(26) Boating along the MEKONG DELTA:Mytho>Chau Doc
Trip Start Oct 03, 2007
31Trip End Dec 20, 2007
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(I'm sitting here back at my familiar computer desk at home in Jersey, 3 weeks after having left South East Asia and therefore approximately 3 months in arrears with my blog writing since the end of October. Accordingly, the whole exitement and relevance of the traveling as and when it happened is now absent, but the memories are still freshly alive as if I were there..So with my promise I continue the tales:)
Having survived the overnight shuttle back to Saigon and been rudely delayed due to a head-on collision of a big truck right into the back end of the bus where I was sprawled out, we successfully arrived back with a couple of hours to spare and wake up!
So what's the big deal about this "Mekong Delta" before we carry on in traditional fashion:
After an hour and half's journey on the tour bus, we came to Mekong City (Mytho) where we enjoyed our first boat trip in the blazing humid heat. Heading out, the brown murky waters reminded me of the Amazon Basin's dirty clay silt sediments. Was nice to reminisce briefly of my time in South America in Summer '06. The first leg of the trip was a tour of the stilt/thatched/bamboo-housing and the tin/corrogated iron huts. Docking at one bank, the company visited a coconut candy processing workshop doubling up as a banana/coco wine distillery whose delicious products included fudge-like candy and potent syropy wine of course! What a kick! With a bit of free time, I strolled the shores passing many a stray dog and 1 room subsistent house, abandoned by the family at work on the river/mainland for the day.
Next up on this rather regimented agenda was a visit to a honey-tea making Islet where loads of bees lingered whilst we sipped our complementary teas whilst watching each other hold a resident tame adult Python (unexpected highlight of the day by far). Back to rudimentary business, our operators got us intot he thick of the Delta at least, weaving in and out the mangrove swampy side canals discussing the Flora of the area etc.
Taking the tour at the very end of the Southern Vietnam rainy season wasn't enough to elude the downpours which intermittently came during the afternoon, putting a damper on things to say the least. Out came the cheapo thin elasticy plastic bright-coloured 3/4 length ponchos in force to see us through, but we had to take refuge on a saturated Islet watching a light spectacle of traditional folklore msuci accompanied by female singing. Pleasant enough but nto worth the purchase of an entire CD almost thrust in our faces at the end as one should have anticipated!
Dodging the rains, we were soon shipped out to eagerly awaiting 4 seater bamboo log boats each manned with 2 women with paddles at hand.... What ensued was a typical tourist nonsense whereby we were basically whisked around a meandering mangrovey area with no English spoken then at theend we were each expected to tip generously each paddler...even during th course of the outing, the returning paddlers coming back up-stream would always "whisper" to us "give money" with our paddlers feigning interest, sometmies the callers having notes displayed on the boats!!!! Charming!.... Despite their measly salaries, I don't doubt they would more than make ends meat with a few dozen tourists per day eh?
I duly cooperated anyways.
All these mini activities had taken us up to Dusk almost, and now the company on the 1 day tour split off fromt he rest ofthe group who boarded a serparate bus bound for Cantho via Vinh Long.
Twas a further 2 hour drive to the port where our car ferry awaited us. We were warned by our tour guide not to stray off path while walking to the foot passenger embarkment point as the area is renowned for petty crime and muggings apparently....Not surprising as the level of noise, smog and chaos at the terminal was crazy... moped exhausts choking us and all squeezing up beside one another with engines still revving.... little kids dashing around uncontrolably etc, what a scene. The 15-minute crossing from the mainland to the Delta's Capital City strangely on a separate Island, 1,000,000 people-strong, was fine. The other end, the aftermath of the flash flooding was evident in the form of puddles everywhere, reaching corne shops and cafés unable to access.Good job all us backpackers where wearing our flip flops... Wading through galore etc..stinky dirty water too. families aboard mopeds barely got through the gauntlets. This is the ENd ofthe rainy season, goodness knows what's it's like at tits peak man!? sheesh....jeepers..
Anyways, finally got into the nice hotel effectively channelled off by water all around. Fawlty towers impressions.....managed to chill out in the evening and socialise with fellow tour members taking a stroll downtown and dining at an authentic local place. Local brew was fine and as for food, I TRIED SNAKE....copped up into pieces with curry sauce...rather chewy, not tough..not very flavoursome, not similar to any particular meat either..... didn't see or ask what type it was but the only fair comparison I can make overall is with squid. sharesd this iwth a mate and had ashared backup dish of clay pot-stewed fish...... not sure I would fancy it again though, snake that is.... just happy I tried it out in such a setting too, especialyl after having held one move its muscles around my shoulders....
Knackering day in all weathers, and guess what, a very early next morning rise!
DAY 25 - Monday October 29th:
Merrily at dawn, the first thing I noteiced was that all the excess storm water had vanished from sight - woohoo! Ok, what did did the day's itinerary have in strore for us? The early morning excursin was 2 visits to Floating Markets basically entailing a cluster of mid-water docked boats of all descriptions with vendors idly awaiting customerrs, their boats fully equipped with all types of perishable commodities etc..no-one was rushing to pleased for our custom here neither. Pretty much a local resident clientele we felt with no real need or desire for easy tourist dollars. Duly didn't stop off just took fotos.
Following on came a long ride around a large estuary where we got off a couple of times to boggy swamp area denying us entry intoa scheduled factory visit at one point haha. Instead, we toured a coco milk and rice paper factory which was fascinating to finally see the maing of the "roll" element of the "Spring Roll" delicacy amongst other things. Huge circles of thin wafer-like rice paper being exposed to the sun laid outside. Gto vids of all this and can't be arsed to harp on about the whole process.
Onward bound, and we had a small riskay challenge to negotiate when we came across Monkey Bridge, a thin fragile cross-river "bridge" construction which required balance, perseverance and stability otherwise- ppppplonk right into the river infested with I didn't wanna know what! An old dear wanted to get across to where all 20 or so of us were but she practialyl ran across - amazing! put us all to shame with an average time of 2minutes for a grand distance of maybe 15m.
Joell and I then wandered off impatiently and subsequently veered off the beaten track out of pure curiosity, havea few run ins with over-protective dogs etc and then realsied should better get back to the crew who had already boarded once more and promptly went of fin search for us haha!
After a spot of lunch, Bella, our short-term compatriot and the rest of the 2 days tourers, set off on their way back to Saigon, leaving just us 3 day people left. Fed up with the monotony of the river itself, things got mroe exciting on the mainland as we continued our drive Chau Doc bound. First of all, we had a really cool guided visit of a Crocoldile farm where crocs of al ages, sizes, weights loomed, all scrambling ontop of one another.....Learnt a few interesting basic facts like they hate rain and shoot in the water the moment they feel drops on their backs..And also, if mothers are so inclined, they tend to feast on the offspring's eggs lol. Jokes! In addition to these crocs, there were 2 random black bears lounging in a small enclosure?????? oh well, varied.....
The pictoresque speciality of the day was an ascent to Sam Mountain just outside our final destination...Perfectly placed with a 360 panoramic view of the Delta, Vietnam and Cambodia and the floodlands, this sacred place has a Buddhst temple with an observatory tower at th etop. Approaching sunset, the group took a deserved time out as all gazed at the contratsing topography all around: on one side there was a small community nestled bside the mountain but separated by a huge flood-induced lake, on another was the main town sprawled out across the silty plains stretching for kilometres, then directly ahead flowed the Mekong with the Vietnam-Cambodia frontier clearly visible without binoculars....and running through the middle of it all were steep, packed housing and a asic road network adding a homely touch.
Finally, come dusk, we settled into our final hotel and spent the even strolling the easily-navigeable streets with young tuk-tuk or cyclo men by our side harmlessly pestering us for custom or assistance where to go etc...everyone seeme dto know eac other there and once someone had "clientele" the rest duly left him to it! Had my last mixed meat hot pot meal in South East Asia in a local hole in the wall and the evening ended with some jovial card game playing with the Dutch. didn't seem like there was any music scene there and in any event, a late start the next day was certinaly off limits.
DAY 26 - Tuesday October 30th:
Final "day" of the Mekong Delta Tour: most it would be spent traveling to Phnom Penh City (Capital of Cambodia) via Boat>Boat>Bus combination. However, the only brief activities of the day were a visit to a small Fish Farm which consisted of a 50sqm mobile deck with a house and small hatch where all the 10,000s of fishies lingered jumping about eager for a feed...Every 10YEARS it is cleaned and of course with tidal movements and for hygiene purposes, the farm has to be moved along stream. Tade is mainy done externally with the likes of Cambodia and Thailand. And the second brief encounter was with a Muslim Malay minority village which was pretty much just 2 houses with silk weaving and cotton embroidery going on....amongst other things, we were informed that the men must get up at 5am every day to g to pray at the Mosque whereas the women sleep in. Encourgaed not to tip, i learnt that the familise receive a regular dose of income from our Tour Operator so that was jolly. Some guys tired on the male sarongs and had pictures with the housekeepers etc....nothig amazing.
By now, most of us were itching just to get on the river once more and arrive in Cambodia. Come 8:45am we were already en route! This originally appealing trip soon turned into boredom as we pretty much chugged along the middle of the river in our cramped first boat. The Customs & Immigration part was a welcome pause and became the unexpected highlight haha. Took a couple of hours for all our visas and paperwork to be processed and it was so laid back there (other than Joell being the first through who was interrogated painfully) with no bag checks etc....Pah... Rest of the day was just spent sat on a plank in a boat cruising the Mekong, spotting the odd ecstatic group of kiddies greeting us while fully showering, fishing or playing by the shores. Did see some authentic basic family homes with the whole animal grazing and crop growing in sight.. such isolation but comfort according to them probably. Took the odd photo to keep me occupied between book scanning and reading up on Cambodia but I think 2 days max on the Mekong would have sufficed, however, it would have meant re-tracing some landmass just to return to to Saigon City for a boring overland bus journey to Phnom Penh instead.....zzzz
Eventually we docked and got our (cramped!) mini bus service onward to the Capital at like 6pm. It was immediately apparent, despite the familiar rustic surroundings, that we were most definitely in another country now with different smells, noises, facial features and activities going on. Even the moped and clothing were noticeably different. Soon, the drained body perked up crikey! CAMBODIA! Another striking thing was that every 100m or so, huge billboards stood advertising the 2 main political parties, especially the CPP (Cambodian People's Party)...such a strong sense of political identity or what!
Finally getting to the hostel zone, our Anglophone spokesman kindly pointed out the main sites of interest whose illuminations frankly looked stunning eg Independence Monument and Palace where King Sihamoni resides. The city was much more spread out, regal, well-kept and developed than I expected, and easily discernable as the Capital. The car:moped was much more equal than in Saigon or Hanoi too, and the traffic light system FULLY FUNCTIONING along the charismatic boulevards :S
As the usual task of searching the best of the accommodation bunch began, I knew I'd grow fond of Phnom Penh (more info no the Cap in next entry).... So, the epicentre of backpacker hangouts is the Lakeside quarter, pretty much a small lane cut off from the downtown area, with just bars, net cafs, corner shops, restos and hostels side by side. The area was buzzing and so many tuk-tuk drivers lingered around shouting "marihuana", "boom boom", "tuk-tuk" etc. Of course we were directly whisked off to the affiliated hostel (Number 10), and soon found this to be easily accessible from roadside so insecure, and the reception area was flooded with planks of wood connecting the decking from the concrete street. Fawlty Towers impression!
Decided just to accept the first cheap offer for the first night and check out the area - dined late ona national speciality "Amok", which is coconut milk and lemon grassy sauce in yellow curry served with mixed veg and rice on a leaf. divine!!!!!! Pulled my own pint of Angkor Beer, the national pride. And with that, a draining day ended....... Turned in excited ahead of freelance adventures in this place....