The New Voyageurs

Wherein six Minnesotans brave the Mekong River, whirlpools, and dysentery in a leaky boat with a lawnmower engine held together by toothpaste and cardboard and live to tell about it

When his two worlds unexpectedly collided last February, Hoc Lam was visiting Chau Doc, the river town in south Vietnam where he was raised. An impish 49-year-old with kind eyes and a firecracker laugh, Hoc had fled Chau Doc and his native country in 1979. That was a hellish time, he recalls, a time when so many bodies floated down the Mekong River from nearby Cambodia that Hoc and his fellow villagers couldn't even drink the water anymore. Just as bad, they couldn't get the visions of the dead out of their heads. Like a lot of his countrymen, Hoc decided to run for it. He hiked through the rugged jungle to the coastline, then boarded a small boat which ferried him across the pirate-infested South China Sea before finally washing up at a refugee camp in the Philippines. After six months in the camp, Hoc found his way to Minnesota. But when he returned to Chau Doc for three weeks last winter, Minnesota was the last thing on his mind.

In the decades since Hoc left Vietnam, he learned English, settled in the St. Paul suburb of Little Canada, and, with his brother-in-law, opened and operated a string of successful restaurants throughout the Twin Cities. "We sold them all," he says with the knowing smile of a businessman confident he made the right call. Nowadays, Hoc and his brother-in-law run two modestly priced lunch joints, the Pioneer and Asian Express, that cater to the worker bees in the Pioneer Building in downtown St. Paul. For Hoc, that means no more dinner crowds and no more long nights. "Now it's just Monday through Friday," he says merrily. "Three o'clock and I go home."

For Hoc's family, adjusting to life in the U.S. proved more difficult. His mother tried living here for a few stretches, but yearned for the familiarity of her native land. She moved home for good in 1999. That was one reason Hoc returned to Chau Doc last February—to see his mother and his younger brother and sister. His father had died a year earlier, too, so it was time for the traditional one-year memorial observance. On that visit, late one night, Hoc was drinking coffee at an open-air noodle shop when three disheveled Westerners showed up in the village. It was, Hoc says, a very unusual sight. While Vietnam has become a popular tourist destination, Chau Doc is far removed from the beaten path, a place rarely visited by Westerners. It is even more rarely visited by unaccompanied Westerners who, in contravention of Vietnamese law, have crossed the border in their own boat.

Michael Dvorak

It wasn't the legal matters that made Hoc wonder. Like many residents of Chau Doc, Hoc considers the Mekong a very dangerous place. Not far from Chau Doc, he says, there are whirlpools that take down fishing boats with regularity, bandits who kill without pause, and all manner of other natural and unnatural hazards. So Hoc was shocked to learn that a group of foreigners, with scant knowledge of the river and none of the local language, would undertake an excursion down this stretch of the river. Especially in such a vessel—a leaky, 21-foot traditional Cambodian fishing boat with a highly suspect motor. But when one of the Americans, Mike Dvorak, ran into the noodle shop, that was the last thing on anyone's mind. Dvorak, a 40-year-old freelance photographer from Minneapolis, was in a state of high anxiety. He needed to find a hospital because Jack Brauday, one of his traveling companions, was suffering from a mysterious and agonizing affliction.

While Brauday lay stretched out on the sidewalk, Dvorak and Randy Tonjum—whom everyone calls Gerty—pleaded for some sort of help. Even with their Vietnamese-English dictionary, they couldn't manage meaningful communication. Frustrated, Dvorak dashed off in search of anyone who knew English, anyone who could tell them where they could get to a doctor. And there in the noodle shop was their fellow Minnesotan—or, as Dvorak would later put it, "Our man in Chau Doc, Mr. Hoc."

The notion that it might be fun to buy a boat and float down the Mekong, to explore the stretches of the great river that run through the wilds of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, was born one night in the summer of 2005. At the time, Bruce Shoemaker, a 47-year-old northeast Minneapolis resident, was taking a leisurely river trip on the upper Mississippi. He was traveling with a bunch of twenty- and thirtysomething river rats, a group that has come to be known collectively as the "boat punks." For several years running, the boat punks (or "Huckleberry punks," as they were dubbed in a previous City Pages article, "The Real Grand Excursion"), have been building strange and fancifully designed crafts from lumber, barrel floats, and any other materials that could be acquired for little or no cost. Typically, the boat punks launch their vessels at Boom Island in northeast Minneapolis sometime in mid-summer and then embark on long, slow rides down the Mississippi.

On the summer night in question, Shoemaker recalls, he was telling his boat-punk friends how he would be headed to southeast Asia the following winter. A researcher and environmental activist, Shoemaker evaluates environmental and community organizations in Cambodia and Vietnam for grant-making nonprofits such as the McKnight Foundation. Why not combine work with a little pleasure? "Before long," Shoemaker would later reminisce, "the idea of floating the Mekong came up. For a while I discounted the idea as wistful beer- and caffeine-inspired shit-talk around our campfires. But then I realized people were serious."

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