21.05.2010 - 26.05.2010 35 °C
We began our Mekong trip with an hour’s ride in a minivan stopping intermittently to pick up our fellow travellers. Some didn’t turn up and there ended up being only five of us: ourselves, a French couple called Audrey and Antoine and Heidi from Austria. (Believe it or not, these are not made up names!) At first it seemed like we would be driven all the way to the border but eventually we stopped at someone’s house, walked through his garden and found his boat moored on the Mekong. We hopped in and the man and his pyjama clad wife took it in turns at the helm for a two hour trip to the border.
During the trip we got a real taste for life on this huge river. We saw many interesting sights, people washing their cattle and water buffalo, people doing laundry, washing, fishing and kids playing. It was brilliant to see right into normal people’s lives on the Mekong, everyone we saw was happy to wave and smile at us and as a result we have about a thousand photos of kids waving frantically!
We soon arrived at the Cambodian side of the border crossing and got off the boat to have our visas stamped as having left the country. We then got back on the boat for a two minute journey to the Vietnamese immigration area - a floating building on the river. We didn’t even have to see any immigration personnel as our boat driver took our passports away and came back 30 minutes later with them all stamped. We had been warned this process could take hours but it really was easy for us. After this we changed onto a smaller craft manned by a Vietnamese dude who spoke pretty good English who was to be our guide for the next couple of days.
We turned off down a tributary of the Mekong as the guide informed us it would offer a closer view into the lives of the Vietnamese river people. He wasn’t wrong as the river in this area was less than 10 metres wide and lined by stilt houses on either side. Here we saw many more interesting sights - the photos below will show better than an explanation. We took this route for about 3 hours until we rejoined the Mekong on our way to Chau Doc, the closest town to the border and our first nights stay.
On arriving at the town we saw the floating village we were to visit the next day and on land we saw a huge government building adorned with colourful communist flags right next to a shanty town on stilts! We docked at said shanty town and walked across slippery wood planks 10ft over the water. It dawned on us perhaps we weren’t going to be staying at the Victoria Hotel! The people here were all very curious and lots of staring commenced as we walked through the town to our guesthouse. We noticed hardly any other tourists in Chau Doc while we were there.
Whilst wandering around looking from somewhere to eat (as the lack of tourists seemed to have the knock on effect of no restaurants) we bumped into Heidi from the boat and asked her if she wanted to join us in our quest for food. We had a meal at a street restaurant which was nice but every meal seemed to contain processed sausage... mmm! Even Joy and Heidi’s vegetarian options had nice slabs of sausage-meat placed daintily upon them! Later that night we had a couple of beers at our hotel and were intermittently harassed by a group of children who must have been at a birthday party further down the road. They spent a few hours running around screaming and playing with balloons and fake guns. In his attempt to hit on Heidi, our tour guide asked if she would like to join him to an English lesson as she is an English teacher back in Austria. She accepted and extended the offer to us so as not to be left alone too long with Mr. Tour and his lovely comb-over. The English lesson was good although the teacher was a little boring. We think the few beers before helped with our nerves (due to being thoroughly unqualified and inexperienced) although the girl sitting next to Richard clearly thought he was an alcoholic (at least he gave her all the right answers!)
The next morning we went to see a fish farm on the Mekong which is a farming method used by a lot of the river people to make a living. As their houses are on the water, they keep a large net underneath the home and in it they raise fish. This makes catching the fish pretty easy and also means the fish can be fed on any scraps of food from the home. Admittedly we found it a bit grim as it was unclear how much room they had and they were quite big! When the tour guide threw some fish food into the water to illustrate the fish went mad for it, there were so many fish packed in like sardines (haha!) that when the food was thrown in the fish thrashing about soaked us with Mekong water. We imagine if you accidentally fell in there wouldn’t be much of you left. We can see why it makes sense to raise fish this way for the people in the area though and it didn’t put us off our food for too long!
The next stop was to see the Cham, a minority Muslim sect found on the Mekong. We saw how the changing water levels affects the community – it was at its highest ever in 2002 (see photo below) – when the water gets this high all the villagers have to move all their belongings to the upper levels of their homes – this includes their animals! Nice. After this visit we got a minibus to Can Tho where we did very little apart from go to see the large gold statue of Uncle Ho, have a wander round the market and have some food. Something worth noting here is the menu of a restaurant next to our hotel which offers among many other delicacies – fried or grilled rat! Mmm!
Next day we got up early to see the floating markets on the Mekong. It was good to see how the locals go about their food shopping but for some reason our boat took forever to get there so it seemed quite quiet - the optimum time to go to the market is about 6 or 7am! Also, our boat wouldn’t really stop so we could buy things – it was a very community (as opposed to tourists) oriented market but it would have been nice to get a mango or two as it was a long way down the river and a long way back! Our tour guide managed to keep our spirits up by being generally amusing, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. After the markets we went to see a rice noodle making factory which was sort-of interesting but we think the boat must have been a lot slower than they intended as we only seemed to spend about 15 minutes there. There were some pigs in the back of the factory which they feed the husks of the rice once they’ve been removed. After slathering on some DEET to hopefully prevent encephalitis we went ahead to have a look at them and one in particular was quite simply the biggest pig we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately you can’t really see the true scale of the pig from the photo but it must have weighed about 400lbs! Terrifying. The pig was admittedly more exciting than the rice noodle making process.
Our Mekong tour was over and we headed off to Ho Chi Minh City in a nice air-conditioned coach with neck pillows and everything! It was an easy journey and we managed to snooze throughout most of it. Once we arrived we decided to stay at Mai Phai which was rather steep at $17 a night but it was an amazing room and had free internet and a/c. We’d also heard how manic HCMC can be so we wanted a haven to retreat to if the city got too much!
That night we had a wander around but weren’t up to much after lots of early mornings and a long coach trip. Next day we did the walking tour as recommended in our Lonely Planet. We saw the big central market and nearly got scratched by some 15yr old Vietnamese girls for suggesting that 6 dollars was too much for a fake Abercrombie and Fitch strappy top! They wouldn’t let us go! To recover we went for some ‘Pho’ - a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup dish - with chicken for Richard and Tofu for Joy. It was absolutely delicious! As a side note apparently Bill Clinton came to this particular restaurant (‘Pho 2000’) on his trip to HCMC – the first US president to visit Vietnam since the war.
We wandered around some more of the city but the War Remnants Museum was a high/lowlight. Well worth going to see but very sad and difficult to stomach subject matter. When first entering the museum you see all the weaponry used during the war but as you move further in and see the cells and torture methods it gets hard to bear and even more so when you start to see the effects of the napalm and Agent Orange chemical warfare used by the Americans. With the war being reasonably recent there are many photographs, one that sticks is of an American soldier delighted to be holding up the head of a Viet Cong soldier and what we left of his body – truly disturbing. We had to give up our walking tour after that as the heat and depression finally won out, naturally easing the pain with a Saigon beer or three in the city. We alternated between a nice classy cocktail joint near our hotel and a rickety-plastic-baby-chair-on-the-street joint where we were briefly joined by a massive rat. We had enjoyed HCMC but by this point we knew we had seen all we needed to. We booked a bus to Dalat for the next morning and looked forward to the cooler climate and stunning views!