The Mekong Trail

Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
Trip End May 05, 2011

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I had been looking forward to the boat trip from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, a small town just inside the Vietnamese border.  The journey would take us down the Mekong River by slow boat: about eight hours in total.  I was expecting the boat to be really slow, but in fact it was the perfect speed, any faster and you wouldn't have seen much of the scenery as you whizzed past.  There were also far fewer passengers than I'd anticipated, meaning we could spread out.  Five minutes after leaving port we had to return to shore to boot out a French couple who hadn't pre-arranged their Vietnam visa, so that meant we had even more room!

There wasn't a huge amount to see along the way to be honest, as the river was very wide and the scenery was rather samey, but all the same I love boat trips for the feeling of the wind in my hair, and it didn't disappoint.  I spent most of the time on deck listening to my mp3 player and reading a little.  At one point we transferred onto a larger boat, joining another group, but I found a spot on the roof of the boat on which to lie in the sun.  (Yes ok Sidgoree I did get a little sunburnt a la Hong Kong - boat trips are bad for that as you don't feel the burn - but thankfully it was only my legs and didn't last long!) 

Border control was relatively straightforward, and we had time for some lunch while they checked everyone's paperwork.  All clear, we continued to Chau Doc.  We hadn't booked a hotel, but since we were arriving in the early afternoon we hadn't thought it would be a problem...  We ended up perched with our bags on a teeny tiny pedal rickshaw going from guesthouse to guesthouse, all of which were full.  It didn't help that neither of us had a proper Vietnam guidebook: between us all we had were two copies of the infinitely inferior 'Greater Mekong' one, which doesn't even include a map of the Mekong Delta.  Eventually we found an air conditioned room with a TV, which though unnecessary was a nice luxury as it was a really hot day, and we were able to catch up with news from the Middle East.  Chau Doc was nowhere near as tourist-friendly as I expected.  I suppose most people come through on already-organised tours.  As it was we found one travel agency and had little choice but to book with them.  $41 for a 3 day tour ending in Saigon seemed like a good deal. 

I wasn't expecting much from the tour, it was bound to be touristy, but even so I was still disappointed.  It's bound to be hard to go from travelling so independently to being tied into a tour I suppose.  After our early start that morning we had to get up even earlier the next day, then hung around for ages, first at our hotel then at another in town with a whole other group of people, with no information, before we were all taken along to a nearby village.  The guide explained that this Muslim community was an ethnic minority and as such faced discrimination in Vietnam.  We were then strongly encouraged to buy souvenirs: the whole place was just one big commercial enterprise, with the usual scarves, jewellery and handbags along with an army of children selling heart-shaped waffles.  "You buy dollar...we very poor..."  Awful.  One boy looked about two years old, carrying a tray of the things.  We were in the village for about half an hour before visiting a fish farm, again for a matter of minutes (not that I wanted to stay longer, the stench was pretty foul).

It must have only been about 8am when we were ushered back onto the boats then transferred to a minibus which drove us for about 3-4hours to Cantho, another large town in the Delta.  Roland, a German girl called Anne, and I were joined  by two Danish girls, Linnea and Heidi, and taken by boat to our "homestay" which wasn't really a homestay so much as a bed and breakfast.  We ate lunch there, which was a nice plain vegetable soup and rice, then were given free time/siesta during which I chatted to Anne and read a bit.  At 4pm our 'guide' met us and took us into the surrounding fields, where he pointed out such exotica as green beans of varying lengths.  (Ok he also showed us rice, papaya and some other more unusual things).  It can't have been 4.30pm by the time he'd walked us round to a crossroads: "right is home, left is village", and we decided to walk through the village.  It was actually really nice to walk through: someone remarked that villages here are built along one long street rather than in sort of clusters like at home, which I thought was an interesting observation.  Our walk was slow and punctuated with many hellos and photos.  Roland was offered lots of rice wine.  As dusk began to fall the dogs came out, which was interesting but luckily I had some wonderful bodyguards:-)

By the time we returned to the homestay it was dinnertime already, and we were joined by some Australian women and a couple of Hungarian men who didn't speak much English. We made our own spring rolls out of rice paper and ingredients provided, which was fun, and it was a nice meal.  We had to get an early night as the mornings were getting even earlier for us: meeting at 6am in order to visit the village market and school before breakfast.

As with everything on this tour, it was so badly organised.  Getting to the village was quite fun as we had to cross the river by small boat in which everyone stands trying to maintain their balance.  It's like tubesurfing but much more pleasant than the rush hour commute in London!  The market was nothing special and we went on to the school, where the children were busy sweeping the playground clear of leaves which had accumulated over the weekend.  We were supposed to be there to hear them sing the national anthem which they do at the start of every day, but time was ticking on and we were meant to be meeting another tour group at 7am and had to get back to the homestay, have breakfast then take a boat before that.  We didn't even leave the school until nearly 7am, then had to throw our stuff and ourselves onto the boats and had breakfast on the water. 

Needless to say, when we got the the floating market where we were meant to be meeting the other group, they were running late, so we waited for an hour or more before being transferred onto a huge tourist vessel to spend yet more time looking at the market we'd just spent so long in.  It was nice to see: fruit and veg being sold from boats, but it's not like we were in the market to be buying potatoes, carrots and the like, so the interest wore off after a while.  After the market we saw rice pancakes being made, which was quite interesting especially as some Vietnamese tourists had handed them out on the minibus the day before: it's like eating plastic which dissolves in the mouth, very wierd.  We returned to Cantho town for a lunchbreak, where Anne was reunited with her German friend Jonas who had opted to stay in a hotel rather than the homestay the previous night.  After lunch we were put on a bus to Mytho, our next destination, and had the rest of the afternoon and following morning free, as we weren't scheduled to meet again until 10.30am.

The next day I felt really unwell, with an upset stomach, which I think was either side effects of Malarone, the antimalaria pill I'm on, or it was a reaction to the soup I'd eaten the previous day which I'm sure was made with pork stock.  Either way I was miserable all day, not helped at all by the heat.  Illness is never half as bad when you have company though.  The group that day was huge, but thankfully we weren't obliged to wear the same stickers everyone else had on.  I can't actually remember everything we did but it included a coconut candy factory and some traditional music.

We arrived into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at about 4.30pm, earlier than expected.  I wasn't really up to traipsing round from hotel to hotel (even though I had a personal sherpa), so we took the first available room we found, which turns out to be a good deal I think.  It's very noisy and the bathroom is miniscule, but we have a TV, air con, fridge, kettle and even a computer with internet in the room!  Free laundry and breakfast is also included, although our clothes came back severely crumpled, and it's very dubious how much cleaner they are than beforehand!  I was still not feeling great but did manage to eat some dinner, and got some medicine from the pharmacy which appears to have done the trick.  That evening just walking home from the restaurant, then when I nipped out to buy a Vietnam guidebook just down the street, I bumped into the Australians as well as Anne and Jonas, and I also ran into the latter pair the following morning.  Earlier Roland had bumped into some Russians he'd met in Thailand several weeks ago.  Welcome to Backpackerland! 

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Sue Parsons on

It seems like you know everybody out there Hollie!
Not good about the dodgy tummy, but you have done well so far considering and seem to have got over it well. You'll be immune to everything by the time you come back. lol.
So sad about the poor children but you can't help everyone can you.
Hope the next few days improve on the travel front and you see more interesting stuff. Can't believe how far you've travelled, it will be lovely to look back on. Lots of Love from us all. Sue,XXXXXXXXXX

Pat I on

Wow, as the journey continues...I keep looking just to make sure your okay, even here in California, I worry that you are getting on okay. I guess its the mom it me. So, I love to see your new posts, first to know you are okay and second, to hear about your adventures. I was talking with a student and told her my friend was in Cambodia (she is 1/2 Cambodian) and she was so excited. Take care and I look forward to your next post.

mum on

Hi Holls
sounds amazing - apologies for the frantic emails, glad to hear that you are in one piece, haven't been involved in any war zone or boat sinking, just had an upset stomach and were enjoying yourself!! I am trying to keep chilled, but can't help myself sometimes (must try harder!)
well it sounds as though you have meet lots of nice people with the same aims, plenty of experiences and a good time - enjoy lol Mx

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