Making the Mekong

Some may recall that one of the things I wanted to do a lot of on this trip to SE Asia was long-distance motorcycling.

As it turned out, there hasn't been a lot of that, and what there has been hasn't been all that successful (see "My Week in Ha Noi," March 3rd), even if fun and instructive as I was failing.

So it might not surprise that, as I felt the whole trip beginning to wind down, especially as Reunification Day—one of the targets of my visit to that country—came to a close in Viet Nam, I began to feel I'd let myself down, that I hadn't accomplished my main mission. So I began to talk to Cuong's "motorcycle adventure" folks in Ha Noi about sending a bike down to HCMC so I could take a couple of weeks to ride it back to Ha Noi, clearly an adventure worth pursuing.

But it would have required my extending my sojourn in SE Asia for about 3 weeks, and, wouldn't you know it, it took so long to make up my mind that the opportunity passed.

The other dream element of a perfect trip, to my mind, would be to travel by boat the length of the Mekong River, from China through Laos, along the Laos/Thailand border, down through Cambodia with a side trip up the Tonle Sap, and then through Viet Nam to the South China Sea. Wouldn't that be great?

Well, that would take a lot more organizational know-how than I possess. But while I was obsessing over the HCMC-Ha Noi motorcycle trip, and beginning to realize it wouldn't happen, I came across the flyer for a Mekong Delta tour that included boating up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. And never mind that the boating didn't start until the tour had gone as far as it could in Viet Nam and was about to cross the border, there was a boat, and it was on the river.

I signed on

After checking out of my hotel, I was picked up by a 20-seater bus. It made the rounds of several more hotels, picking up more tourists as it went. I began to feel as if I'd been assigned to the wrong tour—I was the only guy that looked to be over 30 in a group of about 16. I felt pretty much the odd man out for the rest of the trip. (But it's not as if I haven't experienced that before!)

We drove and drove, for about three hours, till we got to Cai Be, a town in the Mekong Delta that has a "floating market," where the buyers and sellers are all in watercraft. We got into a boat, and went out to see. It's one of the smaller floating markets, said our tour guide, but what he didn't mention is that we were largely too late to see much of anything but some boats hanging around, having not yet decided to go home. Like such markets everywhere, most of the action takes place in the early morning—10:30am is much too late to expect to see anything.

Our tour guide was Hum, whose name in Vietnamese, he says, means "tiger." So he insisted we call him Tiger, and we did. Perhaps because there was lots of driving time, Tiger tended to go on long soliloquies about this and that. At one point, he went on at length about the Vietnamese education system, which was, he said, not "free," as it's sometimes said to be. Instead, enough persons get subsidies for their fees, such as government employees, that it's "free" for nearly 90-95 per cent of Vietnamese. The rest can't afford the fees he said. (If true, this category might include those Vietnamese who move in to HCMC for the "economic opportunity" of working as, say, street hawkers. Since they've no right to reside in HCMC, they often lead shadowy existences.)

At one point, in discussing the overwhelming number of motorcycles in Viet Nam—too many, he said—he doubted the wisdom of tourists who went on the "easy rider" guided motorcycle trips through Viet Nam. I wonder what the two Dutch tourists who'd just finished their easy-rider trip thought about that one!

We went in our boat to a place where coconut candy was made, and got to see and taste some. It was largely the same as the tour I'd been on earlier, to My Tho with my lads. We got to sip some rice wine, including some that had had dead snakes soaking in it for who knows how long, and we got to see a guy pop rice, much like popping corn, and got to eat some. It tasted exactly like you'd imagine it would, like puffed rice cereal, only warm because it's just been made. There was also a gal making rice paper, which is done in a wok-like object that looked a lot like a crepe pan. Pretty cool. The fuel she was using was rice husks that had been stripped in the process of making white rice.

We had to ride old bicycles (in pretty poor shape) to a restaurant, where you can order an "elephant-ears" fish that you combine with other ingredients into a roll made with ... rice paper. Nice thematic consistency.

We then rode a long way back in a boat to catch up with our bus. Once we got on, the bus was approached by a couple of Agent Orange victims, or at least I concluded they were, based on their resemblances to photos in some of the exhibits I'd seen in HCMC museums. One had a head very much like Rocky, the character played by Eric Stoltz in "Mask." The other had Down's Syndrome into the bargain. I don't care how many photos you see in exhibits, it's a whole 'nother thing to come face to face with such tragedies. And no, I didn't take photos.

The rest of the day was largely spent in driving to Chau Doc, where we were to bunk for the night.

Except for one thing: we had the singular privilege of visiting a "crocodile farm." Dopey me, it didn't occur to me what a crocodile farm might be for, until our guide pointed out that the group of crocodiles we were looking at were seven years old, so "ready for the restaurant." So it really was a "farm." (I've yet to see crocodile on a Vietnamese menu; maybe I've been to the wrong restaurants.) The crocs are kept in pretty appalling conditions, for the most part. On the other hand, I was able to take some pics that'll help you lose sleep!

Chau Doc is a little burg about 5km from the border with Cambodia—if you don't go via the Mekong. There's a little parrot's-beak of Viet Nam that follows the Mekong for about 20km into what you'd ordinarily think would be Cambodia—bet there's a story in there somewhere.

Our domicile for our night in Chau Doc was a "floating hotel," which is exactly what it sounds like, a small hotel built on pontoons in the Mekong. With a restaurant and even a pool table. Heaven!

The next day we visited a fish farm. They're wire cages a couple of metres deep built under people's floating river houses. The entertainment came when Tiger told everyone to get their cameras ready, and threw in some fish meal. This caused a furious splashing as the fish all desperately tried to get some of it. And no, no photos in the photo gallery—I don't go for that shit! On the other hand, your Loblaws farmed catfish from Viet Nam a few months from now might well have been under my feet that day.

Then we visited a Cham village, which Tiger managed to give a history of without once mentioning the Cham Empire, which ruled much of central Viet Nam very long ago, until the viets moved in and put the boots to them.

Then we transferred to a "fast boat," with about 16 seats, that took us the rest of the way to Phnom Penh. It was a gas, a beautiful trip through rural Cambodia (including Customs). Interestingly, though the seats were inside the boat, were pretty hot and sweaty, and the view from them was largely obscured by water splashing up from the boat's bow, very few of my tour-mates were interested on going up to the back of the boat where there was a couple of great seats where the view was amazing. So I got to ride there most of the way.

It was cool being back in Phnom Penh, and all the staff at the River Star Hotel seemed happy to see me and welcomed me back. I was famished, as it was now about 2pm and I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. So as soon as my stuff was in my room I went down to the hotel restaurant for some green mango salad.

Now one of the things that makes being in SE Asia uncomfortable is you can't sit anywhere in public without street hawkers constantly bothering you to buy stuff that you don't want: cigarettes, books (last thing I need is to carry a book around for months!), sunglasses, Zippo lighters, woven friendship bracelets, tourist maps, etc. And it's especially difficult in Cambodia because of the beggars, with their very real problems and debilities that their government should be helping them with. And if you stay in a hotel for a few days, you're seeing the same hawkers and beggars—often victims of unexploded ordinance, judging from the injuries to their limbs.

Well, no sooner did I put fork to salad then up walks about a 13-year-old girl with one of these carrying boxes full of stuff. I gave her my usual, "Sorry, no, nothing today," and she gives me this smart-ass look, and says, "Why did you come to Cambodia if you don't want to buy anything?" To which I thought, "Where did this girl learn to speak English like that?" but said, "Well, actually, I've just been here about five minutes, so I don't know how you already know I won't be buying anything just because I said 'no' to you."

The next day, while having a coffee, I saw her again—you always see them again—and she approached me again. I said, "You know I'm not going to buy anything from you here, don't you?" And she said, "No, why?" And I said, "Because other hawkers will see it, and you'll tell others you made a sale here, and the other guests will be pissed off at me because there'll be more hawkers bothering them than usual, and they'll know it's my fault. Where'd you learn English?" "At school," she said. "Well you must have very good teachers," I said. "I tell you what. After I've finished my coffee I'll walk over to the park by the river and sit on a bench. If you approach me there, I'll buy something." She agreed, and, as she began to walk away with quite a spring in her step, I said, "Wait a minute!" When she turned around, I said, "But you can't tell anyone, or the deal's off."

Things went largely as planned, and I bought a little friendship bracelet from her over by the river. She wanted a dollar, I gave her two. "Now don't tell anyone," I said, "or I'll ask for it back."

About an hour later, as I was buying a souvenir Cambodia t-shirt, I was approached by a trio of 6- or 7-year-old hawkers. "Are you the guy from Canada?" one of them asked. "Who told you?" I demanded, mock-seriously. The wide-eyed, "Oh, shit! How'd he know?" look I got from them was worth the two dollars I'd spent on the bracelet.

Hopefully the street hawkers of Phnom Penh won't think all Canadians are as easy a mark as I.

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