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Chau Doc -- Mekong Delta

We are just overnighting in this large riverside town, so we can't offer more than a few quick impressions.  We immediately notice a difference between Cambodia and Vietnam:  the pace of life is faster and more frenetic.  Everyone is in a hurry to get rich and, while nobody is unfriendly, there are noticeably fewer smiles.

We get off the boat and look for a ride to our hotel.  We know it is somewhere nearby but it is hot and humid and the thought of a hike in a strange town doesn't appeal.  A young entrepreneur offers to take us -- not in a tuk tuk, but on two small motorcycles.   Off we go.  It seems like a long way to me as I know our hotel isn't far from the river, but of course, I don't know exactly where the boat landing is.  Eventually, after many turns and various streets we arrive.  The young German couple who were on our boat, and who chose to walk to the same hotel, arrive before we do!  We guess we were just treated to an unsolicited motorcycle tour of downtown Chau Doc, at a cost of 80,000 Dong (four bucks).  Not a huge loss, but it serves notice that we are now in a different country.

Our hotel, right downtown, is very nice for sixteen dollars a night:  AC, hot shower, comfortable bed -- no elevator! We wonder if they put all the old people on the fourth floor; and they use the European system here, which means the floor above the lobby is the first floor.  We wish we had hired a couple of sherpas to carry our bags up to base camp.
 
View from our fifth-story balcony in Chau Doc
 

 I suffer an equipment failure and need a new belt.  The man at the desk directs us around the corner to a clothing shop.  They have hundreds of belts, all about size 50.  I try on several and they are all way too big.  The shop lady keeps saying:  "No problem, no problem!", so I pick one out and put it around my waist to show her.  She grabs the belt, marks the spot and hands it to the young man sitting nearby.  He quickly disassembles the buckle, chops off about six inches of belt and puts it back together again.  Perfect fit!
 

Custom-fitted belt

The bus ride to Can Tho takes us deep into the delta.  Green fields of rice nearly ready to harvest, roadways choked with traffic, construction everywhere and houses, shops, warehouses and factories along the roadsides. 
 
Rice fields, nearly ready for harvest
 

Small canals, big canals, small rivers and big rivers are everywhere.  Nearly all the waterways have an amazing amount of boat traffic.  There is every kind of vessel from tiny canoes to huge steel barges carrying sand and dirt.  It is truly a waterworld.

Every kind of working vessel on the river ....

 
...carrying every conceivable cargo

 
River bank house

There are also many ramshackle buildings at the rivers edge with conveyors and augers extending out over the water.  We think these are rice processing plants and the raw rice is augured out of the boats and conveyered into the building to be cleaned and bagged, ready for sale.
 
Riverside rice processing plant

 

Can Tho -- capital city of the Mekong Delta

We arrive at the brand-new and very modern Can Tho bus terminal.  Usually, each bus company has their own office on a congested city street and it can be a challenge to find them.  The disadvantage of a new terminal like this one, is that it is usually on the outskirts of the city and a taxi ride is needed to reach your accommodation.

On the bus ride though the scenic delta, we make the acquaintance of Stefan from Stuttgart.  He has been travelling in Asia for many years and we have good conversation to pass the time.  Stefan is two meters (6'  6") tall and causes a sensation among the Vietnamese, most of whom are about half his size.

When he steps off the bus, they start to giggle, then laugh out loud and then they run to stand beside him and have their selfies taken.  Fortunately, Stefan tolerates all the attention with good humour and usually gives someone his camera so he can have a picture too.

 
 

The taxi drops us off at Ms. Ha's Guest House.  It is some way off the main streets of Can Tho, but still close to the river.  The sign on the street directs us down an alley that is a bit like walking through everyone's living rooms.  People are sitting on patios or inside doorway, standing around chatting, kids are playing and babies are crying. Although we don't realize it at first, there is a Buddhist funeral taking place next door.  As soon as people see us, they wave and point us further down the alley.  Around a corner and we are in front of a big sign indicating that we have arrived, in fact, at Ms. Ha's Guest House.

 
Sign showing us which alley to go down  (black and white flag indicates a funeral is in progress)

 
Down the alley (past the Buddhist funeral)
 
Deep in the alley, we find Ms. Ha's Guest House
 

Ms. Ha is a redoubtable Vietnamese lady who runs an excellent operation.  The house is quite new and scrupulously clean.  She greets us with a plate of fresh fruit and a pastry to enjoy while we are being checked in.  We discuss things to do and before we know it we are signed up for an all-day tour tomorrow.  We are told to be ready to go at 5:00am so we can visit the famous floating markets at Cai Rang at dawn.  We never consider arguing.

 
 
Ms. Ha arrives on her scooter, just as we are going out for a walk
 

Our room is very comfortable and only two floors up.  It has a tiny balcony that looks out of other neighbouring buildings.



 

Cai Rang floating market and beyond

A boat tour to see the floating markets is offered by Ms. Ha; the catch is a 5:00am departure!  Our guide is Nguyen Ngoc Quyen ("Wing" to us), a lovely young student and we walk through the already-bustling, early morning neighbourhood to the river.  Mr. Khanh is waiting with a small wooden long-tail boat.  Soon we are out on the river, under the stars, quietly chugging towards Cai Rang.

The market is in full-on frenzy by the time we arrive, just as it is getting light.  Hundreds of boats, buying and selling every kind of produce.  The bigger boats have carried the goods from outlying farmers and smaller boats are purchasing produce for their restaurants or shops.  This is really a wholesale market.

 
A boat-full of flowers.  Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is coming and
yellow flowers are a very important part of the preparations


 
Onions for sale

 

 

 

 
 

 
Big boats and little boats jostle around in the river; tiny boats with ladies selling tea and food, a boat that appears to be a floating convenience store.

Boat ladies selling coffee tea and food at the market

 We chug off down smaller and smaller channels and land at a small dock to visit a noodle factory.  A slurry of rice flour, tapioca and starch is heated in huge cauldrons over wood fires.  Then a ladle-full is spread on a hot cooking sheet about foot in diameter, like a huge crepe.  After just the right amount of time, the next person picks the whole crepe up with a bamboo roller and expertly spreads it out on a bamboo mat.  They make it look effortless, but I think there would be a lot of spoiled ones if we tried to do it.

 

 

 
The mats with the crepes on them are put out in the sun to dry for four to five hours.  When they are dry they feel like heavy plastic sheets.  These sheets go through a cutting machine that slices them up into noodles.  The whole process is extremely low tech and obviously has been done this way for centuries.
 

 

Our next stop is a snake farm.  The skins of Burmese pythons are in huge demand for the creation of expensive leather goods.  These are enormous snakes, up to 16 feet long and weighing more than 100 lbs.  Pythons are not poisonous and are unaggressive so they adapt well to being bred in captivity.  The snakes looked to be in good health and kept in clean, well-maintained pens, but the enclosures are small and we are sure PETA wouldn't be impressed.  We are asked not to take pictures of the killing and processing area and the less said about that the better.

 
 

 
 
 
Fresh skins tacked out to dry
 

From the snake farm, we go to the smaller Phong Dien floating market.  We enjoy it more because the boats are smaller and we can get right in among them.  Many of these merchants are the farmers themselves who are selling directly to consumers -- more of a retail market.

 


 

 

 

After traversing a network of small canals, we go ashore and Wing leads us on a delightful walk through this rural area.  We stroll along narrow shady paths, past houses and at one point past a funeral in progress at one of the houses.  We cross many bridges: rickety old wooden ones, aging concrete structures and shiny new ones.  At several points, we scramble across small streams on traditional monkey bridges.  A monkey bridge, so-named because apparently one resembles a monkey while crossing it, is basically a single log, with a bamboo handrail to hold onto.
 

 

 
 

 
Crossing a monkey bridge

Eventually, we emerge into the main river, cross over to the city boat dock and our tour is over.  A fine and interesting day on the water.
 

Walking Tour of Xom Chai Village

Ms. Ha offers to take us on a walking tour of her home village, which, conveniently, lies just across the river.  We walk a few blocks to catch the ferry and within minutes, we are in a different world.  The busy city is still within sight on the other side, but here we are in a small rural village.  Naturally, Ms. Ha knows everyone.

 

Ferry across the Mekong


We perch on little plastic lawn chairs on the sidewalk and breakfast is brought to us.  We manage to convince most that we like our coffee black, but no one here believes that we really do prefer it without sugar.
 


 
When I was told that Vietnamese people typically eat pho bo (beef noodle soup) for breakfast, I didn't think that sounded very appealing.  After all, I am a farmer and have been eating bacon and fried eggs for breakfast for most of my life.  Much to my amazement, I love pho bo. 
 
Yumm!  I usually need a face wash when the bowl is empty.

 
The narrow main street along the river is also the village market.  There is a bewildering array of fish for sale:  some are still alive, some cleaned and a lot of salted fish of various kinds.  One lady is cleaning small eels and offering them for sale.
 


Fish market -- seafood you have never imagined!
 
Off we go down narrow alleys into the centre of the village.
 

 
We peer through the gate into the school yard Ms. Ha attended as a child and we get to exchange smiles with some lovely little children. 
 

 
Just after that, we stop at a kindergarten that Ms. Ha's nephew is attending.  We are a big hit with the kids and they all want to say: "Hello"

 
HELLO!  HELLO!

 
At one point, we pass a barber plying his trade in an open porch beside the alley.  I mention that I need a haircut.  Next thing I know, I am in the chair.  He uses electric clippers to trim the edges but the main haircut is all done with scissors -- and what a virtuoso he is!  It feels like a bird fluttering on my head!
A virtuoso at work

 

 
Next I am leaned back and he gets out the straight razor.  I have only had one shave with a straight razor before this but it is an unforgettable experience.  I likely won't have to shave again for a week.
The last stage is a vigourous massage:  head, neck and shoulders.  All this for 100,000 dong -- about C$6.00.
 
Absolutely nothing feels quite like a straight razor on your tender neck!

 

While this is all going on, one villager after another comes by to see the foreigner getting a haircut -- the barber's fifteen minutes of fame!
 
Semi-famous village barber!
 
Back on the little ferry and we are soon home again.  I get a big smile from the captain when he sees me taking his picture.  It is one of our favourite adventures!
 
 

Boat Trip to Monkey Island

Quyen (pronounced:  "Wing", more or less) picks us up at Ms. Ha's place and we thread our way through the busy streets to the riverside.

 


Another long-tail wooden boat is waiting for us, this time driven by a lady.  We chug off across the river and reach a small, thickly-wooded island.  As we pull in to the shore under the trees a small family of monkeys appear overhead.  Wing produces a bunch of small bananas and we delight in tossing them up to the monkeys in the trees above us.  Their eyes and faces are so human-like we half-expect them to talk to us.

 

 

 

Our boat lady takes us along smaller and smaller channels until at one point we run aground and have to push the boat to deeper water.  Our course takes us under the magnificent cable-stay bridge across the Mekong.  Wing tells us that before the bridge was built, the only way across the river was by ferry boat.  She also tells us that a section of the bridge collapsed during construction, killing seventy workers.  Nipigon can feel better, knowing that!

 

 

 

We cruise leisurely along one canal after another, enjoying our view of the riverside dwellings, boatyards and boats of every size and description.  We watch the people going about their daily lives as we are literally passing though their front yards.

 
We need hats like these to wear on our sailboat
 

 

 

 
 

 
Rice processing plant

 
Siesta time

 

Eventually, we emerge into the main river, cross over to the city side and our adventure is over. 

 

 

Susan's Impressions of Can Tho

A vibrant busy city, where it seems that everyone works hard and strives to better themselves.  Quite the opposite that one would expect of a communist country.
 

Everyone is an entrepreneur

 
This big bag of peppers was cleaned and sorted in a tiny house in our alley.  Now, it is off to a street market to be sold

 

The lives of the inhabitants are deeply entwined with the waters of the Mekong Delta. They use it for fishing and growing food such as water spinach, for travel, to transport goods and supplies, for washing (both themselves and clothing) and for tourism.

The city has one of the most beautiful waterfronts we have ever seen.  The landscape and garden designers have done an amazing job and it is very clean and well looked after. An imposing bright gold statue of Uncle Ho dominates a central section.  Today, he is getting a new coat of paint in preparation for Tet! 

 
 

There is new construction to extend the waterfront which includes sweeping curves and bridges and huge chrome and steel lotus flowers.  I may have to come back to enjoy the finished product.


 

 

 


Transportation-wise, there are buses and a few taxis but we find ourselves missing the convenience of the Cambodian tuk tuks!  Curiously they do not use them in Vietnam.

 

The people are friendly and hardworking.  Ms Ha, our hostess, is a unique and very independent lady...unusual in this part of the world, I think.  She began her career at eighteen, with a small sampan powered by oars.  She saved money for a motor and worked hard to continue to improve her lot in life.  Two years ago she bought an old building, razed it and built her four-story guesthouse.  She is focused, efficient and highly organized.  She looks after her guests and her extended family well and I'm pretty sure she does not take any crap from anyone.  She is clearly proud of what she has achieved.

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