Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Mekong Delta (Phnom Penh to Saigon, July 3 & 4, 2011)

I left Phnom Penh on the morning of July 2.  I thought I was going to be going down the river to Vietnam, leaving from the capital city.  The tour company picked me up and a few minutes later picked up another couple.  Like me, they too were surprised at how far we rode in the bus before getting to a boat.  The van followed the Mekong to the border at Koom Sum Nor, an “outpost” border crossing if there ever was one.  The last bit of the trip was on dirt roads.  Yet, even here, on the Cambodian side, was a small casino!  My travel partners for this trip were Emma and Josh.  Emma is from Indiana and has just finished a Fulbright year in Vietnam.  Josh is an Australian who’d spent a year doing his country’s equivalent of a Fulbright, working with sustainable agiculture practices in Vietnam.  The two of them were completing a several week trip throughout SE Asia and were on their last week before heading to their respective homes.   Josh and Emma made the perfect travel partners.  From Josh, I learned about farming practices in Vietnam and with Emma, we discussed the Mormon Church and its beliefs, with Josh asking the questions.  Emma’s Master’s Degree thesis dealt with Mormon women in secular universities (although not Mormon, as an undergraduate she had a Mormon dorm roommate who struggled with her faith).    

After having our passport stamped and given entry permits into Vietnam, we crawled into a boat that had just come up the river with a load of travelers heading into Cambodia.  As the tour guide took our passports to be processed, the group of us stood around a dining room in no man’s land, having lunch and trying to figure out what’s next.  As there were no currency exchange places along the border, I swapped my Cambodian money for Vietnamese dong with some of the tourists.  In Cambodia, they take American dollars (and knowing this, I’d brought along a bundle of dollar bills).  The only Cambodian money I had was that for which I’d exchanged Thai Bahts, or money that was given to me as change for dollars.  One doesn’t need much Cambodian money, if one has dollars and I would have taken a beating on if I had to exchange it from a regular currency dealer.  
Approaaching Chau Doc

View from hotel room in Chau Doc
Our boat started on the main channel of the Mekong, but soon turned into a smaller stream that looked as if it might have been used as a scene in Apocalypse Now.   Bamboo bridges crossed the water and people used boats to ferry themselves around as well as to haul everything: hardware, produce, grain and even sand.  Some people lived on boats, others were for fishing.  Water buffaloes rested in the water, only their noses sticking out in order to breathe.  Kids played in the water. Fishermen mended nets and filets were out to dry in the sun.  Three older boys were struggling to get a pump out of the water.   Today, the banks are high, but at the end of the rainy season, the water will flow over the banks and most travel will have to be done by boats.   

Our trip ended up in the town of Chau Doc.  We checked in at the Vinh Phcoc Guesthouse, located only a short walk from the river and from the town’s market.  I spent the afternoon walking around the market and had asked the hotel about a xe-om (a motor scooter taxi) to take me to Sam Mountain for the sunset.  Getting back to the hotel, I was surprised to learn that my xe-om driver was Dung, a woman who worked at the hotel.  We headed off to the mountain that rises some 250 meters above the delta and spent a hour or so on top, enjoying the hammocks as we watched the sun sink lower behind the Cambodian horizon.  We spent the time talking about our families and work and life in Vietnam and America.  Afterwards, we stopped at a pagoda on the flanks of Sam Mountain and a temple that was near its base.

Cham village
 The next morning, I was up early, as there was a tour included in my trip (that I wasn’t aware of) to a Cham minority village.  The Cham people originally came from the Malay Peninsula and are Muslim.   They are found throughout the Mekong Delta, both in Vietnam and Cambodia.  During the reign of Pol Pot in Cambodia, they were marked for extinction and many were killed.  In 1978, Cambodian soldiers moved into towns along the Vietnam bordered and killed several thousand Vietnamese Chams, which gave the Vietnamese government a valid reason to invade Cambodia and perform a “regime change.”  After having come through Muslim countries, the village wasn’t that interesting.  We got to see a woman weave some traditional fabric.  Then it was off to the mosque, but while others looked around, I played with kids who were using plastic bottles as bowling pens and flip flops to knock them down.  Our next stop was a fish farm, which was interesting.  These farms are floating and the fish stay within netting under the floor of a house.  Outside there is a larger cooker where rice is made into a meal to feed the fish.  Feeding the fish is exciting as there seems to be thousands of mouths come to the service to fight over the rice meal. 

I was back at the hotel by 9 AM, and waiting for the bus to Saigon.  It was the worst bus trip so far.  I was placed in the back row, next to a guy that stunk and didn’t seem to have any idea of personal boundaries.  The trip seemed to take forever, the only highlights being the ferry across the Mekong and eating roasted corn sold by street venders who boarded the bus while it was on the ferry.  As any bus trip from hell should end, this one terminated at a different bus station than I’d been told (requiring a 30 minute xe-om ride across Saigon).  But once the xe-om found the Phan Lan Hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by both the condition of my room and the friendly staff.  I was ready to explore a new city. 
Ferry on the Mekong


  1. How is the economy of Vietnam these days? One city was named as ne of the top 5 places for ex-pat Americans to retire to. $750 a month would offer a sufficient living quality.

  2. Really, really enjoying your travelogue. BTW, your bus ride sounds like one I took in Jordan twenty years ago. Worst trip ever.


  3. The trip of a lifetime, Jeff. I am happy to be along with you.

  4. Fascinating. those kids playing with makeshift toys. Reminds me of myself as a kid. You'll find a way to have fun.

  5. Walking Man, one ex-pat said his apt cost $150 a month, food is really cheap, so you could probably get around well on $200

    Randall, at least the trip was only 6 hours

    Kenju, Thanks for coming along

    Charles, kids do know how to enjoy themselves!

  6. Again - you are meeting so many incredible people. I am loving this travelogue.

  7. At first I was thinking that I was going to only read your VN posts, but now I know I'm going to read the whole thing. REALLY good narratives and photos!