In the last episode of our crazy trip down the great Mekong river, we were telling you about the growing excitement of crossing on foot the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. To be fair with you, we were also a bit anxious… Before we bring you in the midst of vietnamese floating markets, let’s tell you more about this key-event of our arrival in Vietnam!
Our plan is simple: to cross the border at Cột Mốc, a tiny custom post set along the Mekong river, at the end of a 6 days walk on a dusty dirt road. We’ve been in Asia 7 months now, and we already crossed a fairly large number of borders, yet never on foot and never by such a remote border post. Will we be allowed through? Big question. We have no information (or quite) concerning this post. We are not sure at all that strangers can go through. Even Internet doesn’t know a thing about the subject. We are not at all on the stressy side, but the closer we get to the border, the more we start to feel somewhat… Unconfortable! Well, we’ll see…
Finally, nothing will be more easy than to cross this border! The cambodian custom officer is the coolest guy on earth, chatting with us about our trip, giving us advices…etc. He makes us pay the usual fee of 5$/pers because we overrun our visa by one day, without even thinking of scamming us (which can be unusual in asia sometimes) and one minute later we are in Vietnam! On the Viet side though, things are a bit different. First, we have to wake up the chief border officer (it’s 11am…) who grumpily grants us the visa stamps. Neither him, nor his subordinates (nor, to be fair, any of the Vietnamese people around) speak a single word of English, and we soon discover that our home-made mini-lexicon is not of much use, considering we can’t pronounce a single understandable word from it. Vietnamese is a super-tonal language and, in our opinion, one of the hardest to pronounce in Asia! Thankfully, the informations given by the nice Cambodian officer were quite precise and we manage to find the right way out of the custom station and into Vietnam.
Here is another stricking difference with Cambodia: on this side of the border, the road is a large newly tarred ribbon bordered by high-tech lampposts. We see a lot more cars here too. Vietnam strikes us to be a far richer country than its unfortunate neighbour… And also utterly communist! We soon arrive in a deserted square which reminds us profusely of ex-USSR. Giant red posters depict a smiling Ho Chi Minh surrounded by a crowd of happy workers, while the famous red-and-yellow-star flag hangs on poles at every corners along with propaganda speakers. To be honest, we weren’t expecting that! Communism seems to be a seriously stronger matter here than in China. An old rusty carousel standing in the middle of it all adds a hint of gloom to this strange communist paraphernalia. Fortunately, here is also an age-old bus, waiting to go. We don’t hesitate a minute. We jump on board and let it takes us far from here! Reaching Chau Doc (which is only 30km away) will be nothing more than a nightmare. We’ll have to take several (wrong) buses, deal with the locals’ lack of understanding (or ours!), the unscrupulous moto-taxi drivers and the ferry leaders, and let’s add that we only have a few US$ to manage it all! Welcome to Vietnam!
Chau Doc, the river city
We are a bit disappointed by Chau Doc at first. Internet had promised us a good surprise, a « technicolor shock » when coming from Cambodia, but the only things we can see while looking for a decent hotel are dirty messy streets and half-welcoming people.
But our weariness after that crazy long day must have been the reason of such a hard judgment and we start the next day with a strong will to change our mind on the subject. To do so, we hire a nice old boatman to discover Chau Doc from the river! As a result, we are totally enchanted. We first visit a beautiful floating market where colorful painted cargos carrying loads and loads of ananas, bananas, sweet-potatoes, and all kind of fruits and veggies and fish and meat, sell their products to an army of busy smaller boats sailing on the Mekong in every directions. In the background, Chau Doc appears a lot more pleasing than yesterday evening.
We discover more about vietnamese people as well, and realise that some of our european clichés stands for real: for example, all the women are wearing this « iconical-conical » hat, and many travel from boat to boat to sell steaming bowls of the very famous Phó soup (yum!). Our guide takes us next to a few of the numerous fish farms making a living out of the Mekong waters. Fantastic for local economy, but unfortunately disastrous for global ecology. Already carrying the waste of all the countries upstream, stained by oil and petrol, cut into pieces by chinese super-dams, the Mekong river has now to deal with fish overproduction. Liters and liters of fish poo and antibiotiques are flowing in the Mekong to the ocean everday, adding to the general mess. Yet how can one cut this farmers from one of their only resources?
In term of resources, Chau Doc is trying to develop tourism. No surprise then when our guide takes us next to visit a few floating souvenir shops before dropping us on Cham island. This pretty island is inhabited by the Cham ethnic group, a very welcoming muslim community similar to the one we met in Cambodia during our crazy walk down the country! We take a look at the brand new mosquee too, pride of the island. Women are prettily wearing the conical hats over their veils.
Next day we take the bus to Can Thò, 50 km downstream on one of the numerous arms of the gigantic Mekong delta. It sounds simple, but believe it or not, it is as crazy to reach Can Thò as it was to reach Chau Doc. We understand quickly that unless you ask a travel agency or a hotel to help you book the right bus, looking for a bus on your own in Vietnam is not an easy task at all. You have to litteraly go on a mission, make your way between scams and conflicting informations and language difficulties, find the right bus station, escape the tacky moto-taxi drivers, etc… Perfect to teach you self-control!
We finally get to Can Thò, an energetic modern city attracting foreigners as well as local tourists. Those last ones particularly love to spend the evening chilling on the nice river front and enjoying the happy holiday atmosphere, unless they choose to jump on one of those crazy restaurant-karaoke-boats and party all night long! So in the evening we mingle with the happy crowd on the river front, eat at the night market and simply relax and enjoy life. We are even granted a free night concert where handsome young people dressed in red sing and dance wonderfully for the party’s glory, of course just under the eyes of a giant Ho Chi Minh statue… which also stares directly in the direction of all the clubs, luxury hotels and casinos of the area! If the golden statue keeps its benevolent smile in every situation, no doubt that the true Ho Chi Minh wouldn’t have allowed this debauchery of capitalism to stand just in front of him!
Like Chau Doc, Can Thò is also famous for its foating markets. At 4:45 am the following day we embark on a pretty little boat with a nice young vietnamese woman. By leaving so early, we are sure not to miss the morning animation, when most people come to buy the best goods to sell them back later in the streets of the city. The Mekong is litteraly covered with boats, small or big, creating one of the most amazing organized mess we’ve ever seen. It’s noisy, busy, colorful. People are jumping from boat to boat, laughers and loud negociations are mingling with motor noises. We settle near the floating « bar », order a jasmine tea to the sweet old « bartender », and observe quietly the fantastic chaos playing around us.
Next, our funny boatwoman takes us to the rice noodle factory! Yep you read well. And that was actually quite interesting, considering this ingredient is used in more than half of vietnamese dishes (or so) and that we will eat some every day for the entire month!
We visit later a second floating market, smaller than the first one and a lot more quiet, where women buy the daily products that will feed their whole family. Different atmosphere, but quite nice to witness nonetheless! The area is lovely and our lovely guide leads our boat in a picturesque network of canals while we eat delicious fresh fruits bought on the market this morning. The tour ends in a tiny restaurant lost in a lush jungle. Without hesitation, we choose a large plate of nems and a delicious Phó soup (both of them made with the same rice noodles than in the factory!) and don’t forget to offer lunch to our guide. We are not used to those touristic tours, but this one was well worth the 40$ we paid for it! We were alone with our guide on the boat and spent 7 hours visiting around, which gave us a very good insight of the area and we have to say that we are very satisfied with the whole experience.
But tomorrow will be again different, for we’ll jump back in our hiking shoes and walk for 6 days in the Mekong delta through green rice fields, lush forest and narrow canals to try to reach the sea. This will be the end of our « Mekong project ». Seven months ago we were at Zaxiqiwa, the holy source of the great river lost in the Himalaya in China. So many things happened on the way down the Mekong. We achieved so much. We met so many amazing people… How will we react when we’ll reach the sea? Will Quentin cry? One thing’s sure, it’s going to be… Intense!!
See you there,
M. & Mme Shoes
Faces of Asia
Money in Vietnam :
- The local change rate is not the same than on the Internet. Everybody in Vietnam uses : 1$US = 20 000VND.
- If you travel on low budget, then we recommand you to use dong (VND) instead of US$. Prices are so low that its more easy to manage everything in dong, and you’ll get less troubles with the changing rate. Vendors out of the tourists tracks don’t have dollars to give you back your change, and some of them have never seen any dollars.
But, some hotels, restaurants and tours, do accept dollars.
- There is ATM all around. You can withdraw a maximum of 2 millions in most of them, but some (rarer) can deliver up to 5 millions.
Going to Chau Doc :
- From Phnom Penh in Cambodia boats are doing returns trip several times a day in 4 hours, and for 27$US/person.
- From Can Tho, mini bus services are doing the trip every day. We didn’t travel that direction so we can’t say where the buses start from.
7$US/person, 2-3 hours.
Sleep in Chau Doc :
- We slept at Ngoc Phu Hotel for 8$US, clean, with AC, hot water, and Internet.
17 Doc Phu Thu Street, A Ward, Chau Doc Township, Vietnam
Eat in Chau Doc :
- Behind Cat Tuong café is a little restaurant in a yard. Local food, correct prices, it’s the best quality/price ratio we found.
Going to Can Tho from Chau Doc :
- It seems that there is several bus stations. We’ve seen two of them. The first one is a little bit out of the city, but reachable by bicycle-taxi for 1$US. The other one is next to the peer where the ferry is and where the boat from Phnom Penh arrives. With the peer in your back, look for a garage with a minivan inside and a sign outside saying Can Tho.
- A boat is cruising to Can Tho everyday at 2PM for 30$US. We didn’t find it, so we can’t where it is…
Sleeping in Can Tho :
- We slept in Hien Guest House II. A little inn in a very little alley. Own by a very charming and sympathic familly speaking a nice english. Rooms are simple, but clean with hot water, electricity, Internet, and fan.
Having a tour in the floating market and the canals in Can Tho :
- Directly from our hotel we booked a tour for the next morning. At 5AM, the boat driver came to pick us up and we walked to her boat.
The big tour last 7 hours and cost 40$US for 2 people. It include : the big floating market, another small floating market, the noodle factory, the fruit garden and the canals. Shorter and cheaper tours are also available.
Be aware that you’ll have more costs. The boat driver will probably ask for a tip at the end of the tour. At noon, you’ll stop in a restaurant in the canals. The waiter will ask if you want to invite your boat driver. You’re not obliged to, but…