Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Mekong Delta

This part of the trip was the great unknown, and the part that I had been most anxious about. No more easy tour buses, no more catering for tourists wherever you go, no more assurance that most people you need to speak to will know English...We were going to 'Old School' Vietnam. And in my imagination I had convinced myself that this would consist of staying in some kind of mud hut and that I would intensely dislike the experience. I was wrong on both counts, and looking back, probably wouldn't have minded staying in a mud hut, might be fun! It turned out that the two weeks we spent travelling across the Mekong created more challenges, more stories, and more bizarre, funny, and breathtaking memories than what we found down the usual tourist route. So I'm glad I was (sort of) forced into it.

The initial challenge was how to get from HCMC to the delta - it's not far away, but it seems to be that the only way to get there is either by booking on an (expensive) organised tour, or by braving the local buses. Again, against my over-active imagination's judgement (which told me we would get lost and robbed and left in the middle of nowhere) we went for the local buses. This was pretty hilarious. Bar a couple of other stragglers, we were often the only westerners to be seen, looking very obviously lost, lugging our big rucksacks around, not knowing where to go or what bus we should be on. Most of the time we got laughed at by the locals, and after ineffectually trying to pronounce where we wanted to go, got bundled into a bus - tightly squeezed in amongst locals, bags of melons, building materials, and at one point a live goose - and usually found ourselves in vaguely the right place. If this wasn't quite the case, the only way to get a bit closer to the right town was by motorbike - I neglected to tell my mum this until I got back as she'd have a fit - but it was fantastic, though a bit difficult to balance when you're still wearing the rucksack!

Our route across the delta went from east to west, keeping in the northern half. From My Tho on the edge of the delta, we carried on to Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, Vinh Long, Can Tho, Chau Doc, Ha Tien, and finally we got a ferry across to Phu Quoc Island, back to tourist-land. I think, without a doubt, my highlights of this time were the boat tours we went on. The first was in My Tho, and could have been very hit-or-miss - we were approached by a guy whilst having a look around the small town. A lot of people try to speak to you, often trying to sell something, and more often than not we would just say no thank you and carry on walking. This guy was different, he was very laid back and firstly just offered to show us to a nearby cafe that was open as we were a bit desperate to find some food. He stayed to chat for a while and mentioned that he takes people on tours on his friend's boat, away from the tourist crowds, and early in the morning before it gets too hot. He said if we wanted to go we could meet him at the cafe at 5.30 the next morning and didn't have to pay until we had been on the tour - for someone to be so confident, and without putting any pressure on payment, was out of the ordinary, so we thought we'd give it a go. I'm so glad we did.

We left the hotel at 5am, with the poor guy at reception snoozing on a make-shift bed behind the desk, and walked to the cafe. It was still dark out, but already the streets were stirring; people opening up their shops, out on runs, on their way to work, we even saw a small group of women in the middle of an aerobics class. Our guy was waiting for us with a pot of Vietnamese coffee ready to wake us up - I'm not a huge coffee fan, but this was delicious, about the size of an espresso shot, but smooth and mixed with some form of chocolate, it definitely did the trick. We then followed on down to a rickety little wooden boat, with the driver already waiting, and set off into the morning darkness on the river. It didn't stay dark for long, just as we reached the middle of the large expanse of water, we stopped and watched the sun rise over the horizon. I'm not really eloquent enough to describe it, but I think at this point, more than any other, I sat thinking how lucky I was to be there, and how glad I was that I had said 'Sod it, why not' and left the cosy cushion of employment to go on the trip.

The advantages of going on an independent trip, rather than a tour by a large company - even though it may not be fully legal (I didn't ask!), is that your tour guide is likely to know people at the places you visit, knows where to get the best deals for any food and drink you might like during the day, can answer any questions you happen to think of as there isn't a large group to look after, and means you can totally go at your own pace. We saw the larger boats with big groups of tourists trudging around and I just don't think they got the same experience - a one to one tour is so much more personal. And I got made some jewellery weaved from a banana tree leaf, which I'm sure the others didn't get - and it was definitely a highlight!

The other great thing about the Mekong Delta region was how friendly the people were - although English was not as widely spoken, you are always greeted with a smile - and by the children, this is elevated into genuine excitement. Any children we walked past waved and shouted hello, and giggled when we replied. We were briefly shown a school by one of the locals, and all of the children came rushing to the window saying hello and trying to shake my hand - it completely disrupted the lesson, but was lovely and made me feel like a film star!

It struck me on leaving this amazing country, that although people didn't tend to have the luxuries that are considered common-place here, and they had to work so hard and such long hours just to scrape a living, life seemed simpler and they were happy. When you don't have to worry about getting the latest gadget, or this season's must-have item of clothing because it's not even an option, you can get on with, well, life.

I guess in future if someone asks me what the point of going to Vietnam was, and if I benefitted from it at all, I should just point them to this blog, because it seems there's quite a lot.

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