never get off the boat: 2 nights in the mekong delta (days 4 & 5)

[A momentary lapse in continuity: I appear to have been instapunditted yesterday. Now how embarrassed do I feel that I haven’t bothered to update the minions site in over 4 years? A whole lot embarrassed. Obviously, insty’s politics are, um, about as far from mine as it’s possible to get and still technically share a genus and species, but hey… there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?]

Okay, I am getting very, very behind here, so I’m going to blow a few hours at the internet stand at the hotel here (600 dong/minute! cazart!) and try to catch up all at once. My apologies if it ends up being rushed and disjointed; I promise the pictures are good. All (so far) 700 of them. Phear.

Our fourth and fifth days in Vietnam were spent on a guided tour of the Mekong Delta, but a small digression before that. We’d actually planned out a few days in advance, and the idea was to take a one-night tour into the Mekong, and then come back to Saigon in time to take an overnight train up to Da Nang, and from there a bus to Hoi An. To do this, of course, we needed train tickets. We’d actually asked the Sing Cafe people about tickets when we booked the Cu Chi trip, but apparently you can only buy Saigon Rail tickets at the Saigon Rail offices, so we looked up the rail office in the Lonely Planet book, and set aside a little time the next morning to get the tickets. To do this, we:

1. Walked to the Saigon Rail ticket office, which was a clearly marked storefront on a major street.
2. Entered the ticket office, and were immediately handed a timetable with cities, times and ticket prices clearly marked.
3. Indicated that we wanted to buy a ticket on the overnight train to Da Nang in Soft Sleeper class.
4. Were quoted a price in both VND and USD
5. Handed over the prescribed amount of money, and were handed a printed ticket in return.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well…it was. Easy. Really easy. Stupendously easy? Why am I even mentioning this at all? Because three-odd years ago, Miranda and I attempted, in Shanghai, to book a 2-hour train ride from Shanghai to Nanjing: essentially a commuter rail ticket, and on one of the busiest lines in China. Doing this was a four-hour process involving first finding the ticket office (an unmarked office in a square concrete block of unmarked offices, nowhere near downtown or anything else of interest), and then stretching Miranda’s command of Mandarin (and both of our patience) to the breaking point in trying to communicate to the cashier that (a) we wanted to go to Nanjing, (b) we were allowed to go to Nanjing, and (c) we would not leave the office until we were handed a ticket to Nanjing.

At the time, I wrote off a lot of China’s user-hostility as due to them being a still-reforming Communist country, but now I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t underestimate the willful perversity factor by rather a lot: Vietnam has only been dipping its toes back into the market economy since 1994 or so, but getting around this country has been no harder than Thailand or for that matter Italy.

Anyway.

We arrived bright and early at the Sinh Cafe offices, which were swarming with backpackers being herded onto their assorted tour busses. After about a 20m wait, during which I availed myself of a few more iced coffees, they finally called out the 1-night Mekong tour, and we dutifully piled onto our bus. There were about 12 of us, the largest group of which were a gaggle of international exchange students on holiday from university in Singapore, plus a group of about four Spaniards, a few of the requisite Japanese tourists, and us.

After about a 2 hour bus ride past uncountable rice paddies and over dozens of bridges over the Mekong River’s assorted tributaries, we pulled over in a little town called Cai Be. at what appeared to be a small gas station, but which turned out to have a tiny boat jetty a few dozen yards past it. We carefully picked our way onto a long, narrow covered boat with a loud diesel engine in back, and began putting our way to Cai Be’s floating market. Unfortunatly, as the guide explained, the floating markets are primarily a morning activity, and by this time it was nearly noon, and in fact there were very few market boats on the river, and of those that were there, the crews were largely taking a (well-earned) afternoon nap. Still, the river views were breathtaking, and the boats themselves were quite interesting: with the exception of the government boats, they were all decorated with eyes on the front, allegedly to scare away crocodiles.

After about half an hour of boating through the open market area, the boat headed upriver a bit to visit a rice-paper making factory. This gave some context to something we’d seen in yards all over from both the bus and the boat: enormous bamboo drying racks with circular rice paper sheets drying on them.

Little side-trips like this were to be a constant feature of the Sinh Cafe trip, and I’m of mixed mind about them. On the one hand, they lent a certain staged aspect to the whole trip, as a whole troupe of bignoses (us) were led through the factories and given a canned speech by our guide while the workers tried their best to keep on with what they were doing… and often afterward there would be the gift shop. On the other hand, a lot of what was on display was fascinating, and with only 2 days to play with, it’s not likely that we’d have been able to find our way to them unaided.

From there, back to the boat, upriver for another half hour or so to our lunch break: a tiny outdoor restauranted attached to a longan orchard. The food was good if unmemorable, but the restaurant itself was nifty: in order to reach it, we had to walk about a kilometer from the boat mooring, down a narrow path through the jungle, single-file over incredibly narrow bridges spanning streams and drainage ditches, until suddenly the the path opened up onto the restaurant. Kitchy, perhaps, but effective.

Hm. I feel like I’m doing this trip a disservice by painting the boat rides as mere transportation. Really, the boat rides were the main thing: the factories, restaurants and such just served to break it up a bit and keep it from becoming monotonous. The delta is amazingly lush and verdant: banana and coconut trees tower over the riverbanks, which are dotted with stilt-legged houses, waterfront businesses and low bridges that uniformed schoolchildren ride bicycles over with such regularity that you’d almost suspect the tourist ministry was employing them for the purpose. I used up most of a gigabyte camera card on the river views, and was happy to do so.

Anyway, after lunch we spent another hour or so touring the river, pausing briefly for a stop at a coconut candy factory and a rice crispie factory. This may have been my Dumbest American Moment of the trip: I’d not quite realized that popped rice predated Mr. Kellogg. Oops. Anyway, the technique is actually fascinating: cleaned black river sand is heated in an enormous wok, and then a batch of rice grains is quickly mixed in with it. In seconds, they’re all popped, and then they sift out the sand with an enormous box sieve and dump the sand back into the wok to start re-heating. Rinse and repeat from 7am until 5pm: on a hot day in Vietnam, this is unimaginably sweaty work!

Then, our factory-touring ended for the day, we docked in Vinh Long to re-board the bus and head down to Cantho, the major city in the delta. Midway through the ride, we had to disembark the bus in order to take a ferry across one of the rivers: a bridge is under construction, but won’t be finished until 2005. The ferries were actually a nifty experience: three of them are all in service at once, picking up passengers and vehicles at an octagonal dock on each side of the river. For some reason you can’t stay on your vehicle, so about a block before the main entrace (at which point traffic is already well and truly stuffed up), everyone jumps out of their cars of busses (but not their mopeds!) and hoofs it, then when you actually try to board the ferry, there’s only one ramp being used by vehicles and pedestrians alike (although walkers can, at least, quickly take a gangway up to an upper deck once aboard), which is how I managed to nearly get run over by a moped while on a boat.

Due to a bit of poor timing, our group actually ended up taking a ferry several minutes in advance of our bus, so after disembarking on the far side we got to wait for a good long while in the sweltering sun… it was a very limp bunch of tourists who stumbled onto the bus when it finally pulled up.

A mere hour of honking and swerving later (and I am trying to not make this travelogue to be entirely about the traffic, but really, it is that bad), we pulled up in front of our hotel in Cantho, the name of which is escaping me at the moment. In any case, the hotel was a somewhat joyless affair with furnishings dating clearly from the communist era, so we quickly made an escape: the exchange students were pondering a group outing for dinner, but we decided to strike out on our own to a place that the Lonely Planet book strongly recommended.

Cantho is a port town with a lovely riverwalk downtown, and we spent a little time poking around the park surrounding the giant silver statue of Ho Chi Minh before finally retiring to Nam Bo for dinner, only to be joined there 5 minutes later by pretty much the rest of our tour group: apparently everyone else had read the same book. Oops. The food, thankfully, was lovely; and the building was a converted French villa with dozens of geckos hanging on the interior walls.

After dinner, we strolled around cantho a bit, finding what appeared to be the delta’s first shopping mall/supermarket, a brightly lit, three-storey affair with an enormous video arcade on the second floor, full of vietnamese teenagers playing bootleg versions of dance dance revolution.

 (continues)

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