The Mekong Delta

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Asia » Vietnam » Mekong River Delta » Can Tho
November 11th 2011
Published: January 30th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

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The Mekong Delta

The morning after the night before was definitely not a good one. I’m not sure who’s idea it as to party ‘til 5am knowing full well there was an early start the next day (OK, it was me), but that combined with the heat, humidity and travelling on bus and boat, did not make for a good day. This was the day I would leave HCMC for the Mekong Delta, my last stint in Viet Nam before heading over the border to Cambodia. I had settled on a three day trip over land and water with Carine to try and sample Vietnamese life on the water. I think at this point I need to offer my apologies to Carine as I really was a terrible travel companion that day, to which I sure she would attest as being very true!

The day started with a bus pickup and a two and a bit hour journey through the countryside to our first port of call, Cai Be. The trip was spent in a cramped bus with around 30-odd other tourists heading the same way. As this was a tour and not a bus trip, we were treated to the usual tourist stop-offs on the way where they drop you off to spend your hard-earned tourist money. Thankfully being a backpacker my purse string is pulled tighter than a gnats arsehole at times so I never spend a penny at these awful places.

The stop itself was a factory of sorts where local craftsman (all of whom were extremely skilled) churned out a large variety of pottery and furniture, all make from wood. The wood is treated and lacquered a very specific way, all of which you can see in progress as you walk through. Eggshells are then crushed and applied the product based on a stencil before they are coloured and treated. The finished article is certainly impressive, but bloody expensive, even by Western standards.

Back on the road I managed to get a little bit of shut eye before we arrived at our destination. Cai Be itself is not much more than a riverside stop off with a small port. It has a small floating market and a church, plus a few rice paper factories that churn out all kinds of other rice products (rice cakes, rice wine, rice puffs, etc.). The tour guides were particularly unhelpful and neglected to inform Carine and I that doing the three day trip (and not the two day) we would need to take our luggage with us (whereas everyone else could leave it on the bus). Thankfully I had the inclination to ask and managed to salvage our bags before they were whisked off to who-knows-where. On the boat I saw an old man about nipple deep in dirty brown water picking what looked like weeds out from under the pier. I asked our guide what he was doing, but the guide was a little bemused as there was nothing of any nutritional or saleable value in what he was picking, plus the area was infested with crocodiles. A shrug of the shoulders and we left the crazy old fool to it and set off on the Mekong.

The boat took us out into the main river and then took a turn to navigate through the floating market. Being the smallest floating market in the Mekong, produce here was not generally for commercial sale but for domestic use. Each boat hoists a bamboo cane and attaches an example of the produce they have on sale so you can see who sells what. Here they sold some pretty bog standard stuff like potato, melon, pineapple and coconut. We didn’t stop to buy anything but instead carried on to our second tourist treat, which was a small factory complex of sorts that made all kinds of produce from rice and rice husks. The Vietnamese really don’t leave anything to waste as the husks of the rice are used as fuel and the spent ash is used as fertiliser in the rice fields. There also we got to sample some honey tea, which apparently has all kinds of ‘benefits’ from being good for your skin to making you a stallion in bed. Requiring neither, I declined to purchase a stock and made my merry way back to the boat. Plus by this point my raging hangover was in full flow and all I wanted to do was get where we were going and get some sleep!

Back on the boat we were all getting pretty hungry so it was time for our next destination. The boat took us deeper into the Mekong through a small windy river complex where the countryside had certainly gotten more rural. About an hour or so later we pulled over, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and headed out down a very narrow country lane to a nice little restaurant with a good seated area and a bunch of hammocks just outside a little village called Hoa Ninh near to Vinh Long. The food was distinctly average and a little over-priced and given my raging hangover I could hardly eat a grain of rice. The funny thing about Vietnamese food is that it tastes great during the day, but with a massive hangover, spicy chilies and fish sauce is not that appealing. I just want a family-sized bucket of greasy chicken and some gravy. (Matt Pound sic.)

The afternoon was ours and most people took a bike or a walk into the little village where there was a church and a small market, apparently. I decided the more prudent course of action was to forgo the strenuous exercise in midday heat and nestle down in a hammock for a few hours to sleep off the hangover. As it turns out this was 50% of a good call as I didn’t miss a thing not walking into the village and here’s why; when it was time to leave we walked back to where we had alighted from the boat and boarded a sampan to take us the rest of the way through the narrow river complex. We passed the village and I managed to take a gander at the church and the market from the boat. The bad thing was that my hangover had gotten worse. All sleeping (or rather snoozing groggily) had done was make me feel more tired and given me that horrible acidic sickening feeling in the back of my throat. We meandered through narrow river lanes, passing fishing boats and children at play. I lay back for a bit just snapping photo’s of the palm trees adorning the riverside. The heat was intolerable but I had a traditional Vietnamese hat to keep the Sun at bay. After 40 minutes or so we arrived at our destination, Vinh Long. Although we didn’t stop there (we just boarded our main boat for transport to Can Tho) the place looked quite quaint and a pleasant passing point if you ever go that way!

As I was climbing back on the main boat I stumbled a bit (probably due to my hungover state, but knowing that I am a clumsy fool at times, I can hardly blame Captain Morgan) and dropped my much needed bottle of water down a crack under the Captain’s seat, into the ‘engine room’. After scrambling around in oily water my bottle was retrieved by the Captain (thanks) and we were on our way. The next few hours were spent on the boat transiting us to a stop off point where we could board a bus to take us to Can Tho. The trip on the boat was lovely and I put my feet up while the sun set with small waves lapping by my side. The bus journey was less eventful given it was in the dark and I managed to sleep part of the way, thankfully!

Arriving in Can Tho I couldn’t make out much as it was so dark (in this part of Viet Nam, certainly in November the sun sets at 5pm). I wasn’t particularly hungry and after queuing to check in behind a bunch of moaning French tourists I made my way upstairs, had a shower and fell asleep watching the Discovery Channel. No-one said it had to be bitches and bling every day of the trip…

Waking early for our trip out to the big floating market I felt refreshed and bloody hungry as I’d skipped dinner the night before whilst falling asleep to lions mating. Can Tho apparently has the largest floating market in Viet Nam and is actually more like a wholesalers than a retailers. People come here to buy goods in bulk, upwards of 20kg for their businesses elsewhere in Viet Nam. Some of the produce comes as far as 10 hours north (by river), such as the pineapples (from where I stopped off on the way to Kham Duc). It really was a sight, seeing large boats filled to the brim with all kinds of fresh produce. The way they advertise what is for sale is by hoisting an example of the product on a large bamboo pole on the back of the boat. Some boats just trade in one type of produce, others offered several. Goods in sacks were being passed from one boat to another, cabbages being hurled through the air overhead and boats zipping in and out of every nook and cranny of available space to ensure they got to the vendor of choice first to get the best produce and best bargain.

There are plenty of opportunist retailers on the water there too. Mainly women operating long tail boats (often with their feet) with small children as deck hands to win custom, pass out goods and collect the cash from the sale. We had a number of these boats approach ours and as I had not had any breakfast yet I helped myself to some beef noodle soup. We also pulled alongside a large boat selling pineapple and I ordered in one of those too.

After the boat ride back it was almost time for lunch. The time was ours and some people (including the moaning French tourists) buggered off back to the hotel, whereas the rest went out to forage for food. I took the guide up on his offer and went for a more lavish lunch as his favourite restaurant where they served snake curry and snake spring rolls. I also had some kind of prawn and mango salad which was lovely. Snake is actually quite nice, almost like a cross between chicken and fish, not as sweet as frog, but still rather tasty.

After lunch the time was my own so I grabbed a sugar cane juice and took a walk down the river. It was glorious day so I sat out in the sunshine by the river and watched the world pass me by. In the distance, connecting two islands on the Mekong was a large cable stayed bridge (thanks Nobby) – the only one of its kind in Viet Nam – called the ‘Australia Friendship Bridge’. It cost AUS$90 million to build, seventy million of which the Australians loaned to Viet Nam to fund the project. The debt is now fully repaid, but it really is a remarkable engineering feat and, if there is such a thing, a very pretty bridge.

By mid-afternoon it was time to set off again so I boarded the bus to Chau Doc and away we went. The bus journey was long and I took the time to catch up on some blogging and do a little reading. When we arrived at Chau Doc it was just getting dark and the mosquitos were out in full force. The place I stayed was a ‘floating’ hotel, something the tour guide took great pride in telling us. The reality was that all the rooms were fixed in position to the river bed and the restaurant and gangways were floating. Although this was probably a good thing as the Mekong does whip up a good current at night and wouldn’t fancy falling in and chancing my swimming ability against that current.

Carine and I took a walk out in to the village, not fancying the over-priced tourist fare they had on offer at the hotel. We took a few dark alley turns and found ourselves out in what seemed like the wilderness but was just where the Chau Doc locals lived. A short walk and we found some food stalls on the side of the road selling very cheap noodle soup. I also ordered in some sugar cane from the stand across the road and we got stuck in. Now when the soup arrived I was a bit suspect as to what the meat actually was. It’s didn’t look like pork or chicken, but it was dark and I was pretty hungry. The first bite confirmed my suspicions though. Yes people, I was eating dog noodle soup. I never plucked up the courage to ask the question as to what breed I was eating and if it had a name (Pluto, Fido…), so, when in Rome… To be honest the meat wasn’t that great, I only took a few bites before leaving the meat to the side and just eating the noodles and drinking the dog broth. My parents are probably horrified by this fact (sorry mum and dad) as are most people I tell the story too, but this is what the Vietnamese eat. In fact, of all the places I have been I think the Vietnamese (and the Cambodians) are the only people who eat literally everything. I swear they’d eat their own mothers if they could find a cooking pot big enough.

The next day it was any early start much to the dissatisfaction of the belligerent fool of a Frenchman who had been a moaning prick every day of the tour. In fact, it’s at this juncture that I’d like to say what an obnoxious twat this guy was, moaning about a few early starts as he came here to be on holiday rah, rah, rah and it felt more like a concentration camp, rah rah, rah, Well fuck off back to France then you cheese eating surrender monkey and next time take a trip to the South of France where they’ll polish your balls for you if you ask nice enough. Ok, rant over.

But he was a massive prick.

So, the next day we had a few things to do before we set off to Cambodia. First we took a small boat out to a fish farm, which was to be honest, pretty shit and not worth getting out of bed for. But then we went over the river to a small village where the main religion was Muslim. We took a walk around and checked out the mosque and the river. On the way I stopped at this place where an old lady was making some kind of coconut based sweet – cooked in a wok with coconut milk and few unknown ingredients, thins things was kind of like a small puff ball, but it was delicious!

A short while later we had left the village, the tour group being split between those who paid for the slow boat and those who paid for the fast boat. I had actually paid for the slow boat but managed to blag my way on the fast boat once I’d learned that the slow boat was an 8 hour boat journey followed by a bus journey of unknown length. The fast boat itself actually took about 7 hours to Phnom Phen in Cambodia (so good call then), but it was an absolute delight. It was a small speed boat for the first part to the Vietnamese border where we raced along past wooden houses on stilts in the river, surrounded by mangroves. The weather on this day was fantastic and I sat out on the back of the boat with my white pins out and got myself a nice rosy shade of skin cancer tan.

When we arrived at the Vietnamese border we disembarked and made our way into the customs office. It was a very laid back place with a couple of customs officers sat about smoking. As it was just past 11am and a new adventure lay ahead I bought a few beers with a few other people on the boat and soaked up the sunshine. I paid my duty to enter Cambodia, changed over my remaining Vietnamese Dong and boarded the speedboat again. The landscape as you would expect was very much the same, but you could see small differences in the temples and architecture peeking through the trees.

A little while later we arrived at the Cambodian border and disembarked for the second time to get our Cambodian visas. By this time most of the people on the small speedboat had become acquainted with one another. There was Bogdan, a rather jolly Romanian business who was travelling (and working, occassionally) for at least a few years. Then Riza, an American living in Montenegro, who was in Phnom Phen for some volunteer work at a school. Sid, a Dutch guy and Fiona, an English girl, just travelling like me. Then a French couple, Dom and Edouard, who were absolutely lovely. Dom and Edouard were travelling on a year-long honeymoon having only recently just got married. Childhood sweethearts they had been given a gift by their friends and family back home before they left and the gift was a dance. Dom and Edouard decided that to return the favour they too would give the gist of dance, but this dance would include people they would meet on their travels all over the world. The plan was that wherever they went they would teach people this dance and then film the dance in action. After some careful editing back home they would then give back this video of the dance that their friends and family had given them as a memento of their honeymoon. It was a very lovely idea and to make sure we all played our part, we learnt the dance on the Cambodian border and let Bogdan film away, much to the amusement of the customs officials and local police.

Once we had passed through customs we boarded our speedboat again which would take us over the border into Cambodia and to a larger boat waiting for us in rendezvous. Once we had boarded the larger boat and its passengers had disembarked to our speedboat back to Viet Nam, we all headed up to the top deck with beers in hand to laze in the sun and chat until we landed in Phnom Phen. The journey was fabulous and a great way to cross the border. We passed many small villages where children would run out to wave at the boat full of travellers passing them by. I’m pretty sure the children knew the boat timetable as they were always stood waiting when the boat passed by.

It’s funny the feeling I got once I’d passed into Cambodia. I know it’s a mental thing (yes, I am mental), but it felt different, like I was somewhere new. Maybe it was just the adrenaline coursing through my veins from the excitement of going somewhere new, but it brought a smile to my face nonetheless. As we got nearer to Phnom Phen however there was a marked difference in the people that lived there. You could tell that people here were poorer, their accommodation being substandard to similar areas in Viet Nam, plus the people here were a lot darker. I actually found that the Vietnamese had a rather unhealthy obsession with being white, always covering up in the sun, wearing long sleeves and face masks. In Cambodia, at least the little I’d seen from the river on the way to Phnom Phen, this was not the case. Children were running around, often naked, in the sunshine playing in the water. Men and women were tending to the fields, villages and boats not worrying about how much the strong sunshine would darken their skin. It’s quite a strange feeling coming to places like Viet Nam and all I want to do is get brown and sit in the sunshine, yet the locals want to cover up, sit in the shade and use ‘whitener’ in all of their body lotion and cleansing products.

Several hours passed by and the banter on the boat had increased somewhat. I’d already agreed that Sid and I, along with a few others would make our way to the Capitol Guesthouse in Phnom Phen (on 107th and 82nd) as it was cheap and central next to a large food market and the main tour stop (Capitol tours are the cheapest in Cambodia). As Phnom Phen loomed near I found myself actually quite startled. I was expecting a low-rise ramshackle city that echoed everything I had read about Cambodia being one of the poorest nations in the World. Instead I was greeted by towers of cranes and high-rise buildings under construction with temples of white and gold adorning the riverside. This is a city on the rise no doubt about it at all and the affluence here was evident. Granted that affluence and all the money and power that feed it may be concentrated here, but it was a shock to the system nonetheless.

As the boat docked at the main terminal just opposite the main harbour street I could hear that all too familiar gaggle that characterises South East Asian transport… ‘Tuk Tuk’, ‘Taxi’… welcome to Phnom Phen, Cambodia.

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