A twenty-five minute flight from Phu Quoc had me on the mainland town of Rach Gia before ten am on Sunday in good time for buses to Can Tho, hub town of the Mekong Delta. The first bus smelt strongly of fish – in this watery country second only to rice in its importance to economy and culture both – and packed with chattering Viets. In India, being the only westerner on such a bus in such a backwater would excite prolonged comment. Here it was smiles and nods, then back to whatever they were talking about. That’s how it goes in Vietnam and I like it. The guy squashed next to me, skinny and near toothless, handed me a stick of gum before pointing enquiringly at my nose; red, raw and peeling from solar underestimation while motorbiking on Phu Quoc. (Mad dogs and Englishmen!) Five minutes in we had a puncture and pulled into a garage. Watching a wiry lad wrestle with a tyre iron I tried not to dwell on the paucity of tread, and to put my trust in the patron saint who had so far not let me down.
Two hours later at a dirt patch in the middle of nowhere the bus decanted passengers for Can Tho. Handing down my rucksack from the roof, the driver pointed out a roadside tree where three matriarchs swatted flies and dispensed drinks to travelers on grimy plastic chairs. Given to understand I was now under their wing, and wondering how the economics worked since no ticket had been issued, I made my way over to the ladies. They overruled my first choice of chair, pushing me deeper into the shade before handing me a bottle of water, for which payment was refused, and bag of cherry-like fruit with waxy texture and dull flavour. A woman reached over to sprinkle a salt/chillhi garnish with transformational results. Not bad at all.
In India the wait might have been three hours without exciting comment. Here my connecting bus, as crowded as the first but less battered, arrived within the hour. I found myself next to a saffron robed monk (more on Vietnam’s religions later) who refused my offer of the fruit with the kind of horrified sneer a mullah offered pork scratchings might make. Had I stumbled on a representative of some obscure sect whose interpretation of the Boddhisatta vow is unusually severe? One lives in horror at causing unwitting offence – but I was irked that my pursuer of enlightenment made no effort to adjust his occupancy of two thirds of the seat. Battle hardened from countless such territorial disputes on Sheffield’s bus system, I played the let’s get intimate card. In the UK this seldom fails, probably because the men, it’s always men, who take up more than their fair share of space tend towards homophobia. When you nestle in thigh to thigh, as if nothing could please you more than further intimate acquaintance with their gorgeous bodies, it’s rarely more than three seconds before a fairer distribution of space ensues. But would the ploy work in this more tactile culture? And if it did work, might I have committed a lese-majeste bordering on the blasphemous?
Am happy to report: yes to the first; apparently not to the second. The American sociologist Garfinkel, founding father of ethnomethodology, gave his name to a particular kind of social scientific enquiry. Wherever he hypothesised an unwritten social law (e.g that you may only sit next to a stranger on the metro if there’s no vacant seat elsewhere) he tested it by breaking the rule. Well I came. I garfinkled. I broadened my knowledge.