May 19, 2003

Phnom Penh to Saigon via the Mekong Delta


Waiting at Vietnamese Immigration
Greetings,

This is the first in what will no doubt be a series of updates about my recent trip through Vietnam and Laos. For the first part of the trip I traveled with Jonathan, Daren and Sujoya who are also volunteers here in Cambodia.

Thursday night (April 10) before our big trip we had a get together with some friends to watch a movie. Just before watching the movie I drove into town and bought our boat tickets to Vietnam for the next morning. A couple of us actually packed before watching the movie, while others were up late getting packed afterwards. We all managed to wake up early enough to catch motos into town where we loaded our things into a van and headed out of town on the first leg of our trip. After about an hour or so we transferred to a boat on the Mekong River. Normally transportation in Cambodia is very crowded, so we were quite surprised to have a rather large boat shared among only about 8 people. The boat trip to the border was uneventful, scenic and quick.


Ferry in Vietnam to Chau Doc
At the Vietnamese border we first got our exit stamps from the Cambodian officials, which only took a few minutes. We then walked over the border and waited for nearly two hours while the Vietnamese officials checked our papers and eventually allowed us to enter the country. With stamped passports in hand we followed our guide to another boat (this one registered in Vietnam) for the ride to the Vietnamese town of Chau Doc. Even while waiting for the immigration officials at the border checkpoint we already started noticing things that were not the same as Cambodia. For example, more women were wearing what I would think of as pajamas. Upon arrival in Chau Doc we avoided the group of touts who all wanted us to visit their guesthouses and wandered towards the local market. Along the way we changed a little bit of money in a couple of places to check out the exchange rate, then settled on using a jewelry shop that had a good rate to change enough money for a few days. We noticed that the town in general was nicer and cleaner than towns in Cambodia. The market was very well stocked and was also cleaner than markets in Cambodia. After checking out a few different hotels and tour companies we ended up sticking with Sinh Cafe, the company that had ferried us from the border to Chau Doc. We just couldn't find a better deal than the $22.50 per person they were charging for a 2 day, 2 night tour of the Mekong Delta ending up in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and including nice rooms with AC. After dropping our bags off at the hotel we split up and wandered around the local market, mostly buying a few snacks to eat that evening and the following day on our tour. We met back at a restaurant where we enjoyed our first Vietnamese meal, which was very good. After supper we took a long walk around the town and found the people to be very friendly. On the way back to our hotel I had what would be the first of many local popsicles. In Vietnam they have something like a fudge-sicle (it involves chocolate and is frozen) for about 12 cents US. These became very hard to resist, especially after or while walking long distances in the hot weather.


Floating Village
The next morning we were up early for our free (included in the tour price) breakfast. After eating we followed our guide on foot through town to the local river pier where we boarded fairly large rowing boats. Each boat was rowed by a standing Vietnamese person (mostly women) while around 8 of us tourists sat on benches to enjoy the ride. We slowly made our way through the local floating village composed of several different styles and types of floating house boats. We were told that the poorer people live in the houses built on what look like regular boats while richer people can afford more of a square shaped house floating on a bamboo platform. The area under the square houses is usually used to raise fish in an enclosure. The fish are fed and taken care of until they reach a large enough size to be sold. We also passed many small store boats with all kinds of goods for sale. On the other side of the floating village we arrived at a pier and walked ashore to a Cham village. The ethnic Cham people in the Mekong Delta area (and in Cambodia) are usually Muslims so in this village most of the women wore head coverings. In the village we watched a weaving demonstration and then walked around the local mosque. Young children filled many classrooms around the mosque and many of them were studying the Koran. After successfully resisting several souvenir vendors we re-boarded our boats for the trip back to Chau Doc.


View from Sam Mountain
Back in town we walked to our hotel and loaded our gear and ourselves into a tour bus which took us a few kilometers out of town to a local "mountain". Sam Mountain is mainly called a mountain because everything else in the nearby area is flat. It isn't particularly high, but we did get very warm climbing up the many stairs during the hottest part of the day. It didn't help that it was the peak of the hot season either. At the top of the mountain we enjoyed a great view of the surrounding countryside and could even see into Cambodia. A couple of us also enjoyed drinking coconuts while relaxing in the shade before walking back down the mountain to our waiting bus. We then made a quick stop at a temple before heading to a restaurant for lunch. At the temple we got our first glimpse of one of the religions practiced in Vietnam, which seems to be a mix of all other religions. Some of the deity statues are quite unusual with elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism all thrown in. At this particular temple people were making offerings of roasted pigs and fresh fruit. Our guide told us that the temple often just sells the offerings back to the vendors who in turn sell them to worshipers again. The place we ate lunch was situated out of town in the middle of a small man-made pond. The food was alright there, but we mainly ate snacks we had bought the night before instead of ordering very much food.


Splitting Bamboo for Incense Sticks
After lunch we drove to a village where incense sticks are made. We watched the women skillfully splitting bamboo to make the sticks, and then rolling them in a concoction that appeared to consist mostly of sticky scented sawdust. A couple of the tourists even got a chance to try their hands at making incense, to the amusement of the rest of us. Incense plays a big role in religion for the Vietnamese. They burn incense everyday at the temples and in their homes. After learning more than we ever wanted to know about incense, we rode in our bus for about an hour before boarding another boat. This boat was motorized and took us through some very narrow, overgrown canals to a stork sanctuary. One of the local landowners found that lots of storks were roosting on his land and has taken advantage of the tourist potential. His property is now an official sanctuary and is very full of storks. Seeing so many large birds in one place (and not in cages) was very impressive, and the boat ride to and from the sanctuary was also very scenic.
The way back from the stork sanctuary
By the time we took the boat back to our bus most of the villagers along the canal were bathing or washing clothes/dishes. They do all of this in water that I wouldn't even want to go swimming in because it is very dirty. Back on the bus we traveled the remaining few kilometers to the city of Cantho where we checked into our hotel. After getting settled we headed out in search of food. Jonathan and I decided to eat "buffet style" from the local night market and found all kinds of interesting things to try. Along the way we sampled dried banana fruit rollups, plain waffles, egg sandwiches, potato cake, sugar cane juice and waffles filled with sugar and rice. We both enjoyed the meal and I'm happy to report that neither of us had any stomach problems afterwards either. Back at our hotel we took advantage of a coupon to use the sauna for 15 free minutes before enjoying a good night's sleep in our cool, air conditioned rooms.


Floating Market near Cantho
In the morning we were up bright and early for another free breakfast before taking a quick bus ride to another boat. The boat first took us to one of the larger floating markets in the Mekong Delta. Many of the vendor boats had samples of their fresh produce tied to bamboo poles and hoisted high into the air so that you could see what they were selling from a distance. After passing through the very colorful and lively market we stopped at a rice noodle factory. In the factory we were able to watch the workers at various stages of production before re-boarding our boat. The next stop was at a rice mill from which we walked along the river through some tropical fruit orchards. Our guide pointed out several different types of fruit trees and we even got to pick some fruit ourselves before enjoying a picnic snack of fruit provided as part of the tour.
Making Rice Noodles
After we finished eating fruit we traveled by boat back to Cantho where we enjoyed lunch at a rooftop restaurant. After lunch we ate some ice cream and then boarded yet another boat which took us across one branch of the Mekong that does not yet have a bridge over it. On the other side of the river we boarded our bus again (it had come over on a car ferry) for the ride to Saigon. We skipped one of the scheduled stops on the way to Saigon, mainly because we had another tourist along who had been hit by a motorbike.
Downtown Cantho
He was doing pretty well, but had injured his leg and needed to get to a proper hospital. We did have a brief stretch break during which a couple of us enjoyed some fresh coconuts. One advantage of skipping the scheduled stop was that we got in to Saigon a little bit earlier than planned, so had a little time to look around before dark.

I think I'll post this now and continue the trip report soon in the next update.

Until then,

Andrew

For more pictures from this part of the trip see my Mekong Delta album. You can also click here to view a map of my route through Vietnam and Laos.

Posted by andrew on May 19, 2003
Comments

Hey Andrew,

The site looks great! It is good to hear that you made it back to where you started in one piece and that you are doing well. Take care.

Posted by: Ben Fellows on May 21, 2003

Good lookin' and functioning site, man. I like the format and being able to see pictures as I read the update. So what's next for the Great Explorer? I'll email you sometime, Re: Space Janitor.

Posted by: Lauren Smith on May 22, 2003

Hi Andrew! Great idea for this site. It's nice to have the pictures located near the description so you know what you're looking at. One note--sometimes the pictures were overlapping the text that was placed alongside the picture so you couldn't read it. Maybe it was just my software that did that, but had to guess at some of it!
You look great and am anxious to see you soon!
Judy

Posted by: Judy on May 22, 2003

Judy,

I just changed to a new format for displaying pictures and on mine the problem is gone. I can also put captions on much more easily now. Let me know if it looks better for you now!

Andrew

PS I removed my earlier comment as it is no longer relevant.

Posted by: Andrew on May 22, 2003

Hi Andrew,

Sounds like you had a good trip. I'm planning a trip myself, intending to go through the same route as you did. I will fly into Phnom Penh then travel to Saigon. I don't know which transportation mode to take from Phnom Penh yet. Can you give me some ideas... Please, safe modes of transportation. Thank you.

Posted by: Sonny on March 6, 2004

Sonny,

You might look at the related entry in my travel tips page at http://www.andrewsupdates.com/tips/archives/000043.html for more details on this route. I'd say the boat is a more relaxing way to travel although you can also go by van the whole way.

Andrew

Posted by: Andrew on March 12, 2004
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