Saturday, June 12, 2010

Merrily down the Mekong

Whilst weighing up the prospect of another bus ride from hell for our next leg, we stumbled across the possibility of travelling across the Mekong Delta on a boat. Though it was the much slower option, taking two days staying overnight at the border at Chau Doc, it was appealing in that it wasn’t a reclining leather seat on a runaway bus hurtling around mountain roads like something out of The Italian Job! It still involved a couple of short bus journeys but these were acceptable if the majority of the journey was on the water.

We left Ho Chi Minh City first thing in the morning by coach for Cai Be, via the essential stop at a ‘tourist rest stop’ to answer the call of nature and then peruse some vastly overpriced local wares (all priced in dollars not dong). Cai Be was essentially a working town on the Mekong Delta – stilt houses jutting out from every available piece of land and fishing boats galore. The river at Cai Be also functioned as a trading hub – boats would arrive with stacks of produce like vegetables, fish and meat and other boats moor up alongside to buy in bulk and take the produce back to their local floating market in another part of the delta to sell to those living there. Our group hopped onto a tourist boat which took us up the river (though it’s quite hard to define theriver as every tributary is still part of the Mekong) to view the town and floating market. The market is a hive of activity at about 6am so we’d missed the busy period but it was still interesting seeing all the different traders moored up, each displaying what produce they were selling at the end of a tall mast.

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Cup of tea and the morning papers – Vietnam-style

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Houses spilling into the river, perched on stilts

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Slightly hot on the river (35 degrees at 10am)!

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Banana trader’s boat on the move

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Trading boats moored up

After the floating market, we headed up another bit of the Mekong for a tour of some traditional village factories producing coconut sweets and rice cakes amongst other things. Whilst this would be an amazing experience when done off the cuff, as part of a tour it’s usually a ‘here’s a quick demonstration, now you can buy everything at our gift shop’ type affair and didn’t really feel that traditional. That said, the rice cake making factory was pretty authentic, with flames licking over the edges of the big iron vat of popping rice and chickens running around gobbling up any spillages – nice to just stand and observe once the tour group has moved on. Back on the boat we continued upriver to a pretty riverside restaurant set amongst palm trees with individual stilt huts hosting tables overlooking the vast delta. The setting was second-to-none, however the food was distinctly ropey compared to the usually top-notch (and super-cheap) Vietnamese tucker we’ve been used to. The restaurant complex also doubled as a mini menagerie, featuring freshwater crocs (previously common in the delta) which were cool and a few cages of unhappy looking ducks kept in fairly squalid conditions which was definitely not cool. We were also treated to some traditional Vietnamese music using traditional Vietnamese instruments, though we’re not sure how traditional the electric guitar and a massive amplifier were!

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Rice popcorn – thankfully not made into bland rice cakes yet (the sugar-laced coconut-flavoured ones we had were very tasty though)!

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Rickety-looking shacks complete with massive TV aerials!

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The Mighty Mekong!

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Boat park

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Croc-tastic

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Greatly enjoying the performance

After surviving the aural onslaught we set off on our boat to Vinh Long where we hopped on our bus again towards the border town of Chau Doc, stopping to cross the river at Long Xuyen by car ferry. The Vietnamese also adopt the strange Chinese tradition of making you get off your bus, watching your bus board the ferry, walking onto the ferry past your bus, making the crossing, watching your bus leave the ferry then trying to avoid getting run over by other vehicles amongst the melee whilst trying to catch up with your bus. It would seem more sensible to stay on the bus all the way (considering it only took 10 minutes to cross) – perhaps they didn’t have much faith in the boat making it across afloat! Anyway, a further hour in the bus brought us to Chau Doc and our hotel for the night. Before a well earned kip we grabbed some tucker and took the opportunity to crack open the bottle of snake wine that our wedding list dictated we should consume (thanks Ross and Rachael)! It tasted about as good as it looked – some murky-looking ethanol with a bit of chilli and a tiny cobra inside who was no longer with us (poor little chap)! It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever drunk but it did produce some spectacular gurns upon consumption! Avoided a hangover somehow – not too keen on repeating the experience though!

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Mopeds at the start line of the ‘ferry sprint’

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Chau Doc by night

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The look of fear

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Mmmm – snake!

The following morning we were up bright and early for brekkie and an early 5 minute bus ride to the dock where we hulked our rucksacks down to the quay, putting them on an excitingly small and slightly rickety vessel for our next leg to the border. Before the 3 hour trip up the Mekong to the border crossing, we had a rowing boat trip up another bit of the Mekong. It was baking hot at half past 7 so the poor girl rowing our boat had to endure both the heat and the fact that we Westerners are somewhat heavier cargo than the locals! The rowing style was quite like a Venetian gondola – standing facing forwards with two oars. I was quite keen to give it a go at first but it looked pretty tough on the coordination front; I didn’t fancy capsizing as I’ve already proved this trip that electronics and water aren’t best friends! We rowed across the main river to the other bank and through a floating village where we waved back at the local kids enthusiastically waving at all of the tourists! Our boat was lagging behind a bit so I offered to help with a bit of extra paddling – not sure how much use it was but it was good fun!

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Morning market in Chau Doc

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Aboard the Good Ship Guiver (not sure how happy our oarsperson is to be there…)

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Through the floating village

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Getting stuck in!

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Smiley local children

We stopped off at a Cham Muslim minority village, passing over a wobbly wooden footbridge over a swamp which was excellent (though Fran might not agree!). It was interesting observing local life and traditions, however it was another place where you could buy souvenirs galore, this time accompanied by children of no more than 5 years old begging (in perfect English) for some money ‘for school’. The saddest thing is that this is the first (and sometimes only) English they learn – we gave money to the local elder instead out of principle. We were soon back on our boats, though this time it was only a short trip to transfer to our 10 person speed boat to the border – an amazing way to travel! It took about two and a half hours to get to the Vietnamese border checkpoint, passing lots of waving local kids (and adults), water buffalo (who weren’t waving) and other snippets of rural life; such a great experience.

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Bridge over troubled (stagnant) water

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I can see Kevin McCloud singing the praises of this wood-clad specimen on Grand Designs

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Local girl taking a break from playing at the local mosque

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Fran in her First Class window seat!

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Powering up the Mekong (still!)

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Dry water buffalo…

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…and a very wet one!

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That’s one way of escaping the rain!

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Kids making the most of the river – good lads!

We eventually arrived at the Vietnamese border checkpoint which was amazing – basically a big metal floating houseboat with a cafe and a tiny backroom for processing our passports! We sat down in the cafe, shared a vastly overpriced omelette sandwich, chatted with the friendly Ozzies from our boat (a lovely couple from just north of Perth) and after about an hour all was ready for us to hop on the Cambodian boat (bigger but more rickety) to the Cambodian checkpoint. The Cambodian checkpoint was an incredible set up – mooring at a landing stage we walked up into a lush, flower-filled compound complete with volleyball court! The whole relaxed process was done and dusted for the 8 people on our boat within 10 minutes – our most painless border crossing to date! Resuming our journey up the Mekong, we pressed on towards Phnom Penh. The landscape was largely unchanged from the Vietnamese side, however the stilt houses were fewer in number and less hi-tech! We were pleased that the infectious happiness and warmth of the Vietnamese didn’t suddenly end at the Cambodian border – the Cambodians were more than happy to wave at a boat full of foreigners and we were more than happy to wave back!

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The Guivs at the lushest border post ever!

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Our Cambodian slow boat

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Cloudy skies over lush banana plantations beside the river

A further 3 hours passed easily on the boat and we soon disembarked, hopping on to a minibus for the last leg to the capital. This was certainly an experience as since we were running late, our driver - Cambodia’s answer to Lewis Hamilton but without the talent – seemed determined to make up the time with some breakneck overtaking manoeuvres on the shaky-at-best Cambodian roads! There were some sights that would send a Health and Safety executive into a frenzy – managed to catch a few beauties on camera below!

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This chap’s got his priorities right – hat first, safety second!

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The cheap seats…

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Excellent sleeping skills from the baby in the middle!

After successfully negotiating Phnom Penh’s rush hour, we arrived in the capital an hour behind schedule but in one piece (thankfully). Hopping in one of Cambodia’s plentiful Tuk-Tuks we made it to our guesthouse and set to work exploring Cambodia’s biggest city, where the next blog picks up… :)

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