Egrets land on raised coffins in the rice paddies. Women wearing straw hats sell sodas on the side of the road. We have booked a boat called The Bassaic, run by a French company, to ferry us down the Mekong. The crew keeps us separate from the French.
We wait for the only other English-speaking tourists to load the boat. The husband has swoopy hair and square-framed sunglasses. He helps the wife on, who spills onto the boat in a flash of gold and neon pink—a hot pink halter top, ripped designer jeans, gold tennis shoes with gold ribbon laces tied in bows. She could easily fold her tiny body into her giant suitcase and disappear into it, if she wanted. The man refuses to hand over their passports to the crew. They both decline to drink the juice. They speak Spanish, and I hear the husband say, looking at my husband and my direction, “Americans.”
There is disdain in his voice. I hadn’t said it aloud, but before they boarded and I heard them speak, I had thought the same about them.
The wife disappears in her cabin and then remerges for lunch, wearing a tight, backless black dress. We eat lunch and when the dessert comes—a rice pancake with friend banana and dark chocolate—I eat with glee, even if my belly pushes against my pants. The wife rebuffs the dessert, asks, “Do you want me fat?” I know that to look like she does, it means denying yourself the best dessert ever, even on vacation. It makes me want to eat more, but I know I can’t say I would have hers.
We are kept separate from the French the entire time, like Brexit, I joke. We share the deck with the Spanish-speaking couple, but they also speak English.
I speak to them in Spanish. I tell them we’re from California, as if that excuses us from being American. They tell us they are from Panama. “Not Florida,” the husband says. “the country.” I say I understand, that we have been to Panama, the country. I tell them we hate our new president, the former television reality show conman.
The French complain that we have the upstairs deck while they are below. The husband, Andrus, tells the crew we will switch for dinner. I tell Andrus I can’t imagine demanding other people get moved for the betterment of my enjoyment. The wife—Gabriela—agrees. We all became friends.
The deck below is shady, giving us a break from the southern sun.
We all watch the sunrise the next morning—a pink orb in the smoky sky. The red flag whips at the back of the boat, the yellow star appearing and disappearing in the wind. A fan rustles the tinsel of a fake Christmas tree. We share lychee, plums, rambutin, and oranges. Gabriela says she can’t eat the durian. I eat her portion. Andrus says he agrees with the new president’s Muslim ban. I explain, conjuring my smartest and most measured voice, why I disagree. Gabriela looks me in the eye and said, “I agree with you.”
We walk through villages that evening. Insects hum in the yellow glow. Caged roosters and dogs chirp and bark. Gabriela says, “You’re a teacher, right?” I nod. She says, “I am nothing. I’m just a mom.” I tell her that being a mom is a good job, an important one, and I mean it.
The next morning, we board a smaller wooden boat, churn through the brown-green water, weave through the maze of floating markets—tire-lined boats full of pineapple, jackfruit, squash, watermelon, cabbage. Plastic-covered houses with tin roofs on stilts line the river’s banks. Gabriela carries a Coach purse. She says, “The poor here are worse off than in Panama. They have nothing. No hope.” I want to say that we can’t speak for them, but say nothing. Because what do I know? Only two days earlier I would not have guessed how much I would enjoy the company of this slick couple—I am taught the same lesson again and again: people are more than they initially seem to be.
We kiss them goodbye on each cheek, head for our hotel in Can Tho, 12 stories of green glass and neon lights. A whirl of motorbikes zoom past. A dancing pineapple tries to lure us into a bar. Plucked chicken, with their necks broken, hang in street-side stalls. Their beaks akimbo. Their half-open eyes gaze back at us through the smudged glass. What did the heads see when their bodies darted in the yard? A grassy knoll or the triangle of blue sky?
That night, I can’t sleep, walk to the floor-to-ceiling windows, press my palms against the glass, the dark night; the river cruise topped by a giant neon lotus chugs through the black water below. I think about my mother. This is the first trip we have taken since she died six months earlier. So far from home, and yet she is right here. And I am here—traveling with the dead, the memories run like a film reel, catching. “You’re a good mom,” I tell her near the end.
She says, “Stop acting like I’m dying.”
Saying the things you should say is admitting to the end. And maybe Mother knew that her life held more meaning if she stayed in denial, for how much is the life of the dying worth?
We are up early the next day for a bicycle tour of the Mekong Delta. We are given rickety bikes. I ask for a helmet and am met with a black stare. We follow narrow paths though banana, mango, and durian trees, up and over wooden bridges. We swerve out of the way for motorbikes. We ride ferries across waterways, motorcycles revving their engines in anticipation for the other side.
Our guide leads us to a sacred grove. He lights incense and prays. We are told the many-rooted Bodhi trees are sacred. I walk away from the rest of the group. A breeze slices through the humid air.
I see her again from the corner of my eye. She disappears when I look for her straight-on. The way it always was. I mouth the words now: You were a good mom.
Even here, in the hot and humid breeze a world away, I hear her say it: Stop acting like I’m dying.
We fly over the South China Sea, travel to a luxury resort. The hotel is newly opened, taking marketing photographs—the models, a tall, handsome western man walking with a petite Vietnamese woman.
We walk the beaches until our feet are black with tar. I ask for turpentine in the lobby.
In the morning, we watch as hotel employees clean the beach. My husband says, “Top 10 things you will find on the beaches of Con Dao,” making fun of the bucket lists in travel magazines, the kinds of things I sometimes write for money.
“Hypodermic needles, that’s number one for sure,” I say. “Plastic sandals are number two.”
We head to the other side of the island, tour the Con Dao prison, where shackled clay mannequins occupy old cells. They wear scowls, looks of despair; the reenactment of torture. Starved, naked bodies in the Tiger Cages. Human bodies, made animal. Light casts barred shadows on the cement walls. I enter the cells, and one makes me feel so nauseous I must leave immediately. I wonder if it’s the Banh Mi we ate on the street in front of the museum, but once I am back in the humid air, I feel a better.
I hear a British man say, “America’s has had so many puppets.” I want to say the French built these prisons. I want to ask him where he thinks we came from, whose puppets we were, how we learned imperialism and colonialism so very well, but I don’t. On this trip, I’ve learned to say, “The American War,” and though the British stayed out of this particular war, they have done their share of holding the strings.
We travel north to Sapa, and I look straight on at the cocks fighting, the swayed back horses meant for meat, the wire cage, holding dogs—German shepherds, Siberian huskies, mixed-breed labs, a chow chow that looks like my dog Ely. It is a small enough cage to tie to the back of a motor bike. I cannot count how many dogs are in the small cage because they are a tangled mess of fur, ears, and tails. At least five. Maybe more. The dogs push paws and noses out of the mesh; they pant in the heat, trying not to hurt each other when they adjust themselves but do anyway and yelp out with sharp cries of pain until someone comes and shakes the wire cage. I ask our guide Khu if I can buy them for her. “As pets,” I say.
“We have dogs enough,” she tells me.
Someone holds a puppy on a leash. “Those are for pets,” she says. A man bends down, smacks the small puppy to see if she will submit to him. “Can I buy you one of those?” I ask.
“No,” Khu says, “Come on. Let’s go.”
Khu is Hmong and says they don’t eat dogs. “Unless they are very bad,” she laughs. I turn to my husband and tell him our dog Ely would have been a goner had he lived in Vietnam.
I remembered a colleague who told me traveling to India was so sad because of the street dogs. But once I arrived, and I saw the children begging on the streets, I no longer noticed the dogs.
Until we ran over one.
We were pulling up to Mulgandkuti Shrine, and the dog had been sleeping on the street. The dog’s cry was sharp and shrill like broken glass. “Oh my God, oh my God,” I said. The driver stopped, and I jumped out of the car. The dog managed to get up and stood on three legs, howling. The dog’s high-pitched cried summoned a pack of street dogs, eight to be exact, to the scene of the crime. I stood against the car, and the dogs circled me, barking in lamentation for their friend’s useless leg. The injured dog tried to touch the toe of the smashed leg on the pavement, recoiled in pain. The driver got out and tried to shoo the dogs away, but they wouldn’t budge. The dogs stood their ground, circling the car, barking at us. The driver went to charge them, and finally they dispersed. The wounded dog hopped away on three legs.
When Sholeh and I reached the temple, I was already in tears. I knew it had been my fault, because if I hadn’t been interrogating our driver about his personal life, his eyes would have been on the road.
We didn’t think our new driver, who seemed annoyed with us because we didn’t want to eat at the restaurants he suggested, spoke much English until he asked, “Are you married?
“I’m not, but she is.” I pointed to Sholeh.
“Were you arranged?” I asked the driver, figuring if he could ask me if I was married, I was entitled to know the details of his marriage.
“Yes, I am.”
“Please stop talking to the drivers when they’re trying to drive,” Sholeh told me. “You’re distracting him.”
“Yes, we were arranged,” he said, perhaps to prove his English skills.
“Do you love her?” I asked, leaning forward.
Sholeh had covered her nose and mouth with her shawl, trying to protect herself from the traffic fumes, but she pulled it down to say, “Suzanne! That’s enough.”
“She’s a good wife. She speaks softly to my parents. Very modest,” the driver said, looking into the rearview mirror at me.
That’s when we rolled over the dog’s leg.
In the temple, I wiped my tears away, knowing the driver wouldn’t appreciate my crying over a dog. Street dogs were just another part of the fabric of India, along with the beggars and the street children, the blind musicians and the snake charmers, and the feral monkeys, the cow struggling down the street with a broken leg, which is a sadder sight than a three-legged dog.
Inside the temple—dark and cool and private—I let myself cry briefly before pulling myself together. Sholeh was kind enough not to tell me it had been my fault even though I knew it was. At home, I would have gone to bed for two days and cried had I been responsible for injuring a dog, but there in India, that sort of indulgence wasn’t possible.
I ask Khu again, “Just one dog,” but she’s already passing the water buffalo on her way back to the vegetable market, and Tom and I have to jog to catch her. I’m sure I’m not the first tourist who visited Vietnam and wants to save the dogs. I know that even if I bought the whole wire cage full of dogs intended for meat and set them free, they would be rounded up again for the market next Sunday. I force myself to take one last look back at the caged dogs, and then I move on, telling myself, we eat pigs, and they are cute too, and smarter even than dogs. And then I wonder at this logic: why should beauty or intelligence be the measure of an animal’s worth? Traveling means witnessing the world exactly as it is without trying to change it and being open to letting our travels change us instead. There are cages enough everywhere.
BIO: Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University. She served as the 2018-2020 El Dorado County Poet Laureate and currently lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Photo by: Matt W Newman on Unsplash
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Suzanne…loved this! Could relate to the India scene. Even as a child, I too, was more concerned for the children than anything else when I visited there with my family at 10-years-old. Thank you for sharing!