Floating Markets on the Mekong
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
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Where I stayed
Of course, when we get dropped off, we haven't a clue where we are, and the map in photocopied lonely planet pages doesn't really help us. So it is necessary to play a game with the motorcycle drivers to get into the town centre without being ripped off.
Disagreeing immediatelty with the quoted 20,000 Dong (GBP 0.90) per head we pick up our bags and start walking. This action shows the motorcycle drivers that we're not going to be easily ripped off
Next they aggressively offer to take us for 1,000 Dong each. Fortunately, I've heard about this peculairly Vietnamese ploy before, and apparently it gives them an excuse to get nasty and fight with you when you arrive at your destination. So I stick to 5,000 each. After a further 30 seconds of walking the motorcycle drivers smile politely and agree to go for my price.
We ride pillion on the two Honda Dreams and head for the town, spotting the bus station (where we should have gotten dropped off), and winding up outside the wrong hotel. Obviously this is a hotel where the drivers will get commission for selling a room. After some exchanges, Rachel tells her driver that she is 'really angry', and they both return to the bikes and take us to the place we want to go. Feeling mentally exhausted, I pay them the money and they speed off happy.
It turns out that the X hotel has bumped up its prices in the last couple of years taking it well out of our USD$5-10 price bracket, and despite our best haggling its just not going to get into the budget level we require
A bored-looking chap sitting in reception informs us that his cousin has a brand new guesthouse in town (Hien 2) that has cheap rooms. It seems that everyone is conveniently related to everyone else here when it comes to commerce. He offers to take me down on his moto for a look-see, so I hop on and ironically arrive at a place just across the road from where the moto-sharks tried to dump us earlier. There's a really light airy room on the 4th floor with great views and I agree immediately to pay the USD$6 requested.
The guy brings me back to where Rachel is and he enlists the help of another moto driver to take us and the bags down to Hein 2. He doesn't ask for any payment for the trip as he will collect the commission from the hotel owner. It also gives him the chance to try to sell us a boat tour of the floating markets and surrounding canals for USD$20, but Rachel and I are not sure, so he falls asleep in reception contented to wait a bit longer for another chance at some commission. Fortunately, Rachel really likes the room, and I am forgiven for my earlier sins in Chau Doc
We wander over to Nambo Cafe, a restored French colonial restaurant with views over the Mekong river. In a momentary lapse into anti-eastern sentiment I order pizza much to Rachel's disgust - but is really delicious and she greedily eats half of it claiming that it is the best pizza ever.
I meet a couple of sunburnt Dutch cyclists after the meal who are cycling all over Vietnam in their sturdy Dutch Gazelle bikes. It would be wrong to say there are more Dutch people in Vietnam than Vietnamese, but they certainly do outnumber all other Westerners. I am also amazed that in a country where its too hot to walk any distance, the Dutch will quite contentedly cycle around armed with detailed maps, provided by their sophisticated tourist industry, while other foreigners like us struggle just to get into the city centre.
We wander over to the local ferry pier in the hope of being solicited by a tout who will sell us a cheap boat tour around the floating markets and canals tomorrow. Sure enough, a smiling lady comes over and offers us an 8 hour trip for USD$24 in our own little private boat. Haggling brings it down to USD$18, and then another little lady joins the fray and offers us one for USD$16
Feeling anxious to loose our over-keen tail, we walk briskly over to the huge silver Ho Chi Minh statue by the waterfront, and circle it a couple of times, but she's a smart one and she keeps us in her sights. While we're walking we agree that maybe we should take the other lady's tour for USD$18 since she looked more friendly, less desperate, and above all, spoke some English. We find her and agree to go with her, starting next morning at 5.30am at our hotel, and her face beams with the delight of having made a sale. Meanwhile the little lady looks on with disappointed glumness.
Since we have to get up early, we head to bed about 9pm that night, but sleep eludes us until the wee hours of the morning because our minds are fizzing from the overdose of MSG that the restaurant, round the corner from our guesthouse, put into our Chicken and Vegetable stir-fry. Vietnamese cuisine has a tendency to be laced heavily with this unpleasant and sometimes hard-to-spot toxic yet tasty food additive
As I lie in bed I consider that so far, Vietnam is proving to be very hard work to travel round independently. Prices quotes are often a rip off, everyone is after their commission, and there are plentiful scams around. Still, the country is beautiful, and is not Westernised to the extent of Thailand, the locals are warm and friendly and there are many unspoiled things to be seem here that we won't see elsewhere.
At 5.30am we're outside our hotel waiting for the friendly lady to turn up, and it becomes clear after about 20 minutes that she must have found higher paying clients. We head off over to the local ferry knowing that we'll surely find another willing taker for our USD$18. At the jetty a handbag-wielding lady agrees to the USD$18, and points at a little boat with another fit and friendly looking lady called Moi on the oars.
The four of us head out across the Mekong with the little 6hp longtail put-putting away, and go straight to the stilt house of the handbag lady where she shouts loudly for her son to wake up. She then gesticulates that we should get into the adjacent boat, a larger vessel with one of those huge unsilenced lontail engines on the back
Back across the Mekong, and the handbag-wielding lady unexpectedly jumps off the boat at the jetty where we got on about 15 minutes ago. Good ridance we think, as we head off in the opposite direction with the fit looking lady, Moi, driving.
In all the monkeying around, we've lost an hour, and we hope that we're early enough to catch the vibrant morning markets. We seem to be the slowest moving boat on the Mekong, but despite this its very comfortable and relaxing cruising down the river. After an hour or so, we arrive at the first market which is bustling with activity. We pull up beside a tiny drinks-boat and Moi lashes her little boat to it. I order a Vietnamese coffee (5000 Dong or GBP0.20), which is welcome this hour in the morning. The drinks boy heats some previously prepared coffee extract on a little stove and hands me it in a glass with 1/3 condensed milk resting on the bottom, like an Australian cafe latte. The drink is hot, strong, sweet, and tastes like a bar of melted dark chocolate.
There are boats, some nearly at the point of sinking with their loads of vegetables or fruits. Fruit is Rachels favourite food and she finds it agonising trying to distinguish which boats are selling and which are buying. Eventually she realises that the sellers have a high bamboo stick pointing in the air with examples of their goods tied to them.
We head to a boat selling sweet and tasty Long-an fruits and Rachel buys a kilo for 6000 Dong (about GBP0.25)
After another hour or so, Rachel is bursting for the loo, eventually Moi understands Rachel's frustrations and we stop by a random stilt house on the banks, where we ask the startled owners if its OK for the Westerners to use the facilities. The toilets are like Tibetan longdrops - a wooden shed with a hole on the floor, except instead of a steep slope beneath, theres the vast flush water of the Mekong awaiting.
By the time we get to the next market I'm pretty hungry, and I spot a boat selling bread. Moi lashes us on and I order a baguette with the filling that every other punter is buying for 5000 Dong (about GBP0.20). Turns out to be coconut ice cream and condensed milk, and it is a surprisingly delicious combination in a sandwich. Rachel looks on disapprovingly as I munch it down commenting that I'm doomed to listeria, cholera, or some other nightmare food poisoning. We then spot another boat selling noodle soup (10,000 Dong or GBP0.40) which we lash on to and eat from a bowl, trying not to spill it everywhere is the boat rocks around in the turbulent water.
From the main Mekong river we then turn off into the maze of canals and waterways that connect the delta like a giant spiders web
In the narrow channels, the propellor keeps getting wrapped up in the plastic bags that everyone seems to discard into the river. The water is a light shade of brown and looks filthy but people wash themselves and their clothes in it, clean their teeth in it, throw their garbage in it, fish in it, shit in it, buy and sell on it, and travel on it. It is the focal point of their lifestyles.
We stop in a little fruit garden and meet a skinny old man who shows us some of the fruit trees like Mango, Papaya, and Pomelo growing in his orchard. He then introduces us to his daughter who tells Rachel that she looks beautiful, much to her enjoyment. The old boy shows us a US army certificate he got for attending a one year course in refigeration equipment maintenance in Virginia in 1968. After feeding us on fruit and Coca cola he cheerfully waves goodbye to us, delighted that he managed to get a couple of dollars out of the foreigners.
After 8 or so hours on the boat we are pleased to see the jetty at Can Tho. We jump off and head back to the hotel room for a kip. That evening we eat in Mekong restaurant and its interesting to see that there are plenty Vietnamese men eating and drinking in there and not a woman customer in sight. It seems that the women do much of the manual work, while the men laze around during the day watching TV and playing cards, and then spend the hard earned cash on beer in the evening.
In the morning we head to bus station to get to Vinh Long, but we can't find the bus station on the map given to us by the tourist information staff because it transpires that the bus station beside the Post Office does not exist. How can tourist information be so inept, I think to myself. Some helpful moto drivers take us out to the bus station 2km out of town and charge us nothing knowing that they will get the commission from the minibus company. We squeeze into the last two seats the Ford Transit and head off to Vinh Long wondering what new excitment awaits us there.