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The Mekong: A Solo Journey from Vietnam to Cambodia, then onto Bangkok!

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 8 December 2009 | Views [1884]

So, I decided to take the scenic route from Saigon to Bangkok. I always wanted to sail along the Mekong from Vietnam to Cambodia, and see the locals’ daily life unfold before my eyes. I decided on the 3 day, 2 night tour from Saigon to Phnom Penh. From there, onto Bangkok on a bus.

I started out early in the morning on a mid size bus, with about 25 other tourists (mostly Europeans, but with 3 Chinese tourists- more on them later) who also wanted to see the Mekong. Vietnamese booked tours are a funny thing. It seems they like to promise all sorts of delightful activities during the day, which always turn out to be anti-climactic. And, they downplay the long, uncomfortable travel times in between activities. The bus ride to the first boat ride was about 5 hours. When we got there, we piled onto a rickety diesel engine boat which would have Captain Planet launch into action. We took a 1 hour boat ride up and down the Mekong, and into one of the channels.

After our 1 hour boat ride, we got back on the bus for another hour, until we got to our “lunch” spot. I say “lunch” because it was a small plate of instant noodles that might, just maybe fill a 3 year old’s stomach. This was the free lunch provided with the tour. After hours of travel. We could, of course, buy extra food if we needed it. 3 out of 5 people at my table needed more.

We piled back on the bus until we hit the first “village”. It was more of a store, hidden from the main road by a short walk through the back side roads and over small canals via bamboo bridges and planks. When we got there, we got to see them make coconut taffy, and make honey tea. Which, of course we could purchase. I got to hold a snake, which was all wet and stinky, so I think he pee’d on me. Then onto the traditional boats. Ours was manned by an elderly gentleman who was half my size and weight. He struggled to paddle me and an overweight Dutch girl UPSTREAM. We didn’t go anywhere quickly, so about 20 minutes later, we made it past the first bend of the river, and then piled off to return to the bus for… more driving.

After 2 more hours on the bus, we got to the ferry, which would take us to the first night’s resting place. We piled off the bus and walked onto the ferry. It was a crazy, chaotic surge of people and mopeds, each fighting for a spot on the ferry. I made my way to the roof. Only the tourists rode on the roof. The locals all stayed inside. It was a beautiful sunset ride, despite the smog of pollution which is, I think, permanently settled in the Mekong. When we arrived, we got back on the bus for… more driving!

I opted for the “Home Stay“, with a Vietnamese family. I think my tour agent charged me about $20 US extra for it, but the actual price difference with more honest travel agents was about $6 US extra per night. This extra $6 made 19 of our group opt for the hotel instead of the homestay. So, 7 of us took off with a cab driver and our bags into the night. Our cab driver drove us straight into the slums on the outskirts of the city. And pulled over next to an abandoned building. We nervously joked that we must be “home”. Turned out, he was lost, and we turned around and drove a bit more, and were told to get out and walk down an alley way next to a pitch black dark Mekong canal. No lights. We had no tour guide, no cab, just an older Italian man and his Swedish wife, an older Aussie couple, a young Dutch couple, and myself. Just when we began to think we were about to be killed and dumped in the canal, a boat pulled up and said the only words in English they spoke- “Homestay?” We got in, and thought that the 7 of us fit quite nicely in the boat, until, out of nowhere, 25 Australian high school girls and their teachers got on. Nobody packed light! Our tiny wooden boat was ½ sinking, and ½ stinking as it spewed diesel into the air and water. We drove along dark canals for about 20 minutes, until we arrived at: “Hung Homestay”. Our host was “Hung”. Don’t get any ideas, that was his name!

I have to say, the homestay was the highlight of the Mekong trip. We got our cabins, which were simple traditional wooden structures with a sink and shower. No toilet. We were STARVING, since our lunch 6 hours ago was fit for a 3 year old. We were told dinner would be a while, but let’s sit down and roll some spring rolls together. The host and his family were really hospitable. The Vietnamese people who live in the Mekong region are famous for being the friendliest, and most hospitable. I think this is true of the Hung family, and not just because we were paying guests. They really were very nice, and made sure to talk to us about their way of life and answer questions.

Electricity came to their region in the 1990’s, but not everyone has it. There is very few flushing toilets. Most toilets flush with a bucket of water being dumped from a huge barrel that breeds mosquitoes. The people are luckier than most others in Vietnam because the land is fertile, so they can farm the food they need. Easy farming has left them with more free time, to relax, which is why they have a friendlier, laid back vibe. The people in the North of Vietnam think the people in the South are lazy, and the people in the South think the people in the North are uptight. The kids go to school for 3 hours a day (from 6-9am), and spend the rest of their time on the farm, and doing household chores. The river is the source of life for the people who live on its banks. They wash themselves and their clothes and dishes in the brown water, fish from it, and even drink it. There’s a magic mineral called “Alum” which they wave like a wand in the water for a few seconds, then they wait a few minutes, and the alum separates the solid matter which makes the water brown from the rest of the water, turning it clear, with a mud patch at the bottom. Hung demonstrated this to us. The cost of plumbing for a household in the Mekong is about $40,000 US. The cost of alum is about $2 for a 2-3 month supply. So, families opt for alum instead of plumbing. I don’t know if alum is harmful to their health.

After making spring rolls and getting a historical, cultural lesson, we got to eat! One of the best meals in Vietnam =) We got to roll our own fresh rice paper summer rolls. We had steamed Mekong fish (which I think made me get food poisoning the next night), stewed tomatoes and green beans and rice. I was ready for bed by 9:00pm.

Day 2, we woke up at 5:30 am and went to the local Mekong market. To get there, we got to walk through the countryside and go past smiling happy locals. Almost every kid we passed waved at us. Every time. I never got over how cute and genuinely friendly the people were in the Mekong. We got on a wobbly standing room only boat to cross the river to the market. The 5 minute ride with the other Westerners with no balance had me nervous I’d be swimming in the muddy brown water, but we made it to the market on the other side somehow! The prices of everything were about 1/10 of the Saigon markets. Women were killing fish in front of their customers and snipping them up with scissors. Other women were carrying live ducks upside down, by tying their legs up in plastic bags, and letting them hang. I saw these catfish snake looking things jumping out of baskets and slithering in the dirt across our path, and other fish flopping out of their buckets onto the ground. Perhaps they sensed the Mekong was nearby! Another woman was selling rats. They were already skinned, with their tails, heads, and feet cut off. The rats were about the only dead thing for sale at the market.

After the market, we stopped by the kid’s school. There were about 50 kids, ages 5-8, who all ran outside, screaming and jumping around to greet us. They wanted to take pictures with us. And for us to come into their classroom. And to touch us. One girl grabbed my boobs! I was shocked, and feeling quite intruded upon, until the older Australian lady remarked, “that little gal just grabbed me boobs!”. I guess the little girl does that to whoever isn’t on guard.

After the market, the rest of the Mekong trip was quite boring, with the 3 Chinese tourists making sure to push and shove and spit their way to the front of everything and everwhere to take 100's of photos of NOTHING!... so I’ll wrap this up… We traveled for hours and hours on buses and boats. HOURS of travel. After the first day, its all the same. We stopped by a few more hokey tour places, like the rice paper factory, and we just traveled for hours more. Mostly for 3-5 hour stretches with no toilets on board, no toilet breaks. Yeah, good times. I got a stomach bug, and a cold, with a non stop runny nose and lots of sneezing so I was bracing myself at every sneeze in case I would crap my pants!! With no bathrooms, I took an Imodium and prayed. It was torture. And, quite scary, since I had to go through the border and past QUARANTINE inspectors with health notices warning of Swine Flu and I had like 3 of the 5 symptoms! With my nonstop bathroom trips at any place with a toilet, runny raw nose and sneezing, I was seriously scared I was going to be stopped. Or ratted out.

Thankfully, I eventually arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia after 3 full days of travel. The final car ride had me and 1 skinny German guy and 2 overweight Australians crammed into the backseat of a car, for almost 2 hours. We had to keep switching positions and rotating our butts to keep ourselves from cramping. When we arrived, I had a full on fever and cold. I checked into a hotel and booked the early morning bus to Bangkok the next day. I got to see 15 hours of Cambodia via the bus, and another 4 hours via the Mekong. It looks like a shithole. I was planning to return, but I think Angkor Wat might not be worth the torture of traveling back there. We’ll see.

Anyway, my final thoughts on the “scenic” route from Saigon to Bangkok and the Mekong river tours from Vietnam are: Not worth 4 solid days of travel. The Mekong is nice, and worth a trip, but do the 2 day, 1 night version with a homestay. After 2 days, the Mekong all looks the same. Whether you’re in Vietnam or Cambodia. Never believe the travel time quoted by the bus. Always add at LEAST 2 hours, sometimes more. My 10 hour bus ride was actually 16 hours on a crappy local bus. Most tour agents tell you that it’s a “VIP” bus, but they take you’re money up front, then stick you on the local bus. And what can you do about it? Nothing, besides suck it up and get on the bus, then warn others. And, I learned the Thai visa issued at any land border is only for 15 days, not the 30 days they give you when you fly into Thailand. So, plan for a border run if you arrive via land and plan to spend more than 2 weeks in Thailand. Most people do. That’s how I wound up in Laos for Christmas. But, it was a happy diversion.

Tags: boats, border crossing, buses, cambodia, mekong, mekong homestay, mekong people, tours, vietnam

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