Jenny\'s Southeast Asia/China Adventure

Travel time: February - June 2004  |  by Jenny Chu

Vietnam: Mekong Delta

Monday, 3/29/04
Day 54, Bye bye, Cambodia. Hello Vietnam.

I woke up at the break of dawn and said goodbye to Anna, who is off to Thailand and Burma then back to London. Got into the Camry and picked up Kris and Lein. We all agreed that today would be an adventurous day, as border crossings usually come with their share of tales to tell.

Well, the first three hours driving back to Kampot went without a hitch. And with only three of us (plus driver) in the car, this ride was pure heaven. One more hour to go and we would hit the border crossing at Tinh Bien, which recently opened up to foreigners about a year ago. Most people cross from Phnom Penh to Saigon on a bus ($6) or join a tour group that crosses the border via boat. We were going to do it all independently. Yep, we were feeling oh-so-proud.

Soon, the driver took us onto a narrow dirt road that snaked through tiny villages. " Oh this is so great. We are so lucky to see Cambodia, close up and with no other tourists around." After twenty minutes however, we were growing a bit suspicious that we were heading in the wrong direction. Our car was the only one on the road, which was leading us into even more rural territory. We hit a dead end. Wonderful.

Hello, driver do you know where we are going? Are we lost? He didn't answer. Then he tells us he decided to take a short cut today. Um, thanks, for trying it out on us. I try asking him if he's driven to the border before. Yes, yes, he says not really answering my question. Ten minutes later, I ask again and he says he's driven it once (if even). Brilliant.

We proceed to pull over about three times and ask people which way the border was. A few of them gave conflicting directions. I was getting a little edgy, but this was actually sorta fun and exciting. Lein and Kris agreed. Hey, we still have gas and we got air conditioning. We'll get there eventually right? Yeah, after six hours of driving, we do. But, first we would experience something that would only happen in a third world country. When we reach a makeshift bridge that had a gap, the driver just stops the car and pulls out a wooden plank from one part of the bridge and plops it over the hole. I was thinking our luck has just run out. Amazingly, we made it to the other side intact.

At the border crossing, it was scorching hot. Luckily, the border officials were friendly enough and let us cross without demanding any bribes. We met a Canadian couple that was crossing over from Vietnam. What good timing for our driver and for them. Anyway, we were the only travelers around. We finished border formalities an hour later then walked over to a group of moto taxi drivers. They wanted to charge an exorbitant $10 per person for the ride to Chau Doc. Finally after twenty minutes, we got them down to $10 for all of us.

Maybe they were not happy about that because then we sped off and for the next 25km, I held on for dear life. We were driving down a one-lane road, often veering to the opposite side where we would miss oncoming traffic by mere seconds. Or we would be weaving in between cars, buses and other motorbikes. Fortunately, I had my backpack strapped on, the extra weight preventing me from flying off as we flew over bumps. When we got to the Thanh Tra hotel in Chau Doc, the Dutch girls were close to tears. It was all of our closest brush with death, but thank god we survived.

It's hard to imagine that a few hours later we would be walking through the tranquil town of Chau Doc that would welcome us with open arms. Vietnam was a drastic change from Cambodia. The markets were cleaner, the buildings more modern. People were flying coloful kites. And there were paved roads! Anyway, what was unexpected was how friendly everyone was. People left and right were saying hello with their biggest smiles. A family whom Kris and Lein bought some ciggies from invited to sit down and soon their neighbors crowded around us, making the three of us feel like big time celebrities. Kris and Lein treated them to a performance of their Dutch dance, and in return we were taught how to count to ten in Vietnamese. I knew however, that without the two blondes by my side I wouldn't have gotten the special attention for I have already got my first, "same, same?" Yep, four for four now.

Anyway, this Thai/Laotian/Khmer/Vietnamese girl is tired, it's been a long, long, crazy day.

Tuesday, 3/30/04
Day 55, Caged fishes, Sam mountain, and grubbing food

Sinh Café travel agency, offers a tour from Chau Doc that explores the Mekong Delta and then up to Saigon. For one night accommodation and two days of touring, it was $22. Pretty good deal.

So this morning, we got on the big air-conditioned bus with our bakery goodies (cheap and yummy!) and headed over to the riverbanks where we boarded a little wooden boat rowed by a strong Vietnamese woman wearing a cone hat. Passing by many floating houses, we stopped at one where they were breeding hundreds of catfish in a cage underneath the foundation. We were then rowed to a village of the Cham ethnic minority, it was very touristy and felt a bit like stepping into an Epcot center exhibit. Onto the main road, it was a bit more real. We saw women pushing wooden carts, selling vegetables and a Mosque where school children were being schooled in the Koran. It was interesting to see Vietnamese Muslim people, as I didn't know before coming here that such a group existed.

Anyway, next up was the Lady Chua Xu temple. It was big, crowded, and super kitsch. And there was a whole pig being roasted as offering inside. Yum. Onto Sam Mountain, which we hiked up in sweltering heat, only to see our tour guide point out the non-descript border between Vietnam and Cambodia. There was nothing else of interest on this Sam mountain really, so I took refuge on a hammock, sipped on a coke, while most of the group headed to the summit. I think one of my favorite attributes of SE Asia is the abundance of hammocks found everywhere. Felt too much of a lazy ass and headed up to see the supposed view, when I met Kris and Lein who told me not to bother. Hmmmm, this tour was not all that interesting. But, it's still a good way to head to Saigon for the price.

They took us to a good place for lunch and us three girls shared a veggie hot pot accompanied by my favorite SE Asian drink, the ubiquitous iced coffee-all for under two dollars. The ride to Cantho, where we would stay the night was on a paved road, which I'm still not used to after Cambodia. But, it was noisy as hell. Roads here are all one-lane each way, and everyone tries to pass on the opposite side causing way too much honking going on.

Cantho, the provincial capital of the Mekong Delta was pleasant enough. Busy, yet manageable Cantho had many French-colonial buildings like the ones in Cambodia. However, we continued to notice more differences than simliarities between the two countries. For instance, we have yet to see a pick-up truck crammed with 20 people in the back here, and there were actual sidewalks, litter-free. Liking Vietnam much, I am missing Cambodia.

For dinner we choose the Nambo restaurant out of our Lonely Planet Guide. Located by the riverside, Nambo was set in an old-colonial building offering Vietamese and Western cuisine. I had a great lemon-grass stir fry for 25,000 dong. Wow, I have yet to be disappointed by Vietnamese food and its great value too. Whohooo! Afterwards, we found a super cheap internet cafe and then headed back to our two-star hotel room where we chit-chatted until we fell asleep. It was fun to have a slumber party with people, who are starting to feel like old friends.

Wednesday, 3/31/01
Day 56, Floating markets, vermicelli making and Saigon

The highlight of our tour today was visiting the Cai Rang floating market, the Mekong's largest. We floated through the Mekong during the market's busiest hour and watched boat merchants sell each other goods, mostly food. Some tried their luck with us, offering us cold drinks and fruits, but we all politely declined. The market trip was definitely an interesting glimpse into the Mekong lifestyle. Many people seem to live on their boats as we saw clothes being hung out to dry, hammocks tied up, and even houseplants sitting on the boat decks.

Afterwards, we docked our boat and went on shore to see rice paper being made, the kind that wraps up all the yummy spring rolls. The rest of the tour consisted of visiting a fruit plantation and a "bonsai" garden, which turned out to have oh maybe two bonsai bushes, and some locked up primates. All in all, today's touring turned out to be more enjoyable than yesterday.

By the time we rolled into Saigon, it was 7 o'clock. We were dropped off in the heart of Saigon and I said my goodbyes to Kris and Lein. We would be in touch, and try to meet up again. From Sinh Café, I shared a ride with a couple from a tour to the upmarket Don Khoi area that housed all the major hotels. I was excited to be in a city again, and even more excited to see my cousin at the Sheraton! As I walked through the posh lobby with my backpack, my heart was pounding. Iwas nervous and felt out of place at this five star hotel considering I had been staying at no-star guesthouses for the past two months. Also, my cousin had not yet arrived and the hotel clerk wanted to make a copy of my credit card in case she didn't show up.
Um, my cousin will show up (she has too!) in a few hours I told them as I got the key and went into our suite-which had btw, a separate shower, bathtub, two sinks, robes, desk, carpet, mini-bar. I was in hotel heaven.

Hungry, I then left to get some Dong from a nearby bank and settled for a chic restaurant/bar across the street. I finally got the veggie burger I was craving for, but I had to pay 90,000 dong-$6 to satiate my taste buds-v. expensive for Vietnam. When I got back to the hotel, my cousin was already there. It was so great to see a familiar face!

That night, it actually took me a while to fall asleep in my almost too comfortable surroundings!

© Jenny Chu, 2004
You are here : Overview Asia Vietnam Mekong Delta
The trip
Follow my travels through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and China..........
Start of journey: Feb 02, 2004
Duration: 4 months
End of journey: Jun 02, 2004
Travelled countries: Asia
The Author
Jenny Chu is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 20 years.
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