Navigating the Mekong

We spent four days in the Mekong Delta most of the time in boats winding through the narrow canals. We seemed to finally escape the tour bus circuit when we arrived in Ben Tre a fairly small provincial capital a few hours from Ho Chi Minh City. Things actually started smoothly from the minute we were greeted at the Ho Chi Minh City bus station by a special attendant hired to guide tourists to the correct ticket window and have them spend the correct price. We only had to ignore the dozens of bus drivers saying "hello hello, where you go? come here, buy ticket here".

When we arrived in Ben Tre we wandered for a few minutes down the main street until we hit the river front and were greeted by a handful of very basic English speaking touts. After some attempt at communication we parted ways telling them we could find a hotel ourselves and we would be back to get a boat ride down the Mekong with one of them. After a few minutes of walking down the main street in search of a cheap hotel, they reappeared, this time on their motorbikes carrying their secret weapon: an English speaker. He agreed to take us to a remote home sitting on the banks of one of the Deltas' many canals, where the owners would cook us dinner and let us spend the night for only a few dollars each. This was what we were hoping for, so we got our things together and followed him to his small wooden boat docked nearby.

We weaved though small canals for almost an hour, enjoying the peaceful scenery made famous by so many war movies. I tried to prevent myself from daydreaming about Apocalypse Now or Platoon (for us Westerners, these images of the Mekong are often the only ones we have). Ben Tre has baptised itself the coconut capital of Vietnam, and every inch of waterfront is covered with coconut trees that shade us as we drift by. When we arrived at the small home we were greeted by an old woman who could only speak Vietnamese. Her husband had gone out for the day and she wasn't comfortable accepting our staying there without his approval. Since they are not an authorized guest house, staying there wouldn't exactly be legal, and the couple only accepted guests if they felt a surprise visit from the police wasn't due. Our boat driver wasn't exactly being clear about the situation, and despite the beautiful isolated location we didn't feel comfortable sticking around, especially that neither the wife nor our boat driver "felt comfortable" quoting us a price. We pulled Margaux from her new found hammock and we headed back to Ben Tre to find a hotel.

It was now late afternoon, and four busy days in Ho Chi Minh along with a full day in the hot sun had taken their toll on Margaux. We sent her off on a motorbike to the Trade Union Hotel and Yann and I headed over on foot to meet her there. For less than 10$ a night we got a big room with a much needed air conditioner and three beds. Other than the gigantic rat that scurried across the terrace as we headed there, the hotel restaurant seemed decent, so we settled into a table and ordered our much needed dinner, we didn't really care that we were the only ones there. After ordering, we were greeted by a concerned looking hotel worker who asked us politely if we would like to move to a private room, as there would be a group of people arriving shortly to the restaurant. We obliged, but felt a bit offended as the restaurant was gigantic, and the tables set for the group clearly did not take up the entire place. Once our "private room" was visited by a few extremly intoxicated Vietnamese soldiers we understood why we had moved. Symptoms of intoxication included: insistance on speaking to us in Vietnamese for long periods of time, deciding that Yann had two wives, proposing to Margaux after concluding that Yann in fact did not have two wives.

We were served meticulously by the hotel staff, who periodically escorted the soldiers out of our room. Later in the meal, a female staff member joined us with tea and a pile of scrap paper on which she had scribbled down English text describing historic sites in the area. Margaux and I both spent a few minutes reading through it with her, correcting the mistakes. When the sentences were too incomprehensible I just corrected spelling. If I had known they were going to be used as the captions at the new provincial tourist centre I might have been a little bit more careful. Oh well, it'll make the museum way more interesting! (Makes me rethink all those times I've made comments such as "can't they get someone who actually speaks English to edit these") The extremely friendly woman invited us to join her for breakfast the next day to thank us for our help.

We met our new friend Kieu for breakfast and she allowed us to order any breakfast item from the menu free of charge. We all chose the baguette with omelette. Kieu had also invited her former English teacher to eat with us, and after breakfast he took Yann out on his motorbike to visit his friend's coconut candy shop (where Yann bought two boxes of coconut candy for less than half the price we were able to find it for anywhere else), then he treated Yann to a coffee and told him a few stories about the war. Meanwhile I decided to give Margaux a day off, by this point she was really not feeling very well. She spent the entire day in bed, not even coming out for lunch (for anyone who knows Margaux, a day without eating is not a good sign).

Yann and I took the time to hop on a few local buses and hire some motorbike drivers to bring us to nearby towns. We visited a temple whose story I had edited the night before, but mainly spent the day on the bus, or sipping much needed cold drinks at drink stands. For our excursion we followed directions that a tourist agent had written down for us, free of charge, when we told him we wanted to travel the cheapest way possible (we were expecting him to sell us his cheapest tour, instead he just wrote down instructions in English and Vietnamese on how to take the local buses, I love the Mekong Delta!) When we got back to the hotel, we got Margaux out of bed for dinner, and the next day she was ready to go again.

Our next Mekong destination was a city called Vinh Long, famed for its floating markets and "homestay" opportunities. Before leaving Ben Tre though, we felt we had to pay a visit to the "most beautiful place in the province, Phoenix Island", according to Kieu, who had again treated us to a free breakfast on our second morning. Phoenix Island is not exactly what one would call beautiful, but it is so tacky that it is worth the trip. Kieu wrote for us, in Vietnamese, a note that she told us to deliver to her friend at the coffee shop right next to the ferry. The note read: "Please take my friends to the boats to Phoenix Island", the meaning of this note "don't let the touts take them to Phoenix Island, make sure they get on the government boat that only charges 30 cents for the return trip". Her friend, upon presentation of the note, happily led us through weaving back alleys until we got to the boat docking area, she put us on a boat and waved us goodbye. Phoenix Island was originally the retreat of the Coconut Monk, who diverted from Buddhism and started his own sect, he lived there with a hundred or so "followers". The only fact I could remember about him (again from the text that I corrected in Ben Tre), was that he believed in having lots of wives. He built a few uber-kitschy temples on the Island as well as a hilarious (equally kitsch) replica of the Apollo space shuttle, on which is painted its misspelled name "Apolo".

Vinh Long is less than 100km from Ben Tre, but getting there wasn't exactly simple. First a public bus from Ben Tre to the ferry (where we took our side trip to Phoenix Island) then the ferry trip across the Mekong to My Tho. From the ferry dock we hired three cyclo drivers to bring us to the bus station. After 20 minutes in the blazing sun, I was feeling really guilty about being biked across town by a 55 year old man who sounded like he was having an asthma attack (for not even a dollar). But then, a familiar story "there are no buses to Vinh Long at this time" (hmmm, really? no buses at 1p.m. going the 60km between the Mekong Delta's two biggest cities?) Its really amazing that we fell for this, having been in Vietnam for almost 5 weeks. To "help"us, the cyclo drivers volunteered to drive us another 10 minutes out of town, where they could hail us a minibus to Vinh Long that was on its way from Ho Chi Minh City, for only 7000 dong each. We followed them out to the side of the highway, where they waited for minibuses (coming from the bus station I'm quite sure) heading to Vinh Long. After a few minutes a minibus arrived, we paid our cyclo drivers (a little extra because they had been so helpful) and we loaded our backpacks into the crowded minibus. After settling in to the back seats, Yann handed the driver a 50,000 dong note, he signalled for more. Our cyclo drivers watched carefully, and instructed us that it was not 7000 dong each, but in fact 70,000 dong each (we knew from our guide book, and from the short distance that the ticket should definetely be less than 20,000 dong). We understood now, the cyclo drivers had set us up, so that they could make a hefty comission by loading us onto a bus away from the watchful eyes of the bus station. We angrily exited the bus, (with Margaux looking a little bit perplexed), and would not reenter even when they offered to let us back in for only 30,000 dong each. We also told our cyclo drivers that they were no longer needed, and they peddled off quite content with the tip we had given them earlier.

Not even two minutes later three motorbike drivers agreed to drive us the 7 km to the bus station outside of town where we could catch a bus to Vinh Long. We agreed to pay them 10,000 dong each. We loaded on to the motorbikes and proceeded to drive approximately 500m down the road where we stopped at a roadside coffee shop. This was the bus station 7km away, they would again "help" us flag down a minibus. It was now time for Margaux to witness the wrath of Emilie. I told the motorbike drivers they weren't getting a cent from us as they had told us they were driving 7km away (replace the word told by screamed my ass off and you might get a more accurate picture of the situation). Many gestures were made including pointing at my head and exclaiming that "I am not stupid". Yann took out about 500 dong from his pocket and I handed it to one of the drivers, exclaiming that that was all they were getting because they were liars. When the driver yelled angrily at us as we walked away I actually turned around and stuck my tongue out at him. I had completely lost my composure, and possibly my sanity.

After walking about 20m down the highway another "helpful" motorbike driver happened to cross our path as a minibus for Vinh Long drove by. For so helpfully leading us into the minibus (for 30,000 dong each) he pocketed at least 10,000 dong and drove off. We arrived in Vinh Long less than an hour later.

We found ourself a much needed lunch and we also booked a homestay at a local home on the river. By 4 p.m we were settled in our hammocks on a quiet little canal on An Binh Island. We spent the rest of the evening doing crossword puzzles and reading in our hammocks and were then treated to a feast cooked by the family who owned the small guesthouse. At first glance, the elephant ear fish deep fried and served standing on a platter was a little bit of a shock, but once we stuck our chopsticks in it we were delighted. We went to bed early sheltered by our mosquito nets, lying on military style cots with our food hanging from ropes so that the rats wouldn't get in them, but we felt very very relaxed. Early the next morning, our boat driver was back to pick us up and tour us around An Binh Island. We visited little villages, and spent a few hours just floating through the canals. The highlight was the bustling floating village, where huge boats display there goods by hanging them on tall poles so that people can see them from a distance. The yellow and green melons hanging from most poles indicated to us, that it was probably melon season on the Mekong.

We arrived back in Vinh Long in the early afternoon, and we planned to get to Chau Doc by nightfall. We wanted to leave Chau Doc the next morning and sail the Mekong into Cambodia. The tourist agency that had booked our homestay offered to get us a ticket (by infamous minibus) for 100,000 dong each. We knew it was a little bit expensive, but we asked ourselves if we could actually do the trip for cheaper, given our previous experiences with the Vietnamese bus system. We decided to do it the hardway (a trip that involved three transfers, read:three possibilites of being cheated). I proclaimed that if it cost us more than 100,000 I was going to kill myself.

To make a long story short, we made it to Chau Doc for only 38,000 dong each (and only a mild amount of discomfort). We spent our "winnings" on the outrageously overpriced food from our guest house in Chau Doc (we didn't know how overpriced it was until the portions arrived). After ordering what we thought was a fairly extravagant amount of dishes, and eating them quickly, we spent the rest of the night scouring the streets of Chau Doc for a "Vani-Socolat" ice cream cone, wondering if they would be available in Cambodia when we arrived the next day (we didn't find one).


2par4 said...

Whenever I think of the Mekong Delta, I think ...

Kurtz: I've seen horrors... horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that... but you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God... the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us.
The horror... the horror...

Margox said...

Emilie n'exagère pas du tout. En effet, je crois que Yann et Emilie on maitrisé l'art de dépenser le minimum possible!

Margox said...

Et en plus, ils me disent qu'ils on augmenté leur budget pendant mon séjour... pas mal impressionnant!

Margox said...

The Mekong was beautiful, but it's true that travelling through it brought back memories from all the Vietnam war films I've seen.

Clearly the war was horrible for the Vietnamese as well, but from our perspective it also made you think of how awful it would have been for the (often very young) American men having to navigate through such alien land with likely little training, a lot of fear, and probably not much motivation to be there. OK, I admit I think of Alex, who I still see as my innocent little brother, in these cases... makes it even worse!

As for the Vietnamese soldier, I don't know if he was proposing, he just used the ole 'you and me' hand signal, which was pretty clear in some way, but he may have only been interested short term...(actually, that's probably more likely). Anyway, after having to pretend for a while that I didn't understand what 'you and me' means, I told Emilie and Yann that next time we would stick to the two wives story!

Margox said...

Oh, and just for the humour of it, Em was *still* getting whiffs of what came to be dubbed "dog sauce" thoughout the rest of our trip in Vietnam. Neither Yann nor myself were able to detect this apparently very common odor...

heh heh

Oh, and I'm not trying to hit 10 comments or anything, I just keep thinking of new things to say! (I know with me that's not surprising)