So Long Vietnam via the Mekong

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November 30th 2009
Published: February 3rd 2010
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A quick fill up on a standard Vietnam backpackers free breakfast aka; bananas, baguettes and tea, and we headed for the tour company via the street backer (the giant choc chip peanut biscuits looked too irresistible not to be sampled) and joined a group of people all bound for a touristy day on the Mekong.

While anything is possible on your own, tour companies have been clever and they offer tours at prices that are sometimes cheaper than what you would end up paying if you tried to replicate the trip on your own so you are almost left with no option but to sign up and since having already joined so many tours on our travels at is safe to say we were a little nervous about the touristy tit-bits that go hand in hand with an organised trip but we decided that visiting coconut candy making workshops couldn’t be all that bad specially if you got to sample the wears and so we boarded the early morning bus in optimistic moods and settled in for the three hour journey.

After a short ride we got off the bus, strait onto a colourful wooden boat where we were handed a fresh coconut to sip while we drifted along the chocolate milk coloured Mekong destined for dragon Island to check out the afore mentioned coconut making workshop and let me just say that freshly made coconut toffee is delish! Naturally our taste buds wouldn’t allow us to depart without a couple of bags of the tansy treats, yet another tourist trapped by clever locals.

From the coconut workshop we were whisked off to Unicorn Island to bike ride in and out of the village before sitting down for some traditional food and then back onto the Mekong to be ferried along the Mekong’s numerous tributaries wearing traditional conical grass hats. From the Gondolas we stepped off onto yet another little Island where we sat down to some fresh fruit, traditional tea and a little local music. It sure had been a pretty jam packed day already but no one day tour is complete without a couple more touristy treats namely a trip to a bee farm to sample some scrumptious honey tea and get acquainted with a 20kg pet python!

After deciding that python skin around the neck is not quite my cup of tea we handed Monti back to its rightful handler and set back out on the Mekong to conclude our first day, on the main land. With a super tourist but super fun first day on the Mekong we boarded a bus bound for Can Tho where we were due to spend the night.

I have mentioned this before in previous blogs but I always enjoy arriving in new towns via ferry or boat in the dark because it always instils a sense of excitement and anticipation in me, where the following morning is concerned. I have to admit that we were pretty broken and starving by the time we arrived in Can Tho so after checking into our pretty nice hotel we popped out to an awesome local joint to sample some phenomenal fish curry after which it was time to call it a night cause we had a 5:30am wakeup call the following morning. True to their word out hotel concierge paid us a polite early morning wakeup visit and with that we threw on some kit and dragged our weary bodies and luggage down the steps to get some breakfast in us before round two of tourist attractions.

Welcome to the MekongWelcome to the MekongWelcome to the Mekong

Our Crazy Tour Guide
morning began with a trip to the famous Can Tho floating market where locals peddle all kinds of fresh produce from their small boats. Admittedly I had expected a little more from the floating market, since it sold as the largest floating market on the Mekong but my suspicion is that even 8am is too late to really find yourself in the midst of the morning buying action. None the less, such markets are always fascinating and once we had sampled some freshly cut pineapple from one of the vendors we continued down the river to go and check out a rice noodle making workshop as well as a fully fledged rice factory.

What is most astounding about visiting the workshops and factories, even if they are touristy, is that while basic they are seemingly highly productive operations and unless you have actually been to see these spots first hand it’s difficult to comprehend how such places, with their manually operated machinery, manage to successfully produce 1000’s of kilos of rice and noodles, respectively. After the insightful visits to the workshops we took a little walk around the village and then headed back to Can Tho where we parted with the rest of the group (given that we were the only ones heading up to Cha Doc) and we headed out to explore the buzzing little town of Can Tho.

Can Tho is a great little spot but we sadly only had a couple of hours to explore and grab some lunch before we had to head back to the hotel to await our next bus that would be taking us up to Cha Doc. An boy would it be a memorable experience!

Now South Africa is notorious for packed Toyota Hilux mini bus taxis that, by some miracle, manage to pack 25 people plus passengers into a 12 seater mini bus but very few of us have actually contemplated travelling in this manner or have actually been in a position that required us to risk our lives and take such a mode of transport. There does however come a time when you have no alternative and as fate would have it, on this very lovely day in December, Ken and I were fated to notch off bizarre mini-bus taxi ride from our bucket lists.

While waiting for our transportation to arrive we befriended the only other two westerner guys that were bound for Cha Doc and just after 12pm a the afore mentioned Toyota mini bus, not dissimilar to those feared in Jo’burg, rolled up and a man quickly jumped out and crammed our bags in the narrow boot and then hurriedly ushered the four of us into the back row of seats, our “haven” for the next three amusing hours. At this stage things all looked pretty above board there were only about ten people in total in the bus and aside from the addition of a small backless plastic stool which added an additional seat the four of us got settled in for the ride thinking nothing of it. What we didn’t realise was that we must have been one of the first stops because what commenced was what can only be described as the most amusing drive-by commuter robbery, something a little like you’d see in a Leon Schusta movie and equally as funny.

Robbery you may ask well let me explain....The bus driver would race along, weaving in and out of the 100’s of scooters and cars along the main road while dodging a pot hole or two, he would spot a potential commuter at which point he would immediately hang a right, regardless of the traffic, by which time the conductor has slid open the door, quickly instruct the existing passengers to squeeze up to make space for a new passenger or three. Once the passenger/s were on a rather shrill instruction would be expelled from the mouth of the small money collecting lady, who at this point was perched in front of me on the plastic stool. The passenger would then pass the allotted sum of money over the heads of the other passengers, to the taxi debt collector and so the process would be repeated at regular intervals till we reached about 20 passengers.

Since the four of us were not being bothered very much by these goings on we just looked on in amazement and admittedly Kenny and I are quite accustomed to such goings on so we really didn’t think anything of it until out of nowhere a blue-helmet- wearing irate man pulled up alongside our mini bus (in fact he was just about holding onto the moving vehicle) and what insured was some form of out of nowhere verbal road rage between him, our bus conductor and the very shrill debt collector lady. The argument grew more and more heated and cursing and hand gesticulating got more and more verbose and I’m not exaggerating when I say this went on for kilometres until we somehow managed to lose the index finger wielding blue-helmet man, allowing our mini bus driver to quickly manoeuvre the taxi into a garage. While still entering the garage (aka gas station for those reading who are not south African and have no clue what we mean by garage) the bus conductor leapt from the still moving taxi and quickly jumped out and ran down to the road had a good check to see if the coast was clear and he then virtually squeezed in the additional three bewildered passengers into the bus while the bus driver started to take off. This now brought the count in the bus to 23 passengers. With the passengers still trying to find a place to squeeze themselves in the very tightly packed bus the debt collector lady sensed that her seat would need to be occupied by a paying passenger so she proceeded to climb over me and perch herself on our bags in the barrow boot from where she shrilly commanded the fair from the new passengers.

By this stage tensions were high and the bus was more than stuffy so Matthais figured it would be a good idea to open his window but apparently there was still fear the bus was still under threat and that there may be an active pursuit from the blue-helmet wearer mad man and as a result Matthais got reprimanded for opening his window. We thankfully lost our chaser in the scooter smog but this didn’t seem to reduce the hurried pace at which the bus would pull up to passengers nor did it reduce the feverish manner in which the conductor would squeeze the additional passengers onto the bus while the debt collector would demand the fair from the new recruits all while the bus driver kept the bus moving.

I think we counted about 25 passengers on the bus at one point, it was complete mayhem. Around about the time that we picked up the 25th person the bus was already filled to capacity but there was no stopping the conductor and debt collector from gaining another 10 000 Dong so unsurprisingly an internal fight erupted when a woman passenger, that they were trying to get to lift herself off her seat in order to allow the stranger of a man next to her to move over so that the woman in question could then sit on his lap to allow room for the additional passenger. Naturally the lady protested (she was, incidentally, virtually sitting on top of her biggish wheelie suitcase since there was no additional space allowed for luggage). It really was an amusing dog show!

We were still not 100% sure what the whole explanation for the cops and robbers style passenger heist was but what we gathered was that perhaps we had found ourselves on board an illegal tax operation which basically “steals” passengers from the commuter buses and legal tour bus operations. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would inadvertently become accomplices to such a debacle but hey it made for an amusing three hours that flew by, compliments of the onboard reality entertainment! Incidentally the illegal commuter heist industry between Can Tho and Cha doc seems pretty lucrative in case any of you are thinking of undertaking a new business venture!

I have no idea how but we managed to make it to the awesome little hamlet of Cha Doc safely but we did and it was the first time we were getting to really experience a non-touristy, truly rural, Vietnamese town and it was fabulous! We dropped our bags and in no time found ourselves on the back of a motorbike tackling the Cha Doc rush hour traffic conundrum while on rout to the Buddhist temple that lies in the side of Sam Mountain. The monetary is lovely and gave a great view of the Mekong River and onto Cambodian but We wanted the spectacular view so we parted with a couple more dong and our drivers sped through hairpin bends to get us to the top of Sam mountain so that we could witness one of the most breath taking sun sets yet. It is a true sceptical to watch the red hot sun reflect itself in the still waters of the Mekong as it gradually sinks into Cambodian Soil, a once in a life time sight!

Suitably in awe of the sunset we hopped back on our motor bikes to head back into Cha Doc to find some grub. Cha Doc is a fascinating little town, in fact the only way I can only offer the following description: It’s like one huge house with a tar passage that divides the house in two parts and when you ride down the tarred passage you have to be sure to look out for a brother and sister playing badminton in the middle of the road as well as being sure not to collide with the family eating dinner at their plastic dining room suit which has somehow commandeered one lane of the already narrow passage, it’s a real experience that much I can say. What’s great is that street kitchens also abound and we were spoiled for choice where food was concerned. Whilst walking in amongst the stalls trying to see what was catching our fancy we quite literally got accosted by a Kem Lady (AKA the ice cream lady) who was eager to get us to try her homemade ice cream. Naturally Kenny and I are suckers for anything coconut and we aren’t shy to eat desert first so we happily parted with our 5 dong each and bit into what turned out to be possibly the worst ice cream ever, I think coconut flavoured sawdust is a better description for what was frozen on those sticks! Note to self just because it says ice cream doesn’t mean that it will be delicious or even edible for that matter! After the coconut sawdust we decided that some proper food was in order so we stopped in at the fresh sandwich making lady got a delicious baguette filled with all kinds of fresh goodies and we then took this tasty looking baguette down the way to be devoured, in conjunction with a fresh fruit smoothie, under a canopy of fair lights at the street side smoothie store. What a wonderful conclusion to a really fun and entertaining day!

Once again the Mekong was beckoning us forth so at 5:45 our annoying alarm sounded, ushering us down for a quick bit before loading our bags onto our bicycle-bag taxi and then heading out on foot to the pier where we boarded the boat to go and check out a fishing village. Once again we found ourselves in awe of the Vietnamese who somehow manage to run highly, highly productive and successful fisheries from netted pools under their floating houses. It was a really great experience to go on board the deck of one of the floating residential fish farms to see firsthand how on earth the Viet fishermen manage to achieve such prosperity through such rudimentary farming/fishing techniques. From The fish farm we crossed a rickety branch bridge onto the main land to visit another minority community who pride themselves in woven silk good and somehow found ourselves accosted by the eager weavers who proceed to wrap us in layers of their beautifully elaborate hand woven silk cloth till we looked like Muslim women. Sadly for them their marketing ploy was rather unsuccessful because I look hideous as a silk bound mummy and as a result the only tourist memento we parted with was a digital photograph. With that it was time to get back on the boat, bid fabulous Vietnam farewell and begin our journey towards Cambodian shores! What a stupendous end to a phenomenal North - South Vietnam adventure!

Additional photos below
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Muddy Mekong SightsMuddy Mekong Sights
Muddy Mekong Sights

A local leaving his bathroom after a good wash in the Mekong

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