©Katie Johnson, 2015

©Katie Johnson, 2015


Many rivers flow into the wide Mekong Delta
Emptying into the South China Sea
Lined with buildings, houses, and  pagodas
And boats of all sorts

Barges that look like Disney’s pirate ships
Bright blue or deep green
Loads of sand piled high
From the dredging down river at the mouth

Passenger boats for tourists
Blue or brown
With woven benches for sitting
And orange life jackets overhead

Fishing boats of all sizes
Unpainted or with a faint hint of color from when they were new
Seaworthy boats are large, paneled with woven mats for walls
To keep out the elements
And decorated with plants, clothes lines, and aluminum pots
Some are dugout size
Long, sleek and narrow
They move through the water with a speed
That depends on the currents or tidal waters
Nets carefully folded to throw out or place in shallow water
Trapping fish in more abundance than with a single line

Conical hats bob in the boats
Protection from the sun and the heat
These are a symbol of Vietnam and its people

Chugging down river toward the mouth of the Mekong
Our ballast off and boat tipping
We shift our weight for balance, changing sides where needed
The shores are greener now, not so clogged with buildings and docks
Tall sword ferns, green deciduous trees, palm and coconut trees,
Mangrove forests, water lilies, and watercress shroud the shoreline

What lies beyond?
The Viet Cong stealthily moved through the foliage
First fighting the French War during colonization
And then the American War some 40 years ago
It is easy to imagine the camouflaged bodies
Dodging, hiding, firing to kill
And hard to forget the news reels of the past

Now the Vietnamese curry us
With no apparent animosity on either side
Wanting us to see their beautiful land
Its nature shrouded by heat and high humidity
Warm sunshine, puffy high clouds,
Or overcast skies threatening monsoons
Wash over the landscape and its people

Taking us up a river that feeds into the Delta
We board a small, narrow wooden canoe
Skillfully poled through the water by a lithe woman
Who takes us past Mangroves and ferns, palms and green trees
To steps on the bank that lead us to a path

Walking a ways
We find a clearing and a dirt road
Small horses hitched to wood carts await us
Taking us down a long narrow road to an outdoor restaurant
Round thatch roofs and open walls welcome us
We are ready for some civilization and lunch

On each table is a large flat fish
Coated with salt and propped upright in a stand
It is to be part of our lunch
The salted fish in our spring rolls
Course after course of Vietnamese specialties
Delight our pallets and fill us with more

We walk across a sandy isthmus
To find our boat waiting on the other side
Ready to take us back
To newly familiar visages

The Mekong River Delta seems more like
An old friend than a former enemy
It helps me put to rest bad memories
And images of war
The blood of many on all sides of war
Flow through its waters
To be remembered sadly and with honor
For the lives lost and given in the name of war
The American War


©Katie Johnson, 2015

Katie Johnson, ’78 and ’98, is retired, but she still teaches as a substitute teacher in three elementary schools in Berkeley. When she isn’t subbing or volunteering or singing in her church choir, she is writing, walking, cooking, or traveling with notebook and camera.  She traveled to Vietnam in May 2015.

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