I spotted him immediately, wearing a pressed collared shirt and slacks in the humid heat of the Mekong.
I had arrived the day before, on a bus from Ho Chi Minh, and had immediately gone out on the water with a local woman who was bringing back her groceries from the market. She didn’t speak English, but she understood what I wanted, and had motored me out to the back stretches of the delta where it was too overgrown with vegetation to keep the engine running. When she turned it off, the quiet jumped out from the banks of the jungle and I could hear only the sound of the oar pushing up against the bottom of the water.
But it had been too late to go further out in the stretches of the river to see where people lived and shopped, so I watched the sunset with my boatman and then went back to the hotel in Can Tho for the night. My room was papered in rich wood and a four-poster bed, like a colonial getaway, and downstairs they served pink skinned dragon fruit for breakfast in a café overlooking the main street.
The hotel had arranged for the guide to meet me there, and he stuck out even among those people working at the hotel, dressed like a young professional for a day of meetings. We shook hands, and he led me out to the wharf where our boatman was waiting for us in a long wooden boat shadowed by an overhanging canopy.
He spoke perfect English, and told me all about the history of the region and what we were going to see as the boat pulled away from the city and headed upstream.
“But first,” he said, “we need to get petrol.”
A gas station, complete with a large overhang advertising MekongPetrol, floated in the middle of the river as if it had been picked up from an interstate turn off. From a distance it looked like a mirage, the asphalt transforming into water like it does on hot summer days.
As we gassed up he asked me about where I was from and why I had come to the delta. I told him that I loved to travel and that I had come here from New Zealand where I was living for a time.
“You must be very rich,” he replied, “to stay at the hotel you are in.”
I was ashamed to tell him that in dollars the hotel wasn’t expensive at all, more in the range of a budget motel in New Zealand, but that only seemed to prove his point, and it made me uncomfortable to think that while I lived off less than most people in Auckland, here I was rich.
“Not really,” I mustered finally, “I saved up all year to come here.”
My words felt like a lie even though they were true, because my life living on ramen noodles and putting aside a few hundred dollars here and there, just enough for a cheap plane flight on a no-name airline in off-season with a strict daily budget, was really a luxury.
And his comment stuck with me as our boat cruised upstream and we passed by the houses squatting on the shores of the river, people living in wooden shacks perched on bamboo poles with dirty sheets as doorways, their rusted boats tethered underneath. Old bottles and detritus floated along the river, and people bathed down on the shore and filled plastic containers of water for drinking.
“Did you grow up here?” I asked the guide.
“No, I’m not from Can Tho,” he replied. “I’m only going to university here.”
“What are you studying?”
“So this must be a good opportunity to practice your skills then,” I replied, and he nodded and smiled, and I felt he wanted to say something more but we were approaching the markets and he turned his attention towards them.
The river was clogged with boats filled with fruit and vegetables from across the Mekong and people motored around between them, haggling and handing over bags of groceries over the water. Our guide pointed out the long sticks that each vendor had fixed to the ends of their boats. Attached to the top, sometime skewered through like a kebab and other times hanging by a piece of string, were the fruits and vegetables that were being sold. It meant that we could see at a glance what boat to go to for what, like a sign advertising a special, and knowing that brought out a sense of order to the chaos of the markets.
We travelled slowly through the river of boats, our boatman pushing us through the grey water, until the market thinned behind us and the buildings on the shore grew smaller and disappeared entirely into the bush. We turned off of the main river and entered a smaller tributary, which we followed upstream until the water began to clear and the trees met overhead to form a canopy.
The boat pulled up to small wooden dock made from a thin plank perched on top of two moorings in the water, so I climbed out of the boat and walked carefully across it onto a lush green lawn. Tall trees, heavy with fruit, circled the lawn and led down through a field to a small clearing filled with wooden tables and patio chairs.
“It’s a working farm,” the guide explained, “they sell their food at the floating markets.”
As we headed towards the tables he named the fruit trees along our path.
“That’s a papaya tree,” he said, pointing to a palm topped with cannabis-shaped leaves, “and here’s a mango.” The fruit was heavy and ripe, dragging a branch down into the path so that I had to cradle it gently to move by.
We went further down into the farm, tramping through the forest of trees, the guide pulling down overripe fruit from time to time for me to sample, then pushed aside a sea of grass and motioned for me to step forward. Beyond a small border of vegetation was what looked like a vast field of wheat in the middle of the jungle.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked me, and I shook my head.
“It’s a rice field.”
He leaned over and pulled at the green shoots, then dropped the grains into my hand.
“My family has rice fields,” he told me, “in the village where I grew up.”
“Is your village close to here?”
“No, it is very far,” he replied.
We walked back down to the orchard and sat down at the wooden table. A woman brought me a plate of mangoes and other fruits, so we sat eating and talking in the shade of the trees. Everything was green and alive, the moist fruit wet and dripping in my mouth, the sunlight scattering patterns on the table, the smell of earth and warm wind.
“I’m going to go back,” the guide said, looking up at the trees. “After I graduate.”
“Back to your village?”
“Yes. I was the first person from my village to go to university, and once I graduate I’m going to go back and open a school.”
We sat together under the canopy of leaves eating fruit, and I realized that he was more than what he seemed. He was no more the young urban professional in a pressed shirt with perfect English, than I was a rich Westerner staying in the fanciest hotel in the city. He was just a country boy waiting to go home, and I was just another underpaid worker living paycheck to paycheck.
I looked across the table at him and he smiled back at me, each of us playing our part.