The Mekong Delta
Snakes, rivers, ferries, rivers, floating markets, more rivers
The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers, flowing some 2600 miles from the mountains of Tibet to the South China Sea and the Mekong Delta is one of the world’s largest river deltas. The Delta region really begins around Phnom Penh, Cambodia where after joining with the Tonle Sap River, the Mekong divides into its two main branches: the lower Mekong, commonly known as the Bassac River, and the Upper Mekong. From here, numerous small tributaries and manmade canals create an environment often better suited to boat travel than to land travel, and indeed, that’s how many people navigate between villages, and any tour to the region will include at least one, maybe several boat trips.
The river is a lazy one in the dry season. At times several miles wide and brown as mud, the river helps irrigate such a large region that rice harvests not only feed the entire nation, but make Vietnam the world’s third largest rice exporter as well. The region is mostly rural, dotted with several small cities including the rapidly developing Cantho, the unofficial capital of the Delta region. The upper half of the region, from the Bassac River to Saigon is relatively easy to access by ground and is the region that most tourists visit. Few tourists go much below the Bassac River where things get a bit more backward.
majority of Delta tourists take an organized tour. These can be arranged
from many of the local cafés for about $30 plus food and lodging which
provides a three-day tour that takes in most of the major sights from
the Bassac River on up and also includes several local boat trips. The
boat trips are the most problematic part of the tours. This is because
they are very expensive. Most provinces do not allow private operators
to give foreigners boat rides and thus the government has been able to
maintain a monopoly over the service with rates running about $20/hour.
A bit pricey, especially if you’re going solo. Even in the less regulated
provinces you’ll still have trouble getting a ride for less than $10/hour.
If you’re signed up with a group these matters will have been taken care
of and you can get your economical boat trip. As a solo traveler you’re
stuck with a tough decision. You can take a tour that will, on the positive
side, get you a good boat trip and also get you around to most of the
major attractions, but on the negative side, well, you’re on a guided
tour in a minibus. This is not very conducive to meeting the locals, taking
spur-of-the-moment photographs, or visiting some of the more out of the
way places south of the Bassac. As an alternative you can rent your own
motorbike for about $10 a day or pay somebody about $16 a day to drive
you on his motorbike and act as your personal tour guide and interpreter.
I chose the latter and was glad I did. I definitely lost out on the boat
trips and I missed a few other attractions as well, but in return I got
plenty of roadside and village photographs, plenty of interaction with
the locals, plenty of miles on little dirt roads through rice paddies
and quaint little villages, and finally, a trip to a most fascinating
village almost unreachable by anything but 4WD or motorbike.
is another reason why I chose to pay somebody to drive the motorcycle.
In Southeast Asia the roads are hardly limited to motorized traffic. Highways
are shared with oxen-drawn carts, herds of goats, wandering chickens,
families of ducks; people will even spread rice across part of the road,
using the convenient flat surface for drying. The last thing I wanted
to do was splatter some poor villager’s chicken, then be forced into intense
negotiation with a crowd of angry villagers trying to agree on a settlement
for turning someone’s precious chicken into dumplings before they had
a chance to sell it. It’s a mistake that would no doubt turn one dead
chicken into one very expensive chicken.
set out for a three day journey through the Delta on the back of a motorbike
driven by Thao, the same guy who had driven me around Saigon one day and
also taken me to the Cu Chi Tunnels. For this trip he was using a motorbike
that came courtesy his sister-in-law which predictably broke down a few
times and got several more flat tires as well. This is to be expected,
but in all but the most remote regions of Vietnam there are roadside repair
places every few hundred yards. These often provide a unique opportunity
to mingle with the locals who may come out in droves to observe the lone
long-nose standing around waiting for his flat tire to be repaired. Usually
the conversation goes like this:
from about ten different people. Then someone in the crowd volunteers
that they studied English for a few years when they were a child. The
self-appointed interpreter begins the conversation thusly:
first day of the trip saw us leaving Saigon in the morning heading south
on National Highway 1. National Highway 1 is Vietnam’s lifeline, running
from near the southern tip of Vietnam to the northern border with China.
Just as Route 1 gave the traveler of old a fascinating look at a cross-section
of America from Maine to Florida, National Highway 1 in Vietnam does the
same here. A very popular trip is to self-ride a motorbike from end to
end, which in another year I may, chickens be damned.
seems almost everybody in Vietnam wears a baseball cap and as everybody
rides on motorbikes hats flying off of heads is a regular occurrence.
The Vietnamese have a very unique skill. Even at full highway speed, the
men are most adept at picking a lost hat up from the road with their foot.
The hat is then passed off to its rightful owner who can always be identified
as the one person standing on the side of the road without a hat on his
head. I lost my hat twice that morning. Later in the day, I successfully
‘scooped’ a hat with my own foot, passing it on to its appreciative and
somewhat surprised owner.
Vietnamese is written with the western alphabet, that doesn’t make pronunciation
any easier. Consider the following towns: Mytho, Cantho, and Long Xuyen.
None of these are pronounced anything like you’d expect. Nor are Mytho
and Cantho pronounced anything alike. Mytho is pronounced like “me-toe”,
Cantho is pronounced like “can-toey” and Long Xuyen is pronounced, well,
as close as I can spell it, like “lung-shoiyen” (it’s a triphthong). And
then there are the tonal variations…
We made our first stop at the town of Mytho (pop. about 100,000), the first major city south of Saigon, it sits on a branch of the Upper Mekong. Because of its proximity to Saigon it gets most of the one-day tourists and is proportionately expensive. Stopping at the city park along the river Thao cautioned me to be very wary of pickpockets and con artists. But all I had to deal with was a lot of people trying to sell me an expensive boat trip. From Mytho, we headed to a small village where I came across a small three room schoolhouse with a few dozen kids around ten to twelve years old playing in the yard. We stopped and as I have done many times in Cambodia, I simply walked right into the schoolyard with camera in hand. My arrival was met with yelling, shouting, laughing, and general hysteria. None of the kids came too near me, staying close to the relative security of the school building. A couple of shy ones ducked out of the way, but for most of the kids, the boys especially, it became a time to jump on top of each other, yell, tackle their friends, and yell again. Finally ending when about ten of them had tangled themselves up in one pile of yelling and laughing bodies. Did someone yell, “fumble!”? Right next to the mayhem a group of four girls made funny faces at me.
We then went to a local snake farm. It’s interesting to go to a snake farm in a country where the word liability isn’t found in the dictionary. If you’ve ever wanted to reach out and pet a cobra, this is the place to do it. The cobras are kept in a pen with a small moat and cement wall, so they’re not likely to get out. But you’re welcome to go in if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do. All but one of the cobras were asleep and it took some doing to see where they were hiding, but the one cobra that was awake didn’t want any company. In possession of a 300mm lens, I could safely lean on the cement wall and get some good close-ups that would give anyone the impression that it was me and the snake all alone in the river. The snake certainly did its part, rising up and hissing at me with its hood fully spread. It wasn’t a very friendly snake. Cobras are common in the Mekong Delta and snakes (I don’t know if they are cobras or not) are readily available at many restaurants for a very reasonable price.
Leaving the snake farm unharmed we returned to the highway and headed for the next town, Vinh Long. I was soon glad we were on two wheels and not four. As much of the Delta is rivers and canals, the roads require a lot of bridges. Most of the bridges should long ago have been declared unsafe and closed to traffic. As a matter of fact, about half of them are being replaced or are receiving major overhauls. Meanwhile, traffic continues to pass over the dilapidated old ones, often squeezed to a single lane creating lengthy waits for the four-wheeled vehicles stuck in line while the two-wheelers whiz by.
We made a quick stop in Vinh Long, which sits on the Upper Mekong. The Mekong, being a mile or two wide at this point must be crossed by ferry. They use big ferries capable of carrying about a dozen trucks and buses, dozens of motorcycles, and a hundred, maybe two hundred people. Again, Thao cautioned me about pickpockets. Next to the ferry a huge billboard proudly displays the latest feat of Vietnamese civil engineering. A huge suspension bridge is under construction to carry traffic over the Mekong. The towers are already up and visible from miles away. Also visible from miles around were thunderstorms. The rainy season is not supposed to begin until late May, but on March 29 it arrived.
Vinh Long is an unremarkable town and we soon departed for Cantho (pop. 150,000). Cantho is a healthy lively city that belies the economics of the surrounding area. It’s certainly clean, there’s been plenty of new construction, and the locals spend their evenings in leisurely relaxation along the city’s generous riverfront.
before we could enter Cantho, we had another ferry crossing, this time
over the Bassac River. Just as the boat is pulling away a dirty, toothless
old man selling assorted souvenirs approaches me, ”Excuse me, where are
was slightly surprised at how clearly and smoothly that sentence was delivered.
“U.S.A., but I live in Thailand,” I said guessing he might speak English
well enough to understand my disclaimer. Whenever asked of my origin I
always try to explain that though I’m a US citizen my home is now, and
for the foreseeable future in Thailand. He understood me fine.
Though Cantho boasts plenty of comfortable hotels along the riverfront, I went for a cheap place that required I give the bed a healthy dose of deadly bug killer. A notice under the window of my room warned me “don’t fling anythings pass the window please, thanks”. Like an empty container of deet spray? For dinner I decided to go with the local delicacy and treated myself to some snake. Not bad, a little chewy, but stir-fried with some rice and veggies, it was a perfect way to wrap up a day of riding from Delta city to Delta city.
The following morning I did my one and only Delta boat trip. For $20 (too much) I got about two hours that took me to the local floating market at Cai Rang about four miles down the river. As with most boat rides it got boring before it was finished and had I been more savvy I might have gotten the ride for closer to $10. We then left Cantho in a light rain shower and started heading up along the river towards the Cambodian border about 75 miles away. It was soon evident that as we headed north the economic boom of Cantho wasn’t moving in this direction. After a few minor breakdowns, but a nonetheless scenic ride we reached the unremarkable town of Long Xuyen. We stopped for a rest and I walked around the crowded and busy riverfront market. As we readied to leave Thao told me if we were to spend the night here I’d probably have ladies knocking on my door offering to keep me good company for the night. From Long Xuyen we continued towards the border. I also noticed another sign of poverty. Unlike previous places where everyone was busy working at one thing or another, once past Long Xuyen I saw a lot of people sitting around doing nothing. Idleness- a telltale sign of serious poverty. We entered the town of Chau Doc (pop. 60,000), just a couple of miles from the Cambodian border. We then turned left where several miles to the south is Sam Mountain. It’s really a hill, maybe a thousand feet high, but it gives great views of the surrounding countryside. At the base of the hill are a number of pagodas. These are quite a drawing card for Vietnamese tourists making Chau Doc and Sam Mountain noticeably more prosperous than the surrounding area. This is also the end of the line for 99% of the tourists. The foreign tour buses go no further and even some Vietnamese are afraid to venture along the wild frontier of the Cambodian border region. Even Thao was nervous about going any further, but agreed to do so anyway as it was one of the conditions of my hiring him.
village of Ba Chuc is only twenty miles from Chau Doc but it might as
well be a hundred miles from nowhere. A few miles from Chau Doc and we
were heading south on a rough dirt road. A few miles from Ba Chuc and
the road was almost gone, replaced by a raised rutted pile of dirt that
was rough on two wheels, a challenge for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and
probably impassable for anything else, at least during the rainy season.
There is however, another road to Ba Chuc from the southeast that is apparently
marginally better. Good enough to get the occasional bus through, but
probably not after breaking down a few times. I would bet money that during
the rainy season Ba Chuc is all but cut off from the world, reachable
only by motorbike and four-wheel-drive.
what is it that brought me to this little isolated village and at the
same time gives many Vietnamese a mild case of the willies? Let us return
to Cambodia and the years of the Khmer Rouge. It was ultimately the invasion
of the Vietnamese that brought down the Khmer Rouge and was ultimately
the slaughter of innocent civilians in villages like Ba Chuc that precipitated
that invasion. On the day the Khmer Rouge began its series of border raids,
April 15, 1978, Ba Chuc was a quiet little village of about 3,500 people.
For two weeks, ending April 30, 1978, the Khmer Rouge tore through Ba
Chuc slicing to bits anything that breathed, literally ripping apart young
children limb from limb and hacking the adults to pieces with machetes.
When the raids ceased the population of Ba Chuc had been reduced to 2.
That’s right, two people are known to have survived the massacre.
things immediately struck me: How extremely friendly this place was, almost
suspiciously so, and not surprisingly, how young it was. While a number
of adults had moved in to repopulate the village, it’s still the children
who run the show here.
A memorial stupa to the Ba Chuc massacre sits in a field near a group of pagodas. It is similar to the popular Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here, the stupa houses about 3500 skulls and other remains, and like Choeung Ek, categorized by approximate age and sex. Given the popularity of the Killing Fields, and that the fields surrounding the Ba Chuc memorial are no less awash in blood, it’s astonishing that the Vietnamese government has done nothing to promote this site for tourism. The town is extremely difficult to access; you have to really want to come here to get here. The site is completely devoid of any English translations, and though you can buy a pamphlet for 2000 dong (about 15 cents), it’s only in Vietnamese. In one of the surrounding pagodas there is supposedly a photo exhibition of pictures taken upon the gruesome discovery of the Ba Chuc carnage. I looked all over the pagodas and asked a few locals (as well as I could) about the location of the photos, but I never could find them, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Driving around the village looking for the memorial I was amazed at the amount of “Hellos!” I received. As usual, they came mostly from children, though the adults were no less friendly. It was a ceaseless barrage that was almost suspicious in nature, as if the entire village had conspired to say ‘hello’ to every foreigner who passed through. The “Hellos!” were far more frequent than anywhere else in the Delta region. But if it was a plot to get me to say good things about the village, it worked. This raised the question- just how often did foreigners make it down here? I had Thao ask, and apparently one or two foreigners usually find Ba Chuc each day so my presence wasn’t all that rare. Maybe that’s just enough foreigners to be interesting, but not so many to become boring?
I spent only about three hours at Ba Chuc, but it was an afternoon well spent. After exhausting any hope of finding the photographic exhibition, settling instead for a substantially less graphic photo display of some local monks and villagers celebrating things worthy of celebrating, I decided to explore the village a little. The local high school was letting out attracting my attention, and I theirs. Meanwhile a couple of young village boys in dirty pajamas followed me around hounding me to take non-stop photographs of them and otherwise trying to jump into every photo I took. Thankfully they eventually disappeared.
was delayed by yet another flat tire. We pushed the bike to one of those
ubiquitous motorbike repair shops, conveniently located across the street
from the high school. This one consisted of a small lean-to, a bench and
a few tools - a typical shop. Waiting around for the flat to be repaired
a number of village children came by to watch, mostly to watch me.
An interesting thing to do in remote, and sometimes not so remote parts of Asia is to pull up somewhere on a motorbike, get off, then just stand around and see what happens. Sometimes you are ignored. Sometimes a few people look at you and maybe point. Sometimes you attract a whole crowd but it may just be more to look at your Reeboks and Ray-Bans then at you; or best of all, you attract a crowd as I attracted this late afternoon in Ba Chuc. For about thirty minutes children aged 6-16 came and went, with the occasional parent stopping to check out the foreigner of the day.
Flat tire repaired we left to return to Sam Mountain/Chau Doc. We were going to stay at one of the many cheap hotels by Sam Mountain and then ride to the top the following morning to check out the views. But at this time the only thing I was viewing were big black clouds dumping huge quantities of rain a few miles away in Cambodia. Thankfully they stayed in Cambodia.
Ba Chuc was like arriving, an exhausting number of ‘hellos’. I stopped
a few times on the way out for photos: a small hut on stilts, a group
of boys playing soccer, children playing in front of their homes. As night
came so did the mosquitoes. Though they weren’t biting me, we were riding
at 30 mph; I was subjected to a continuous stinging barrage of bugs hitting
my face, getting in my eyes, and even in my mouth. Mmmm, mosquitoes.
spent the night at a guesthouse that I never would have recognized as
a guesthouse but Thao knew the owners so I was in for $5. Dinner was whatever
the wife felt like cooking, on this night - pork chops. The facilities
were very communal - you shared it with the family that lived there. But
the place was a lot cleaner than the previous night’s hotel so I had nothing
to complain about.
next morning saw us ride up Sam Mountain, look at the views, and then
hit the road for the 150-mile ride back to Saigon. We stayed on the highway
until Long Xuyen where we turned onto a back road. We took this paved
road for about 15 miles before turning on to a dirt road that we followed
for another 60 miles.
We had two ferry crossings. The ferry was delayed at the second crossing as three policemen came aboard and initiated a bag search. Apparently they got a tip that someone had been paid to carry a bag across the river which the police seemed to think was a bad idea. In fairness, I should mention that the Delta is a major route for drug smuggling from Cambodia to Saigon. The police decided the easiest way to handle the problem was to just grab a few bags and take off with them. One of the police officers eyed my backpack strapped to the motorbike, but as he came towards it another officer, a senior presumably, chased him away from it having identified it as belonging to a foreigner. Whew. They took a couple of bags and interrogated a man with a bicycle and cart who apparently was indeed the ‘suspect’. We met up with the man on the road later and Thao got the story from him. He was indeed carrying the bags across the river for someone. Oh well. But the man didn’t seem the least bit upset at the loss of the cargo.
had lunch in the town of Cao Lanh at an unremarkable basic roadside place
that in great Vietnamese tradition was playing Vietnamese pop music as
loudly as possible. But in honor of the lone foreigner it was decided
that I would surely rather hear some western music and was promptly rewarded
with some of the cheesiest renderings of 1970’s disco music I’ve ever
heard. It wasn’t even well known disco, either. I recognized one or two
songs as abominations I had buried deep in the recesses of my past, but
the rest was unrecognizable except as being something awful. I think the
CD may have been used towards the end of the war to extract confessions
from prisoners. It would have worked.
After lunch we turned onto a dirt road that would be home for the next 60 miles. The road took us past endless rice paddies, little villages, and lots of friendly people. We broke down a few times, and wiped out once on a muddy stretch of road causing harm only to one foot peg that we had welded back on at the next village.
one village I received a little more attention than I normally like. We
had just come down with yet another flat tire so Thao charged on ahead
leaving me to walk alone the few hundred yards to the repair shop. No
sooner does he take off that a local on a motorbike pulls up alongside
me and offers me a ride to wherever. That in itself would be fine except
nothing comes for free. I tried to decline the offer but he was insistent
so I finally gave in. Across the street from the repair shop was the village
bus station. Forget what you imagine to be a bus station. It was basically
an open-air café with a chalkboard displaying the bus schedule. They served
drinks and probably could locate somebody to cook you a meal if you wanted
one. There was a bunch of plastic chairs around tables occupied by about
a dozen men playing cards and dominos. I was put into a chair and I promptly
purchased a bottle of water, and of course, I also had to buy one for
the guy who gave me the ride. A few more people tried unsuccessfully to
get me to buy them something, too. They invited me into their game but
as in Saigon, money was involved so I stayed out of it. For ten minutes
or so it was fine, communicating through phrasebook and the one man who
spoke a few sentences of English, we had a conversation that pretty much
followed the standard script (see above). Unfortunately as happens sometimes,
you’re with a group of locals having a reasonably good time and somebody
has to ruin it all. Usually it’s some drunk with a big mouth that is just
as often chased off by his friends, but in this case it was one man who
decided I was very rich and should share my wealth with him. I’m well
aware that even in blue jeans and a t-shirt, I can still look very wealthy
to someone in the Third World. First he points to my shoes - Reeboks.
He motions like I should give them too him. Forget it. Then he points
to my pants - Levi’s. American Levi’s (there is a difference between Levi’s
made for sale in the USA and Levi’s made for sale in Asia and I’ve met
a number of people in both Vietnam and Thailand who can instantly spot
the difference). He indicates that he’d like a pair of Levi’s and makes
like he’s going to check my bag to see if I have another pair. Then he
looked in my shirt pocket, which I had forgotten all about, and pulls
out my sunglasses - Ray Bans, and the real thing, too. I was a rich man
- Reeboks, Levi’s, Ray Bans. The only thing left was my bag - Nike. But
Nike doesn’t impress in Vietnam. Nike products
are everywhere in Vietnam and at incredibly cheap prices. As I think is
common knowledge, many Nike products are made in Vietnam, so not surprisingly
an awful lot of those products disappear through the back door. You can
get any real Nike product for next to nothing if you know where to ask, and
it’s not hard to find the right person. So anyway, this guy keeps bugging
me to give him something and trying to get his friends involved too, most
of who ignored him. At this point, I’m now thinking what if this guy does
get into my bag coming across a Canon EOS camera and a couple of lenses.
I was looking for an escape route but just then Thao showed up with a
repaired motorbike and we were on our way. I seriously wondered if in
a few miles this guy might appear in my life again on less friendly terms,
and I’ll admit I did look over my shoulder a few times when I heard a
motorbike approach, but it was just simple paranoia on my part. He wasn’t
a thief, just an annoyance.
In another village we happened across the excavation of a van from a ditch which pretty much had attracted everyone in the village. But as I took a few photos of the scene, someone, who as it turned out, had something to do with the van excavation (the van’s owner?) growled something at me which I readily interpreted as ‘stop taking pictures’.
it was a very pleasant ride along this dirt road. But after a few hours
I noticed once again that ominous sight of huge black clouds dumping tons
of rain on some hapless village. I made two suggestions to Thao. One,
let’s get back to the highway - now. I love this road but I’m not going
to love it when it turns to mud (this didn’t seem to be of a concern to
Thao, though). And two, if it looks like we’re going to hit this thing,
we need to cover my stuff with plastic (this also didn’t seem to be of
a concern to Thao). He continued along for a few more miles passing a
few crossroads that may have led to Highway 1. We were almost in the storm
when we entered a large village with a numbered paved road cutting through
it. Thao asked around and figured out how to get to Highway 1, but he
didn’t need to, the crossroad and Highway 1 were both on my map so I already
knew the road went to Highway 1, but Asians don’t read maps. Really. At
this point it was absolutely certain we were heading right into this monsoon.
over Vietnam you can buy ponchos for a few thousand dong that are good
for about one day before coming apart into a half dozen various-sized
pieces of plastic. With some difficulty I got Thao to stop so I could
buy a couple - not for me, but for my two bags. He was reluctant to stop,
saying “Rain, no problem.”
Fortunately for us we were moving in the opposite direction of the storm so it didn’t last long, but for about fifteen or twenty minutes we probably had two or three inches of rain fall on us. I couldn't have been wetter for swimming in the ocean. But soon the sky cleared bringing back the hot Southeast Asian sun that along with the 30-mph headwind generated from the motorbike had me nearly dry by the time we reached Saigon around 6 p.m.
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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.