After spending three jam-packed days in busy, crowded cities, we were very ready for our 3 day trip through the Mekong River Delta. Day one started out bright and early with a bus ride from Ho Chi Minh to catch our boat to visit Coconut Island and Unicorn Island.
Our guide, Hai was full of interesting tidbits along the way, and he had a great sense of humor. He told us about cultural differences, like how in the Thai culture when people go to visit the Temple for doing bad things, they will buy nice fish to let free in the river. That river flows into the Mekong. Hai said with a mischievous grin, "In Vietnam we are lucky, we don't believe that so we all go fishing get big harvest of fish! Yeah!"
When we drove by rice paddies, we noticed what appeared to be tombs and gravestones. Sure enough, Hai explained, "Many parents work hard all their lives to grow their rice. They do not want to risk their children selling the property to pursuit other things. So, they have themselves buried in the middle of the field to guilt the children into keeping them!"
When we got stuck in traffic (which was the majority of the time) he told us, "Very bad traffic in Saigon. You see, now the government has decided to hire workers to build a freeway. Maybe you will come see it in when finished? That will be 2025!"
When we crossed the river he told us, "Many Crocodiles in the Mekong river. But do not be afraid, most have been taken to the farm on the island to make shoes! You can buy them!"
When we arrived at our boat, it looked pretty worn out, but not much different than other boats we had been on. It was clearly a first SE Asia boating adventure for part of our group. Five Dutch men in there 50's nearly refused to step foot on the boat, stating, "this boat is sure to sink!" Hai laughed it off and did what he did best, told us more facts, "Bad, mean fish live in the river. We say every boat has a spirit, just like people. We paint big eyes on the front of the boat so the ugly fish will swim up and be afraid and say "agh I must swim back to deep water!" The men eventually got on board, and the boat successfully arrived at our first destination.
The group trekked through the beautiful island to find a bee farm, used to make honey and honey tea, a Vietnamese favorite beverage. A women who worked there brought out a wooden tray covered in buzzing bees to show us the process, we all took a step back to prevent getting stung. Just as Hai was telling us that these particular bees are very friendly, he stopped mid sentence and said "Ow!" A large friendly bee was attached to his ring finger, stinging him. Hai said something in Vietnamese that, based on tone alone, was along the lines of, "ow! ow! I have been stung! it hurts badly and I am ashamed in front of my guests!" Then, as our trusty and noble tour guide, he removed the stinger, smiled, slathered on some honey, and said, "okay! this is good! You see the honey resolves the problem! Always bring a jar of honey into the jungle while you are hiking. Very helpful!" What a trooper.
We took a seat around a table and sampled many local treats including tiny teacups of thick honey tea, locally made sweets such as candied Ginger, peanut brittle, and sweet dried mango.
While we were finishing up our snacks, we noticed a young boy from the village coming out with a very large python around his shoulders. The snake was twice as long as the boy was tall, and bigger around it's middle then the circumference of the boys neck, but they were clearly good pals. Hai noticed the guests begin to sit up straight and scoot there chairs back, preparing for an escape, and Hai said, "who wants to hold the python? I promise it is very friendly!" (smirking as he realized we were reluctant to believe him this time, knowing that honey won't do much in the attempt to fend off a snake attack). Mike was the first to volunteer, and our young snake handler gently assisted him in transferring his pet over. I had a surge of bravery, and figured if Mike and a little boy can do it, I should too. It was a bit frightening, the snake was strong and wasn't in the mood to hold still for a photo. I was pretty quick to return him to his little owner.
After morning tea, we took a row boat ride through the mangrove forests, and got to wear the traditional hats worn in the rice fields to block the sun. When we arrived at the next island, we were treated to bright fresh fruit plates where we tried jack fruit and dragon fruit while we watched a show of traditional singing and guitar.
Our next mode of transportation was a horse drawn carriage, which Mike and I had the good fortune of riding with Hai. He was telling us he just saw Rango and how much he loved it: "Good movie because I agree with the values. You know, follow your dreams and you will get good things. Yeah, just like my other favorite movie Yogi bear, (then in his high pitched bear voice:) 'I am a bear and I am very good at problem solving! I can always find food when I am hungry!' what a great story." Then I said, "hey Boo Boo!" and he cracked up and said, "yes! Yes! Hey boo boo!"
He also told us about how there are not McDonalds, "only The King Burgers! And also KFC, but not open 24 hours."
Then we stopped for a mysterious lunch that I think I would have enjoyed had I known what it was. Our plate contained rice, a square egg dish with polka dots, vegetable stirfry, and meat. It was probably pork, but having just heard about the market stalls that have rows of cages of dogs for food, I stuck to the veggies.
After lunch we visited a village that makes coconut candy and rice paper. It was neat to see the rounds of rice paper drying on bamboo racks over the river. We had samples of each, then Hai pulled us aside to try some "wine" (later we learned that the term wine is used for all alcohol other than beer)
While pouring Mike and I samples of really strong fruit wine made in the village, he said to Mike, "you drink lots of banana wine because in Vietnam we believe that whatever food shape is, it will make good health for that body part. Men drink lots for strong banana! Women drink much coconut wine!" then he giggled and refilled his own glass with banana wine and poured me a hearty shot of coconut wine.
On our way back to the boat we walked by a big water buffalo with intimidating horns. Hai asked if we would like to feed it, and not knowing if this opportunity would ever present itself again, we said yes. The animal seemed very lethargic and calm, but it did get my heart racing to be so close to such a big creature.
Most of the group members were only doing a one day trip on the Mekong, only one other couple joined us for the next section of the trip. Hai explained that we would meet up with a new guide and group in 30 minutes at a rest stop. We understood and didn't think much of it when the bus pulled over and left the 4 of us on the side of the road with our luggage in the middle of nowhere. An hour later, we began to wonder if our new guide knew about us. Luckily the other girl in the group spoke Vietnamese and had a cell phone, she called the tour company to ask what we should do. After several minutes she hung up and told us that the company said, "no worries." We have learned from experience that here, "no worries" can be roughly translated to: "hmm, that is a problem to which I do not have a solution, and would prefer not to look into it further. In order to make sure you don't become upset, this is secret phrase that will make you hang up smiling." Another 30 minutes passed. We were worried. Finally a bus stopped, but no one approached us. We flagged down the guide and told him what happened, and he said he wasn't supposed to pick anyone up, but maybe his friend was. I showed him a picture of our first guide on my camera. He said, "oh," called a friend, and eventually someone agreed to let us on their bus. No worries.
The bus took us to a small town called Can Tho. We had a late dinner at a place that had a menu of grilled rats, stirfry birds, snakes, eel, and whole frogs (I opted for seafood stirfry because I have heard it is not uncommon to order beef but get meat surprise, but shrimp are pretty easy to identify). Later, we went to our dark, damp, tiny hotel room. We were laying on separate sides of the room on rotting foam pads with rusty twin bed frames. The only blankets were the size of a beach towel, and made of old, cheap velvet, but it was too hot to need them. There was no air conditioner, but above our heads was a dust covered rickety fan, that when running, actually shot pieces of dust and mold around the room. I had to tie a scarf around my nose and mouth to mask the overwhelming smell of mold. The only tiny window in the room was covered in industrial bars and there were ants crawling all over the walls. Every once in awhile, we do miss the comforts of home and wonder what in the world we are doing out here. This was one of those nights.
We did not really know what to expect from the second and third days of the Mekong. We were greeted in the morning by our new guide, named Thanks (pronounced Tong). We had a long shuttle ride, which allowed us to get to know 3 great people who were all traveling alone on trips similar to our own. Katie, who was soon returning to Europe where she would be a sailing instructor in Spain; Paul who worked as an engineer building off-shore wind mills in Australia; and Gabriel, a Syrian girl who was living and working in Sweden. It was a good thing we had some interesting people on board, because we spent several hours in the back of a mini-bus, without much of an idea of an itinerary.
At one point, a Vietnamese women dressed in yellow got on board our bus, she didn't say a word to anyone, just took a seat in the front row. After a few minutes on the bus, the driver and the women exchanged a glance. She stood up, opened the sliding van door and again, without a word, grabbed a newspaper from a man who was standing on the side of the road. Curious, we silently peered over the seat as the women unrolled the newspaper, and revealed that there were many large bills rolled up inside. She counted the money while Mike and I exchanged a strange glance. Day two was beginning to get strange.
An hour or so later, still driving down the same mysterious road, the women stood up in the moving van again. She again glanced at the driver, and again, a lone man stood on the side of the road. This time she just opened the, window, stuck out her hand, and grabbed a purse that the man held up just as we drove by. Without a word she sat back down and began counting more money. Very peculiar.
After several hours of driving, Thanks announced that we would be stopping at a crocodile farm. This was definitely not on the itinerary, but we were anxious to stretch our legs so we all got out of the car. It was a funny building in the middle of nowhere, karaoke bar in front, crocodile farm in back. We were given a whooping 15 minutes to explore. We walked through the park with one of the workers, and saw several full cages of crocs separated by age. The worker was very happy to answer our questions, although some sentences were lost in translation. We asked what they fed them, and he replied with a big smile and said, "yes, sometimes!" While telling us about how we could buy purses and shoes in the lobby, Paul asked how they killed the crocodiles. With the same big smile, he replied, "electricity!" and demonstrated by shaking as if he had been electrocuted. After our quick tour we were rushed back to the van. When we sat down, Paul said, "well that was a weird stop!" And we continued driving. We noticed that the women got back in the car, but her recently acquired purse and newspaper were left at the crocodile karaoke bar... Peculiar second day on the Mekong indeed.
Later in the drive, we made our third stop for the mysterious lady in yellow. This time the car did stop on the side of the road, and she was handed first another purse and second a small child. From the little boy's reaction, it was clear he knew her (perhaps her son). The driver pulled over again and let them both out in a slum like small neighborhood. We will never know what happened on that long ride in the van.
We made our second (and much better)
stop at Sam Mountain. A small jungle mountain with a beautiful cave pagoda at the top. We hiked to the top and were really amazed by the beautiful temple, that had mazes of underground caves to explore. Each cave contained Buddhist sculptures, small ponds, and incense. It was hot inside but very peaceful. We spent a long time at the top looking out at the rice fields. We also got a really interesting lesson in Buddhism.
That night, you had the option to stay in a hotel or pay extra for a homestay with a local family. Gabriel had previously payed and signed up for the homestay. For some reason, Thanks was really trying to persuade her to go to the hotel instead. He had been trying all day to convince her, but she insisted she wanted the homestay experience. At one point, in the middle of our bus ride, he woke her up from a nap and they had the following conversation:
Thanks - hey! Wake up! Do you want homestay or hotel?
Gabriel - I already told you 13 times, homestay.
Thanks - no, I think you want hotel. You are alone aren't you afraid?
Gabriel - should I be?
Thanks - hmm no you will probably be fine. But the house is far away, you have to take a motorbike. No taxi.
Gabriel - that's fine.
Thanks - well I think your host does not speak English. Aren't you afraid? Or are you superwoman?
Gabriel - no, I am superwoman.
Thanks - okay. I guess. Well you know 911? Here it is 113. You can call it I will be waiting.
Gabriel - thanks.
Thanks - goodbye forever!
She did make it back to us safely the next day, but said it was an odd experience, they didn't speak English at all, and served her dinner outside on the porch while the family ate in the kitchen.
Our hotel was much better than the previous night. We checked in and then met up with Katie and Paul for some noodle soup in a market nearby. We had a nice dinner, and decided to share a bottle of Vietnamese wine for $3. While we were drinking it we saw Thanks and invited him over to join us. We all shared another bottle of wine and got to see a funny side of Thanks. He told us that Lionel Richie was his brother, and proceeded to serenade us with very heartfelt songs. Then, he told us that he had an American brother in law and wondered if we might know him. I started to say it's a big country, but he was already dialing on his cell phone. Before I knew it I was having a 20 minute conversation with a friendly 66 year old Texan who had recently married Thanks' sister. Nice guy! We finished up and went to bed.
The third and final day on the Mekong, we had another new guide and a new group. When we got downstairs to board the bus, we were instructed to hop on the back of a bicycle with our luggage. It was an awkward, wobbly ride to a bus stop 30 seconds away. The rest of our group walked behind us and arrived at the same time.
Our first stop was a boat ride to a floating village. Each house floated on the river, and below the ground was a large net the size of the house. In the nets were hundreds if fish being farmed to sell in the markets. The owners fed the fish through holes in the floor. It was really neat to be welcomed into their home and get to see the inside of the house. Wedding photos with bright dresses hung on the walls, two men sat on the floor tying knots in fishing nets, and the living room consisted of a tv, a hammock, a giant speaker, and a case of beer. We learned an interesting fact about the tv. The Vietnamese government, in an attempt to combat overpopulation, provides televisions and electricity to villages as a form of birth control. The explanation to us was that if the women is busy watching tv, she is uninterested in her husband's propositions.
Our next visit was to a village of the Cham Muslim minority. We got to watch a women using a loom to weave beautiful sarongs and scarves. The locals were really enthusiastic about showing us their traditional outfits, and insisted that Mike and I try them on. They wrapped us in sarongs and scarves, it was a neat experience. Some of the children approached us, wanting us to buy little cakes. One girl really latched on to Mike, and used very persuasive phrases to convince him to eat a cake: "You buy my cake. Very good. Money to help my school we are very very poor." luckily, before he did he read the sign nearby that said, "please do not eat the cakes from the children. They are very old and may cause colic."
After our visit, we got on our boat for a six hour sweaty, noisy ride to the Cambodian border. We played a lot of tic tac toe and enjoyed going through the villages and watching the kids playing on rope swings in the river. Once we arrived at the border, we all went our separate ways and ventured into the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penn.