Down to the River

Sundown on a branch of the Mekong

My cousin Quan and I caught a bus down to the Mekong Delta yesterday. The city of Can Tho sits along one of the major tributaries of the Mekong that fan out across southern Vietnam. It’s my chance to get some quality fish time in the Vietnamese section of this mighty river.

1 kg for about $3. I’ve had mangosteens only once in the US, and they set me back more than $1 per fruit. So until they become the next kiwi – load me up.

The bus ticket to travel 100 miles cost all of $5.50 – not too shabby.  An early lunch pit stop let me stock up on my all-time favorite Southeast Asian fruit – mangosteens. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that this tartly sweet delight was a large contributing factor to my taking this transpacific trip – well, it’s a major highlight at least.

Incense cones burning in a Chinese temple by the riverbank.

Once we arrived in Can Tho, we rented a motorbike for the evening, driving first to the river’s edge to walk around. Then travelled to the edge of town as the sun was setting. We pulled over to watch a man burning some reeds along the water as another man walked his water buffalo nearby. I have a special fondness for water buffalo – they’re at the heart of pastoral Vietnam, strength in the mud and the bright green rice fields.

Standing there was one of those moments when it dawned on me that I am most definitely in another country. A pearl of a nearly full moon hung in the sky, and old man practiced his Tai Chi exercises beside us.  It was so lovely and tranquil.

Motorbike Alien

Guess who?

I’ve experienced two classic Vietnamese “firsts” since arriving in Ho Chi Minh City: travelling via motorbike and eating durian fruit. If you know anything about durian, I bet you can guess which one was more enjoyable.

During my one other trip to Vietnam five years ago, riding on motor scooters was not part of the agenda with my mom and aunt. But for my cousin, it’s the basic way to get around, and I’ve readily slipped into the role of passenger.

I don’t think I’d ever be crazy enough to try driving here myself. But with an experienced driver doing the steering, it’s a pretty exhilarating ride. A mental wall is all that separates you from the other bikes, cars and small trucks whizzing by your elbow. The traffic is both chaotic and fluid – people cutting across oncoming traffic at will, dodging and weaving, navigating a precarious balance of yielding and seizing the right of way. It’s pretty miraculous that people don’t collide at every turn. At four-way intersections, ample warning honks substitute for stop signs.

My younger cousin doesn’t try to navigate the madness herself. She commutes to her job as a passenger via a motorbike taxi, or “xe om.” “Xe” means “motorbike” and “om” means “hug” – in other words, hang on to your driver!

But unless the driver is your significant other, actually latching on to them is somewhat unseemly. I’m usually clutching the back railing of my cousin’s bike, but most passengers apparently have better things to do than hang on – like spooning up a cup of iced sweets, adjusting hair, or smoking a cigarette. Kids hold their bookbags, slouching nonchalantly on the back of their parents’ bikes as if they were strapped in.

I’ve observed that a motorbike is a fine way to transport your dog, a coat rack, or a family of four. Fortunately, the only motorbike casualties I’ve seen so far are the flip flops – single shoes, usually kid-sized, lying forlornly in the middle of the road.

And then, of course, there is the fashion. Back in the US, I used to laugh at the people I saw wearing facemasks to fend off sun or pollution. Covering up your face with fabric and sunglasses erases just enough human features to look extraterrestrial. But in Vietnam, when your face is practically on the level of a thousand exhaust pipes – vanity be damned. Give me the mask.

I’ve seen every variation from the basic surgical-style facemask to a full-on Lawrence-of-Arabia-style cowl that wraps around the whole head, face and neck. You can even get a jacket, hood, and mask in matching print.

The one I grabbed one off a street rack is like a large flap of flannel. And to be honest, I rather enjoyed the feeling of disappearing behind it, travelling incognito like the locals. Hopefully it’s keeping some of the nasty particulates at bay. Halloween costume, anyone?

Thank goodness a helmet is now another normal part of the ensemble. Five years ago, helmets were a rarity, but now wearing one is the law, and it seems like 90% of people comply. With the traffic as nutty as it is, I’d say the drivers and riders need any safety measures they can get.

Flesh of the durian fruit – about as tasty as it looks

And now a (brief) note on durian…This infamous fruit, yellowish green and spiky on the outside, about the size of a large spool of cotton candy, is probably regarded as the most foul-smelling fruit there is. I don’t think I inhaled long enough to describe it in detail, but it’s extremely pungent, like something rotting…and my great-aunt loves it.

So, like a cultural right of passage, I gamely gave it a try. The consistency is creamy like custard and has a somewhat nutty taste. Not completely unpleasant on its own – but not exactly what I seek out in a fruit. And coupled with the smell, well…at least I can check this notorious classic off my list. Hopefully there is more motorbike riding in my future, but I’ll pass on the stinky fruit.

The Dragon Fish Path

This is the origin story.

All plans of action start with an idea. My plan, in short, is this: Spend one month in Vietnam. Write. Learn. Absorb. Document. Oh sure, and Eat, Pray, Love, as appropriate. Pay particular attention to fish.

The idea for this plan, such as it is, goes back to the time when I first started writing. As an undergraduate working at the UC Davis News Service, I interviewed a professor who studied the economics of sustainable agriculture development in the Amazon. He told me about a “critical triangle,” the intersection between poverty, the environment, and economic development. Trying to address any one point of the triangle required tradeoffs from the other two points. But was there a way to strike a balance, one that could benefit both people and the natural world they depend on for survival?

Something about that question spoke to the core of what I believed in. I kept circling back to it while wondering what to dedicate my life to. I took the story of the Amazon, filtered it through my values, and came out with…fish. Because of all the world’s amazing ecosystems and habitats, the one I care most deeply about is the ocean. And nowhere is the relationship between people and the ocean more tangible than the fish they catch to eat, sell and survive.

Fish brought me to graduate school at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. I learned to catch them and dissect them, learned how they lived and what they ate, learned different approaches to managing them.  And it was at a graduate student workshop (sponsored by the excellent MARINE program), where I started thinking about what how to turn fish, the ocean, and the critical triangle into a life plan. What would be my Amazon?

One of the many exercises of this “Designing the Professional” workshop was to map out three different possible life paths immediately following graduate school. Three different tracks we could envision our lives taking. The workshop host, Stanford instructor Dave Evans, called it our personal odyssey. I took the exercise to heart, and concluded that for one of my paths, my Amazon would be Vietnam.

Here it is worth mentioning two things: 1) My mom is Vietnamese, making me half Vietnamese. 2) I don’t speak Vietnamese, but wish I did.

Suffice it to say, trying to learn Vietnamese has been one of the greatest personal challenges of my life. It’s the result of garden variety multicultural identity issues, and a highly Westernized tongue mangling the nuances of a tonal language. Was there a way  I could integrate my longing for a key cultural connection into the study of fish? I threw it all in the mix, and came out with a timeline with different “seasons” for my path that looks like this:

How I originally imagined the Dragon Fish PlanI hung this on my wall for the past few years as a sort of personal compass. As a result of the workshop, my crazy pipe dream seemed less crazy and almost, well, doable. Three different seasons building up my knowledge of language and culture, of people and nature.

And suddenly, I now find myself racing through Season 1, about to hopscotch through Season 2, and ready to land in Season 3. This trip, which starts today, is turning my plan into action.

I admit, my intensive Vietnamese-study-as-preparation hasn’t been quite as intensive as it could be, although Mom has been inserting more Vietnamese into our conversations of late, which is nice. Hopefully I will be learning a lot on the go. Which reminds me to pack my pocket dictionary.

I’ve also skipped over the whole teaching thing, but with any luck there will be kids and schools on this path yet. My inner elementary school teacher will be scoping out the possibilities. Extended family and language immersion are still part of the plan, since I’ll be staying with my Mom’s cousin and his family. And Season 3 will come about largely thanks to my new job – but more on that later.

As part of the personal odyssey exercise, Dave Evans also instructed us to design a talisman, something to remind us of our favorite path. Hence, I created this stunning piece of Clip Art:

Dragons, fish, you get the ideaI wrote this about it:

This is my talisman. I’m calling this plan the Dragon Fish path because the dragon is an important figure in Vietnamese mythology, and the country itself is said to look like a dragon. I also think I will need to draw on some of that mythological strength and determination to actually carry this plan out. Fish are my area of study and I was drawn to them because they embody the intersection between people and the ocean. So this plan is a bit of melding between my personal background and my educational path.

Fast forward to my most recent round of schooling, a year at the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication program. Enter another assignment, this time to write a book proposal – something I could see myself writing in the next five or ten years. With the Dragon Fish path still on my brain, I again took the assignment to heart.  My proposal starts like this:

The country of Vietnam curves like a dragon sleeping at the edge of the sea. Green, jungle-covered mountains armor its head and spine, and the fertile fan of the Mekong delta spreads across its tail. This slender country and the great ocean it borders host a lush richness of tropical flora and fauna. However, Vietnam’s natural heritage remains obscure to the western world, overshadowed by the human tragedy of war that ripped the country apart, and defined it for a generation of Americans. Nearly four decades later, Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and the country’s environmental resources are under siege. I propose to write an ecological travel book that highlights the country’s threatened natural diversity in its ocean, rivers, and jungles, and examines the relationships between the Vietnamese people and their natural environment.

And why should I be the one to write this book?

This book is a subject of great personal and professional interest to me, one that draws on my cultural heritage and scientific training. Vietnam is my mother’s lost country: she and her family fled at the end of the Vietnam War. Growing up, my relationship with Vietnam has been colored predominantly by this loss. I am also trained as a biologist and marine scientist, with a particular interest in fish. I am fascinated by the relationship between people and their natural environment. This rare combination of characteristics makes me well poised to write the book I have proposed. I have met few other marine or environmental scientists of Vietnamese heritage in the United States. The book’s exploration of nature, culture, and conservation will offer a new perspective of Vietnam not just for readers, but also for myself. I have struggled to improve my rudimentary Vietnamese for years, but as a science writer, I can approach the country through the language of fish and oceans, of mountains and trees.

I originally started planning my upcoming trip primarily with this book in mind. But since then, my path has crossed with the company FISHBIO. With them, I will have the opportunity to immerse myself in the critical triangle of the Mekong Basin, both as a writer and as a scientist. My journey over the coming month, part personal, part professional, will be my first foray into acting out my plan. A book is very much part of my end goal, and this blog will be one way of encouraging me to write in the coming weeks. Thank you for reading – I welcome you to take this journey with me. I hope this is only the beginning.