Monday, May 7, 2007

Drifting up the Mekong



Now, if you go back and look at my previous entries, you'll probably notice that the thing I've complained about the most is tours and tour groups. So, it goes without saying that when we were present with the opportunity to take a three day tour into the Mekong Delta, we jumped at the opportunity. But, before I get into the details of our tour of the Mekong, I just wanted to mention that we visited the Jade Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City which was an interesting experience.

I'd visited other Buddhism temples, or wats, on my trip to Thailand several years ago, but the Jade Pagoda was significantly different from what I saw there. The wats in Thailand (and now in Cambodia too) generally reminded me a bit of Catholic Churches, in that they were usally large, contained a number of devotional pieces or areas, and lots and lots of gold ornamentation. But, the Jade Pagoda seemed much more "hands on" that what I'd come to expect from Buddhist temples. It seemed almost like a workshop, or repair shop, for the soul.

The interior of the Jade Pagoda.

The rooms were small and cramped. Dark and heavily stained by the incense that filled the air. There were scores of little rooms, each dimly lit and cluttered with various depictions of the Buddha, half-burned incense sticks, and offerings ranging from tea to fruit. In the main room people were chanting and singing, while outside a man was burning paper printed to look like money as a ward against hungery ghosts.

I'm not sure if the pagoda was different merely because it was a pagoda and their function is different. Or, if it was because Thailand and Cambodia practice Theravada Buddhim, while Vietnam primarily practices Mahyana Buddhims. But, it was an interest place to visit none-the-less.

OK, back to the tour.

So, Sarah and I signed up take a three day tour of the Mekong Delta that would end by dropping us off in Phonm Penh, Cambodia. The brochure seemed very specific about what activities the tour would be participating in during those three days, but -as you might expect- the actual tour only beared a passing resemblance to what was on paper.

The first day though was pretty straight forward. We were picked up early from the MyMy Arthouse where we were staying. I'm not sure what made the MyMy an "Arthouse"... but it might have had something to do with the fact that it looked like the type of place that Crocket from Miami Vice might stay at if he was down on his luck.

Anyhow, we were loaded onto a bus with about a dozen other people, and driven out to the city of My Tho. There, we were loaded onto a motorboat and toured the Mekong river and some of the cottage industries on it. First up, we navigated a narrow river that took us to a coconut candy "factory" where they showed us how they made the candy. This was followed by the obligatory chance to buy some candy. But, it was quite good, so we obliged.

Making our way up a small river.

After that, we were taken further up the small river to a bee farm, where they showed us a bee hive (surprisingly, I passed on the chance to hold it). And we got to taste some honey (note: tea, honey and a splash of kumquat juice is very good). And, they brought out a python for people to have their picture taken with (surprisingly, Sarah passed at the chance to hold it).

Then, we went back down the river, where the guide took us on a tour of a small village (with another pit-stop to drink tea), then loaded us onto row boats which took us to lunch. Lunch was one of two fish options, both made with the same fish which they called an "elephant fish" (bacause it's fillet looked like an elephants ear). Sarah and I chose the one that was steamed in coconut milk and served in fresh spring rolls which -despite my natural dislike for all things seafood- forced me to admit it "wasn't half bad."

After lunch, we reboarded our original boat, which took us to another island. On that island, we got to eat a variety of tropical fruits (including dragon fruits and rambutans), while Vietnamese sung and played traditional music. After that, it was back on our boat, back across the river and into the tour bus.

Then, it turned out that everyone else on the tour was doing a 1-day tour, while we were doing a 3-day. So, while everyone else climbed onto another bus to go home, we were merged with another tour group that was doing a 2-day tour.

As we got introduced to our new tourmates (a trio of French who worked in China and were on an extend weekend in Vietnam, a pair of Germans on a Round the World Trip, and a Mexican guy), our bus drove us on to Cantho, were we'd spend the night.

To get into Cantho, we had to take a ferry ride which matched the one we took back in Bolivia. First, we were unloaded from the bus, and made our way into a room packed with people and running motorcylces. Then, when the ferry arrived, they opened the doors and had to practically run to the ferry, while dodging the motorcycles which were also trying to get on. Matters were exasperated by two young boys bathing in the river near the ferry entrance, which caused a group of older tourist to stop, take out their camera and start clicking photos... creating an even greater bottleneck to get onto the ferry. Once across the river, we were unloaded from the ferry, and had to wait on a street corner for the bus to come across on a seperate ferry (for safety reasons apparently).

Not surprisingly, after all that, and after checking into our hotel, Sarah and I were happy to join our new tourmates for dinner and drinks before calling it an early evening.

The next morning, we were up bright and early, and made our way down to Cantho's riverfront where we were loaded onto another boat to go see the floating market. Now, I'd seen a floating market in Thailand, so I wasn't that excited, but it turned out to be a surprisingly interesting experience. Where the floating market in Thailand was a small river mainly filled with people trying to sell souvieners to tourists, the floating market was a much larger market, and one that actually served a functional purpose. Basically, farmers from outlying areas would load their boats with produce and take them down the river to Cantho. From there, they would be sold to people in town, or to resellers who would take the produce on to HCMC. The farmers would then stock up on stuff unavailable in their own village and return home.

Eating pineapple on the roof of a boat in the floating market.

After taking in the market (and sampling a pineapple) our tour guide took us to both a rice noodle making factory and a rice husking plant. The rice noodle making process, which involves pouring liquidied rice onto a giant heated piece of silk like a massive pancake, proved to be hyponotic and interesting... even if most members of our tour group seemed more interested in the giant pigs standing in the pens nearby.

Finally, we were taken to another market, where we were allowed time to browse the wide array of exotic fruits, live fish for sale in metal tubs, and bizarre cuts of meat. After that, it was back to Cantho.

A fruit stand in the market. Sarah had a field day checking out the different food and taking pictures.

A meat stand at the market... yep folks, that meat up front is rat.

This is where it got a little bizarre. Since the rest of the group was only doing a 2-day tour, our guide dropped Sarah and I off at a random hotel and told us that another tour guide would be picking us up at 2pm.

Around 3pm, a pair of small tour buses pulled up. Our bags were loaded into one, and we were loaded into another and -without much explanation- we were off again. Not entirely sure our bags were going to meet us at our next destination.

In our new bus was a trio of other couples also doing Round the World Trips: A Belgian couple, a British couple and an American guy married to a British woman. And, a solo Dutch traveller. Oddly, we seemed to be pieced together from three seperate tour groups; and none of us knew where we were going, and our driver seemed cranky. Still the group was lively, and we spent a good portion of the hour and a half long drive that followed shouting, chatting and sharing travelling misadventures.

When our bus finally arrived at our next destination, Sarah and I were happy to see our bags sitting next to the road with our new tour guide who then hurried us onto this boat:



The next three hours were spent drifting down the Mekong, sipping beer, watching the sunset and waving at Vietnamese children playing on the rivers shore. This was exactly what Sarah and I had pictured when we signed up for a tour of the Mekong.

Finally!

After that long day, we finally reached the town of Chau Doc, where we retired to our rooms to try to get some sleep before the final day of our tour.

Waking early again, we were introduced to the new tour guide (our third) driven to the waterfront where we boarded rowboats piloted by Vietnamese men and women rowing from the stern of the boat. They paddled us along the river to a series of house boats. We then got to climb onto a houseboat and look down at the fisheries built below it. After taking in the countless fish swimming beneath the house, we were back onto the rowboats where we were paddled to a Cham village.

The Cham are ethnic minority living in Southern Vietnam. They are Muslim, but a branch of Islam that is greatly influenced by the surround Buddhism and Animism. After watching their weavers work, and seeing their Mosque, we made our way back out to our boats and were paddled out into the river again.

Saying goodbye to our row boat driver. The woman in the pink paddled us around, and her husband and daughter are in the other boat behind here.

Soon, our boat from the previous evening arrived again, and we climbed from our rowboats onto it for another three hour trip down the Mekong to the Cambodian boarder. Again, lounging on the boat proved to be a relaxing experience... but this time, I think they were just preparing us for the boarder crossing.

Arriving at the Vietnamese/Cambodian boarder, we were told to wait for about an hour while our guide took care of the legalities. This boilded down to the group of us standing in a small covered area while kids tried to sell us beer, water and fruit, and middle-aged women tried to convince us to exchange our money from Vietnamese Doung to US Dollars.

After that, we had our bags run through an X-ray machine, and then we crossed out of Veitnam an into Cambodia.

Now, go back and look at the picture of the boat we took in Vietnam. Now, here's the boat they loaded us onto in Cambodia:

The Rocket Boat™

Now, I'm sure that the Yellow Rocket Boat was a piece of State of the Art machine in 1957... but, in 2007, its air-condition-free metal tube proved to be a sweltering oven.

30 minutes later, we were across the river, where we passed through Cambodian imigration, and got our passports stamped. Then, with our new tour guide, it was back onto the Rocket Boat for another sweaty two hours up the river to Phonm Penh.

For those of you keeping track, we had three seperate group we travelled with three different groups of people and four different tour guides. By the end, our itinerary only beared a rough similarity to what we were initially promised (we were supposed to visit a giant Buddha statue and an aligator farm but neither materialized). On the up swing though, we made a lot of great travel friends over the course of the tour. Like our tour in southern Bolivia, there is somethign about being thrown together with other travelers on a rough and tumble tour that instantly bonds you all together. If for no other reason than that, the tour was definitely worth it. But, from the markets to just drifting down the Mekong, there were many wonderful moments.

1 comment:

eddybles said...

Wonderful post Tyler. Sarah must have been in heaven with such an abundance of beautiful, exotic fruit!