The area south of Saigon is where the Mekong river fans out into a tree of smaller rivers that make their way out into the sea. The area is very flat and fertile, producing much of the country's rice and, as a consequence, is the second biggest source of rice exports in the world.
We'd planned to explore this area but were torn between carrying on and going to Phou Quoc island off of the south coast. However, after some research we decided against the latter as the public transport system we'd rely on for getting there is notorious for overcharging foreigners, and besides, although the island is beautiful it is also home to a fish sauce factory that makes the place smell of rotting fish. We thought we'd save the money and put it towards visiting some of the Thai and Malaysian islands.
Flicking through the Sinh Cafe brochure, we noticed that they did a three day tour of the Mekong delta with transportation over the border to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and included two nights in a hotel and a couple of meals, all for the very reasonable sum of 795,000 dong (about £29
per person) - a total bargain!
We got up and set off from Saigon at about 8am headed for the Cai Be floating market and jumped on a boat for a tour of the river. We expected small boats docked along the river banks selling fresh food, but surprisingly it was larger boats who'd come down from further up the river carrying coconuts, pineapples, melon etc and with smaller row boats coming to meet them in the middle of the river. The river banks were lined with houses on stilts as for a long time, the poor folk could not afford land to build on so instead built out over the river. The rotting supports on some of them looked as though they'd collapse in a strong breeze, but I guess that calm weather leaves them in relative safety.
We stopped on a small island surrounded with floating plants (from further up river that make their way down-stream) that must be a nuisance to the locals for taking over the shoreline. There we had a pretty decent lunch of pork chops, rice and veg which was included in the package. The garden surrounding the property was very pleasant
as well, and worth a quick stroll in before re-embarking. Resuming the boat journey, we got a good overview of the town that had obviously grown up on the riverbanks before getting back on the coach and crossing the river on a car ferry - the bridge was still being constructed so all traffic routes rely on these slow and congested ferries that traverse the river all day - and heading down to Can Tho for our first night stay in the Delta.
The high-rise hotel was plain but perfectly acceptable to us and even had hot water and cable TV, although I think some of the other people on the trip who were just over on holiday found it a bit rough and ready. We took a long walk down to the bustling riverside for a bite to eat. It was the smallest portion of fried rice in the world, but we had to put up with that as we didn't want to get any more Dong out of the ATMs (its not accepted outside Vietnam) so we were on a strict budget for our remaining few days in the country. We ended the night with a stroll
along the promenade by the river, watching the occasional rat scurry across the path from bush to bush.
We woke with a start at the 6am alarm call, packing up our bags and heading down to breakfast, carrying the packs with us rather than have to climb back up to the fourth floor on a full stomach and get them. Breakfast was an interesting Vietnamese buffet with things like sticky rice and cabbage in soy sauce with soggy pork fat: at least they provided coffee.
We went to the Cai Ran floating markets for another boat tour - it was much earlier than the previous day so the river was bustling with life with people peddling all sorts of fresh produce. We then stopped off to try some honey tea, all fresh, and the guide had people sticking their fingers in the bee hives to try the ultra-fresh honey. Sticky! After that, we got a demonstration of rice paper making, rice harvesting factories and a tour of the small backwater canals. The highlight had to be a stop at the fresh fruit farm where we were given lots of fresh fruit to try including yellow mango, jack fruit,
papaya and pineapple along with a few pots of Vietnamese tea. The surrounding orchards were packed with the aforementioned fruit and we greatly enjoyed wandering around produce that would soon be shipped around the world.
Afterwards, a group of about six of us were transferred on another coach for the trip across the Cambodian border the next day while the rest of the group returned to Saigon. Our new coach took us to Chau Doc for the night, ready to cross the border the next day. The hotel was again basic but fine for the night, right on the riverside and with a bamboo restaurant floating on pontoons out over the river. We made the most of Vietnam's plentiful wifi before the expected technology drought in Cambodia.
Another 6am wakeup call and we headed down for breakfast with a more palatable choice of eggs and baguette with coffee. Heading for the boat dock, we said goodbye to our guide and took all the bags onto a covered boat ready for the long river trip. We started of by going for an hour's row-boat tour to a fish farm in the middle of the river, followed by an ethnic
village and then boarding the big boat ready for the cruise up the river to the crossing point. All the visa forms were available on the boat and we filled them in before giving them to a woman on-board, along with $22, and she got off the boat to go and sort out exit stamps and Cambodian visas. It required a bit of faith as she just took our passports and money and headed off into the jungle and we didn't see her again for another three hours. Although she charged an extra $2 for the service (the visa is normally $20), it was worth it for being ale to relax and read while sitting on the boat instead of stressing out about the crossing, which we've been subjected to a few times so far. In addition, the Cambodian officials are notorious for overcharging foreigner for visas so we figured if we were going to have to pay extra either way, we may as well pay for the service and have a more relaxing border crossing.
We stopped at the Vietnamese border point which also doubled as a floating restaurant and had some lunch, before being reunited with our
passport complete with a shiny new 30-day Cambodian visa. We then simply went across the river and got it stamped by the Cambodian officials before heading further up the river towards Phnom Penh.
After another 3-4 hours on the boat looking at the scenery, we transferred onto a coach for the remaining 1-hour of the trip. They dropped us off at the local sinh cafe/hotel which was very far from the centre (unusual as in Vietnam they are always central) and as the rooms were $15, we decided to head on towards the centre of town and find our own accommodation.
As it was getting dark and we were in a new city, it didn't help that we got slightly lost about halfway (we should have paid and taken a taxi as it was much further than we thought!) but a couple of friendly locals helped us find the direction we wanted to go in. A few stressful miles later, we found the guest house we were heading for and had a warm welcome with a choice of simple room with cold shower for $4 or one with hot water and TV for $5- we decided to splurge!
The minor stresses of the walk in the dark melted away with the triumph of finding where we wanted to be so we treated ourselves to a fantastic dinner of local fish and chips.
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