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7-9 January 2013. For the grand sum of $65 each (that included two night’s accommodation and most meals) we took a three-day “boat” trip from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, which I’m going to call Saigon. Someone in the city told me that everyone who lives there calls it Saigon. They only call it Ho Chi Minh City in official situations because they have to. Enough with the HCMC. Saigon it is. I don’t have to worry about being official. The word boat is in inverted commas because very little of it was actually by boat, even though we’d been led to believe most of it would be, and I did have to get very angry at one point in order to get some of what we’d been promised. But no matter, we still had an amazing, adventurous time, and got to see some pretty extraordinary stuff.

We travelled by bus from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border. (I don’t know what happened to: we take an air-con bus to the boat dock at Neak Luong. First we take a cruising boat to the Border.) We dealt with all the border crossing rigmarole, clambered onto an open-air boat and headed down a very long canal that eventually joined the Mekong River. What a journey! Several hours of cruising slowly through a different world where people live by fishing, and duck farming, and growing crops on either side of the canal. They live in houses on stilts, or on boats, they wash their buffalo and their clothes and their dishes and their bodies in the canal, they travel by boat or foot or bicycle or motorbike, and smile and wave the same as anyone anywhere. The more we are different the more we are the same.

Eventually we came to Chau Doc

And entered the city by this footbridge

Well that was okay for all the backpackers we were travelling with, but Don and I have small suitcases, which is fine but they are not built for this kind of terrain. Lug. Lug. Lug. Well Don lugged. Some eager gentleman (one of the backpackers I think) grabbed my case and carried it for me. I always have mixed feelings when this happens. On the one hand I’m grateful and appreciative that I get to walk freely. Well as freely as I can with the weight of my camera and 8kg backpack. On the other hand I resent the implication that I’m not capable of carrying my own luggage. No-one would grab a man’s case out of his hand. And I miss the opportunity to exercise those muscles that keep me strong. Don freely admits that I’m actually stronger than he is, and I know I stay strong because I keep lifting and carrying things.

We were led to a scuzzy hotel and were told that was where we would be staying for the night. What? But we’d been promised this: Transfer to Sam Mountain for home stay guesthouse on mountain side. Climb up for sunset on the Cambodia border or cycle around the mountain village. Overnight at Sam Mountain. At the time we didn’t have our wits about us enough to protest, and it was all done in such a hurry, and so authoritatively – you stay here tonight, here’s your room key. Then the tour guide for that portion of the tour disappeared and there we were, checked into a scuzzy hotel room, and cruising the town looking for somewhere to get dinner which turned out to be the worst meal of the trip.

Chau Doc, sunrise on the Mekong

Next morning we had an hour or so by boat around the Chau Doc area visiting a Cham minority village and a fish farm. The Chams apparently used to rule most of what is now Vietnam. Alas they are reduced to a small minority as the Vietnamese slowly spread from the north throughout the country.

After a rushed visit to the Cham village, the next thing we knew we were taken back to Chau Doc, then taken by bus to Can Tho, and then told we’d be travelling by motorbike to our homestay. A half hour ride, Don and I each on the back of a motorbike with our cases stuffed down in front of the drivers. God it was fun, but . . . . but . . . . .but . . . . . what happened to: On arrival at Can Tho, transfer to Phong Dien village by boat. Have lunch (included) with the Mekong Delta people, visit the rice fields, go swimming on river. Anyway the homestay was great and the food they provided, both for lunch and dinner, was terrific.

Traffic on the way to Can Tho

Diaper delivery

The homestay. One of these little thatch cabins was ours.

Next morning very early we were up for breakfast and, still in darkness, watched as others staying there were given their breakfast and told to get in a little boat to paddle through the narrow canals to the Mekong and Cai Rang, one of the biggest floating markets in the Mekong Delta. This is what was on the itinerary we’d been given: After breakfast we take a small boat to discover the 2 biggest floating markets in the Mekong delta Cai Rang and Phong Dien. Cruise the small canals through villages interconnected by monkey bridges. Don and I, however, were told that we were to eat breakfast at the homestay and wait for a car or bikes to take us back to town where we would join a bigger boat later in the morning. Okay. Now I’d had enough. I was angry. I verbally stamped my foot. Not very loudly, but firmly and persistently. Enough already with the BS. We were going on the pre-dawn little boat through the canals.

And so it was arranged. It’s amazing what a little foot stamping will do. I was furious actually. I’d totally had enough. So we gathered up our breakfast things, and packs and cases, and climbed into the boat with the others. Oh and what a trip it was – cruising down the silent canal as the day gradually got lighter, eventually coming to the aptly named “mighty” Mekong and joining one of the the biggest floating wholesale markets in the world. Everyone gathers here to sell their fruit and vegetables in bulk to the middle-men who in turn sell them to local markets. With a small boat it was easy to manoeuver in and out of the big boats. Boats of all sizes, each loaded with its own crop – one with potatoes, one with pineapples, one with water apples, one with melons, some with a variety. Every boat has a long pole sticking up into the air in the front. Attached to the pole are examples of the fruit and vegetables for sale on that boat, high up so all can see. And maneuvering in between are “restaurant” boats selling breakfast to the people on the market boats. We got to climb onto one of the big boats and were given huge chunks of pineapple to try, and from that height had a better view of the whole scene. It was really quite surreal, and unexpected. We knew we were going to a floating market but hadn’t expected this. The size of it, the number of boats, the crowded purposeful activity. It was fascinating, in every direction. The photos don’t do it justice – it’s hard to capture the sheer size of it, and the noise and busyness.

The first two photos are Don’s.

Eventually, after a couple of hours or so, Don and I connected up with the bigger boat they’d tried to puts us on earlier and we had even more time cruising around the market. Thanks to a little foot stamping we got a far longer and more intimate experience of the market than we otherwise would have had.

Our boat driver on the bigger boat, steering by foot.

We visited a rice noodle factory that was surprisingly fascinating. Who knew? More on that in the next post. We returned to Can Tho, had lunch and then a bus took us straight to Saigon. I don’t know what happened to: Vinh Long to visit the local market, then go on to My Tho for a short stop at Bonsal gardens. Or the visit to a rice mill, but by this time we’re happy to get to Saigon, and realize that although we may not have seen and done all that was promised, or even most that was promised, we still had a good time and some fabulous experiences.

Next post: Saigon, the noodle factory, and a truly unique temple.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.