SOMETIMES moments of great symmetry happen during travels.
Like reading a great work of literature set in the bygone French Indochina while floating along the waterway that features in the story.
From my armchair on the deck of a colonial-style riverboat, floating along Vietnam’s Mekong River somewhere between the Cambodian border and South China Sea, I only have to lift my eyes from the page to see the landscape Marguerite Duras describes in her novel The Lover.
With her words “in the misty sun of the river, the sun of the hot season, the banks have faded away, the river seems to reach to the horizon’’ the author defines what I see and I decide there would rarely be a more eloquent account than the staccato phrase of a Frenchwoman born here during the second decade of the 19th century.
This is my ninth visit to Vietnam, with almost as many expeditions into the Mekong Delta, but it’s the first time I’ve been to Duras’s home town Sa Dec, and a morning jaunt to the historic port town is my favourite excursion of a week travelling with Wendy Wu Tours.
I’m cruising the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers across Cambodia and Vietnam, sailing from Siem Reap to Saigon on the elegantly nostalgic RV Mekong Pandaw.
A sampan collects us from our floating home after breakfast on day seven of the idyllic downstream journey for the excursion to Sa Dec.
We are deposited at one end of the busy quay-side market and follow our guide along the street – greengrocers and fishmongers on one side, rice sellers and hardware hawkers on the other – with the host pausing to point out produce, explain cooking techniques and detail farming practices.
He talks with stall holders, elegant women wearing the decades in deep lines on their skin, and as he translates how long they’ve been working in this market I mentally list the epic events that happened in Vietnam in that time.
Two dozen years, several decades, more than half a century scaling fish, arranging lemons in bamboo baskets, waving flies from meat, repositioning golden baguettes in the shade of an umbrella while communist, government, French and American soldiers passed.
We visit the house that once belonged to the wealthy gentleman who courted the schoolgirl Duras and sit in the front room of the weary Chinese-style abode drinking tea before wandering dark spaces with vintage encaustic floor tiles.
It’s gloomy, hot, and while I know the lover spent time here, I feel like it’s just a family asset.
I don’t feel his spirit here in this building that served as a communist police station after the “American War’’ before being handed to the people and welcoming travellers intrepid enough to find Sa Dec.
But back on the RV Mekong Pandaw, gazing across water that “flows quietly, without a sound, like blood in the body’’, I can certainly feel the spirit of the schoolgirl he seduced.
Getting there – Sa Dec, Vietnam
Malaysian Airlines flies from Adelaide, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Siem Reap and Saigon via Kuala Lumpur with economy and business-class cabins on all flights to and from Australia.
Wendy Wu Tours Classic Mekong is an eight-day voyage through Cambodia and Vietnam on a Pandaw riverboat, with shore excursions every day of the dawdle along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Short-stay additions are available to explore Saigon and Siem Reap at either end of the voyage.
The writer was a guest of Wendy Wu Tours and Malaysian Airlines