Mekong Delta Days

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

After enjoying the novelty of a Cambodian barbecue (imagine a circular grill on which you cook the meat at the table and boil up a ring of delicious soup at the same time - the ultimate do it yourself meal), on our last night in Siem Reap we retired early, as we had to be up and ready to catch the 7.30am bus to Phnom Penh. Full of locals and the odd backpacker, the bus set out across the incredibly flat Cambodian landscape, past an endless sea of rice paddies and stilted houses lining the road, to the tune of Khmer pop music and the honking bus horn every time we passed a scooter. My, there are a lot of scooters on the roads of Cambodia.

Just to make the trip a little more eventful, the bus blew a tyre on the outskirts of the city, enabling us to spend an interesting hour on the side of the dusty road, watching the pick-ups and trucks drive by, jam-packed and overloaded with goods and people, interspersed with thousands of scooters carrying anything from one to five people. The daily life of Cambodia was passing us by.

We were late into Phnom Penh as a consequence and, after a quick clean-up, grabbed a tuktuk down to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda to wander through their serene gardens, the golden hues of the various wats, halls and stupas glowing in the late afternoon sun.


The gates of the Royal Palace

The Silver Pagoda (i.e. silver floor tiles on the inside)

The classic phoenix roof-line

Buildings in the Royal Palace compound

From here we wandered across to the banks of the Mekong to contemplate this mighty river flowing by, before heading over to the nearby National Museum to watch the hundreds of bats that call its roof home emerge at dusk. The locals, too, had emerged to take in the cool of the day; kids played soccer in the park and groups of people did fitness dances to music as the sun set in a red haze behind the mysterious phoenix profiles of temple rooves.

The French colonial past of Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh sunset

We wouldn't see a lot of Phnom Penh, but we aren't big city people, and this pleasant Asian evening together with watching the city slowly come to life as we ate our breakfast on the sidewalk of a downtown street were sufficient to ensure that we would leave the next morning with a fond memory.

Phnom Penh to Chau Doc

The mini-bus picked us up early in the morning and headed off through the masses of workbound Cambodians in a sea of scooters, before turning down the highway towards Vietnam for an hour and a half. Finally we pulled in to a small town where our boat was waiting for us alongside the muddy banks of the Mekong. Together with our four co-passengers we climbed aboard for a leisurely trip down the third greatest river of Asia. We pushed through the flat delta landscape, past stilted fishing villages, farmers ploughing fields with oxes, and boats and barges of varying sizes as we settled in to the languid rhythm of the river.

Our long boat awaits on the Mekong

One of many villages lining the river

Life on the Mekong

After two hours we pulled into shore to be processed out of Cambodia, reboarded for another kilometre to repeat the exercise and be processed into Vietnam. A change of boat and crew and we were off again on the mighty Mekong, passing an endless array of sand dredges and barges low in the water with their loads of sand; Vietnam already seemed a busier place and we were barely in it. Turning into the Bassac, a delta arm of the Mekong, the river banks were lined with stilted houses and soon the wooden buildings spilt out on to the river itself - we were in the realm of the floating fish farms. The low skyline of Chau Doc appeared ahead and the boat made a sweeping turn to pull in alongside our accommodation for the night - even our hotel was floating. We were about to have a small taste of life on the river.

View westward from Sam Mountain over the floodplains of Cambodia

view northward from Sam Mountain over Chau Doc and the Vietnamese rice fields

Here there are no tuktuks - riding pillion on a scooter is the mode. As our afternoon was free, we ferried across the river to the town side and hired a couple of scooter drivers to take us to Sam Mountain - a rocky island hill in the flat plain of the delta. I think that everyone who visits this part of the world should ride pillion on a scooter to get a different perspective on Asian traffic - its not as scary as it looks to a pedestrian and the run up the steep winding slope of Sam Mountain was even fun. From the top the view over the shimmering water-covered flatlands of the Mekong and back into Cambodia was spectacular and the walk down past the many buddhist temples and shrines in the cooling wind was fascinating.

One of many Chinese buddhist shrines on Sam Mountain

Shrines to buddha .....

..... and a gaggle of revered ancestors

Tay An Pagoda

The riotous pastels of Tay An

The fair Nello paid a 10000 dong ransome to release two swallows from their tiny bamboo cage - they probably flew straight into the mist net behind the shrine. It may be good karma to release small birds, but I hope the karma is very bad for those who trap and ransome them. On reaching the bottom of the steep stone steps that brought us down Sam Mountain, we checked out the garishly decorated Tay An Pagoda, whose interior is crowded with a multitude of venerable and gilded figures - the more buddhism is explained, the less I understand.

Local boats on the Mekong

Chau Doc sunset (from the deck of our floating hotel)

Our Vietnamese easy riders were waiting at the pagoda and soon we were back on the deckchair of the floating hotel, sipping a beer as we took in the ambiance of the river - fishing boats casting out and hauling in their nets, the barges of bricks, sand, rice and fruit chugging by and the many clumps of water hyacinth drifting past in the current - while the sun set slowly over the far bank of the river. As darkness settled on the warm evening air, the lights of Chau Doc grew brighter and reflected across the water. We reached for another beer ..... it could be easy to fall into the slow and steady rhythm of life on the Mekong.

Chau Doc to Can Tho

Our trip across the Mekong Delta from Pnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City was organised by Delta Adventure Tours, and they seemed to have different groups heading off in different directions at every stop - all highly organised and smoothly done, but with a slight sense of mystery as to where and what we would do next. Their aim was to give the tourist a number of rapid glimpses into the Mekong and its people and so, early next morning, we were once again ferried across the river, this time with a group of fellow travellers, all heading back to the magnetic Sam Mountain for the grand panorama of the delta. However, our exciting easy rider trip of yesterday was not wasted, as we visited a different part of the mountain, climbing only part way up to visit the modern Cavern Pagoda built at the cave where a buddhist nun spent her life in meditation and take in a lower level (but similarly spectacular) view over the vaste expanse of flat Mekong wetlands.

Chua Hang (Cavern Pagoda) on Sam Mountain

From here we climbed back into the boats for a little bit of spoon-fed tourism, visiting one of the floating fish farms (which each produce 40 tonnes of catfish every 6-8 months) and a riverside village of the islamic Cham minority group. Thence, back onto a large river boat (our fourth different type of boat in two days) for a slow two hour cruise downstream in the comfort of soft sofas and deckchairs, time measured by the rise and fall of the wood-framed cantilevered fish nets along the bank - the chances of a fish reaching old age in the Mekong must be very remote!!.

We were on our way to Can Tho, the only problem being that it was on a different arm of the delta. Hence, our large boat pushed into the muddy bank of an overgrown field somewhere on the long urban thread that lines the river, where some of us disembarked to be greeted by two zebu cattle and (fortunately) a minibus on the side of the road a hundred metres further on.

Courtyard of the Cavern Pagoda

As the life of the river is slow and tranquil, so the life of the land is fast, noisy and bustling. The bus droned slowly along the road paralleling the river accompanied by a swarm of scooters and the odd truck or van, down what seemed to be an endless crowded main street of small shops and other enterprises. The Mekong's banks seem to be one long sprawling urbanisation - I woke up as as we turned away from the river and into a more rural landscape with the occasional glimpse of the paddies that fuel this rice bowl of Asia. Rural, however, remains a relative term in a region where humanity is so densely packed in.

Floating fish farms on the Bassac Arm of the Mekong

Improvised landing

A long slow ride down the Mekong

Another hour passed and we reached Can Tho and our erstwhile elegant hotel on the waterfront (we seemed to have drawn the lucky straw for our fellow travellers stayed on the bus to be driven to another hotel boasting fewer stars in the city). As mentioned earlier there always seemed to be an element of surprise on these trips, though we suspected it may have been partly due to the Asian reverence for age. This area also seemed to be the wedding capital of Can Tho and we had the interesting experience of seeing half a dozen Vietnamese weddings underway in the waterfront restaurants. December 6 must be an auspicious day for weddings - at least we thought so 34 years ago when the fair Nello and I were married on this very day. We celebrated more quietly than the Vietnamese, at dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Mekong with a bottle of rare (in every sense of the word) Dalat red.

Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City

Another morning, another guide and another different mix of fellow travellers, this time climbing on to small boats to visit the Cai Rang floating market, one of several in the canals of this region. More a wholesale than retail market, these bustling clusters of fruit and vegetable laden boats are a microcosm of the market economy, as barges bring produce in from the delta farmlands and smaller boats carry them off to the stores and land markets of the town, while tiny floating kitchens putter by with steaming pots of pho or tea and coffee for buyers and sellers - fascinating stuff.

The hustle of the floating market at Cai Rang

Canal side suburbia in Can Tho

A visit to one of the larger land markets bordering the canal and on to an old rice-husking mill to learn about the rice industry of the delta (Vietnam is now the second largest exporter of rice in the world) and it was back to our hotel in time for lunch and one more Vietnamese wedding before boarding a bus to Ho Chi Minh City. It is only 150km away, but a 90 minute wait to cross the Mekong arm by ferry (an impressively huge suspension bridge was under construction a littel further downstream), followed by a slow ride down the crowded road escorted by the usual swarm of motor scooters and a few stops stretched out the journey.


Au revoir to the Mekong!!

In these past two days, we discovered that the Mekong is not only Vietnam's rice bowl, it is its fruitbowl and veggie basket as well. However, it is also a seething mass of humanity; sprawling city nodes connected by long urbanised filaments that line every road and canal. The paddies and orchards are there, but you only really get to see them when you climb a rare hill such as Sam Mountain or drive over the high span of the impressive suspension bridge near Vin Longh.

So, three days, five different guides, five boat trips, four bus trips and several different groups of co-travellers later, we arrived in the bright lights and glorious traffic mayhem of a Saigon evening. It was an interesting way of getting here from Cambodia and the degree of organisation and efficiency with which all the transfers and mixes of itineraries was done was most impressive. You wouldn't want to fight a war with these blokes!!!

Ho Chi Minh City

I had not really looked forward to spending a day in the erstwhile Saigon, a sprawling megapolis and the bustling economic capital of Vietnam - it just seemed that we should spend at least a day here since we were in the area. In the end, it was a day that we both enjoyed. As we arrived late at night, our first experience of the notorious Saigon traffic came when we stepped out onto the road the next morning; a somewhat unnerving experience, but ... if you can't beat them, join them ... and so we hired a couple of xe om (taxi scooters) and climbed on the pillions behind our drivers to roar off and join the pulsating swarm of scooters buzzing around the shaded boulevards and narrow side streets of this outpost of French urban planning - it was a chance to study a scooter swarm at close range.

The scooters string out along the boulevards, then bunch up again at intersections, while at roundabouts there seems to be one permanent circling swarm into which others merge, reform and leave in different directions. Yet they rarely touch, even with a long pair of caucasian legs sticking out on either side of the rider. At one such bunching up, my scooter was caught at the back of the pack and the fair Nello's scooter made a break to join the next swarm; her blue and black striped shirt disappearing into the distance. While contemplating whether I would ever see her again, a butterfly flitted casually past my face and through the seething mass of scooters. I was still trying to work out what this meant when my xe om dropped out of the fast-flowing river of scooters into the quiet grounds of the Jade Emperor Pagoda and there she was waiting, looking either very zen or very shell-shocked. Actually, the Saigon traffic is much less scary from the perspective of a scooter rider than that of a pedestrian.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a Chinese temple housing an eclectic mix of images and carvings of buddhist-taoist origins permeated with the scent of of incense, which was much more pleasant on the nose than the scent of thousands of scooter exhaust emissions outside.

Can you spot the fair Nello on pillion?

The basket lady cometh

Jade roof tiles on the Jade Emperor Pagoda

A touch of French colonialism - the Municipal Theatre ...

... and the Hotel de Ville (aka People's Committee HQ)

Front of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

View of the gates of the Reunification Palace
(where the tanks crashed through in 1975 to end the war)

Incense-filled interior of the Jade Pagoda

Saigon street with its spaghetti of
electricity wires

From the pagoda, our two xe om drivers scootered us back to the Reunification Palace where we left them to continue on foot. For anyone who lived through that period, the palace is a powerful symbol of the end of the Vietnamese war ... who can't still remember the images of the tank crashing through the gates of what was then the Presidential Palace as Saigon fell. Today it is not that different as it was then, an impressively modern and clean architecture perfectly adapted to a hot and humid climate, with the paraphernalia of state and the basement war rooms virtually as they were on 30 April 1975. Leaving the palace, we wandered back beneath the shade of leafy boulevards, past those grand reminders of French colonial days - the former Hotel de Ville and now People's Committee headquarters, and the Municipal Theatre.

How could a nation that got the architecture and street design in this region so right have gotten the politics so wrong? A bit more urban wandering, an afternoon nap, a nice meal at the balcony of a rooftop restaurant watching the world go by below and our Ho Chi Minh experience was over. Its a much nicer city than I had expected, but it is still a big noisy city ... for us, one day was enough.

We had been a week in the flat and crowded lands of the Mekong and it was time for a little relief - both geographical, temperature-wise and crowded-humanity wise. Tomorrow we would head to the hills of Dalat and our first trek.