The Longest Journey Begins with One Foolish Step

Trip Start Nov 23, 2011
1
7
31
Trip End Dec 29, 2011


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Where I stayed
Holiday house hotel
What I did
Mekong Delta

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The scene right right now (Dec 2nd); the wooden porch of a perfect oceanfront bungalow on an all but uninhabited island. The place has very few features: 13 bungalows much like ours, a couple of beachy net games and a restaurant with a famously spectacular kitchen. We ease into an appropriate and seriously welcome island buzz as Julie swings on a hammock and Steve does this.  The sun is succumbing to its own heat and dropping slowly, its movements tracked in scarlet streaks and deep blue cover. We relax. And relaxation is just what we need because when you learn what we went through to get here, you are going to shit.

The Holiday House Hotel is one of those places you stumble into when you travel that you will always remember because it sucked so bad.  With little to offer beyond a reasonably clean place to sleep even that promise is broken as 1:00 AM lobby noise passes freely through the paper thin walls.  We call down, trying to secure some rest as our wake up call is 4:45 AM for our 5:30 AM meet up with our Mekong Delta tour guide. These arrangements were made with a female friend of the hotel (read: kickback payer) named Ha, before we turned in.  We did much before turning in thanks to Ha and a helpful friend scootering us into town after getting us to sign on the dotted line for the tour.  Town is nothing surprising to us at this point; another SE Asian mini-clusterfuck with a market lined with raw foods, restaurants with nasty curb appeal but offering the usual tasty wonders within and a terminal language gap.  We find the only nice place in town, Nam Bo, made nicer by cloth napkins (a toy-sized waitress origamifies them into lotus blossoms,etc. around the restaurant as we sit) and a breezy second floor that features a perfect view of the riverfront. Here we will make civilations last stand, while away hours drinking beer and polish off an intimidatingly large Hot Pot. Hot Pot lives somewhere between Shabu-Shabu and fondue, in fact Nam Bo's menu calls it fondue.  Copious piles of meats, seafood and vegetables are reduced to consumable proportions by chopstick-dip-cooking in a central pot of spiced, boiling water.  It is fantastic.  We walk a couple of miles back to the hotel through town, stopping along the way to pick up some breakfast for morning.  Our choice is a strange shop that crosses danish-style pastries with poorly matched food favorites. We go with sweet eggy, cheesy (we think) things. The fridge in the room will preserve them and we'll throw them back once we're on the boat.

At 5:30 AM we drag our sleepy asses down to the lobby and step out to find our spunky, 20-something-year-old guide already waiting attentively.  We've forgotten her name so we will call her Ha 2 (god bless you).  The dock is steps from the hotel door, so a little sleepy balancing onto the deck and we are gone.  The boat is a put-putty little piece of ancient shit, much like every single craft we have seen in this region of the world.  The driver has much experience and utilizes a combination of a hand or leg hook-operated steering device and oars situated to be manipulated while standing... they're also crisscrossed to make captaining this thing seem even more incomprehensible.

The trip out to the first floating market is about 40 min. Truth be told, it's not all that thrilling. Lots of ancient shitty boats facilitating the bobbing and swaying trade of fruits and vegetables.  Lots of pineapples, two of which will soon be inside of us. BTW, the weird pastry egg thingies? Not bad... not good, but not bad.  The coffeeboat dude spots our big round bloodshot eyes and helps us sing the good morning song of the Mekong. They do great coffee 'round these parts.

Onward to Market 2. Even though we've started out so early, the second market is about wrapped and there are as many tourists as vendors.  Not very exciting.

The trip gets more interesting as we slowly navigate into the back channels of the delta. Yes, this is THAT Mekong Delta; the one we shelled the shit out of during the war.  Whatever the strategic reason for the American bombings, we are getting an up close and personal look at the gentle people who makes their lives here.  Tiny plots of riverside land provide all. The water itself is actually used for bathing and cooking.  They farm ducks, chickens and pigs.  The ducks LOVE hyacinth leaves and can actually be trusted to enjoy a group swim in the narrow river because they are assured to be back for some more of the stuff.  The pigs that grow up here also live the sweet life. BTW, have you ever watched a hog pee from start to finish?  I don't know if this was unusual but you could have played the entirety of 'In a Gadda Da Vida' whilé this guy did his business!  It was pretty impressive. Meanwhile, Mekong pig life is good... you know, until the butchering thing. As Saint Thomas of Keller teaches us, pigs are the only animal that must be killed; they produce no eggs, no milk - they produce only waste. Special thanks to Travis, who you'll meet later, for that tidbit. But for now these porkers can swill away in a kind of death row by way of club fed.

We step off the boat twice. The first time is to visit a seriously dinky rice noodle factory replete with a miserable caged civet. The second is to walk through this canal-side neighborhood. This is the truest example of textbook agrarian living we have ever seen. If the human race continues its trajectory and faces it's inevitable cataclysmic disaster, the survivors will envy these remote early adapters their skill and serenity.  After a fair stroll we arrive at a tiny restaurant/guest house.  The lunch is a bit of a clip by Vietnam standards ($20 with a beer and including food for our crew), but it's all good.

On the long ride back through the winding, canals we can't help but notice that the copious garbage that litters the country also has a commanding presence here. We learn that the Vietnamese government charges for trash pick up and, since everyone is poor, they find that the slow, even distribution of their waste is the way to go.

The air back here, much like most of the air in SE Asia once you've gotten some distance from the stink of unfiltered exhaust, no mean feat this we should add, is as sweet and moist as a Duncan Hines cake. 

As we putt along dreamily - the lack of sleep may be kicking in - we also determine that the Holiday House will force on us its unaccommodating abuses not one night more.  We are intrepid, we are determined; we are Americans dammit and we are checking the fuck out!  We'll let the chips fall where the may, but our intention is to reduce Can Tho to the memories recorded herein by nightfall.  We need to get all the way from here to Sinhoukville, Cambodia to catch our boat to the Lazy Island and, from what we are learning, the direct route is going to be a hell of a trip.

Ha 2 helps us negotiate our way out of our pre-paid second night at Horror, er, Holiday House and we are left, lugging our luggage appropriately behind us, to our own devices. A stop at the towns most respectable looking travel agent yields little success as they suggest that only route to Sinhoukville would be via Phnom Penh (essentially Atlantic City from Long Island via Bridgeport Connecticut - dumb). So we retreat to our adopted, cloth napkined home of Nom Bo and hit the Wi-Fi.  We start digging into reports and perusing travel forums because no respectable travel site would dare even mention the 'direct' route onto which we are headed.

Okay, we've got it; there's a bus leaving at 5:00 PM for a place called Rach Gia. That should get us there in time to pick up the 8:30 PM to Ha Tien giving us a great head start. We'll find a place for the night there then negotiate travel to the Cambodian border and on to Sinhoukeville.

We make the 5:00 PM and pack into a van. You never know who'll you'll have sitting next to you in these things. My seatmate is a ferociously aromatic teenage boy who may be alternating his cell phone-checking and napping, but his stinking is a constant.  About two hours into the ride, the clouds part and the God Murphy directs the finger of his eternal Law at our rear left tire. The bad news; we have a flat. The good news; the smell of road-smoked rubber is a vast improvement over young pubey boy.

The driver makes respectable time changing the tire and, in a warm local touch, the resident of the house in front of which we have been waylaid puts out Rubbermaid chairs for the bunch of us. Pretty nice ones at that. No idea why he had them. For the record we have been on our asses plenty and opt to stand.

We're off again, but the flat has cost us valuable time and we miss the 8:30, leaving us stranded in Rach Gia for the night.  This is truly bumfuck by every understanding of the term. We are, as always, accosted by a gander of yalping taxi drivers and touts before our hands can reach our bags.  Here is a well-learned tip for people for who find themselves in this position on a regular basis; when you step off the bus (or out of the van, or car or whatever), do not attempt to address the indecipherable pleas individually. Address them as a group in a tone calm and statesmanlike, "Gentlemen, we've only just arrived in your fair hamlet," the delivery must be jovial, the comportment serene, "Surly none of you would advise our making a hasty or rash decision given our lack of introduction to your ways."  They will be baffled, which will offer you a window of opportunity to break free of the crowd and dig up the one dude in the vicinity with nine words of English.  Usually it's in the bus company office if there is one (there isn't always). Bingo. We learn that a bus for Ha Tien is leaving at 7:30 the next morning. We hire a cab and choose the least offensive of thee shitbox hostelries (read; you wouldn't stay there).

As we pull up to the afore mentioned shitbox, we bump into a pair of adventurous young doctors (husband and wife) that we had met in the previous city.  They are vacationing (in Rach "the Shithole" Gia?!) after several months of work in New Zealand. They recommend a street restaurant around the corner and across a narrow canal. We find it (it's nasty) and from the moment we sit down we are the subject of attention and good-natured largess from a party of some six drunken, convivial Vietnamese 20-somethings.  They are all guys and they chain smoke and toast glass after glass of beer. We, too, toast and laugh and even sing a rousing happy birthday to Tong and Yummy (sp) buys us a bag of some odd cherry-looking fruit that comes with a packet of salty shit to do something with.  We all drink a final toast (Tiger Beer is practically a member of our touring party by now!) and make our way to bed.


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Comments

Es and LLoyd on

Hey, everyone: Just want to tell you we got a phone call from "the kids" in
Cambodia. They're having a great time and now headed for an island for
a few days. They wanted me to post this comment to let you know there'll be
no blogs for the next eight days and they'e fine. Love, Es and LLoyd

Katbuns on

I'm glad to know you're alive and well (thank you, Esther and Lloyd!) and looking forward to more stories. Glad that Julie had no more health issues up to this point - hope stories don't include racing to a Cambodian ER (is there such a thing?), and am living vicariously thru y'all - love the sensory descriptions! The garbage lining the streets reminds me of Bizarre's joke about all of Afghanistan needing a Home Depot. Saigon needs a Merry Maids/street cleaning service! Be well. Xoxo Katbuns

ES AND LLOYD on

Hi: Got an e-mail from Julie Mon. l2/l2 that all is well but they're having
trouble posting blogs. Glad to hear they're fine, having a great time, with very
little sleep.

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