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Published: July 31st 2006
Phnom Penh in the early morning. Motorcycles buzz around like flies. Children selling baguettes and the Herald Tribune weave their way through the crowd.
Today we head across the border into Việt Nam, a country neither I nor Alex have visited before. I am looking forward to this part of the trip immensely, in spite of warnings I have been given regarding travel in this country (on which more in the next few entries). We have slightly more than three weeks here, as we have a flight booked out of Hà Nội to Bangkok on 12th August.
There are three land border crossings between Cambodia and Việt Nam, of which one is located on the Mekong River. Crossing the border at this point involves a combination of bus and boat travel and is reputed to be a particularly scenic way to enter Việt Nam. Many travel agencies in Phnom Penh can arrange this crossing very easily and cheaply.
After yet another early start (very unlike me to get up early so many days in a row...) we turn up at Capitol Tours' office in Phnom Penh, a short tuk-tuk ride away. The office is heaving with people, and the streets buzz with motorcycles. If only the wonderful electric fly swatter (like a tennis racket but packs a hundred-volt punch to blast those pesky
A warm welcome
Waves all round on the Mekong. On our way to Châu Đốc from the Cambodian border.
flies out of the sky - Jean, I'm in Heaven !) worked on mouthy moto drivers...
Our bus is scheduled to depart Phnom Penh at 8am. This should get us to our first destination in Việt Nam, Châu Đốc, by about 2pm. We've packed a couple of baguettes in case, the Siem Reap-Battambang trip still very much a vivid memory ! We are instructed to wait outside on the street, a useful piece of advice since there isn't space to fit a postage stamp inside the actual agency...8.10, 8.20, 8.30...pas de bus...Wondering if we've been waiting in the right place, I pop back in to find out what's going on. "The bus will be here at 8am", says the employee while looking at his watch which says 8.35am. Perhaps I have not yet grasped all the subtilités
of the notion of time in Cambodia. Slightly perplexed I join Alex outside again. Eventually the bus turns up, a pretty ancient-looking thing with a couple of people in it already.
An hour or so South-East of Phnom Penh we switch onto a boat, which we will use to descend the Mekong until the Vietnamese border. On the Cambodian side the
Life on the water
Life revolves around the water - this man was doing his laundry in the river water.
river scenery is not very exciting, as the river is so wide you can hardly see either bank from the boat. We dock near the village of Kaam Samnor, where we get off and queue to have our Cambodian exit stamps. Then it's back on the boat for a few more minutes to the actual border. This we cross on foot, with our bags. Another small queue, this time for the Vietnamese entry stamp. We had our visas done in London, and the Vietnamese immigration official takes quite a long time looking at the stickers in our passports. Officials at land border crossings here have a reputation for being a bit prickly and for requesting "presents" (dollar bills apparently make very
good presents...no, really ?). Luckily there are too many people at this particular crossing so we get through only 4,000 dong (riels are now passé
) the lighter as a "quarantine fee" (does one have to sit in a cage for 40 days if one arrives in Việt Nam foaming at the mouth I wonder...).
After a quick lunch just over the border, we hop on our second boat, which will take us down a series of tributaries of
Ferries, ferries, everywhere
This small vessels are the bridges of the Mekong. Only one bridge of significant size spans one of the branches, near Mỹ Tho.
the Mekong all the way to Châu Đốc, the nearest large town to the border and our gateway to the massive Mekong Delta. The second boat ride is a revelation - it is a small, narrow boat equipped with an outboard motor and where seating is simply 3 rows of deck chairs plonked on the deck (appropriately enough...). As we turn off the Mekong down a series of increasingly small waterways, we catch glimpse after fascinating glimpse of this unique region. The Mekong Delta is truly extraordinary - the mighty river splits into many branches, some huge, some tiny, all interconnected by a huge network of canals. This is the lifeblood of Southern Việt Nam - here wheels are near useless. The boat is king. We are going to spend a lot of the next few days on water.
As we chug towards Châu Đốc the welcome is wonderfully warm. As everywhere, children wave and shout as we pass, jump up and down. But, unlike in Cambodia or even Laos, many adults do the same. Odd as this may sound, Alex and I are suddenly taken aback by how Vietnamese
the scenery and people look - a lady in
Việt Nam through and through
Colonial era buildings, conical hats, bicycles. Images of Việt Nam we all have in our heads. But they're real...
a conical straw hat pushes her bicycle across a narrow bridge over the river, stand-up rowing boats carrying groceries pass us by. Hundreds upon hundreds of boats pass us by, some huge and laden with rice or engine parts, and other tiny sampans ferrying passengers about.
We arrive in Châu Đốc in the early afternoon. This is a bustling city in An Giang (pronounced An Yang
in this part of the country) on the edge of the Hậu Giang branch of the Mekong. As we disembark, we are immediately accosted by xich lo
drivers (recognise the word ? It's how the Vietnamese transliterate "cyclo" - pedicab). We get one to load up our bags (a lot
of backpack on a little bit of cyclo !) and take us to one of the hotels reviewed in our book. As we cycle through the streets of Châu Đốc, we are once again struck by quite how different it feels from Cambodia. Utterly different. There is a lushness and vibrancy to this place that is new, and very exhilarating. The streets are crowded with bicycles, dozens of those conical hats bob up and down at eye level. Ladies balance baskets of produce
What, no Daz ?
Traditional dried shrimp and squid, side by side with not so traditional washing powder, in Châu Đốc market.
on poles over their shoulders. It is Việt Nam, simply put.
That evening, Alex and I take a walk along the riverbank, marvelling at the profusion of boats milling about on the water under the fading light. Dozens of ferries transfer passengers, bicycles and motorcycles from one bank to another. There are no bridges across the main branches here - any across this region is dependent on ferries. We stop to contemplate the extraordinary view when we are approached by an elderly Vietnamese gentleman who asks, in the most formal French, what we are up to. I spend the next twenty minutes or so in conversation with him. A retired French teacher, he has lived all his life in the Delta - he is fascinated by our travel plans, which suddenly seem so extravagant...The old man tells me he is happy to be able to practice his French (which is no worse than mine...), but his young granddaughter tugs his arms and says it's time to go.
Before dinner Alex and I wander to the centre of town to sample a sinh to
or fruit smoothie. Here in Việt Nam they are made with fruit juice whizzed up
The arteries of Việt Nam
The sun sets over Châu Đốc. Boats and ferries will ply these waters through the night.
with ice and lashings of condensed milk (swoon). I think we're going to love Việt Nam !
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