Mekong Madness

My oh my oh my, where to start? Perhaps in Phnom Penh where my travel buddy, Carolyn, and I were driven to the Vietnam border with an angry Swiss couple, or in Can Tho where we were flashed by an 84 year old Vietnamese woman who seemed rather amused by the whole thing, or in My Tho where I celebrated my birthday and learned of Osama bin Laden’s death? Too many stories to tell from the past week.

I guess I will go the obvious route- chronologically. First and most important to note, I met a woman named Carolyn in my hostel in Phnom Penh. She is 54, works in IT and is from England. Her previous travel buddy from home ditched her when she met a man in Singapore. She and I were a perfect match and stuck together for a tour through the Mekong Delta.

Day 1 Vietnam:
We made our way to the border town of Chau Doc by bus and boat, crossing officially into Vietnam.

Coming ashore in the small fishing town, the differences were blatantly apparent. The energy had changed, people’s facial expressions were different, the homes were more ornate, even the poor had well decorated facades. It felt more, well, Communist. More serious, put together, closed off, red flags everywhere. Within the first few hours Carolyn and I noted that we felt more like outsiders in Vietnam, looking in from the outside, rather than visitors invited in, as I’d felt in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

This is not to say I enjoy Vietnam any less, it’s just different. It feels entirely new.

Carolyn and I grabbed dinner in town, wandering the local market first, trying a custard apple and a strange gelatinous drink (not my fave). Dinner was pork, rice noodles and spring rolls. Delish.

Day 2 Vietnam:
The next day we toured the fishing village and Cham minority village, a small Muslim community in the Mekong. We visited their mosque and learned more about Delta life. In the afternoon we headed to Can Tho for our homestay. Expecting a house that we would stay in with a family, we were a bit surprised to end up at a bungalow resort. It was set up exactly like a hostel, except for the fact that there was one large meal prepared for all the travelers. With that disappointment aside, we ended up in a very nice bungalow with extremely interesting people staying there as well.

The owner, Hung, took us on a boat ride to show us where they make straw mats, a blacksmiths workshop (where the flashing took place) and a home where they make rice wine.

Returning home, I had one of the more enjoyable meals of my trip. Around the table we had a family living in HCMC, Steve, a music teacher from Oregon, his wife Suchin, a Chinese teacher and their 6 year old son Evan (a bilingual half white, half Chinese American kid living in Vietnam), plus their friend from home, Heather. Then there was Claus, and his wife Connie, who grew up in East Germany, had family in West Germany and worked as a soldier at the Berlin wall for 3 years. Then there was Derias, a greeting card salesman from Poland, Hank, a Dutch furniture salesman whose company abuses the low-cost Vietnamese labor (buys oak from Romania, ships it to Vietnam to be made and shipped to Holand to be sold. And makes a profit), Carolyn and myself. Definitely the odd crowd. And what were we all doing together? Leaning how to wrap spring rolls.

We had a decadent meal of fried spring rolls and make-your-own fresh rolls with steamed fish, cucumber, tomato, rice noodles, lettuce, basil, and tofu and green beans on the side. For desert, we tried banana wine, made from fermented, smashed bananas. It was delicious! We stayed up late discussing the war in Poland and Darius’ experience, Claus’ time at the Berlin wall and meeting his family after the wall came down, and Hank’s oddball business strategies. It was fascinating. A history lesson for me about Poland and Germany, but also just a profound experience to meet such a diverse crowd and gather for an amazing meal out in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. What a world.

Day 3 Vietnam (My Birthday!):
After the Mekong homestay we saw a floating market in Can Tho (unimpressive), a fruit farm (very pretty, best mango ever) and a rice noodle factory (surprisingly interesting). Then we drove to My Tho, our final stop, and Carolyn and I decided to rest in the hotel room. Little did we know that when we turned on the TV (for the first time on our whole trip) we’d see the news about Osama bin Laden. I must say, it was odd to hear about while being abroad. I didn’t know what the reaction would be at home. I wanted to celebrate, but felt odd celebrating a death… plus, it was my birthday! Osama was stealing my thunder 🙂

Carolyn and I went out for a delicious meal and called it a night. I watched the news and talked to my parents. It felt like an eventful day.

Day 4 Vietnam:
Our final day we had a fantastic guide who showed us a Buddhist temple and all around Ben Tre, a collection of 4 islands. The Buddhism in Vietnam is an odd amalgamation of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Although they just label it Buddhism, it has little in common with the Buddhism of Thailand. It incorporates animistic elements and even reflects Christian imagery. Buddha himself is portrayed differently. Whereas in Thailand Buddha was stoic and God-like, here, he is a really fat, jolly man, with sagging bits.

This day was the first time I was really able to see untouched parts of the Mekong. I’d recommend to anyone coming out here to stop by Ben Tre. There are even floating bungalows to stay in out there that looked beautiful. There were large palm leaves coming out of the water, shadowing the boat that looked like overgrown feathers. The water was so still we could just glide along when we were in a canoe later in the day. It was a cleaner, greener area that I was glad to see.

At the end of the day we bused up to HCMC. It was an odd tour, with different tour guides each day and never knowing what activity would come next, but all in all I feel like I saw a lot, learned a lot and met interesting people. It was a great way to spend my birthday!

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One response to “Mekong Madness

  1. What an interesting group you met. Would you expect that level of diversity in a hostel in Vietnam if a screenwriter weren’t trying to make an interesting story?

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