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Published: December 29th 2009
Leaving the noisy motorbike chaos of Ho Chi Minh behind we boarded a coach to start our three day Mekong Delta trip. After a couple of hours of driving - all past a constant row of houses which lined the road the whole way, we arrived in the large delta town of My Tho. Most of the houses were constructed from which made the trip pretty uninteresting. It was here that we boarded our first boat - a long wooden one with a noisy outboard motor, and headed off to visit two of the islands in the middle of the river. The Mekong has thousands of these islands along it's length, mostly uninhabited, but all the larger ones have settlements on them. The two we visited were called Turtle and Unicorn - both named thus because of their silhouettes (that needed a lot of imagination!) One of the islands is famous for the production of coconut candy, a sweet made by boiling down coconut milk and then cutting the sticky residue into tiny squares, each wrapped (by hand) in rice paper. The coconut milk was boiled in really large vats over open flames - and then rolled out on a big
wooden table to be cut. Certainly not the factory conditions that we are used to at home!
The other production area we saw was the making of spring roll paper from rice. That was really interesting, again involving big pots of glue like substance being mixed from ground rice (it was ground there as well). The grey runny rice liquid was painted onto large woks over an open fire and immediately it touched the cooking surface it was flicked off, with a rattan bat (now that was an art!) and flung onto big bamboo trays which, when covered in white circles of paper, were put out into the sun to dry. We had lunch at a restaurant on the island where we were entertained by local musicians, encouraged to try snake wine (wine with a snake and other insects marinating in it - not for me... though it's widely sold all over Vietnam) and given a large snake to wrap around our necks. I've never done anything like that before as I have a horror of snakes but something made me do it this time. It was horrible - very heavy - and the photos of when they first put
it around my body are banned from public viewing - they were ugly faces I was pulling!
We then were taken into small wooden boats for paddle through the narrow canals around the island. I enjoyed it but was not happy about the constant pressure we received by other boat owners as they went passed. It was constant banter of 'pay money, pay money, tip, tip'. When that happens I get cranky and won't pay anything I'm afraid. This is unfortunately a by product of a lot of tourists visiting - it's not something that we ever experience in smaller places that see few tourists. Anyway it had been a lovely day - it was great to watch the boats on the river - they ranged from tiny little row boats (they are rowed from a standing position), fishing trawlers and some very long cargo barges which towed smaller wooden boats behind them where the families of the boat men lived.
We were to spend the evening on the other side of the river - upon arrival we were caught up in a traffic jam all heading towards the ferry dock (no bridges). After waiting for half an hour
our guide told us we would have at least another hour and a half to wait before our turn on the ferry came. Everybody wasn't happy about this and asked if they could just walk to the ferry crossing, cross and let the bus take the bags to the hotel after it crossed. The guide told us it was too far - 3 klms - and we could only walk if every body went together. The other part of the deal was that he would take $2 dollars off everybody and order taxis for us on the other side of the river - he wouldn't give us the hotel's name that we were staying in that night so we could make our own arrangements to get there. We all decided to walk though Jerry and I (plus another lovely NZ couple traveling for 6 months with their two children) weren't handing over $2 each for a taxi trip on the other side. $2 in Vietnam would take you halfway across HCMC in a taxi. We could smell a con happening. We walked - took fifteen minutes to reach the ferry (3 klms - more like one!). Upon reaching the opposite
Making rice sheets
Note the rattan scoop the lady whisks the cooked sheet from the pan with
side the guide starting pushing people into the waiting taxis ($2 each - 7 people a car). We refused and said that we would wait for the bus. Everybody thought we were being a little nasty but we had the last laugh. The taxis drove away - and lo and behold the bus drove up - we boarded it and pulled into the hotel just as all the taxis did! It was a definite con - the guide would have pocketed a nice bonus for those taxi fares - in this instance the rest of the people got upset when they saw us and we left them trying to get their money back from the guide.
Thankfully the guide took it all in good grace and was still pleasant to us next day. We had a long day the next day - mostly spent on the river. It was a fascinating insight into life on the water - we visited two floating markets - and watched constant activity both onshore and on the water all day. The markets comprised of small traders in tiny boats rowing along between other boats and to the dozens of stilt houses on the riverbank
where housewives would be waiting to buy fresh vegetables, meat, plastic ware and clothes. Each boat had a tall bamboo pole above it - if they sold pumpkins a pumpkin would be tied to the top of the pole, so they would be easy to identify amongst the other boats. The Mekong is a very wide river in places and a massive amount of freight barges also ply the water constantly. It's not a peaceful place as there is the constant hum of out board motors to be heard. Even the petrol stations are boats! Towards the end of the day we visited a crocodile farm which I didn't find particularly exciting but most of the other tourists did. In fact most were totally fascinated in them - there were some pretty big ones there though!
Back on the bus - welcome after a long day on hard wooden bench seats on the boat - the countryside opened up a little as we went further south - there were many large rice paddies and fields of vegetables growing. Southern Vietnam produces most of the vegetables for the rest of the country. It was very pretty in places. The last night
of the tour was to be spent in the small town of Chau Doc, which is the place where everybody catches the boats to Cambodia. Jerry and I had decided to spend extra time there and not go on with the rest of bench the group into Cambodia next day. Before we arrived at Chau Doc we visited a lovely Buddhist Temple at Sam's Mountain, 5 klms from Chau Doc. From the temple we had a wonderful view of the delta plains and the Cambodian countryside in the distance. It was flat, very flat - we were standing on the only hill!
We had booked an extra night at the hotel in Chau Doc - it was a good decision as it was a fascinating little town, with vibrant river life and one of the best markets we had seen for a long time. Also I woke with a very sore back - the result I guess of the long hours sitting in uncomfortable boats seats and a rather nasty bump on the road (our heads hit the roof of the mini van) enroute to Chau Doc. We spent a slow day wandering the town and reading in the hotel.
The markets were full of strange root vegetables and fish of every type, large and small. Also lots of skinned frogs - the menus in the restaurants had snake, rat, frog and turtle on them - along with boring chicken, pork and beef. We settled on boring... The riverside had a wide promenade where each evening all the young people would sit and chat, their mothers and grandmothers would walk up and down in their cotton bed time decorated pj's. Their was a very large silver fish statue in pride of place in the centre of the esplanade. We watched a couple of There was was constant movement on the water with dozens of little boats being rowed across the river to the floating village on the other side, Jerry spent an hour in one of the tiny boats, exploring the village and watching how they made food to feed the fish which were farmed under their floating houses. It was a big smelly stew of old fish innards and rice husks, boiled up in large pots on the verandas of their houses. The fishing village, as are many of them in Vietnam, was a Muslim area which even had
Chau Doc market
This lady is squeezing the flesh from tiny fish.
it's own mosque. We could here the calling to prayers from our bedroom early in the morning.
The edge of the water was thick with heavy weed which the boats pushed their way through - we noticed that it was harvested and sold in the market as a vegetable. All the houses on the river banks were roughly made from planks, all on high stilts to accommodate the rising levels of the water during the rainy season. They were joined to the shore with long plank walkways. It was fascinating to walk along them and look at peoples lives in the tiny homes. Everybody was as interested in us as we were in them, which was great. I watched a man trimming some feathers off his rooster - getting it ready to fight in the many illegal cock pits around town. A lot of money is won and lost in them. They start gambling young here as we watched a group of young children betting on games of bingo, using tiny pieces of bamboo to cover the numbers on their sheets. The game was being run by a lady who pocketed half of what the kids put down. Another day
we walked out onto one of the plank walkways and found the small public area at the end had collapsed into the river - all the people were laughing and not bothered by it at all. They were having a party and the weight was too much for the platform - they were all trying to grab the food before it ended up in the filthy water as well. They were lovely people - we love little towns that don't see a lot of tourists - the locals are always friendly and pleased to see you. Most of the foreigners that arrive in Chau Doc leave early in the morning, after arriving late the previous day. Because my back was still quite painful we canceled our original plan to go up the Mekong to Phnom Penh by slow boat and booked the fast boat instead - comfortable bus type seats and four hours as apposed to seven hours.
The slow boat left at seven the next morning - our boat was due to leave at eight o'clock. The time came and they informed us that the fast boat was 'broken' and we would now have to catch the slow boat
- which had already left, though they were doing the rounds of the fishing village first. I wasn't happy - we figured that we were the only people booked on the fast boat that day so were transferred to the slow boat. A rickshaw took us to the riverfront where we carried our luggage over rough muddy ground to a tiny b oat which was then rowed up the river to the slow boat which was waiting for our arrival. Once aboard I was pleased to see soft seats - I shouldn't have got too excited as we changed boats 3 hours later at the border - and my back was then really uncomfortable on seats which didn't actually have backs at all, they were just planks around the edge of the boat. Our original 4 hour trip eventually turned into an eleven hour trip - it was an horrendous day. Next log will give the details.... I guess travel is full of unexpected pleasures and discomforts!
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