, and was a little surprised to find, once solidly en route, that the trip would be two nights rather than one. This worked out fine, since I didn’t have class until Monday night, but it was a bit of a funny surprise. Thank god for my flexible teaching schedule and my instinct to over-pack!
The ride to Chau Doc was pleasant, and the doctors were all very friendly. I haven’t spent much time with non-teachers in a while, so it was interesting to hear a very different perspective on traveling and working in Can Tho. Many of the doctors have been coming to Vietnam for several years, and it sounds like the area has changed greatly in the past decade. Listening to everyone talk also gave me a serious appreciation for my own situation. Being able to live and work in the same place for an extended time has allowed me to peek a little beyond what is usually shown to passing foreigners. Many of the doctors were amazed by my observations of students and daily life, which seemed very obvious to me. While these people have been traveling to Can Tho off and on for the past several years, spending a week in a place still limits your perception, as does being so obviously foreign, and staying in the “touristy” area of town. While I have by no means “figured out” life here, I’m glad that I’ve been given an opportunity to get to know this place and the people here a little better, and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that this is not the norm.
Anyway, after several hours in the van we made it to Chau Doc as the sun was setting. Our hotel was on top of a mountain (well, more like a foothill) and even in fading light, we could tell the view was going to be spectacular. We ate dinner in the hotel, and afterward we said our goodbyes to several of the doctors who would be leaving for Cambodia in the morning.
The next day I had a lovely breakfast and took in the spectacular views of Chau Doc. While I’m definitely not a morning person, it was worth waking up to take in the sights, and also to have a western-style breakfast. They had croissants! And omelets! Add to that my usual coffee with condensed milk and I was in heaven.
After breakfast our group headed out on a tour of the area, starting with a trip to a local mosque. The Mekong Delta has a wide variety of people of varying ethnicities and religions, and in Chau Doc there happens to be a large Cham population, who are predominantly Muslim. According to the man who gave us a tour, the mosque was sponsored by a group in Saudi Arabia, and had recently been rebuilt, since the original building was badly damaged during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in nearby Cambodia. The building was beautiful, and after being shown around we hopped on a boat for a tour of the lake.
The boat ride was very nice, and extremely sunny. We passed by many floating houses, duck farms, and a few other boats. We came within one kilometer of Cambodia, then turned around and headed back towards the mosque. Once securely on dry land we walked a local home for a “homestay” meal. The whole concept of this confused me a bit. The family prepared a feast of Vietnamese dishes and served us, while they stayed in the kitchen and said little more than two words to the group. Don’t get me wrong, the food was fantastic, and it was interesting seeing a local home, but it felt strange being served in someone’s home. The food wasn’t Cham food either, just what the tour company had decided we would like (and we did – it was delicious). But I walked away feeling like I had just walked into the museum version of someone’s house. It was… odd, to say the least.
But moving on, after lunch we drove into the mountains to visit the “Happy Buddha.” I’m still not exactly sure what the religious significance of this particular site was, but there was indeed a very large Happy Buddha, and several pagodas. It was all very beautiful, and driving up and down the mountains was lovely.
To end the day we stopped by a bird sanctuary at dusk, and took in a boat ride through the mangroves. It was a pretty surreal experience.
The next day we all returned to Can Tho by bus, and I made it home in time to eat lunch with my friends and lesson plan for my evening class. All in all, a very interesting weekend. I had a lovely time getting to know Rob and his friends Cyrus and Anh, and I’m glad I had a chance to see another part of Vietnam.