Thinh, a teaching assistant at the language center I work for, invited me to spend the weekend at his hometown, My Tho, in Tien Giang province. The city, whose economy is based chiefly on tourism, fishing and agriculture, boasts the very first high school in southern Vietnam as well as the longest bridge in the country. The bus fare there is a meagre $3.50 and the journey takes just one and-a-half hours from Saigon.
We had lunch at Thinh’s parents’ home. His mother had prepared pork, fish hot pot, snake and rice crackers especially for me. Several neighbors joined us for the feast. Naturally, the proceedings were accompanied by copious quantities of beer. Thinh’s father used to be a rice farmer but for years has been raising decorative fish, which he sells to dealers in Ho Chi Minh city. After lunch, Thinh took me to the Dong Tam Snake Farm, an educational and research facility run by the military, which I believe is devoted to the prevention and treatment of snake bites. In addition to the snakes, there are many other creatures on exhibit, including ostriches, goats, monkeys and the largest soft-shell turtle I’ve ever seen. As we were about to leave, I was startled by a woman with a python draped over her shoulders who approached me and asked if I’d like to have my picture taken with the reptile. I politely declined. But the most unsettling experience I had there was entering a roomful of cobras preserved in formaldehyde: on the walls were photographs of bite victims, whose symptoms were not all that dissimilar from some of the horrific images I’d seen of agent orange victims in the War Remnants museum.
The following day, we went on a typical tour of the Mekong. First, we were taken to our destination by boat, after which we witnessed caramel candies being made. Then we were escorted in a horse-drawn carriage to a spot where we listened to traditional Vietnamese music while we enjoyed fresh fruit and tea mixed with honey. Next, an elderly woman took us for a leisurely ride in a canoe through a passageway shaded by dense foliage. The entire two-hour tour cost only $5.00. In the evening, Thinh was joined by his wife and sister and we dined on snails and grilled shrimp at an outdoor eatery, followed by coffee at an elegant cafe featuring a manmade waterfall. I highly recommend setting aside a few days to visit My Tho if you ever come to Vietnam. The adorable little girl in the video is Thinh’s step-daughter.