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."

For any hardcore river rat, the idea of traveling the Mekong is at once alluring and daunting. The river, the 12th largest in the world, runs some 2,610 miles through terrain that is wildly varied both in natural and human terms. Flowing from Tibet through southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before emptying into the ocean at Vietnam, the Mekong has many stretches that are heavily agricultural; others are extremely remote. Some of its tributaries have barely been explored. But anyone who knows much about the river—or wants to witness its glories firsthand—has plenty of incentive to go there sooner rather than later. The Mekong is home to an astonishing variety of fauna, including such creatures as the giant Mekong catfish, which can weigh more than 600 pounds. But the giant Mekong catfish, like many other native species, are imperiled by large-scale hydro-electrical projects, increasing pollution, and growing populations. So if you really want to see the Mekong, you want to see it soon.

The first of the group to sign on was Shoemaker's old friend, David Eberhardt. Eberhardt, a filmmaker originally from Forest Lake, had spent the better part of the past two summers traveling with the boat punks. In shooting a documentary about their exploits, he contracted a serious river jones himself. Eberhardt recruited Mike Dvorak, a friend from his days at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (and a longtime City Pages contributor) to join him in southeast Asia. Eberhardt had lined up a grant to document some charitable projects in the region—"art welfare," his bemused buddies labeled the gig—and he figured he could use a filming and still-shot partner in Dvorak. While in Asia, why not float down the Mekong? Dvorak, a fly-fishing nut and inveterate globetrotter, jumped at the chance.

Meanwhile, Shoemaker's partner, a 31-year-old conservation biologist named Andrea "Dre" Claasen, also had work-related reasons to go to southeast Asia. She'd contracted with the World Wildlife Fund to survey bird populations in northeast Cambodia, so it didn't take much for her to throw in. Randy "Gerty" Tonjum and Jack Brauday—two of the veteran boat punks—decided they were up for the adventure. Unlike the rest of their cohort, Gerty and Jack had no one to bankroll their outings and no official reason to go on a trip. But they knew something about dumpster diving, about how to scrape by on next to nothing. On two trips down the Mississippi, Gerty—a taciturn cabinetmaker originally from Faribault—had crafted some of the most impressive boats in the boat punk fleet: stylish, barge-like vessels made from plywood and powered by cheap secondhand outboards. He was a natural pick as mechanic and chief pilot for an outing on the Mekong.

The gang—everyone but Mike Dvorak—met up in Bangkok last February. After a couple of days, they took an overnight train from Thailand to Laos, where the first leg of the river trip would begin. At that point, it made no sense to acquire a boat in Laos. A large waterfall near the border of Laos and Cambodia would have made it impossible to get the boat on the lower section of the river. Instead, the group hired a local captain for the daylong journey to the falls. On the way, they say, they encountered one of the most beautiful sections of the Mekong, a place where the river divides into dozens of channels called the Land of 4,000 Islands. Not far from there, they caught a glimpse of endangered freshwater dolphins frolicking in the shallows. Shoemaker jumped into the river, imagining a magic encounter with the dolphins. He would later write about the encounter with wry detachment. "All I see from the mud are some vague shapes breaking the surface of the water a couple hundred yards away. So much for the mystical spiritual new age swimming with the dolphins experience...damn, it was suppose to change me forever but here I am just stuck in some liver-fluke infested mud hole."

It was in the river village of Kratie, Cambodia, that the travelers finally acquired their own vessel: a traditional, 21-foot long-tail fishing boat. Befitting the seat-of-the-pants ethos of the whole venture, it was primitive. Carved from the trunk of a hardwood tree and "powered" by a 3.5 horsepower converted lawnmower engine, the boat came equipped with neither running lights nor life preservers. And it leaked. After the requisite haggling, the $200 asking price was knocked down to $180, or $35 apiece. The crew was ready to head downriver to Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. As they set out for the long ride, one matter remained unresolved: What to name the vessel? After considerable debate, they settled on "the Tainted Nipple." The name was selected in reference to a cautionary tale about Thai prostitutes who would rob johns by applying knockout drugs to their nipples. "Given the number of people who doubted and advised against our river journey, it was only a matter of time before 'the Tainted Nipple' became the obvious and unavoidable choice of name for our boat," Bruce Shoemaker would later write.

The Tainted Nipple's voyage from Kratie to Phnom Penh went as planned—at least, as much as anything was planned. The crew lollygagged their way downriver, encountered plenty of locals, were befriended by monks, warred with biting earwigs, avoided serious health troubles, and, in the gape-jawed manner of strangers in strange lands, soaked up the ambience of the big river. When they finally reached Phnom Penh, Shoemaker called on a friend of a friend who had a riverside residence where they could moor the Tainted Nipple. One night in the capital city, filmmaker Eberhardt screened his documentary about tramps, Long Gone. The venue was, to say the least, unusual: a barge that was once a floating brothel and was subsequently converted to offices for non-governmental organizations that represent Cambodian garment and sex workers. In attendance, according to Shoemaker, was "an audience to be proud of: deportees, garment and sex worker activists, a smattering of expatriate artist and documentary filmmaker types."

Later that night, as the crew of the Tainted Nipple dined with Shoemaker's friends, a downpour struck and the Tainted Nipple, moored too close to a roof drain, wound up submerged. The next morning, Gerty couldn't get the motor running. Shoemaker hunted down a mechanic from the nearby shantytown. After struggling for hours, Gerty and the mechanic finally brought the motor back to life. The materials used to effect the repair—toothpaste and cardboard—did not instill much confidence in the motor's long-term viability.

Around that time, photographer Mike Dvorak arrived in Phnom Penh. Because Shoemaker, Claasen, and Eberhardt all had work obligations, it was decided that Dvorak, Jack, and Gerty would pilot the Tainted Nipple over the remaining 100 miles to the Vietnamese border. The rest of the bunch planned on reuniting after the border crossing—though it was far from certain whether the Tainted Nipple would make it to Vietnam. When Gerty and Jack went to the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh to inquire about the legality of entering the country by boat, they were summarily ejected. That may have had something to do with their appearance, the crew allows. At that point, Jack had developed a skin rash and, to avoid irritating it, had taken to wearing a cloth wrap instead of pants. "I don't think they'd gotten a lot of requests from boat punks to cross the border," Dvorak says.

Undaunted, the three-member crew set out for Vietnam. They camped one night on a sandbar on the river. By late afternoon the following day, they realized they had somehow floated past the Cambodian exit point without noticing. Now, they found themselves at a Vietnamese military installation. The prospect of a clusterfuck situation loomed large. None of the three spoke Vietnamese. None of the guards or any of the other officials at the crossing station spoke English. "There was no communication. None at all," Dvorak recalls. "Basically, we just sat there and stared at the guy." A supervisor called to the scene couldn't figure out what to do, either. Around that time, Dvorak noticed that a truck had become mired in the sand outside the checkpoint. Communicating with the guard via sign language, the crew of the Tainted Nipple volunteered to help push the truck out of the sand. The guard nodded, the trio pushed the truck free, and quite suddenly the mood shifted. "All these villagers came around, they were smiling. I guess they figured we were okay," Dvorak recalls. "But who knows why they really let us cross?"

After leaving the checkpoint, the Tainted Nipple and its three-man crew proceeded downriver into Vietnam. As dark set in, they found a sandbar where they set up camp. It was then that Jack Brauday started to complain of pain in his back. Dvorak figured he might have pulled a muscle pushing the truck at the checkpoint. For Gerty, Jack's complaints were more alarming. He'd gone down the Mississippi with Jack and knew him to be stoic. "Jack totally downplays everything," Gerty observed later. "That was the one time I'd seen him say, 'Oh, shit, this is bad.' I'd never seen him admitting to pain before." Dvorak and Gerty told Jack to relax in the boat while they prepared dinner. "I looked up at him and I could tell something wasn't right," Dvorak remembers. "All of a sudden, he passed out, fell into the river, and sank like a rock."

Dvorak and Gerty rushed to the water to fish out their friend. When they pulled him to shore, they saw that he was shivering—not a good sign, considering that temperatures were in the 90s. They consulted their map and noticed a marking for a village 20 or 30 kilometers away. A cross on the map, they figured, signified some sort of hospital. "I had no idea what was going on," Gerty recalls. "No idea. A lot of stuff was going through my mind—malaria, maybe liver flukes." With no other choice, they set off into the night. Earlier in the trip, the crew had avoided traveling the Mekong at night. There were good reasons. Unmarked navigational hazards, the presence of large commercial vessels, the absence of running lights on their boat, fishing nets everywhere. But none of that mattered now. With Jack lapsing in and out of consciousness, Gerty piloted the boat as Dvorak shined a flashlight into the night. A rain began to fall and, worse yet, a strong tidal backwash developed. When the engine periodically overheated and conked out, Dvorak recalls, the boat was forced back upriver.

Blowing into the gas tank to prime the motor, Gerty was able to get the boat moving again. Over the next three or four hours, they pressed on into the darkness, unsure where they were headed or which of the myriad river channels to follow. As it neared midnight, they reached the village of Chau Doc. Gerty and Dvorak hauled Jack out of the boat to the sidewalk. Gerty spotted two women and, pulling out his English-Vietnamese dictionary, kept repeating, "Hospital, hospital." The women left for a short while, and then returned with a fistful of pills. Unsure what sort of pills were being offered, Dvorak and Gerty recommended against it.

At that, Dvorak decided to look for help. "I must have looked crazy—all dirty, my hair standing on end, just shouting 'English, English, English,'" Dvorak remembers. Somebody pointed across the street to a noodle shop. It was there he met Hoc Lam. "I said, 'Do you speak English?' And he says, 'Yeah, what's the problem?' Perfect English," Dvorak marvels. "At midnight. In the middle of nowhere." Hoc summoned two teenagers with motor scooters, who transported Jack and Dvorak to the hospital. At first, the non-English speaking doctors were sure that Jack had been injured in a motorcycle accident; in his disheveled state, Dvorak says, it was a reasonable assumption. Later, Hoc arrived for translating duties. Jack was diagnosed and treated for that most painful of afflictions, a kidney stone attack. As the doctors tended to him, and a throng of curious teenagers swarmed about the hospital, Dvorak and Hoc fell into conversation. That's when it came out that they both made their homes in Minnesota. Everyone was dumbfounded. "I just about fell on the floor," Dvorak says. "How in God's name can you be in south Vietnam, in the middle of nowhere, in need of help at midnight, and someone from your hometown shows up? It still sends shivers up my spine."

As it turned out, that wouldn't be the last visit the crew of the Tainted Nipple would pay to a Vietnamese hospital. The day after Jack's misfortune, Shoemaker, Claasen, and Eberhardt arrived in Chau Doc to rejoin their friends for the final leg of the trip. Not long afterward, both Dvorak and Gerty were felled by dysentery. Dvorak figured he contracted the illness from an iced coffee. Given the myriad possible routes of exposure, he adds, it's impossible to know for sure. Whatever the cause, he and Gerty found themselves severely incapacitated. Overcome by waves of nausea and vomiting, Dvorak remembers stopping in a village and staggering through a cockfight and thinking how surreal the trip had become. He was holed up in an air-conditioned hotel room, trying to recuperate, when Vietnamese police showed up with questions about passports and government representatives. When they saw Dvorak's condition, they insisted he go to a hospital. Shoemaker found a young Vietnamese man, an English teacher they came to know as Mr. Nam, who took Dvorak and Gerty to a hospital. "The doctor told me to pull my pants down, brought out the horse needle, and then gave me a massive amount of pills," Dvorak recalls.

After Gerty was treated, the police told Mr. Nam that Dvorak and Gerty needed to get out of town, or submit to an interrogation about their activities. Nobody wanted that. So the next morning, the crew of the Tainted Nipple boarded the vessel and set off for Saigon. They didn't get far. Gerty and Dvorak were still in tough shape, Jack was convalescing, and the Mekong was becoming increasingly polluted and crowded with boat traffic. At Truong Xuan, the next village, the group agreed to pull the plug, leave the Tainted Nipple behind, and finish the trip to Saigon overland. Shoemaker called the English teacher who'd helped them out the day before. The Tainted Nipple was his for the taking.

After the voyage came to an end, the crew went their separate ways. Dvorak and Eberhardt set off for Laos, looking to find Vietnam-era American soldiers who had stayed behind for a possible documentary. That didn't pan out, though Eberhardt would later return to southeast Asia to work on another documentary about "the deportees"—American-raised Cambodians shipped back to their native country because of criminal violations in the U.S. Last summer, most of the crew of the Tainted Nipple joined in yet another boat-punk excursion, a trip down the Ohio River. Gerty incorporated the long-tail motor design that he'd discovered in Cambodia and reports enthusiastically that he got as much as 40 miles a gallon on the Ohio. In December, the group collaborated on a 44-page zine recounting their odyssey, The Adventures of the Tainted Nipple, and a photo exhibit of the two river trips; the latter is currently on display at the Matchbox coffee shop in northeast Minneapolis.

Hoc Lam is back at his lunch counter at the Asian Express. He plans another three-week trip back to Vietnam to visit family this spring. He'd like to stay longer, he says, but his customers at the Asian Express won't brook a more extended absence. When he thinks about last winter's adventure in Chau Doc, Hoc still laughs at the strangeness and pure serendipity of it all. "Everybody was surprised," he says. "Oh, my God, it's a small world."

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