Long Xuyen, Vietnam, January 2009
The air-conditioner in the bedroom of my university-issued apartment blows only warm air. This is less than ideal in the Mekong Delta where relief from the heat and humidity is rarer than an unsweetened Vietnamese coffee.
I don’t wish to complain. I mustn’t act the spoilt Westerner. After all, it was my choice to volunteer here at the university. Nevertheless, I’ve had my fair share of accommodation problems. The walls in my first apartment were caked in mould, which resulted in a respiratory issue and a four-day stint in hospital. I should’ve gone home then, but I’d wanted to honour my year-long contract.
My current apartment is clean and would be perfectly habitable with a fully-functioning AC unit. As it is, it’s stifling. Nor can I physically open my bedroom window to let in a breeze. This is a mixed blessing: the apartment complex rests beside a row of trees which are habitat for a species of green tree viper. The last thing I need is a close encounter with a cornered snake.
I turn the television on as I wait for the maintenance guy to show up again. I’m not holding out much hope: he’s ‘fixed’ the air-conditioner twice before. Still, as I flick through the channels, I happily stumble on one that shows music videos.
Electric Feel is the song of the moment. My mood immediately brightens as I’m again hooked by the catchy riff, colourful video and intriguing lyrics.
All along the Western front
People line up to receive
She got the power in her hand
To shock you like you won’t believe
Modern day hippies. A dance party in a forest. Flying motorcycles. Why not? It’s a welcome escape.
As the music plays a viper appears outside my window. It’s slithering through the branches just a few metres away. Ever inquisitive, it peers into my apartment before sliding away once more. I watch it go before I’m drawn back to the song.
All along the Eastern shore
Put your circuits in the sea
This is what the world is for
I like this small, charming city. It looks especially attractive from a boat out on the mighty river. There’s plenty here to keep me occupied and entertained. I play soccer with the students and hang out at coffee shops with the teachers and other volunteers. For the most part it’s a happy, carefree existence.
As for its challenges, the snakes are fine – they mostly keep to themselves. The local food never quite fills me up, but I’ll recover from this weight loss. The university gate shuts at 10pm every night, locking us all in, but I don’t generally mind that either. I’ve even learned to live with the mosquitoes and the constant threat of dengue.
But I can’t cope with the heat. It’s oppressive, an unrelenting swelter. MGMT might say:
All along the riverfront
People seeking cool relief
Locals say it’s on its way
Two weeks’ worth is much too brief.
The ‘relief’ amounted to just two weeks in December when the temperature dropped to the low twenties and cool evening breezes wafted off the Mekong. It was comparatively lovely. After that, though, the fierce heat returned and stubbornly lingered, waiting to see what I’d do next.
The maintenance guy comes and goes once again. The air-conditioner never gets properly fixed. My work here never quite meets my original, possibly naïve expectations. I never feel completely comfortable in the Mekong Delta. One typically hot and humid day, after sticking it out for almost a year, armed with admiration for the resilience of the Vietnamese people and memories to last a lifetime, I decide to leave.