Wednesday 2 Aug
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Down by the riverside
With mum and Jane now comfortably settled in to their holiday with us, we set off on a three day tour from Ho Chi Minh through the Mekong Delta to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The route would take us mostly by boat up the Mekong's rivers, stopping at attractions on the way. We're never particularly keen on tours and only recently had been royally shafted when we went on a boat trip in Halong Bay in the north, but this seemed to be the most cost effective and sensible way to be able to see the Mekong and get ourselves into Cambodia within a reasonable length of time. We chose our tour agency very carefully and it turned out very well indeed.
The journey started on the Saigon river in the centre of the city. The water was packed with vessels including 2 man canoes powered by outboard motors with the propeller on the end of a long drive shaft, large wooden junks with fierce eyes painted on the bow (traditionally to scare the crocodiles, but there's none left now) and huge barges loaded with clay or gravel from quarries up the river. A few of which had half sunk spilling their massive loads into the water. On the banks wooden houses reached far over the water. With little access to land the river was the street and had shops, mechanics and mini fuel stations servicing the busy industrial waterway.
The hustle and bustle soon gave way to lush countryside, but was by no means quiet. In the Mekong Delta life revolves around the water - the land away from the riverbanks is comparatively unproductive. The government are currently trying to change this by building expensive business parks, but so far very few have been filled so the river still rules.
We stopped in My Tho for a tour around some islands in the middle of the river, which was now over 1 kilometre wide. We hopped between the islands (which were no more than government run tourist shops) on various different boats including a rowing boat through a 6 foot wide channel engulfed by trees and plants.
The next day we visited Can Tho floating market where the inhabitants of the Mekong come to sell and trade. Each boat had a tall poll with an example of their produce tied to the top - much like the signs in supermarket aisles. Apparently today was a quiet day, but there were still 70-80 large wooden junks moored up with outboard powered canoes agilely zooming in between, swapping goods or selling food and drinks. We moored up next to a junk full of pineapples and climbed on board for a better view of the activity. It was a real treat. You could see that whole families lived on the boats, many had televisions. The sense of community was wonderful as you saw people bump into friends they made coming to the market and may only see once a month. I bet it is the nexus of gossip for an enormous area and can only imagine the wonderful stories they tell.
The rest of the day was filled with farms and small rice factories until we headed on with our journey up the river. We watched day turn to night whilst the locals invariably waved from the shore enthusiastically - sometimes whilst in the middle of going to the toilet in the river. It was like we were royalty, we have never elicited such a reaction anywhere and our hands got tired from waving back. I adopted the Queen's special wave, which I hear had been designed to reduce impact on the wrist. I found it very effective.
Our last stop before the border was a floating village and a small Cham (Muslim) community, which was very memorable for the relaxing row around the gently bobbling houses. Having had plenty of nerve wracking run-ins with vicious mutts (see previous entry for example), I was particularly pleased with myself when I managed to goad some of the dogs on the house rafts who could do little more than bark and spin around wildly in futility whilst I smiled at them smugly only a few feet away.
We reached the Cambodian border by boat, but had to hop on and off the banks to get stamped and legal. These backwater border crossings are always my favourite moments as they are the complete antithesis of the pomp and drama of airports. No x-ray machines, hidden cameras or baggage checks, just a muddy track between two countries which you have to hulk all your belongings along like a refugee.
Once through little changed for a while, but it soon became apparent we were in a very different country. Zuba cows replaced water buffalo and the people seemed visibly poorer, although just as excited to see us. At one point a group of boys performed multiple synchronised front flips into the water as we passed. We finally arrived in Phnom Penh as the sun was setting. Every morning we had had to be up by 6 to have enough time to navigate the river and we were all satisfied that we'd seen enough of boats for a while. However the 3 day tour had been well worth the effort. Being able to combine transport and pleasure is very rare and has invariably resulted in some of our favourite moments. I was very pleased that my mum and Jane had been able to experience one of the highlights of our trip so far.