Cruising Down and Up the Mekong


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Asia » Vietnam » Mekong River Delta
December 28th 2006
Published: February 4th 2007
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Our last destination in Vietnam before heading into Cambodia was the Mekong Delta. Much to my dismay, I had to accept that the easiest and cheapest way to see the Mekong is on a package tour. At $34 for 3 days/2 nights including breakfast, hotel, and taking us into Cambodia, you really couldn't beat the price. I will say though, you get what you pay for. In Saigon Pham Ngu Lao Road was lined with tour offices all offering the same tour for the same price. How to choose? Honestly it doesn't matter which tour company one chooses, because they all get funneled down to the same bus. A couple on our bus went to two different agencies and talked to the same girl! We went with the one across from the Bia Hoi 33- location is everything right? The next three days were spent experiencing Mekong life, floating markets, cheesy yet fun touristy stops, our guide Bang singing in English, boats, good food, and the best part- incredible company. Definitely another incredible part of our already incredible trip.

Day 1
Prior to getting on the bus Jeff and I talked about how having fun people on our tour would make the trip more fun. As we got on the bus there was a group of Japanese people, a family speaking French, a bunch of older couples, and a girl wearing a flower print dress, wearing heels, and carrying a large red suitcase. No early 20-somethings backpacking through Europe stepped on our bus. Everyone was checking each other out. On our last day it was funny to recap all our first impressions of each other. Looked like a lot of Jeff/Casey time to follow. It was too early to judge and we were hoping for the best. Turns out everyone was ABSOLUTEY LOVELY! Better than I could have dreamed of. That morning we headed to a town called Mytho. We got on a large boat and were on our way to explore the treasures of the Upper Mekong River. Our guide's name was Bang and his English was somewhat indecipherable. Jeff and I often found ourselves listening to the Japanese interpreter instead. Our first stop was riding on little wooden boats through a mass of waterways on an island. An old lady with the token straw hat paddled us, and gave us token straw hats to wear. Welcome to Vietnam Disneyland! Yes it was cheesy, and as other boats passed by the only thing that came out of the ladies' mouth was "give us more money." Still, I loved wearing the hat, the jungle, the meandering waterway, and feeling like 'Explorer Casey.' The next stop was lunch. We started to get to know our 'family.' A fellow tour member and future travel companion Lisa, busted out some bee wine that she had gotten from a local in Sapa. Wine is an understatement, it tasted like a spirit. One had to be careful not to get a bee in their mouth while sipping. I exhausted my Japanese with the Japanese tourists. Just the fact that I could say Konnichiwa and Watashi was Keishii desu made them grin from ear to ear. That afternoon we were all over the place- coconut candy farm, honey tea accompanied by local musicians, holding big snakes (who didn't hold a candle to Pawny in the Philippines, no transvestite either), and more boats that made it feel like Disneyland Vietnam, yet no alligators nor hippopotamus popping up to scare us. Yes parts of me were so aggravated to be doing such silly and 'tourist trap' things. I kept thinking "What am I doing here?" Then I got a hold of myself. As I said you get what you pay for. If I just sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed it all, there were no worries! I also have a tendency to romanticize everything to appear like it does in Travel and National Geographic Magazines. Besides, I started to look past the touristy stuff and look deeper into it all. While on the boats one could glimpse into the center of the islands and see more canals, and paths leading to homes. Some of the best parts of the day were on the bus as we drove by towns. You could see down into the waterways as everyday life went on. Houses on stilts rose out of the marshland. People commuted by boat to their next location. The Mekong was indeed a working and thriving area, absolutely amazing and beautiful. So many times I just wanted to get off the bus, hire a boat, and meander down the waterways. I feel like I am being to negative - the tour wasn't that bad, and we were making some great friends. As the first day ended the 1-day tour people left. Bang always sang a farewell tune. His English was horrible. After he spoke we would all sit around trying to figure out what he had said. Surprisingly his English singing was better than his speaking! That night I would say Jeff and I first bonded with our new friends: Lisa and Andrew from Australia, and Oscar and Linda from New Zealand. Both couples quite a few years older than us, yet age was proving not to matter. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that would extend past the Mekong Tour. Wandering the streets of Cantho we found a local joint offering up some good grub, then headed to bed.

Day 2
The second day we were up early bound for the floating market. This was definitely the highlight of the trip. Jeff and I missed the floating markets in Thailand, so were amped to see this one. Although a tad touristy and I would have liked to have gotten there 2 hours earlier to beat the crowds, it was incredible. It was not just for tourists, which is often a complaint of the markets in Thailand. There were true transactions going on. Boats floated by carrying all sorts of products that others were buying. It was not limited to fruits, they also had sandwiches, clothes, and other everyday products. My favorites were the kombini boats selling coffee and juice. Straw hats and little old Vietnamese ladies abounded. I never ceased to get tired of seeing them or ever considered them normal. They manually paddled along with baskets of goods in the bows of their boats. They acted as if we were not there. We indulged in some great Vietnamese coffee and fresh pineapple. After that we meandered down a side river to a fruit farm, seeing the various fruits, and of course, getting to try some ourselves. Next up we went to see how rice tortillas (think Vietnamese spring rolls) were made. We ventured back out into the main waterway to find that the market was completely done at the early time of 11:30. We enjoyed a delicious bowl of Pho before 2-day tourists said good bye, enjoying another farewell tune from Bang.

By now we had created our own little Mekong family. My fears of a boring group were complete and utterly wrong! Fortunately, the core group of people on our tour were taking the 3-day tour like Jeff and I. As mentioned before, there were the Aussies, Kiwis, a South African couple (Andrew and Landia), a Swiss couple (I can't remember their names!), a Canadian couple (Thyrre and Paige), and an Australian girl (Lois). Jeff and I rounded out the English-speaking countries, friends, not a couple. The Canadians got thrown into our van just after lunch and must have been completely overwhelmed. The rest of us were very comfortable with each other, and kept asking them questions, accepting them right into the group. We also had a crazy Vietnamese lady who lived in LA, but everyone group has to have someone like that (she left with the 2-day group)!

That afternoon we went to a very disturbing crocodile farm, making silly crocodile jokes in honor of our Aussie friends, and in remembrance of dear Steve Irwin. The worst part was that they had a bear in a cage smaller than mine and Jeff's love nest! For sunset the bus headed over to Mt Sam. As a group we climbed to the Buddhist monastery. I ran into a group of kids who were playing junkan/rocks-paper-scissors. It truly is the best
Mekong RiverMekong RiverMekong River

Kinda dirty...
and most universal game in the world. Kinda like how it seems everyone knows the words or tune to Hotel California. I stuck out my hand and counted "ma ha baĆ¢" (1-2-3) and threw down a rock. They caught on and all started to challenge me. What can I say, I am a sucker for kids and playing with them. The monastery was not high enough for me, and told Bang I was going to the top. A few others decided to make the trek with me. I was wearing a long peasant skirt and flip-flops. Not necessarily the best hiking equipment in addition to my sprained ankle, but I wasn't going to miss out- hiking being a minor obsession of mine. We made it to the top and saw the most incredible views of Vietnam and Cambodia. You could physically tell the difference between the two countries. It was similar to the border between Mexico and America: once you enter Mexico the terrain and atmosphere changes completely. The same was true about Vietnam and Cambodia. Vietnam had more rice fields and was much greener. Cambodia was more barren and brown. The sun started to set and it was beautiful.
Snakes on JeffSnakes on JeffSnakes on Jeff

we don't need planes ;-)
I had fulfilled my hiking goal for the trip. That night the entire crew had a big feast-our last supper. Great conversation, food, beer, and I ate frog for my first time. After that we wandered through Chau Doc and ended playing hackey-sack with some locals. Jeff and I usually got our separate beds, yet tonight we shared one, and the room was the size of a tin can, therefore nicknaming it our 'love nest.'

Day 3
We got up early to head to Cambodia. We all were dreading the day because we were on the slow boat, which would take around 7 hours to get to Phnom Penh- meaning probably about 9 hours. We even considered hiring our own boat to take us in. Coming up empty handed, we all decided we were going to make the best of it- booze cruise or bust. In the morning we stopped at a fish farm and another village selling hand-woven scarves. I even got to try weaving one myself. The person that buys that one should be honored- I was great! Our boat combined with another group and headed up the Mekong. This boat ride was actually my favorite of the entire trip. I sat on the bow of the boat and enjoyed looking at my surroundings. No touristy stops and no one trying to sell us stuff. We got to see the 'real' Mekong- large fishing nets hanging in the water, people washing clothes, farming, rice fields, yaks, cows, stilted houses, and kids that would scream at the top of their lungs and wave at us as we went by. It was fascinating. We met a group of people around our age traveling. I was talking about couchsurfing in Vietnam, and it turned out the German guy was part of the 'project' and was going to hit up Andrew and John when he returned to Saigon.

We stopped at the border for lunch. We ended up being there for almost 2 hours, waiting for the border patrol to open so we could pass through- one reason why it takes a long time on the slow boat. Yet, not a moment wasted. Beers were cheap, cute kids were everywhere, and we were with a fun group of people. Lois was my partner in crime drinking beer-for-beer with me. I befriended a girl with a bicycle who rode me around for a bit. Only problem was her bike did not have any brakes, only minor details! Driving a little under the influence on a bike with no brakes, I was asking for problems, thus a short-lived adventure. When the border opened I grabbed my bag and ran across. Sweet Victory! They let me in (honestly I think I really said this too)! Shouting with excitement, Lisa goes "She's an American" explaining my behavior to others- which did make me laugh. Then we went through more customs and I was allowed to take a photo with the customs officer. Lois lived in Phnom Penh for a year (and was returning for a quick visit) and her Khmer was quite helpful in my photo endeavor. We next boarded the 'Yellow Submarine' boat. We all camped out along the top enjoying more food and more beers, relaxing, great conversation, sun, and more kids who started to do flips off the mud banks into the river. Being New Year's Eve, we all went around and talked about the past year and what were the most important parts of 2006. For me: 1) Deciding to stay in Japan 2) Falling in love 3) Travel 4) Getting my heart broken.

Around 6 we FINALLY made it to land, then were on a bus for another 45 minutes into Phnom Penh. Antsy as hell to get there, we passed the time with some fun road trip games. I also informed everyone I had less than 6 hours to find someone to kiss at midnight and I needed their help. A Dutch couple was on our van. They were in for quite a surprise with all of us! We got to Phnom Penh around 7 and were in search of meeting up with fellow couchsurfer Adi, and finding a hotel. In Phnom Penh there were motos, but also tuk tuks- similar to the ones in Thailand. All the places we went were booked and ended up going to the J Hotel, at the steep price of 20 bucks. We were on our way to the Foreign Correspondence Club to meet up with the crew and ran into Adi in the street! Lois was our gracious guide and took us to a local Khmer restaurant for dinner, and tried to order me shark/turtle/something-weird soup. Walking back to the river to watch the fireworks at midnight, we passed these huge barrels that had a keg-like apparatus attached to the top. Indeed, I thought it was a keg. I was thinking Cambodians had it right with beer stands along the streets. To my dismay, they were petrol stations!

It was a memorable New Years meeting up with the Mekong Crew and a few additions. First we saw the fireworks over the river and all were exchanging kisses (the French Candadians threw me off with the double thing!) We took over a bar and Lisa tried to pawn me off to some cute personality-less Dutch boys. After that bar a few of us went to a club called Elsewhere, that was more like a house party. Lois and I decided ordering champagne was a great idea. We danced a bit, and almost jumped in the pool. It was a great New Years with all of our new friends.

We left the Mekong Delta and Vietnam behind, heading to explore Cambodia. We were left with very fond memories of the Mekong, can you believe all that happened in just three days?




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Floating MarketFloating Market
Floating Market

Overhead shot
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Floating Market

Men work there too! They don't get to wear the hats though
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Floating Market

Houseboat for sure
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Straw Hat

I love them


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