Friday, 13 May 2016

Globe Wandering: Vietnam: 2 days in the South

We are, typically, unprepared for our mini adventure in Vietnam and Cambodia.  Beyond a visa to enter Vietnam, accommodation for our first night in Ho Chi Minh City, and a return flight out of Siem Reap in 2 weeks time we have exactly no plans.

Tuesday 10 May

I remember the first time I flew to Vietnam, more than 10 years ago. It was my first time flying into the unknown, alone, with no one at the other end.  I was embarking on my first stint of solo travel and I was similarly unprepared with no itinerary, no plans.  I'm as excited now as I was then - the anticipation of foreign lands and new adventures makes my heart feel full and swollen.  I squeeze Nathan's hand and look at his face because it feels good to have someone who wants to adventure with me and I'm grateful that I get to live a life that I love and that fills me up.

We walk through Changi airport and it's starting to feel so familiar that I almost expect to run into someone I know.  I don't, of course, but I look out over the city and think about the art filled streets that I love so much.  We watch the sunset over the runway then board our flight.

Ho Chi Minh city is not how I remember it.  Either it has changed drastically, or I have.  I imagine a combination of both.  I remember 12 years ago, the scooters that filled the streets with Havoc.  I remember walking around and around the block because I was too scared to cross the road.  The streets tonight seem big and clean and quiet in comparison.  But the lights are the same.  They drip from trees and flicker atop tall buildings and adorn the archways over the roads.

Me make our way to the hotel in silence.

Wednesday 11 May

It turns out that Ho Chi Minh hasn't changed that much afterall.  And neither, it seems, have I.  The sity is still fucking crazy and I'm still too scared to cross the road.

As soon as we are fed we get to the business of "making a plan".  We don't have a fixed idea of what we want to do.  All we know is that we want to travel to Phom Penh by way of the Mekong and we don't want to pay a hundred bucks per person per day to do it.  We visit a few travel agents and do some online research.  The boat I took 12 years ago doesn't seem to exist anymore and all the tours seem more or less the same so we choose one and book it.  We take a stroll through the markets, we walk down to the river, we eat at the Benthanh street food market, we have a beer at a craft brewery, we take photos.  It is hot and our feet are blackened. We head home to clean up before heading out for our evening adventures.


We decide to watch the sunset from Ho Chi Minh's tallest building.  Getting there is easy enough, but getting up is more difficult than it should be.  We are ushered from one polite and helpful hostess to the next until we are on the 52nd floor and being shown to a table near the window and holy cow we didn't know Ho Chi Minh was so big and we Google it and more than 8 million people live here!  The sunset is a bit of a non event but the view is spectacular and the espresso martini's delicious and the songs the band are singing make me feel happy and in love so who cares about the sunset anyway...

Thursday 12 May

We take a bus out of the city to the Mekong Delta.  Out the window is a blur of the old and the new.  Plants overflow from planters in the windows of narrow french colonial terraced houses.  Modern upmarket homes, fenced and ringed with palm trees stand next to tin shantys that look like they will collapse if you blow on them. Piles of rubble and plastic trash line the streets. Decorative gateways are shadowed by great sweeping masses of tangled electrical and phone wires. Rice fields are dry and barren.

Road houses sell fresh pineapples and coconuts and are full of hammocks.  I wonder why all road houses don't have hammocks.  I wonder if anyone has studied the effects that swinging on a hammock has on happiness...

Tours don't generally appeal to me.  I don't like the feeling of being ushered around.  Now we visit the village... now we see how rice wine is made... now we try coconut candy... now tack a photo... now lunch...  

We weren't really keen to book  a tour, but we wanted to travel from Vietnam to Cambodia via the Mekong river and a tour seemed like the only way to do it.  The plan, as far as we understood it, was to do a Mekong Delta tour on day one which included row boats through the canals (which I really wanted to do), then overnight it in Chau Doc and on day 2 get to the border, sort visas, then get a boat all the way to Phnom Penh.

Well, the tour didn't exactly go as planned...

We did get to do a heap of shit that we weren't interested in like seeing villagers make puffed rice + rice paper and drink tea with honey in it and learn about bee pollen and royal jelly.  But the one thing I wanted to do, the row boats, didn't happen.  To top it off, when we got back on the bus that would take uis to Chau Doc for the night we learned that we didn't even have boat tickets booked to Phnom Pehn and that actually we would be getting a bus there from the border...

I started to feel like we should have just flown straight into Phnom Penh.

We called the company we booked through.  The lady who sold us the package, who had told us the price included the boat ticket yesterday, was now telling us that there was no boat to Phonm Penh.

We knew this not to be true and luckily our tour guided was very helpful and make a phone call and sorted everything out for us.

We watched the sunset on the road to Chau Doc and when we pulled into the small Port City it was dark and we were tired.  We were grateful to discover that our room had AC - something we are really coming to appreciate!

We figured it would be a waste to be in Chau Doc without exploring the town so we set out to find some food and a cold beer.  Everything looked to be shutting up though and we were too tired to wander around aimlessly so we headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

Friday 13 May

We were up early for our boat pick up and so got to watch the sunrise casting a golden glow over the river.  Our pick up arrived promptly and we arrived at the boat and left on time - something which traveling in Asia has taught us not to expect.

I was expecting an open boat as that is what I've done this trip on before but the boat they put us on (Mandarin Tours) had a closed cabin.  There was no AC and very little wind on the trip so we were warm but the seats were comfortable and the trip enjoyable.

Watching the Mekong change is always a special experience for me.  From the wide sprawls of the Delta to a narrower river lined with sagging buildings (and trash) and then open out again to sandy banks and farmland as we traveled deeper into Cambodia.

Being on the river is peaceful but it also makes me nostalgic for a time when it was cleaner, more alive.  Today the banks are lined with trash and as the clumps of water hyacinth that bob along the surface collect stray plastic bottles and bags and the odd shoe.  It saddens me how ready we are to watch such a river - the lifeblood for civilizations built upon it's banks - die.  

I am more aware than ever of the devastating effects our consumerist natures and lifestyles have on our earth and therefor on our own health and I spend much of the trip to the border pondering this and wondering how, as just one person, I can help...

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