MY EXPERIENCES: Searching in Sa Dec

From my research trip in late 2006…

In Vietnam, pretty much anything’s possible. If you want to get from X to Y by Z, you generally can. Years ago, my rented motorcycle outside the Central Highlands coffee town of Buon Ma Thuot broke, and broke badly. The cord connecting the accelerator and the engine snapped. The dirt road was practically empty but for the fresh elephant tracks of one I had just seen rambling along the road. I had a plane to catch in a couple hours, was nearly out of money, and this was when Vietnam was a land without ATMs. About 100 feet ahead stood a bamboo hut. I rolled the bike there and saw a board leaning to a fence, marked in black chalk: ‘XON DA.’ Honda. They fixed the bike for about 60 cents in five minutes and I drove on. That’s Vietnam.

A couple days ago I left my strange Ben Tre island guesthouse and wanted to go on a straight line to Vinh Long, rather than backtrack to smooth Highway 1 via the city of My Tho. Guidebooks don’t map roads or ferry crossings on the stretch of river-pierced land on the land, but someone suggested they existed. So I tried them. For $15, I got on the back of a Honda om driver, Mr Phi, on Ben Tre island. Mr Phi propped my unsuitably large roller suitcase between his crotch and the handlebars and headed onto three-hours of bumpy roads, over two river ferries, getting me to the city of Vinh Long.

VINH LONG is modern, bustling, rather ugly town proud of its newest tenant, a $100 million suspension bridge an Australian company paid for to connect the city with Saigon. I needed to check a couple hotels, a boxy, enclosed riverfront restaurant where I had grilled squid for about $1.50, check out some bus routes, and talk with a couple travel agents. One, called Mekong Travel, had recently broken off from the state-run one and stands out as one of the cheapest, most efficient I’ve come across. They set me up with a homestay across the river in a simple home of a 76-year-old Viet Cong veteran’s family next to a canal ($18 included boat drop-off and pick-up and two huge meals, plus the night on a military issue kelly-green cot with mosquito net; Mr Ba Lien showed off photos of his medals and asked if I had been to Dien Bien Phu yet – the rarely visited place where the French were defeated in 1954). Before I left I had a few hours to spare, and I thought to make it to Sa Dec, where French writer Marguerite Duras lived in the 1950s and based her book The Lover on.

Sa Dec directionsMr LIEN, a non English-speaking Honda driver, agreed to take me and follow my strange whims to fruit orchards and hotels and ‘French writer locations’ in Sa Dec for three or four hours for $5. We passed the fancy My Thuan Bridge on the way. We zipped along its smoothly paved overpasses until we veered west towards Sa Dec, almost immediately hitting the cratered gravel roads the go most of the way 20-some miles west. Lien stopped, motioning at the road, shaking his head and putting on a crimson helmet – he had only the one. I used to be macho about driving by bike here, but this trip scared me a little. Furiously Lien sped on, squeezing between giant trucks and piles of rock as I clutched my hat to my face to keep from ingesting the dust. Brick factories along the river marked the beginning of Sa Dec – each with a series of red-brick domes that looked like a ghetto of Cham pagodas from 1000 years ago. SA DEC – with its water-stained French villas, tree-lined river promenades and fruit orchids was immediately more atmospheric than Vinh Long, but few come other than a drop-by on the occasional group tour. Everyone plugs The Lover angle – it’s in all the guidebooks, and accompanies any mention of Sa Dec by a travel writer. But no one says where it is. No one. I now know why.

Lien took me first to a couple hotels to check out, and the impressive fruit stalls a mile or so north of the center. He had no idea who Duras was, or ‘French writer 60 years ago,’ or ‘The Lover film.’ We stopped to ask a few older people along riverside Nguyen Hue street, that Rough Guide mentioned as did my pal Matt Gross mentioned in a New York Times article this year. No one seems to know of her or of some affair with a older Chinese guy.

I motioned to Lien to stop at an Internet café for ‘four minutes.’ I got online, found a photo of the villa, snapped a photo on my digital camera to use as reference. Lien, getting into the fun, meanwhile had tracked down a 72-year-old man wearing a watch, plastic sandals, and a cellphone attached to the waist of his boxer shorts. He spoke French and English, never heard of The Lover but had a lot of opinions where it was. The sky had gotten grayer, and sunset was about an hour away.

We made one more pass on Nguyen Hue to the south, where the fruit market envelopes both side of the street and we nearly collided with two men riding a children’s bicycle. There I noticed two French villas across the river and motioned to Lien. One looked like it could be it. Rough Guides mentioned something about ‘taking a ferry’ – I snapped a photo, noticing the rowboats scurrying across and longed for 30 more minutes. (It’s roughly across from 203 Nguyen Hue, if you’re looking.)

I got back to Lien and we agreed, before heading back to Vinh Long, ‘Maybe. Don’t know.’ That’s a little bit of Vietnam too.

Mekong Travel (tel 070-836-252; 1 Thang 5 St, No 8; [email protected]) can rent a bike for $1.50 and accompany you in tiny roads over arched, rail-free bridges over chocolate-colored canals for another $5. Some travel agents book trips like this for $50 or more. Talk with Trinh.