From my research trip in late 2006…

If you drive from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, arguably the Tech Capital of the World, you won’t be able to keep a cellphone call going without interruption. There are areas on this 45-minute drive that are out of range of some of the most advanced cellphone coverage plans. San Francisco is a funny place that way — years ago, when I lived there, they got uppity with NBC and dropped it, meaning you’d have to have expensive cable OR go to a ‘NBC Bar’ to watch Friends, SNL or the Olympics. Funny that this year I’ve been in deep Transylvania, as horse carts bounce by, or here on Ben Tre island, where many homes on fruit orchards are made of bamboo — AND received cellphone calls from the USA, often to get updates on college football scores.

Other than the cellphones, and a bridge and four-lane road in the works, much of Ben Tre feels the same as it did nine years ago. I liked it immediately back then. Riding randomly on dirt trails as wide as sidewalks my wife and I stopped at a stand selling bamboo-made fish traps that looked like giant ‘Coke’ bottles. I wanted one as a decorative piece back in our Saigon apartment. ‘No, you don’t need,’ the woman said laughing. In Saigon no one ever questions if you need something — they just sell it. Finally I got it, and my wife had to carry it on the back of the motorcycle all the way back to Saigon.

I’m staying at a funny little guesthouse in a fruit orchard with bamboo-covered gazebos to drink beer, eat ‘elephant-ear fish’ or eat noodles. I got here after a group tour took me on canal boat rides on chocolate-covered rivulets of the Mekong. I stopped off at My Tho, the first Mekong town from Saigon which gets flooded with daytrippers from Saigon daily. You certainly get a lot of boat-trip offers from entrepreneurs on the street — something that was illegal the last time the LP and Rough Guide guidebooks were updated. My Tho’s river promenade is an appealing place, with crumbling French villas now home to storefronts and blow-up animals and candies for sale on the kept-clean brick river front. One of the boat-trip guys, Mr Phi, took me by moto to the Ben Tre ferry and nicely told me to ‘hurry’ so not to miss it. I did, but another was there in 10 minutes.

Thao Nhi guesthouse owner, Mr Phat, is an old-school Vietnamese guide, consistently making playful jokes and laughing without seeing if you do. Mostly he unsubtly plugs his own tours and says ‘yes’ hazy eyed when you speak because he doesn’t understand, or really care to. I grew to like him, and his faults, more after an hour or so. He’s Buddhist and recently prayed in the local temple ‘for good luck’ for his family. He says he has ‘two children’ now (but holds up three fingers). He keeps a caged weasel next to the bamboo-covered cafe ‘for luck’ too. His trips are $25 for six hours, and start after 2pm — meaning you reach islands and canals after the daytrippers are gone — and finish admiring fireflies at sunset. High for one person, but good for three or four. He went on to complain about his former home Saigon, ‘There it’s only money money money — here everyone’s friendly and it’s so quiet.’ I privately wished for a little quiet myself.

This morning a Vietnamese-American man, back for a funeral, paid for my breakfast. ‘I invited you,’ he explained before heading off with his chubby daughter who was found of slapping my back with a large wooden spoon. I took up the guesthouses’ offer for a free bike and roamed on side roads past temples, shacks, canals, village markets and past rice fields. There — far from the hub-bub of Vietnam’s city life — came the call. (Oklahoma beat Colorado 24-3, without Adrian Peterson.)

If you go, Thao Nhi Guesthouse is just across the Ben Tre Ferry — about 11km from Ben Tre town. A Honda guy can take you in a couple minutes for about 30 cents. Rooms are $8 with air conditioning… I grew to like it a little less after this report though…