We turned our backs on Cambodia for the first time on October 20. Following our journey along the Mekong river and along the Cambodian coastline we reached the southernmost border crossing along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border some time in the morning. Quite a change awaited us, because the different countries in South-East Asia seem to be more different than we would have expected. Our loop through the Mekong Delta should take roughly one week, while we explored towns, channels and markets.
Once again we decided to take the more difficult way to reach our destination, this time the Cambodian-Vietnamese border from Kep, than just booking a bus ticket at the guesthouse. Instead of the simple purchase we left the guesthouse early in the moring on foot with all of our luggage only to be collected by a tuk-tuk a little while later. We asked the driver to drop us at the Kep market where we first ate breakfast before checking on transport options towards the border.
Well prepared with filled stomachs we finally opted to continue on a high-speed tuk-tuk to leave the final 25 km of Cambodian soil filled with rice paddies and salt fields behind ourselves and to head straight on to Vietnam. Even before leaving Cambodia we had to moto drivers on our tail chasing after us for a ride from the border into Hatien, the first town on the Vietnamese side. We opted to walk the few hundred meters across the border hoping we could find a tuk-tuk on the other side. Unfortunately we were disappointed as far as the tuk-tuk drivers were concerned, so after a smooth border crossing and declining a one dollar fee for the health check, we were off on moto to Hatien. At least our patience was rewarded because as time passed the price for the motorbike ride continued to drop. While tuk-tuk were omnipresent in Laos, their number declined in Cambodia, being replaced by motos, to being non-existant in Vietnam. Short-distance transport in Vietnam happens most of the time (or always in our case) on motos, the motorbike taxis, or regular taxis.
Faster than we could think we ended up inside a bus to Rach Gia once we had arrived in Hatien. Rach Gia was going to be our first destination in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. And we soon realized there was something else that had changed between Cambodia and Vietnam: we had to be way more careful in order not to get cheated while in Vietnam. Speed can make a traveler less focused and can cause a loss of control at times. Without any incident we finally reached Rach Gia and checked in at a hotel near the bus station in Rach Gia.
During our exploration tour around the city we kept a lookout for boats as a means of transport. However besides the hydrofoil to Phu Quoc we did not spot anything remotely resembling a passenger transport vessel. Our research on the Internet the same night pointed us to a spped boat running from a little bit outside of town to Ca Mau in the far south of the Mekong Delta. We confirmed this information with the guy at the reception desk at our hotel and understood that we had to hire a moto to get to the pier. We had read about three boats leaving roughly at 7 am, 9 am and in the early afternoon. Despite a crash and a fall on the moto, my driver and I also reached the pier around 7 am, the driver with a bleeding lip and myself with a slightly crushed calf. It seemed that the 7 am boat however did not run, such that we had two hours to kill. On efficient way to kill time is to eat, another by working on a blog post. So after a big breakfast I pulled out my netbook to catch up on blogging.
The few little speed boats we still ply some of the channels in the Mekong delta are definitely built for small Asian people and not for Westerners our size. Fortunately the captain and his staff had pity with us and placed us in the front row, sending people to the back of the boat until we had almost arrived in Ca Mau and no more seats were available in the back of the boat. We enjoyed our front row seats by checking out all sizes of boats on the canals, from the small row-boat to the pretty large fishing vessels near Rach Gia. It was also interesting to see the buildings, we had seen the day before from the road side, from the water side. Essentially many of these buildings are shops with two facades, one facing the canal, the other one facing the road. Most of the times one can also see the road from the canal and vice versa.
Our behinds were more than happy about our arrival after three hours of boat ride in Ca Mau. The bench turned out to not be the most comfortable one. However we had enjoyed the the varied boat ride to the southernmost provincial capital in Vietnam very much. The enjoyable ride ended at a central location in Ca Mau from where we didn’t have to walk for to find a place to stay for the following two nights. The place we found turned out to have only one downside: it seemd that between our arrival and our first return to the room, the owners spilled some kind of creature killer in our bathroom. The smell almost caused the two of us to become part of the creatures killed by the toxin. Fortunately we could control the smell somewhat through closing the bathroom door and switching the fan in the room on.
Following a first exploration walk on the day of our arrival in Ca Mau, we headed out to the U Minh Ha National Park on our second day in town. We found two moto drivers who took us on a long ride for a fair price. We sped across villags and along canals to reach the National Park after a little more than an hour long ride. Soon we found the viewing tower, from which all the advertisment photos were taken. We enjoyed the beautiful view across the plains of the Mekong Delta before we continued our trip arond the park through banana plantations. While the actual visit to the park was a little disappointing, we still enjoyed the ride, giving us some exposure to village life in the Mekong Delta.
We asked the drivers to drop us off at the Lam Vien Park back in Ca Mau. We were hoping to see some birds in the bird sanctuary. We were a little bit unfortunate as we happened to arrive at the park during lunch break during which the park is closed. We used the short break to let a thunderstorm pass and to enjoy our official refreshment, a cup of sugar cane juice. Sometime between 12:30 and 1 pm the park re-opened and we headed inside to enjoy a little bit of nature. We had to recognize that we had ended up in a beautifully laid out park next to the bird sanctuary. Despite a pretty extensive although not exhaustive search we gave up trying to find an open entrance. Instead we had another cup of cold drink to let yet another thunderstorm pass before we headed out to the canals and the small side roads of Ca Mau. We ended up finding a Khmer-style pagoda, had our first experience crossing one of the many canals on a small and shaky row boat and found many small shops in the back roads.
Near one of the large bridges of Ca Mau we found a small restaurant, which offered something we had not yet seen: delicious spring rolls to assembled oneself. For some reason I had always believed that spring rolls were a Chinese dish. Now, after almost three years in China and not seeing spring rolls once and a few days in Vietnam with seeing spring rolls everyday, I had to adjust my understanding. Springs rolls are a great snack wrapped either raw or fried. Sometimes you can even get them to build yourself. Dipped into fish sauce with pieces of peanuts the make an amazing snack anytime of day. Once we had rolled up all the ingredients, we headed out to look for a café near our hotel. We wanted to be sure to get back to the hotel dry despite the frequent downpours.
Early next morning our cruise around the Mekong Delta continued with a moto ride to the bus station where we soon caught the bus to Nga Nam, a small village between Ca Mau and Soc Trang. The place is apparently famous for its floating market located at the confluence of no less than five canals from all directions. During our bus ride we were almost able to greet every individual blade of grass, the bus was going so slow. Once again we were happy to stretch our bodies once we had gotten off the bus. We first opted to check out the market on land for which we dropped off our backpacks at one of the cafés. Once we had completed the short tour we got a ride around the floating market for one dollar.
The market turned out to be rather small, but already gave us some interesting insights into how floating markets work in th Mekong Delta. On poles in the front part of the boat, the sellers hang out small samples of the produce they sell. No need to ask every vendor about what they have to offer, just pay attention to what you see. Another interesting observation was that the boats appeared to be group by things they sell. It so happened that the vegetable boats were part of the different group than the different fruits with the coconut boats forming the rear end of the market. It is also amazing to see how much all these boats are loaded. More often than not we saw boats which’s deck was under water or close to being under water.
On another local bus we rode the next 50 km from Nga Nam to Soc Trang. Once in town we had to look yet again for a place to stay and to explore another provincial capital. Once we had settled for a really nice room at a decent price we tried to get a peek at the clay pagoda, one of the few famous sights in town. Unfortunately all the access paths were blocked, such that we left the clay pagoda behind and started a walk across town to visit the Mahaput temple, better known as the bat temple. Even on road-sign the temple is marked as bat temple, which is the name given to the sacred building because of the fruit bats living in the trees behind the temple. We had an early dinner before the visit and enjoyed the peaceful temple waiting for nightfall, when the bats became active. Only when the sun had disappeared we realized the numerous bats hanging from the top branches of a number of trees as they started to move around and ultimately take off for a round of chasing insects for dinner. It was quite a sight to see these animals unfold their wings of more than 50 cm of wingspan. By the time we left the temple the sky was covered in bats making their way around the temple to feed. On a couple of motos we headed back to town to enjoy a sweet drink as a night cap.
Day 5 in the Mekong Delta had quite a few surprises in store for us. Our ideas of reaching Tra Vinh and Ben Tree from Soc Trang by boat or local bus across the ferry did not materialize due to the main roads offering a much quicker while much longer way in the same general direction. The bus we had boarded happened to drop us off in Vinh Long, a place we had planned to visit after Ben Tre. We thus quickly decided to skip Ben Tre and stay in Vinh Long instead, which serves as a gateway to the Cai Be floating market and Anh Binh island, which also offers a few things to see and do. By moto we headed into the city center and ended up at a hotel where immediately checked in. We also inquired about a boat tour to the Cai Be floating market and a few sights around it. While we didn’t quite agree to the high price, we had to recognize that boat tours for tourists seem to be rather expensive and after a very tough round of negotiation at least we got a 10% discount.
We strolled through the streets of central Vinh Long before taking the ferry for 5 US cents for two people across the river to Anh Binh island. On foot we set out to get some insights to life on the island. The next day we should learn a little more about the canals on our boat trip, which led us through some of the very small and narrow canals to house in the interior of the island. On the way back on the ferry we enjoyed the contents of a coconut each before we started our quest for dinner once back on solid soil. The dried shrimps on rice had a little stronger taste than what we are used to, but we nevertheless finished the dinner as we were taught when we were kids. The little stalls offering food which can be found all around the Mekong Delta offer dishes for typically 1.25 USD. Another 50 cents usually buys a soft drink or a can of beer along with plenty of ice to cool and water out the drinks. If one really is concious of ones budget the price can even be optimized by opting for a cup of sugar cane juice as a drink for 25 cents. Since there are typically quite a few of these stalls around, there is quite a selection of dishes available. One can check out whatever they offer visually before sitting down and ordering. One can also point at different ingredients to make sure only the ones with are acceptable for ones diet actually make it into the dish. The only challenge might be to find one stall which offers everything the travel companions would like to eat.
Otherwise one might have to buy food from different stalls, since one stall usually only prepared a very limited amount of dishes.
Already at 6 am the next morning we had agreed to meet to depart to our tour to the floating market of Cai Be and the surrounding sights. A little bit too late and a couple of clarifications later concerning number of participants on the tour we left for the pier and got served a small breakfast on the boat. We sailed across this particular arm of the Mekong river to enter the canal across Anh Binh island. There was still a little bit of morning mist on the river and the sun was still low enough for a piece of early morning atmosphere. Passing by villages on Anh Binh and digging boats on the next arm of the Mekong we reached Cai Be after a little bit more than an hour on the boat. While all the traders were in place it seemed that there were not too many customers present and thus the market did not seem too busy. We crossed the market to get off the boat on the far side for a visit of a honey and pollen product place and a coconut processing plant. This was a typical tourist tour demo and shopping stop as is very common around the world. It seems that the shops are more important than the actual educational part. On the return trip we caught another glimpse of the market before landing on the shores of Anh Binh island where we changed into a small rowing boat to discover the narrow canals. Another insightful trip to learn more about the hidden treasures of the island. Everywhere in the Mekong Delta we were impressed how people from a very young age are able to navigate the waters and deal with rocking boats. At the end of the channel our motorboat was already waiting for us and we continued through the slightly wider channels which were manageable by the larger boat. We stopped at the Bonsai Garden for a fruit platter, tea and a short rest in the hammocks. Finally we returned back to Vinh Long were we ended an interesting tour. The only part that happened to be a little bit less than expected was the activity on the floating market.
After a lunch on the market we collected our belongings in our hotel and slowly but surely made our way to Can Tho, the largest city of the Mekong delta, on a local bus. We didn’t quite know where we were dropped off in the city, but help is usually just a moto driver away. After a quick round of negotiation we were near the river front where most hotels are located, such that our search for accommodation could begin. We had to realize that Can Tho happens to be one of the more expensive places in the Mekong delta, nevertheless we found a reasonably priced accommodation quite quickly. As with all of our accommodation, there was one big down-side though. While we typically check the rooms quite well, we could not have guessed that there were two fish dealers in the street in front of our window. They start packing up fish and selling it around 3 am at a quite noisy level, such that our night was cut even shorter than we had planned with getting up at 4:15am. Already at 5 am we were due to meet our tour boat which we finally found even though it was still dark. Despite us having agreed with the ticket selling lady that we would get our private boat with sun-roof, we were ushered unto a boat on which already two German tourists were sitting and waiting to leave. Also a sun-roof was nowhere in sight. Fortunately we had quite an interesting discussion with the the German couple and the sun was not too high up before we returned at 8 am, that these drawbacks proved to be OK. However it still left a slightly bad taste for being no being delivered what was bought…
We enjoyed the sunrise on the river and the boat ride through what apparently is the biggest floating market in the Mekong delta. We were mildly surprised to see so many tourist boats despite it being the low season still. We also expected there to be more activity between sellers and buyers, it once again seemed that only sellers were present and no buyers were to be seen. We enjoyed the ride back along narrow canals which were quite a bit overgrown and seemed not to be used that much anymore. Getting off at the pier we returned to our hotel room, packed our backpacks and soon after sat on the back of a couple of motorbikes to the bus station. The moto drivers dropped us off at the ticket booth for Chau Doc and another few minutes later we were on a neckbreaking ride which took us from Can Tho to the town of Chau Doc near the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
We were dropped off near Chau Doc bus station where we inquired about buses to Cambodia. There were no regularly scheduled buses from this station but a phone call and a few minutes later of course help neared in the form of a guy who had both bus and boat tickets for Cambodia for sale. The boat prices corresponded to what we had learned they would be in Phnom Penh, but we were surprised that the bus tickets should be almost as expensive. The ticket either in Cambodia or Vietnam would be about a third of the price of what it costs across the border. Sicne we had tranfered less on boats in the Mekong Delta than anticipated we opted for the boat.
After another short search for accomodation and a swift money exchange we enjoyed another first regarding food in the Mekong Delta: an omlett stuffed with beans and other small ingredients. For a single US-dollar we tamed our hunger and for another half dollar we got a sugar cane juice which we enjoyed on the banks of the Mekong river in shade. We strolled around town, had another Vietnamese coffee on the rocks with 4 tea spoons of sugar to stay awake and headed back to the hotel for a short rest and working on the blog. We needed the rest to be in good shape for immigration to Cambodia once again!