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The Mekong Delta Adventure 5 May 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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Originally posted on 05 May 2009 (edited)

I am starting to have less stories to tell and share with you about Vietnam. This is mainly due to Vietnam becoming my home. Things which surprised or annoyed me, things that stood out to me in the beginning, have either already been mentioned, or are not as exciting as before. This is probably a good thing.

However, I have been travelling quite a bit already in 2009, all within Vietnam.  After Vietnamese New Year (Tet), my partner and I went to Mai Chau with two friends of ours from Canberra. In March, we went to Sa Pa in the north of Vietnam (my second trip), and in April we went to Hue in central Vietnam.

All of these trips have been fantastic, but none of them inspired me enough to write about until our most recent sejour to the Mekong Delta.

Mekong Adventure

Vietnam had two extra public holidays this weekend, with Thursday 30 April being Victory Day, celebrating the fall of Saigon in 1975, and Friday 1 May being Labour Day.  So, armed with a four-day weekend, we started looking at trips.  We soon realised that many Vietnamese were doing the same, and many locations that were on our ‘yet to see’ list were booked out.  But Can Tho seemed to be cheap and available, so that’s where the trip headed to.

Can Tho is one of the most prosperous cities in the Mekong Delta, lying somewhere between the mouth of the Delta and the Cambodian border.  It is famous for fish and fruit, and we soon discovered that it was a lovely area.  It is equipped with floating markets, where, if you get up early enough in the morning, you get to see boats bringing their produce to the market in bulk, and where smaller boats purchase the stock to resell in the land-based markets.  Here, you can buy every type of fruit in season, and there are also small boats providing services to the bigger boats (and the tourists that come to look at them), like a little lady that sold bowls of noodle soup (breakfast), a young, energetic man who sold steaming hot Vietnamese coffee (or with ice, if you like it cold) and a family with a small, floating supermarket, providing everything from biscuits, drinks and other foodstuffs, to rudders, pieces of string and propellers for boat repairs.

Interestingly, all the boats in the floating market have a sample of their wares hoisted up on a large stick, so that you can see from a long way off what they are selling.  One boat had a pumpkin hanging off the stick, another a cabbage or a pineapple, indicating that they sold pumpkins, cabbages and pineapples respectively.  Other boats had a combination of carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes etc.  Great advertising!

We booked a trip and were already out on the water at 6am on our first morning, enjoying the ride downstream to the two markets.  Just as we were at the point the furthest away, a bathroom was required, and rudimentary facilities were provided for on land.  The bathroom, however, merits a small paragraph, as it was quite a little adventure on its own.  The little room was 70 by 100 cm, with a door that only covered 2/3 of the doorway, and facing the river.  The door could only be kept shut if the occupant of the toilet held onto a rubber band attached to it while squatting.  Inside the room was only a urinal for men, and women just squatted on the floor.  Now, I have become relatively adept at using squat toilets since arriving in Vietnam, but this room did not even have that much.  It was just a slightly slanted floor!  And when you finish, you scoop a large ladle full of water from a drum outside and throw it in, causing the toilet to be cleaned, but all the refuse to run out onto the ground (which conveniently slanted towards the river…) Traumatic to say the least.

As we set off again, we took another route back to the hotel, through the canals.  This is where we really came to appreciate that we had hired a smaller boat, as the bigger tourist boats only went up and down the river.  We literally passed through waterways overgrown with plants, passed young kids splashing in the water, waving enthusiastically at us, and through people’s backyards.  The people in the Mekong Delta are lovely, and everyone had smiles and waves to offer the crazy white people coming through on the little boat.

But the river itself has some serious problems.  Traditionally, the houses that have backed onto the Mekong have thrown their rubbish straight into the water, for it to carry it out to sea.  With the onslaught of plastic you can imagine the environmental issues that arise with this practice.  We had to stop time and time again for our boat driver to untangle the propeller when it got stuck in plastic bags and old fishing nets.  Yet she thought nothing of throwing the rubbish she pulled off the propeller straight off the side back into the water.  I saw a little boy who had been sent to take out the trash launching a big bag full of rubbish into the water.  Clothes, hair and humans are washed in the same water, all with detergents and soaps.  As are bowls and chopsticks, pots and pans, and other household items, sometimes with detergent, more often not.  Oil and petrol from repair shops are also washed into the river.  Boats are painted while still in the water, with the paint just dropping into the waterways.  Fish and animal refuse are washed into the water.  As mentioned before, I am sure sewage also finds its way into it.  Further upstream, where the people were poorer, we heard that the water is also being drunk.  This is a river that runs through China, Laos, Cambodia before it even reaches Vietnam, and to think that these people have to drink that water…  It is disturbing.

After our six hour boat ride through Can Tho, we arrived back at the docks just before it started raining.  We quickly paid our boat driver, who had been really lovely to us, buying pineapple, watermelon and jack-fruit for us to eat, and being very friendly.  We then hurried back to the hotel where we managed to fit in a shower before we went to take the bus to Chau Doc on the Cambodian border.

Chau Doc is a smaller and more sleepy town than Can Tho, but it was also very nice.  We stayed in a great little Spartan hotel in the centre of town, right next to the markets.  Slipping through the market and feeling your nostrils fill with the scents of local delicacies (such as the Mekong Delta fermenting fish) has for me now become a very Vietnamese afternoon.  The area is famous for its mam, a type of fish sauce based on different types of fermented seafood, which to Western noses is a little obnoxious.  I still haven’t tried these (apart from the bottled variety), because it is a little hard to determine which month old fermented sauce is going to agree with you and which one will not.  My Vietnamese friends have likened it to some types of blue cheese – if you can’t get past the smell, you will never enjoy the taste.

Chau Doc also has a very interesting ethnic mix, as there are Chinese, Khmer (Cambodian) and other ethnic minorities around living together with the ethnic Vietnamese.  The Chinese apparently largely left the area in 1979, when reprisals against the Chinese population over the invasion of the Northern Provinces (Lao Cai, Lai Chau +++) by China were making it too difficult to live there.  But there are still large Chinese influences, like a Chinese congregation temple and Chinese restaurants.

The Khmer in the area also suffered greatly, but at the hand of the Khmer Rouge, who, during the reign of Pol Pot, sent troops across the border into Vietnam and killed many ethnic Khmer people.  One town now has a “Bone Temple” (reminiscent of similar temples in Phnom Penh), where the remains of more than 1000 Khmer villagers have been incorporated into a temple as a historic reminder of the atrocities.  Only 2 villagers are said to have survived the massacre.

Another ethnic group is the Cham.  We had booked a boat ride in Chau Doc to go to the floating market, the floating village and the Cham village that is famous for its silk produce.  Unfortunately, our poor guide had managed to fall off the boat when he tried to purchase a pineapple for us, and had to be taken ashore to change.  He had hit his head, and admitted to not being a good swimmer, so luckily he had managed to hang on to the side of the boat.  My partner and the pineapple vendors managed to lift him back into the boat, and I managed to snatch his flip-flop as it came floating down the river past me, but he was thoroughly shaken, and completely drenched.

So the floating village and the Cham village part of the tour was done by our lovely boat lady, who was absolutely adorable.  She would explain lots of things to us, smiling, pointing and waving, and although our Southern Vietnamese language skills are rather limited, we think we managed to piece together most of the information.  The floating village was interesting, in that we were allowed to go aboard a floating house, and see how they have cages under the houses with fish in all sizes.

The Cham people are Muslim, and in the Cham village we had a look at the local mosque, and bought a few handicrafts from the silk vendors.  Unfortunately, here, as in many places in Vietnam, the children were very active in the procurement of money from foreigners, selling things, and pretending to be insulted when you did not want any.  At the mosque, they wanted money for minding your shoes.  Out of principle, we try to only purchase things from adults, but sometimes this is a little difficult.  I even heard one little girl call an American tourist a liar, when he said he had no more money to spend.  They really know how to hassle you!  The stalls had some very nice items, though, including sarongs for men in beautiful silk.  Other things, like the handwoven scarves, were exactly the same as in Mai Chau, Da Lat and Sa Pa, which is sad, because now we don’t know where they originated from.

The end of the tour was a walk through the countryside near the Cambodian border, where the rice fields were lined with Australian eucalyptus.  Weird.  This is also where we saw the poorest people, farmers that owned barely anything and who drank the Mekong river water.  It is an incredibly hard life still for very many people in Vietnam.

That afternoon, we rented motorbikes and drove to the top of Sam Mountain, where we could see over the border into Cambodia on one side, and out over the Vietnamese countryside on the other.  Apart from a BB-gun shooting range and little chained-up monkeys, we seemed to be the largest attraction up there, with a lot of people staring, giggling, pointing and taking photos of us.  It was a little too much, so we quickly found a little café where we could sit out of view from the Vietnamese tourists (the local Vietnamese tend to get over us much quicker than the tourists do) and had a drink before we scooted down the mountain again.  There, we found a barbecue restaurant popular with the locals and recommended by the Lonely Planet which was just heavenly.  You grill your own beef on hot coals at your table, and we were lucky enough to just be seated when the sky darkened and the rain came bucketing down.  It was a lovely end to a lovely day, hearing the beef sizzle and the rain pummel the roof that we were under, seated as the only Westerners in a small, open restaurant by the side of the road.

When the rain stopped, we headed back to Chau Doc for the night.  We had discovered a small café near the hotel with beautiful sinh to, the Vietnamese answer to a smoothie, through the guide we had that morning.  So we made sure to fit another delightfully fruity drink in before we headed off.

On the Sunday, we headed back for Can Tho early, as we were looking forward to a bit of luxury.  As we had spent the three first nights in cheap hotels, we had decided to splurge a little on the last night.  So, after lazing by the pool, napping and a facial for me, we went for an evening perambulation along the promenade to a nearby restaurant.  The restaurant was made up of little individual huts over a fish pond and with views of the river.  The huts had thatched roofs and served delicious seafood meals, it was an absolutely lovely ending to a great weekend getaway.  We were well pleased with ourselves for having taken an extra day off, so Monday we travelled back to Hanoi and spent the rest of the day relaxing before starting our very short week.

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