Saturday, November 28, 2009

Exploring the Mekong

It was quite hard to tell when we were actually out of HCMC and into the provinces. Vietnam is so heavily populated that the residental shacks just continue on for miles and miles. The only way I knew we were coming out of the city was because the colour of the sky was beginning to change from brown to blue. The roads didn't seem to get any quieter or any more orderly though. If anything, it got more complicated - the roads no longer tried to even make lanes for the traffic, we had tractors, more pushbikes, more pedestrians crossing the roads, and more aninmal life (stray dogs, cows and chickens, mainly). Also, given that it was early morning, many people were stopping to grab food from the roadside stands, which meant they stopped dead in the middle of the first 'lane', creating chaos for everyone else around them. The roadside stands even employed young men to go out into the middle of the highway to stop the oncoming traffic so that their customer who had just purchased their food to be able to get back into their truck/car/tractor/whatever without being mown down by others. Given that I expect Vietnam doesn't have a strong insurance sector, I expect those guys are rising their lives just for a few dollars a day. That said, its more disorganised chaos rather than straight out danger. Because there is so much going on, so much coming at you at one time, the elephant and swarm of flies never actually sustain high enough speeds to cause any kind of real damage.

That said, the mood felt like it had changed, from a struggled suffering to a more purpose driven way of life. In between the shacks and the squalored buildings, there were flooded fields that I assume were rice fields. I later find out that there had been significant rain in the past 3 days and the water had yet to drain or evaporate away. So, the journey would have been better if the rice fields were drier, but I didn't let that worry me. Two hours later, we arrived in My Tho (as in, "my toe") and Mr Thuy turned to me with an excited look on his face. "The Mekong!!" I looked around and it was a though we'd gone in a circle and landed back into one of the outer districts of Saigon. I looked at him and said "er...river? Boats? Bamboo houses?" He didn't understand the question but caught the word "boat". He scratched his head and dialled his mobile phone. After a flurry of deep vowelled Vietnamese, he shut off his mobile phone, started the car and off we went again. We arrived at the river, which seemed more like I'd imagined but still wasn't exactly the wild, exotic, ferocious Mekong that I had expected. It was more like another Malaysian fishing town. Nevertheless, he nodded, and dutifully came around and opened the door of the car for me. Before I had a chance to get out, I was greeted by a smiling lady who was wearing a shirt emblazened with a tour company name. This is it, I thought, this is what I read about. Drivers having backhanded deals with tour companies to lure foreigners in. She grabbed my hand and said "come, come". Trying to hide my annoyance at Mr. Thuy, I went with her into the tour company building. She points to a big cardboard map on the wall and says "tours, choice, bee farm, island, village, music". - am not sure if it were my expression or the fact that I didn't agree straight away, but her own expression softened. She smiles and says "what you want to see?" I sighed, and honestly shrugged. "Boats, bamboo" I pointed out a photo from my Lonely Planet I had picked up at the aiport and said "markets". Her eyes lit up, she smiled and said "Cai Be! Mr Thuy take you to Cai Be. Not far." I said unconvincingly "do you have a tour company there too?" She shook her head. "No. You nice girl, very important Australian lady. I can't sell you tour, otherwise you get mad and not see what you want. Not good for you. Not good for me" At that instance, whatever hardened view I may have had about her, Mr Thuy or anyone for that matter, disappeared. I thanked her, promised her that I would come back and do her tour one day soon, and hurried back into the car.

An hour more of the madness that is Vietnamese driving and we turned off onto a gravel road. We begun to head into a village with much denser vegetation, less noise but more pedestrians. Finally, I was beginning to experience my first taste of the Mekong - bustling village sellers, chickens flying everywhere, old village women in traditional Vietnamese garb - this was perfect!

Mr. Thuy and I walked into a shed where the local tour company was based. Soon enough, I had bartered my way onto a private tour of the Mekong with a local guide at a fairly reasonable price. Of course, more reasonable would have been a group tour, but they assumed that because I had arrived in the Vietnamese equivalent of a stretched limosene (ie. A new modelled car), then I deserved nothing but the best. As it turned out, the local guide was actually the Vice Director of the company and he was going to take me around the area. This proved to be the best thing to have happened. He was near-fluent in English, he was easy to converse with and was about to share with me many of the details of the Mekong that I am sure I would not have got if I had gone alone, or with a tour group. Also, because he was well known, the village we visited treated us with great importance, giving us tea, fruit, and local sweets.

Duong and I went up the Mekong River on an old junk boat. As we passed the many sites, the driver would slow down to allow me to take photos, ask questions and take more photos. It was hard to get good shots because the sun was high and there was signifiant glare, but I was able to snap the general surroundings of the Mekong.

The Mekong stretches from the start of Vietnam, at the opening of the South China Sea, and cuts through Vietnam into Cambodia. "The Mighty Mekong" isn't exactly "mighty in that it doesn't flow in rapids - but its mighty because of the sheer anmount of transport and activity that calls it its home. It is relied upon by millioms of Vietnamese and Cambodians, carrying a significant amount of produce from village to village. Hundreds of thousands of locals live ON the Mekong, in old wooden boats. During the fruit season, they sell their produce at floating markets, and then out of season, they go back down the river to harvest some more. All the while, large tug boats and wooden fishing boats deliver goods to the people in these small wooden house boats. Villagers that live on the banks of the Mekong jump in their canoes or junk boats and meet these sellers to collect enough goods in order for them to carry on their own trade, often making cocunut candies, rice paper or rice wine. After seeing the floating markets, Duong took me to see to the local village to see how coconut candy and other local delights are made and packed, and then he took me to a local homestay, where we sat and had fruits and tea.

Three hours of exploring and it was time to head on home. We drank coconut juice fresh from the coconut and sat back and enjoyed the ride back to Cai Be.

I would have loved to have spent more time in Cai Be and the surrounding areas. As it was, the trip to get there was 3 hours in length and I only booked Mr Thuy for 8 hours.

Another 3 hours of hellish HCMC traffic and Mr. Thuy deserved a rather large tip and I deserved a good rest.

Stay tuned for the story of me getting my first (and most likely my last) Vietnamese massage! Ha ha

Til then...


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