TRAVEL PURSUITS – A gentleman on the Mekong River

A chance encounter (at a local meeting of Camino aficianados) resulted in an extended conversation about the ways and means and the whys of travel. David Levin has been a serious and life-long traveller. When he learned that Classical Pursuits will be going to Vietnam and Cambodia this fall, his eyes lit up and he went into an extended rapture. I invited David to share with you some of what he told me.

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Our boat – the Pandaw Mekong

There is something perfect about a cabin on a gorgeous teak boat headed up the Mekong River to Angkor Watt. Forget the image of a creaky, leaky riverboat. I’m talking about something out of Somerset Maugham. Read The Gentleman in the Parlour, Maugham’s account of his journey across South East Asia in the early 20th century.  “It is great to shake off the trammels of the world and public opinion…and become the creature of the moment…and to be known by no other title than ‘The Gentleman in the Parlour’.”

Stateroom on the Pandaw Mekong

The boat alone is worth the trip. Walking barefoot along the shiny exterior corridor to my cleverly designed, outside, windowed cabin with private loo and shower, I sort of wanted to apologize for feeling smug. With front and rear open decks, paneled dining room, brass railings, and smooth Mekong water, this river trip has remained with me forever.

I began my travel in Hanoi. I have seen Beijing, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi is like no other city in the Far East. A kaleidoscope of colonial architecture; a fantastic mix of French and Eastern food (perfect baguettes and fragrant pho;) rivers of bicycles; stunning tea houses; a vibrant and open street culture with music, art and craft; breathtaking elemental wet markets; and the least xenophobic people I’ve ever met. It whets your appetite for the rest of the country. And cruising up the Mekong River gives you the perfect opportunity to explore another world.

Mekong River

At first I was a bit concerned about spending multiple days on the river. But it never worked out that way. Think of the Mekong as a giant, water-based playing field where your boat feels more like a personal floating carpet. With three excellent meals you slow down to the pace of the river. Each day brings new distractions. Sparkling fishing villages; jaw dropping scenery so green it hurts your eyes; local boats doing every conceivable business from fishing to floating markets to heavy industrial haulage. You will get many scheduled stops, each totally different. After a while I surprised myself and devoted time each day to doing nothing–simply clearing my mind of clutter. It worked.

I had read so much about Vietnam, mainly colored by the Vietnam War. But the reality defied all preconceptions and remained dreamlike. For geography, imagine North Vietnam as the Swiss Alps in a tropical jungle. For world view, Vietnam is one of the world’s great paradoxes. A thousand years of literature, art, music and religion. Millennia of traumatic interaction with Asian neighbors and invasions from nations literally at the other end of the earth. And decades of colonization leaving indelible marks (think irresistible Parisian baking on almost every corner.)

If you are concerned (as a Westerner) about feeling unwelcome in Vietnam, your concerns are totally unfounded. The essence of Vietnam is fierce independence based in Buddhism and Taoism. These folk have successfully resisted thousands of years of trauma and when you meet them today you find an Asian Tiger with serenity. Vietnam is different. An openness that shines through and this is one reason I wanted to visit. In fact every visitor I met was totally enchanted with the place.

That’s not to say my Vietnam trip was without suggestions. This was a solo trip. I would have appreciated a well connected and knowledgeable guide. Local boatmen are fine but a deeper understanding of the country’s literature and culture is essential. I would love to have trekked with convivial and curious people into those local villages, rice paddies and markets; and explored the famous Viet Cong tunnels and talked to the local governing Councils. This would have added immeasurably to my experience.

Next time.

David Levin, Toronto

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