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We were sailing through a sea of junks, doing the Cai Be shuffle..

Actually, we were sailing through a sea of junk, doing the Cai Be shuffle. Cruising the Mekong is like taking a gondola through a rubbish tip.

A very interesting rubbish tip, but a tip just the same. Low water, in particular, reveals all the crap. You, like the Dogster will delete a lot of photos of that picturesque Mekong dump when you get home.

The Cai Be shuffle is tried and true, the first of our Mekong set-pieces.

If you go to Cai Be you will, repeat will, go on the shuffle. No matter in what order you visit Cai Be’s many attractions, you will go to the designated tourist haunts. Indeed, you will only go to the designated tourist haunts. Someone, somewhere once decided that Cai Be is too dull for tourists so has devised a totally non-intrusive itinerary, a kind of generic Delta non-place called Cai Be. This is the tour that never gets there.

You’ll sit in a nice, new comfortable boat in rows of two with the river whizzing beside you, you’ll motor off to the mouth of the river and plunge in to the sights and sounds of city harbor life, you’ll peek into bedrooms and stare into lunch, you’ll sail gaily past household drama – but you’ll never, never stop for an instant, always moving, always the watery voyeur.

A circuit of river life is all that is permitted, a glimpse of some Catholic cathedral, incongruous in the chaos, the delights of Cai Be are right at hand – but they are to be looked at, not enjoyed. Luckily, this great roaring pageant is extremely interesting. Nobody is complaining – everybody is too busy taking their Cai Be pictures, safe and invisible in the thrall. It’s perfect tourism, slap-bang in the midst of it – yet not really there at all.

Your boat will glide out of town, through tree lined waterways lined with attractively photogenic houses filled with photogenic Vietnamese doing folksy domestic things. I’m really in Vietnam, you’ll think – and, yup, you really are. You’re in the Vietnam you want to be in – but you’re in the Vietnam they want you to be in, as well. There is no escape.

‘Now we sto’ here an’ go to de blick fac’ry,’ John Son announced delightedly.

What blind Vietnamese deity determined that tourists want to go to the Cai Be blick factory? The making of blicks is of supreme disinterest to me, either at home or anywhere else. As a matter of fact, given the opportunity to witness the thrill of blick making I would actively walk in the opposite direction. No, I rie. I’d lun.

‘Blick fac’ry,’ I said, delightedly. ‘Wow!’

Mr. Chris and his gorgeous lady wife were sitting close by. In one of his few recorded utterances he rolled his eyes, took a breath and hissed in that relentless monotone:

‘Did we come all this way to see a bloody brick factory?’

He looked at his wife with all the loathing he could muster, which was considerable.

She ignored him. She’d had lots of practice.

The group groaned and clambered off the boat.

‘O.K.’, Bob sighed, ‘show us the bloody blicks…’

Bob was seventy and enthusiastically unreconstructed. He was Bob and proud of it. This old bloke wasn’t going to change; he knew all the old bloke tricks – one of them was the cost-saving benefit of a suitcase full of duty-free gin. He and Pamela, his long suffering wife, did their drinking in private, down in the brewery in cabin 212. When the yard-arm was in the right position, somewhere around five, the two of them prepared to hunker down and guzzle. They needed the basics.

Bob pottered up to the bar, sat and issued his directives.

‘One,’ he said very slowly to the young Cambodian barman, ‘two glasses.’

He spoke rather like a headmaster addressing a mildly retarded pupil.

‘Two,’ he said ‘a bucket of ice.’

He paused, the merest beginnings of a smile creeping over his face.

‘Three,’ Bob said very seriously…

‘Thank you.’

The barman didn’t move a muscle. Time stood still.

‘Four,’ added the Cambodian, equally gravely.

He looked Bob straight in the eye.

‘You’re welcome.’


Australians remain the only race on this earth that still can’t pronounce the name of their own country.

‘Straya..’ they say, ‘I’m frum ‘Stra-a-aya.

Too many syllables.

Australians lead an intensely parochial existence, huddled on the fringes of a continent with only red desert at its heart. They thrash about in the ocean, thinking that everything in the world is in Australia, that nobody really has it as good as them. All the complexity of life has been reduced to a barbie, beer and football. At the heart of the heart of ‘Stra-a-aya there is nothing but a big brown rock.

Traveling Australians are good-hearted, boofy things, full of friendliness and fun. Those few who think there is anything else in the world worth worrying about set off on their great adventure at an early age. Once they’ve done the grand tour they settle, breed and enjoy life, already having the proof that there’s nowhere else as good as good ol’ Aussie. Once the breeding has stopped, some pause to notice the yawning hole in their life. They take up travel again.

There were seventeen of them on board including, unbelievably, Mr. Dogster. Not quite a quorum, not quite a country, not quite anything at all. They tended to huddle in a pack, rather like startled sheep – kindly, friendly sheep – but sheep just the same. Well, to be honest, they were more like little baa-lambs than sheep. They had all the fragility and innocence of lambs, but none of the silence, all the ingenuousness of a plate of raw mutton.

Luckily my sailing companions weren’t quite like this. I wouldn’t call them sophisticated but all were of an age to have the beginnings of an appreciation that there might just, possibly, be something to learn elsewhere. A few were of that ageless age, full of sweet certainly that travel means holiday and the less one has to do with the locals, other than kindly condescension, the better – but they were ‘noice’.

Actually, I was lucky to have them. With the notable exception of our vice-regal couple, they were kind and generous to a fault. They put up with my drunken meandering at the dinner table, dispensed pain-killers when I threw out my back, took the piss out of me when regularly required and pretended to be interested in my regular foaming at the mouth. I liked them all. They gossiped like a Greek chorus at the non-antics of Lord and Lady Muck, kept an eye out for pretension [mostly mine] and punctured it with relentless wit; they gave presents to sweet orphan children, were easily moved to tears and overpaid for everything in sight.

They were all ripe for the plucking – and well and truly plucked they were.


Who decided we wanted to see how palm-fronds are woven into roofs?

‘The pa’ flon grow on da tlee,’ John Son said. ‘Plitty ladeeze sit here and dly.’

What on earth was he talking about? One of the plittee ladeeze looked up and smiled. Click! went the shutters of one thousand cameras, recording the latest of their exactly similar pictures of authentic Vietnamese life. Children surrounded the group. They crawled from cracks in the ceiling, they emerged from holes in the floor, one even appeared from under a pile of palmflons with an expression of absolute innocence pinned to his face.

Click! went the shutters of one thousand cameras, recording the latest of their exactly similar pictures of authentic Vietnamese life.

‘Ma-a-a-aneee,’ said the urchin, holding out one grubby paw.

Someone gave him a candy from the popcorn place. He looked at it with loathing. He was about to give it back when the group meandered off on their carefully selected ‘walk’ along the riverbank. One hundred yards later they were herded back into the boat, given a cold towel and a plate of fluit.’

‘What is this shit?’ said Mr. Chris.

‘Now we have a bi-i-ig surplise,’ shouted John Son.

What next? A tour of the urinals?

As the boat sailed away the plitty ladeeze dropped their palmflons and returned to the television. One rolled her eyes.

‘Stupi’ bruudy toulists,’ she said.

What brainless fool decreed that every tourist to Cai Be would have to suffer the fascinating history of Vietnamese popcorn, from birth to a disgusting death by stir-fry? Why did he think the metamorphosis of sugar and grease into caramel candy is worth a trip half-way around the world?  Just what is it about this airless tourist-trap, these hideous junk souvenirs, the raging cauldrons of goo, the sweating slaves made to stir gunk into confectionary that is such a must-see? I’ve been to the bloody place four times. It was crap the first time – it’s still crap now.

The ‘gift’ shop features bottles of urine transformed into wine by the insertion of a dead scorpion. Quite how they got these huge scorpions into the bottles remains a mystery. I think they put them in there as babies then piss on them at regular intervals. The resultant nightmare is reputed to give the foolish tippler increased sexual prowess.

‘You should buy some of this, Bob,’ said his wife.

For once in his life Bob didn’t have an answer.

‘What’s this place? Why are we here?’ Bob asked very politely. When he uses his polite voice you know that death is just around the corner.

‘Ancien’ hou’, John Son said proudly. ‘Velly o’.’

The Ba Duc Ancient House is nothing of the sort. It was built in 1938 on the site of what once was a house that may, or may not have been, velly o’.

‘What’s so special about it?’

‘Nothing,’ said John Son, ‘juz’ vello o.’

Another highlight on the list of useless things; the sum total of all Cai Be – another enclave for hapless tourists, another enterprise set in stone decades ago. People have been coming to the Ba Duc Ancient House since before it was a teenager. It’s only been ancient for fifty years. Now its an ecotourist enclave, homestay and restaurant as well; ‘catering for up to 500!’ it exclaims proudly on the website.

‘I’m older than this bloody place,’ sniffed Bob and turned his face to the door.

Bugger off, you stupid fart,’ Bob said to Dogster, ‘you’re talking absolute crap.’

I laughed. Whether I was or wasn’t, was not the question. I was being put to the sword to see how I’d react. This was Bob’s shtick, his persona – he liked to stir. Only an Australian can really understand his act. If you passed Bob’s baptism by fire you were his friend for life.

He was a gruff, kindly fella with a heart as big as Oz, a man who didn’t suffer fools, a man who loved a stoush. He challenged on introduction, cut and parried, laughed and took the piss out of anyone he felt needed it. He was my favorite Australian on board. If he was prone to the occasional gaffe, I forgave him, if he was prone to extreme political incorrectness – that only made me like him more. He was an emirate professor in something odd, a community leader, a recipient of Australian honors, bluff and brilliant – Bob was the original grumpy old man.

We united over the forced tourist meal-break, half way through the Cai Be Shuffle. We were to endure Vietnamese Lunch At A Local Restaurant. I’ve long ago learnt to look at those words with fear. Mercifully I had Bob and his wife for company. We were joined by two of the four Americans on board. It was a fascinating conversation, peppered by Bob’s oaths.

‘What’s this crap?’ he said loudly, waving a forkful of bland tourist food.

‘Elephant Fish,’ said an American.

‘Bloody horrible.’

‘Stop swearing,’ his wife hissed.

‘I’m in the pooh now,’ he laughed and swore some more, mostly at the Dog by his side.


‘Have you noticed,’ Bob said completely out of the blue, ‘that we don’t stop anywhere?’

He was stirring. He must be bored.

‘We sit in the boat and look out the sides, we wave at little children and take pictures but we never stop. They only let us off the boat to see the bloody blick fackrey.’

‘And the popcorn.’

‘And the palmfronds,’ said Pam.

‘And that old house. Why did we go there?’

‘Because it’s old, Bob,’ Pam said, hushing him.

‘So am I. Nobody brings tour groups to see me.’

‘I wonder why…’

‘So, we’ve sailed past everything interesting and been allowed to see a blick fackrey, a popcorn factory, a palmfrond place, that bloody old house and now this crap toulist food… we haven’t been in Cai Be at all.’

He was met by silence. There was a little Mid-Western cough and a little Mid-Western wriggle.

It was the American’s first trip to Asia; everything was amazing to them, even the crap toulist fish. They took many photos. The last thing they wanted to do was actually deal with any of it. Looking out the side of the boat was quite adventurous enough for day one, thank you. They looked at him blankly. The Cai Be shuffle was fine by them.

‘What do you think about climate change?’ said Ned.


If still waters truly run deep. Ned and his wife were the mildest raging torrent I ever met. They were farmers from Somewhere Quiet in America – but they were not farmers as we know the term; Ned and his wife were secret cultivators – they grew their own ideas. They had very clear cut and left-field attitudes to a great many things and a very mannered reticence to express them. They had the secure silence of folks who lived in a small community, coupled with the intellectual curiosity of city dwellers; cards always clutched close to their chest, wrapped tight in a bundle of mid-American reserve.

‘You’re very quiet,’ said Bob, ‘but you’re very smart. I can tell.’

‘We like to fly under the radar,’ she whispered.


‘Why not?’ she countered, not very bravely.

That was no problem for Bob. He would simply lower the radar.


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