Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Mekong Delta Blues

From the traffic and scooter madness of Saigon,  it was time to venture south-west to the peace and serenity of the Mekong Delta. I accomplished this via a three day tour commonly offered at every travel agency and am now here to say that the three day tour is much too long (as the one day tour is much too short). It is the two day tour that is the best bet, assuming you are returning to Saigon, that is. If not, then disregard everything I just said.

On day one of my escape to the wetlands (my 3rd such escape if you also count the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the Danube Delta in Romania, all before setting foot in the Everglades, a mere few hours from my home), I was joined by two lovely French couples and an elderly American woman who had a disturbing propensity for vomiting and collapsing at the worst possible moments. I would have been more sympathetic to the old lady's plight if she would have heeded the advice of the guide and Fadia, one of the French women who also happened to be an incredibly kind-hearted doctor, and returned to Saigon to seek medical attention but she stubbornly refused to listen and thus we were almost two hours late and with a near invalid in tow by the time we got near the water.

The incident did, however, give us a wonderful example of the kindness of the Vietnamese people. When Old Lady (I don't remember her name) collapsed, she did so right by some tables set up by vendors on the dock. I first noticed something was wrong when I saw two of them abandon their tables and run inland. They were running to her aide. One woman took all the plastic shopping bags she had and stuffing them together created a pillow that she placed under Old Lady's vomit-spewing head. Two men worked together to roll a heavy cement base close to Old Lady so that they could place a large gazebo umbrella above her. She showed no signs of gratitude yet they continued to tend to her.

Once Fadia had revived Old Lady and ascertained that despite pleas to sanity, she intended on continuing deeper into rural areas devoid of health care, we boarded the first of many boats. We were able to catch the tail end of a small floating market as we cruised past shacks and sturdier homes, sitting side by side along the waterfront. It was reminiscent of the klongs in Bangkok, watching as people live, bathe, work and play, all in the murky river.

Our shopping stops for the day were fitting for the region and had exceedingly low sales pushes, making them that much more enjoyable.  One was a factory where they make rice paper, the other one where they make coconut candy.  The latter had free samples, winning it even more points.

To get to our lunch stop in a small village downriver, we had to switch to smaller rowboats but we were running pretty behind, the tide was low and the rowboats were nowhere in sight. To speed us up and reduce drag thus reducing chances of grounding on the sandbanks, the captain had the French couples and I sit on the front of the boat. Old Lady was not budging. I'm guessing, based on the number of looks from fellow boaters, our perch is not the norm.

We eventually made it to the village for a quick lunch and a stroll through the quiet, blessedly scooter-free lanes.  It was somewhere I would have enjoyed spending more time.

 Four new people joined us at this point. They had done a home stay in the village, which they all thoroughly enjoyed, and were continuing with us on to Can Tho, the Mekong's largest city. After some time on the boat, we left the residential areas behind and were cruising past watery green fields, watching the sun set on this very fertile land.  By the time we reached Can Tho, still running late, it was evening. The town was lit up like an waterfront Vegas and the streets were abuzz with people. After all the solitude we had passed, it came as a big surprise.  There was a wide open plaza, a night market and plenty of restaurants to choose from.

I could not make too late a night of it since we had to check out early next morning and return to the water. We were starting the day with a visit to a much larger floating market. This is where farmers bring their fruits and vegetables to sell to villagers and wholesale buyers. To demonstrate what it is they are selling, the hang a specimen from a large pole at the front of their boat. Smaller boats go across the canals, or as they have now become, supermarket aisles, inspecting produce.  It is a much more authentic market than the famed one in Bangkok, although a few ladies have gotten into the tourist trade, selling sodas, beer and knick knacks. Oddly enough, the most successful merchant amongst the tourist, was a boat that smartly anchored along side our boat and was selling nothing more than fresh sliced pineapple.  While we waited for everyone to get their turn on the smaller boat, we all made our way onto their boat and partook of some ridiculously juicy pineapples.

The next two stops would normally fall under the category of shopping stops, but seeing as there was nothing for sale in either place, that would be a definite misnomer. The first was a rice noodle factory, where we watched them cook up the rice husks into giant discs and then feed those through carnivorous looking machines that spit them out in the more familiar noodle shape. The rice processing factory that followed was really a closed industrial warehouse with a bazillion roaches crawling around. I power-walked out of there as fast as my flip-flopped feet could carry me and vowed never to seek employment in a rice processing plant.

By lunchtime, we were back in Can Tho, with time enough to explore the town with the benefit of daylight. The brutal heat prevented any exploration from being too far-flung, but the relatively small size of the waterfront area made for pleasant roaming.

When we met back up, we were joined by yet more people continuing on to Chau Doc, a town on the Vietnam, Cambodia border.  The journey requires a three hour drive followed by a two hour boat trip (advertised as a sunset cruise, but the scheduling all but guarantees you will miss any trace of a sunset), which is fine if you are continuing on to Phnom Penh. But if your intent is only to see the Mekong and return to Saigon, this is utterly senseless. We arrived at our floating hotel late at night and were told we would be leaving at 7am the following morning.  I rose with the sun and saw perhaps three whole blocks of Chau Doc before meeting up with the group.

The morning's scheduled activities were few.  We visited a fish farm, which is basically a large net which lays underneath a boathouse and pens in its captives and we strolled through a minority village.  The inhabitants of the village are Cham people.  They were traditionally a Hindu people responsible for some of the most beautiful carvings and temples throughout the country, but somewhere along their history they switched to Islam and now wear more traditional Muslim attire.  Other than the clothing, there was nothing that I could ascertain that differentiated them from the majority.  The village had a welcoming, warm feel to it and once again I was left with the feeling that I would have liked to have spent more time there.

But by 10am, the people who were going to Cambodia were boarded onto a boat heading west, taking Old Lady who had managed to hang in there with them and the rest of us had to begin our journey back to Saigon.  We were brought back to Chau Doc and given 30 minutes to walk around while they readied the boat for our return.  Incredibly, directional doofus that I am, I managed to get lost... in a town with one road! For the life of me, nothing looked familiar. I could not figure out where the boat was and when I stopped to ask if anyone knew where the Floating Hotel was, I got a lot of warm smiles in return but nary a response.  Being that they were once a French colony, I even tried broken French with no better results. I looked at my watch and saw that I was already five minutes late and began to worry that the boat would take off and leave me in Chau Doc.  Out of nowhere, the town's one English speaker appeared, ascertained the problem and helped me negotiate a motorbike back to the Floating Hotel. Yes...negotiate!!  Dire as my situation was, I was so into the haggling mindset so prevalent in Vietnam, that I refused the bike guy's first asking price of 10,000 dong..or 50 cents!!!  In a correct world, he should have just said "Okay, for being an asshole, the price is now 20,000 dong.  What are you going to do about it?" and common sense would have eventually prevailed and I would have been out an entire dollar. But no, I managed to get the price down to 5,000 dong, saving myself a cool quarter!  The bike quickly returned me to the spot where the boat was docked...which is funny because after we had pushed off and sailed a bit,  my new Aussie friends pointed across the river and said "Look familiar?"  There, across the river was the Floating Hotel!  After the morning tour, we had docked on the opposite side of the river, which is why nothing looked familiar to me. The amazing part is that the bike guy, who was instructed to deliver me to the Floating Hotel had somehow known to ignore my instructions and brought me to the correct spot.  I'm thinking I emptied my Traveler's Good Karma bank on that one.

Now safely back on the boat, I enjoyed the leisurely two hour boat ride. The seven hour drive that followed it, not so much. We had travelled nearly fourteen hours to and from Chau Doc, all for a visit to a fish farm and a fifteen minute stroll through a minority village.   It is because of this routing that I say that the two day trip is preferable, because you get to skip the Chau Doc debacle. Unless, of course, you are headed to Cambodia and need to get to Chau Doc... then, as I mentioned earlier, disregard.


  1. Great photography on this journey.

  2. Thanks! The picture of the old man with the conical hat is my favorite.

  3. Great pictures please, you should be commisioned to take a photo of George W. Bush for his upcoming Presidential library...

  4. Well, I have been looking for a reason to use my anti-doofus lens....