My last day in the Mekong Delta brings me to the foot of Sam Mountain. Having filled my plate with magical visits to My Tho, Can Tho, floating markets, rural schools and mud-floored huts, I look forward to a peaceful, uneventful hike up this hill of a mountain near Chau Doc and the Cambodian border.
My driver and guide, Bay, strolls with me through the tombs of Thoai Ngoc Hau, where colorful flowers grow wild between ancient stones. We climb higher where countless temples and pagodas pepper the trailside; small and seemingly make-shift buildings with corrugated tin roofs, these tiny, modest structures reveal their Chinese influence in the characters framing the darkened doorways. Weary from hundreds of miles of driving, Bay returns to our hotel for a well-earned nap, giving me the freedom to climb this enchanting mountain on my own. Enjoying my solitude, I creep through an inviting yellow temple and poke my head into an incense-filled shrineroom. Turning around, I am startled by a wrinkled and storied face looking at me calmly. Motioning with his hands and speaking his best broken English, a brown-robed monk tells me of his difficult path to monastic life, having spent three years in prison while serving during the war. Although past hardship is revealed in his aged face, there is an unmistakable gleam of peace in his eyes. We bow before I continue up the mountain where dogs and chickens communally dart across the trail looking for morsels dropped by tourists but I am the only visitor.
Further up, I stumble upon a little girl diligently doing her homework along the trail. Undisturbed by my presence, she continues her studies as I look closely. I can’t help her. I also can’t help but notice her school materials: a weathered book, a thin notebook and a small leather book bag. It reminds me of the bare bones conditions of the schools I had visited earlier during my journey through the delta, where students sit four to a wooden bench and pencils are a rare commodity. Yet, like the other students I observed, this little girl remains undaunted in her task, bare feet and all.
Carrying the precious image of the little girl’s face up the mountain, I encounter harder faces at an outdoor cafe near the top. A group of men, including an officer in olive drab khakis sporting red shoulder patches, are drinking and smoking and carrying on. Matching those red shoulder patches, the officer’s glance seems particularly menacing as I sip a Coke and look out on the vast horizon to Cambodia.
“Have a drink with us,” he demands in surprisingly well-spoken English. Avoiding the alcohol, I join the group with my Coke and share my experiences of the Mekong Delta. The officer’s face lights up when I talk of my school visits.
“Come with me!” he commands, escorting me to a motorcycle while his friends nod and smile. My God! What did I say? We peel off to the top of the mountain as the officer tells me of a school he wants me to see. We stop at an army outpost at the top of the mountain where he runs in and out in a hurry, perhaps getting permission from a superior to perform his civic duty. As we twist and turn down the dirt road, I clutch the red shoulder patches of the officer, trying not to think about how much he has had to drink.
Containing my nerves, I arrive safely on the other side of Sam Mountain at Truong Trung Hoc High School. We are greeted by the principal and vice-principal, both of whom, to my pleasant surprise, are women. With other staff joining us, including an English teacher who interprets for the principal, we sit and talk over lemonade as I learn of the enormous drop out rate among Chau Doc students: 40% at the middle school level, another 20% at the high school level, and finally only a handful actually going on to university. I also learn that teachers earn between 20 and 40 dollars per month, not including any emergency funds they are required to pay by the state–for example, in case of floods. Lastly, noticing a mural of a hammer and sickle on the wall, I ask, “Do you teach only Marxism?”
“Of course we teach Marxism,” she explains through the interpreter. “But we teach all philosophies.” The soldier nods and smiles.
Saved by the bell, school is out and uniformed students collect their bikes and start for home. Curious boys in red ties and girls in graceful white ao dai dresses stop to smile and wave as I quickly tour the stark library before being whisked away, back to my hotel–the officer was late for duty. How many of these students will graduate from college? Will the little girl back by the trailside of Sam Mountain make it to middle school? The soldier–I never learned his name, but he went through a transformation from an authority I wanted to avoid to an indispensable guide–delivers an informal salute and heads off, leaving me with many questions and an unforgettable experience.
My uneventful hike up a hill had become a mountain of insight into the people of Chau Doc, and a fitting end to a magically educational journey through the Mekong Delta.