This photogenic River; rice bowl of Vietnam, site of the Viet Cong resistance against Diem's regime
21.12.2009 - 24.12.2009
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The opening scene from Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' with the throb throb throbbing of the American war helicopters keeling low and threateningly, loud and insistent, over the expanse of the wide Mekong was an image so large in my mind as I looked down now on that brimming river from my hotel room 11 floors above it on Can Tho, capital of the Mekong River Delta's, riverside road. Here we were at last.
Against all urgings to take a guided tour of the Mekong River Delta, we had set off at 6am that morning from our comfortable hotel in Saigon and taken a short taxi ride to the bus stand at the Ben Thanh marketplace to catch a local bus to the rural long distance bus station at Mien Tay in old Saigon, the set-off point for us to be ferried the four-hour route here. We were full of doubts as we had been discouraged by the staff of our hotel, by tour companies, by fellow travellers on our travel forum, by hotel guests who shared our breakfast table, from going independently on this adventure; not to undertake this remote journey by ourselves but rather to be taken there in the safety and convenience of a tour group!
At the Mien Tay bus station, as we waited for the bus departure time, we ventured into the toilets and were amused to encounter facilities reminiscent of those last seen in China, one simply a little hole in the cement no larger than a small pipe.
We were worried, too, having heard how dangerously the bus drivers throughout Vietnam plied the roads, notorious for their kamikaze driving and cavalier attitude, I have heard of travellers losing their lives with these crazy drivers dodging at breakneck speeds along crowded roads, the cowboys of Vietnam. Ever since we entered Vietnam at Hekou, the Chinese border town on the Red River five weeks earlier, we had purposefully made sure to always travel by train, all the way, north to south.
But, there were no passenger trains in the Mekong River Delta.
True to form the bus driver did drive dangerously to the point that one traveller walked down the aisle of the bus to remonstrate with him - despite his noisy gesticulations, however, the driver pretended he did not understand him and, muttering under his breath, continued in this cavalier manner. The only respite for us being glimpses at the oily mud-brown canals ever hinting at the larger River, the mighty Mekong beyond.
Truly Can Tho, our destination, was the most grubby, totally foreign, dusty capital city we had encountered in Vietnam. Catching a taxi into town we were dismayed at the level of hotel accommodation available to us. After looking into some of the hotels on offer, we walked into one of the more highly recommended and least dire sounding hotels in the guidebook expecting some respite from the very low standard we had encountered thus far. This too turned out to be a rundown establishment with overpriced, cramped rooms, the cheaper ones around a row of noisy air conditioners. The owners obviously believed that being near the Mekong River made up for everything else.
Nearly despairing, we came back down to the reception area wondering what we were doing in this awful place, hot and sticky, with nowhere to sleep. We asked the very sympathetic receptionist here whether she could recommend a better standard of accommodation, dare we say it, on the river and at a reasonable price, and she pointed us in the direction of the Hotel International - I think she thought we would be back! Anyway, we pulled on our backpacks and hoped to find a decent place to stay - we were now regretting not having taken that guided tour.
The Hotel International was an older establishment, with slightly worn carpets, no internet connection but a lovely view over the Mekong River and good size rooms, well-kept by a very efficient housekeeper, all for US$33. We quickly checked in and unpacked, relieved, and despite the shabby room, stood overcome at the immensity of this river, all else forgotten.
The housekeeper obliged us with one of the ubiquitous giant thermos flasks, present throughout Vietnam, full of hot water for a refreshing cup of tea, which always makes one feel at home. After a quick cuppa, we ventured out onto the streets for a well-needed meal, finally deciding on a little restaurant set in a French colonial building, looking out over the large statue of Ho Chi Minh that dominates the main square.
We hungrily ordered, and were greeted with one of the worst meals we encountered in Vietnam – a greasy noodle dish of messy tasteless vegetables. This after the Rough Guide had said that one could find some of the “best restaurants in the Delta” here!
Disappointed, and very inclined to get on the next bus out of town, we decided to head to the river shoreline and find out about exploring the famed Mekong River on a local sampan. As I have already mentioned, we had elected not to go with the admittedly cheap tour groups offering packages as we had wanted to be able to choose our own hotel, we weren’t convinced by the reviews of the hotels offered by some of the companies; and also didn’t like the idea of being part of a tour group, visiting coconut candy and rice noodle factories, not having enjoyed our previous experiences of tours and very much being independent travellers. I don't mean to repeat myself but this was a huge decision as most travellers do only visit the Mekong River and its delta with some undeniably very reputable tour groups and we were quoted very cheap prices, it was something we seriously considered.
We had been advised by other travellers to walk along the river and speak to the boatsmen. Though they were mostly women!
The first few local boatswomen who approached us were asking exorbitant amounts to take us around and we wondered again whether we had made the right decision in not taking a tour. After speaking to a few more people, we were approached by a middle-aged lady in a striped top, full of spark and humour, who offered us a trip to see two of the more interesting floating markets along the river for what seemed like a reasonable price (300000 dong, about US$30). We arranged to meet her at the same small pier the next day at the very early hour of 5.45am. We parted after assuring her that we would be back the next day as arranged and headed home for an early night.
The next morning, after quickly pulling on a few layers and slapping on some sunscreen, we made our way to our chosen meeting point, wondering if our boatswoman would keep her appointment with us or whether we should have just slept in.
As we approached the little jetty there she was, waving, with a broad smile on her face. She ran towards us and hugged me, so happy that we had not let her down and then guided us to her wooden sampan with a large motor at the back. I was slightly dubious about a woman’s motor boat skills, I’m ashamed to say, but she confidently led us onto her boat, made sure our weights were balanced out, handed us a little flask filled with a large ice block, a straw and the famous very black, very sweet Vietnamese coffee, which I found upon this, my first taste of it, to be surprisingly moreish and very refreshing in the fast warming sunshine, and set us on our way.
I had wondered if we shouldn’t have got out earlier to catch the sunrise, as many travellers advise, but it proved a good decision to leave when we did as the dawn was quite dark enough and, anyway, difficult to take photos in. As the sun began to rise the light reflected across the massive river.
As we glided through the muddy waters of the river, we passed palm treed banks with little houses along them, a large settlement of shanty houses right on the river banks, made up of any material available, ramshackle stilt settlements built into the water; boats large and small painted with characteristic round eyes on the front; long trawlers carrying sand along the banks, a dog running along the deck barking at passersby; warehouses with cranes outside; the daily ferries crossing the river to move scooters and foot traffic to the other side, their early morning commute.
We could tell we were approaching the first floating market, the busier Cai Rang market, when we came upon crowds of boats, like a scene from some kind of haphazard Grand Canal in Venice; boats jostling and bumping into one another, each with a bamboo pole at the end with an example of their wares hanging from it to advertise what they sold. As we passed each boat, slowly now, our boatswoman having switched from her motor to two oars, we could see the bustle of activity involved in running your own “stall”, each piling up their produce high on their boats, moving children and dogs out of the way as they passed their sold items on to another purchasing boat. The markets are not used by the general population of these towns but are more like wholesalers, selling to shopkeepers who then sell to the public, probably mostly far down the river in Saigon! We observed with interest the people who both lived and worked on these boats, washing hung out to dry on deck, a rooster standing proud to give the morning alarm call. Our boatswoman rowed us close to a boat from where sizzling and the general sounds and smells of cooking could be perceived. She suggested we order something to eat and so we simply asked for a portion of what they were selling, unsure of what we would be offered. It was delicious! Marinated, slightly sweet pork with rice and pickled vegetables; it was definitely a favourite meal.
After observing the market for a little longer we fired up the motor and moved on through the wide expanse of this great river, and on to Phong Dien market, some 10 kms further west, a smaller, more charming market. This was a lot less crowded and thus easier to observe. It is sad that these markets, an intrinsic part of Mekong Delta life, are actually disappearing as the Vietnamese begin to rely more on road transportation for their goods.
We set off to see the canals of the Delta, smaller channels running off the river, giving one an even closer glimpse into riverside life. Venturing into these palm fringed canals, past children sitting on verandas set over the water; large fishing nets, with wooden poles at each corner, hung over the water like tents towering over the small waterway; people ran to and fro along the dust paths on either side of the canal, and we passed houses with homemade boat shelters erected in the water outside to cover their main form of transportation.
Sadly, we had to stop a good few times for our boatswoman to disentangle bits of plastic bags from her motor blades, a sign of the pollution which also seems to be a part of the riverscape.
Unfortunately, because of our initial experiences with accommodation, lack of internet, bad food, we had hastily booked our onward journey to Chau Doc with Mailinh Bus Company the previous night, and so we needed to cut short our expedition on the water in order to get back to shore to pack and be ready for the taxi that was picking us up at about midday, our boatswoman even dropping us off right in front of our hotel, and clumsily pushing me up onto shore, as there was no jetty to climb onto. We were not disappointed though as we had been treated to a very thorough journey through the Mekong, easily five hours actually, and were pleased in the end to have chosen independent travel over a tour.
After such a poor first impression of Can Tho, just before we left, we were directed to a little Italian restaurant which doubled as an internet cafe where we checked mail, made plans for further travel and had a very tasty meal, and we felt sorry as we waited for our taxi that we had been too hasty in dismissing what Can Tho had to offer us.
Anyway, off we set in a little Mailinh minibus, packed full of passengers, for the two hour plus journey to Chau Doc, another Mekong River Delta town and the main 'border town' to Cambodia.
Upon reaching Chau Doc, we again took advantage of the complimentary taxi service offered by Mailinh to ferry its passengers from the dusty bus station in the middle of nowhere, to the centre of town. Both we and the other two passengers who shared the taxi with us had the same idea – to head for one of the only two hotels set on the river – the Victoria being the first, and out of our price range, and then this hotel, the Thuan Loi hotel, which was renting rooms for US$10. The other travellers decided to stay, swayed by the lovely location, but the rooms were a little too rudimentary and uncomfortable for us and we left to go into the centre of town, through the market which takes up a large part of the street next to the riverfront and another couple of streets perpendicular to it. Eventually after finding the next few hotels equally basic or full, we asked for a recommendation and were directed to the Song Sao hotel, set around a large square, dominated by a Buddhist temple.
The hotel was centrally located, Muslim owned and although obviously not on the water, had good size rooms and internet in the reception area, so we decided to stay there. The room had a nice ambience, although the bathroom facilities were a little basic.
Chau Doc was again a bit of a dusty, ramshackle town, but full of charm nonetheless; its bustling market, its location on the swollen river, with large weedlike plants that covered the water surface, floating lazily along behind the boat traffic, and with floating houses all around the riverside.
As we had been on a thorough tour of the Mekong River in Can Tho, we took the opportunity to relax in Chau Doc, to regularly venture back down to the Thuan Loi hotel with its rickety wooden steps that led down to a deck set on the river, offering the best view and where everyone chose to have their nightly sundowner.
Eating was also difficult in Chau Doc, and after one disappointing meal at Vinh Phuoc hotel, the following night we decided to go - against our hotelier’s advice, who was worried that we would get sick from the food - and try the stalls set up around the Buddhist complex outside. I dined on my last Bun Cha for this trip here – heavenly!
After lunch in the market the following day, we stumbled upon a store selling Vietnamese baked goods. One of the cakes looked interesting, a sponge garnished with red and orange (what we thought may be fruits of some kind) so we bought it. It turned out that the red toppings were pieces of meat, similar to salami, carefully cut into pieces and placed on top, alongside the pieces of glazed peach! Needless to say, after a couple of slices, we gave the rest to the staff at our hotel, finding the flavours to be a bit too much of an acquired taste.
We enjoyed exploring the town and generally relaxing but we needed to book our tickets onward into Cambodia: we decided to go with the Hang Chau boat company, the most recommended one by fellow travellers on the forums. However, in order to go through the border and pay for our visas, we needed to source US Dollars, which would otherwise be very expensive at the border itself. The banks in Chau Doc did not sell dollars, and so we were recommended to the jewellery stores! These were also difficult and we were unable to get dollars from them as they said that they had run out. I believe they were really hedging their bets and waiting to see what the rate would be like the next morning with it being late in the afternoon - the dollar had been ever more expensive the nearer we got to Cambodia, even starting with Saigon! So, back to the drawing board. Worried now, we went into one of the hotels and asked if they could help, and they offered to sell us some dollars at the same price the jewellery stores were mooting before they changed their mind – hoorah! We bought both our speedboat tickets and our dollars from them as they wanted both sales to conclude the deal - a hard afternoon of business!
The morning of our boat journey from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh I woke at about 4.30am when I heard a low dong like the time being chimed on a public clock in the west - I counted the dongs thinking there would be four or five as I guessed that was the time. Well, they rang out for the next hour. I got up regularly to look and see where this sound was coming from. There was a smart new Buddhist temple in the square - in fact, it dominated the town square. When the first sounds rang I had heard stirring in the hotel like people getting up when their alarm rings in the morning. And, when I looked out at the streets, people were gradually filling the streets, walking, heading somewhere on their bicycles, scooters starting to drive around, people gathering to do their exercise in the square, even a rat playfully chasing a sparrow as it darted away and back, teasingly!
And on and on went this dong, dong, dong - lowly echoing.
This made me think of Buddhism here in Vietnam - everyone has heard in the press obviously about Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức the Buddhist monk who drove himself to Saigon and sat down at a busy Saigon road intersection and burnt himself to death in protest against Diem's government in 1963 with its persecution of the Buddhists, among others, during the recent Vietnam/America War. This act, and others in its wake, were hugely influential and led to numerous protests against Diem and his regime with the people of south Vietnam supporting the protests. Diem dealt brutally with the Buddhists with his famed secret police ambushing the temples in the middle of the night, injuring and killing many monks. Unrest reigned and this was a turning point in the war, leading the way to Diem's downfall and setting the war in favour of the Viet Cong.
Mention should also be made of the famed Cu Chi Tunnels here in the Mekong Delta which we had foregone visiting, as we didn't like tours and because they had become very commercial, a popular site for tourists: it was regrettable, as these tunnels are very historic and were hugely instrumental in the Viet Cong winning both this war and defeating the French 20 years previously: they were a network of tunnels, more than 200 kms in Cu Chi alone, there are many other sites, dug over 40 years during both these aforementioned wars, and were laid out with living areas, kitchens, dormitories, hospitals, storerooms, armories etc, with the tactical use of trap doors and air filtration systems - for example, even their cooking smoke was diverted above ground a great distance from where they were, to throw the enemy off their scent, and they had exit points under the very water! In some American camps at night, the soldiers often woke in surprise to shots seemingly coming from nowhere, totally unaware of the whole system of Vietnamese underground tunnels that lay below them!
My thoughts set off, now particularly as I was leaving Vietnam, on the American war centred around this area and I realised that here, particularly in the south, was where the fighting started again, igniting this second war. Ho and the senior communist leaders in the North 'were still pre-occupied with repairing the devastation wrought by the French and with the aftereffects of the land-reform disaster' in the late 1950s (Neil Sheehan's 'A Bright Shining Lie') - they had made huge mistakes in their first attempt at governing (in the North) which took years to rectify, having been overzealous and upsetting the peasant population there, and were now too busy setting things right, and so were not ready to fight - but the southern cadres took up arms, now being on the front, tired of being victimised and harried by the Ngo Dinhs who were financed by the Americans in the south.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I sat in our hotel dining room overlooking this central square with its prosperous and newly built Buddhist temple, hurrying down breakfast with our departure for Cambodia imminent, and realised, after so many visits to Buddhist temples throughout our stay in Vietnam, how much I hadn't comprehended and had underestimated the strength, the influence, and how central, Buddhism seemed to be to these wonderful people, the Vietnamese.