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Published: October 20th 2010
The Mekong River starts its long and arduous journey through South East Asia in Tibet and makes its way down to Vietnam via China, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before it splits into nine tributaries and forms the Mekong Delta which eventually drains into the South China Sea. As it meanders south through the continent it provides the lifeblood for the regions it passes through. Commerce, retail, agriculture, homes and transport are all supported by this mighty river, and on our journey from Phnom Penh to Saigon we saw and experienced them all.
For this trip down the Mekong we had booked a ‘three day, two night’ tour with a local company which would end with us in the bustling city of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam (otherwise known as Saigon). We could have taken a direct coach from Phnom Penh, which would have got us to our destination on the same day but we were intrigued by what life on the river would be like and we thought this was our best chance to see it.
Our journey south along the Mekong started with a very unwatery minicoach journey for an hour or so from Phnom Penh to
a little riverside town called Neok Leoung. We spent our time on the coach dodging the horde of mosquitoes that seemed to be immune to the frigid temperature generated by the air conditioning and were dive-bombing us at every opportunity. Luckily for us (and maybe not for the other passengers) we were armed with repellant containing near illegal levels of DEET and fumigated them and the rest of the bus with it!
When we disembarked from the coach, as this was an organized tour, we expected to be whisked straight onto a waiting boat with a nice cold complimentary drink waiting. Forget it, we are in South East Asia, things don’t happen like that! The pair of us, along with our heavy backpacks and six other people and their heavy backpacks were led down an alley into a deserted garden with a walkway to a rickety jetty and told to "wait a while” until our boat arrived! We spent the time fending off more mosquitoes and sweating a lot. After around three quarters of an hour, our boat arrived and we were pleasantly surprised. It was river worthy, relatively comfortable and afforded good views of the river as we
began our waterborne journey. The banks of the Mekong and surrounding area are lush and green (especially as Cambodia and Vietnam are just coming to the end of the (very) rainy season. The water however is anything but pleasing on the eye! Due to the nutrient rich and silt heavy riverbed, the river takes on a murky brown colour and after being spoilt by the aquamarine river at Huka Falls in NZ and the completely clear White River in Jamaica, this was almost an eyesore! And for anyone that watches River Monsters on TV, some of the fish in this river are very large and very scary, including Catfish that can grow to over 3m. Needless to say, we didn’t get too close to the edge on the deck upstairs.
It wasn’t long before we were at the border and were off the boat to get stamped out of Cambodia and into Vietnam, our tenth country of 2010 (England, Scotland, Canada, USA, Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam). Not sure we will ever visit more countries in a year than that again in our lifetimes! We were pleasantly surprised to find no dodgy border guards or anyone
else trying to scam us out of any money at this border. We left behind the wonderful little country of Cambodia after a short but very enjoyable six days and after another couple of hours we arrived at our destination for the evening of Chao Doc. The hotel which was included in the tour was called the Floating Hotel and was basically a normal hotel, on stilts on the riverbank. The evening was spent in the restaurant sheltering from the torrential rain and chatting with Todd and Sabrina from Seattle, who were on the same tour as us. At 9pm it was bedtime as we had a very early 6am start the next day. It was great to see that the bed in our room had a mosquito net already set up; it was less great too see the number of holes in said mosquito net which rendered it useless!
Sunday morning started at 5.30am as Rachel set her alarm an hour early to make sure we were at breakfast for 6.30am as requested by the tour guide. Since being in South East Asia we have noticed that unless you are eating their traditional breakfast, the breakfast for foreigners
consists of omlette’s or toast and jam. Having had omlettes for the past week we both decided to have toast and jam. A sensible and easy option I am sure you will agree. The jam was a lovely strawberry red colour with the perfect consistency (not too jelly like but not too runny), it only had one small problem, it contained more small, dead ants than an Insect Cemetery. Bread and butter it was then! It did make us chuckle when the restaurant manager told us that it wasn’t insects, it was the insides of the strawberries. Of course it was, silly us, we’ll have the Antberry Jam back in that case! To further add to our breakfast woes (remember, I am not a morning person especially at 6.30am), the butter was practically luminous, and we refuse to put anything luminous in our mouths! Mmmm!!
The morning got better though and we enjoyed seeing a local fish farm and also a small rural village which we walked through. It was home to a community of people known as Cham, who were Muslims, in a mainly Buddhist country and it was interesting to see how the local people live and
allowed us our first glimpse of the ladies in the iconic Vietnamese hats. The trip ended at a local craft centre where some ladies were making beautiful scarves, which Rachel decided that she wanted, so we made our purchase and got back on our boat ready to make our way further south and deeper into Southern Vietnam.
A large, slow boat transported Rachel and myself along with Todd and Sabrina another couple of hours down the Mekong before we reached a small docking area where we clambered off the boat and onto a waiting bus for the rest of our journey to a large riverside town called Can Tho. The bus journey was relatively uneventful apart from the driver’s uncanny knack of finding every single pothole on the road. And these weren’t your average potholes like back home in England. I think a meteor shower must have hit Southern Vietnam looking at the size of the craters here! I will think twice before moaning about the small dents we have out of the roads in Stoke!
Monday morning was another early one, the tour guide requested us to be in the hotel lobby at 6.30am, bags packed and
ready for breakfast. We wisely stuck to omlette for our breakfast and after a short walk to the riverside we were on our boat and heading towards the local floating market. The forty five minute journey allowed the guide to discover we were English and asked who I supported. When I replied that I supported the mighty Spurs, his first words were….”Yes, Tottingham, Peter Crouch!” I’m not sure what our lanky, call girl loving striker has done to be the first Spurs player that comes to mind in this part of the world but his Asian marketing man has earned his wages!
The rain started to pour down as we approached the floating market and changed to a smaller boat so we could navigate the gaps between the other boats. It was a market for the locals and was selling food and thankfully no tourist tat. It was great to be in amongst the locals in the natural setting and not something that was on show for visitors. The boats varied in shape and size and there was a particularly hairy moment when a large tanker came chugging by with little or no regard for any of the smaller
boats in its way. We were wincing expecting to hear a crash as it barged through, but the local people didn’t bat an eyelid and carried on with their commerce. All the stall owners had a large stick stood at the front of their boat which had tied to it, an example of the products they were selling so customers knew where to paddle their boats to. It was a fantastic glimpse of the real Vietnam (which sounds terribly cliché but so much of this part of the world is so geared up towards extracting money from Western tourists, so it was excellent to drift through this market under no pressure to buy anything.)
Next stop was a more regular market on dry land (well, when I say dry, I mean it wasn’t on the river, but it was still drenched as the rain was still pouring down hard) and we had a little wander around marveling at the weird and wonderful foods on sale. Fish with eyes the size of humans eyes, frogs, exotic vegetables and other meats that probably used to called Rover and nip at the postman’s ankles! Before long it was time to get back
on the boat and make our last stop on the tour before Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived at the riverside rice husking factory for a short visit, where we were told about the various stages of the rice harvesting process, and told that Vietnam is the number one exporter of rice by volume and second only to Thailand in quality. We were surprised to hear that the US is the third largest exporter of rice in the world, apparently California grows a lot of rice. You’ll thank me for that useless nugget of info, when it’s the answer to the tiebreaker at your next pub quiz!
A thoroughly enjoyable three days ended when we reached Saigon after another pot hole ridden journey on a coach. Despite the rain, the mozzies, the potholes and the humidity, we had a brilliant times and got to see a part of the world that is rarely seen by visitors and showed us just how important nature and this huge river is to the people in this part of the world.
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