Reporting from Can Tho, Vietnam, Jan. 23, 2014

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Hello all.  I last reported from Kampot, Cambodia.  I stayed in Kampot another day, and got to witness a wedding march past my hotel during breakfast.  I revisited the Popokvil Falls in Bokor National Park where I finally had some luck finding interesting birds.  My luck held.  I arranged for transportation via a driver and motorbike, the only options in this neck of the woods.  Almost all the motorbikes are 125cc, most Hondas with a few other brands mixed in.  LIttle power, but they often are carrying four persons, sometimes all adults, are used to pull trailers, and tie huge loads on the backs – all-purpose machines.  I rode on the back with my camera gear (I could have rented just a bike, but decided against it with my limited riding experience).  First problem was 25 minutes into the ride when we approached the first gate at the base of the Bokor Mountain Park; there the guards insisted that I must have a helmet (which was not originally made available to me).  The driver had to return to town to get one, while I waited with the guards.  The rule only applies to foreigners – all drivers must have helmets, but passengers need not – unless they are foreigners.  Almost as strange is the law that prohibits headlights during the daytime (headlights during the day are reserved for the King’s entourage and dignitaries).  Headlights are not required at night, however.

On the way up the mountain I was fortunate to see a great hornbill fly overhead.  Unfortunately I could not get a picture, and never saw one again.  At the waterfall I did get to see the birds I had recorded the previous time, plus several new ones, and got a few nice photos which are included.

On Monday I traveled by minivan from Kampot to the border of Vietnam, where we had to cross on foot, but had little trouble with paperwork.  Our minivan then transported us onward to Ha Tien.  I was promised by both my hotel, and the travel agency that sold the ticket, that it would take 4 hours from Kampot to Chau Doc, my original first destination.  Upon arrival after 2 ½ hours at the change-over point in Ha Tien, I was informed by the agency that the bus to Chau Doc took 3 hours, and didn’t leave for another 1 ½ hours.  I asked if I could instead travel the next morning, which was permitted, and so spent the afternoon in Ha Tien.  Nothing remarkable to report, although all the sights and smells of my first Vietnamese fish market were close to overwhelming.  The river walk was nice, and I stayed at the hotel which was the transport transfer station, the Hai Phuong, which surprised me with a large clean tiled room with AC, minifridge, TV, balcony etc. for $15 for the night.  The next morning I was transferred to the bus station where I and 6 other tourists boarded what turned out to be the “bus from hell” (see my previous report on the “hotel owner from hell” in Phnom Penh – perhaps he owned the bus).  Brief description: the small, old, smelly, hot bus took half an hour getting out of town as it waited, away from the bus station in the sun, trying to fill all seats.  It loaded my bag on top with a dozen leaking huge styrofoam containers filled with fish and ice, which pleasantly drained down around the buses open windows.  Inside we ultimately packed some 27 people into a bus built for 16, along with bags of smelling, leaking shellfish, which flooded the floor with wet fishy water – upon which my backpack was placed.  We had just one live chicken, but a number of dead ones (cleaned).  We wound up taking a road twice the distance as the direct route to Chau Doc, but through more populated areas for pick-ups and drop-offs.  The crowning glory was when the bus stopped, 4 ½ hours into the 3 hour trip, in a sunny field on a dirt patch, with a number of grim motorcycle drivers outside; the bus driver, female conductor, outside drivers and even some local passengers insisted we were now in Chau Doc, and all us foreigners must get off and get transport from the drivers.  I had seen the Chau Doc map, and knew there was a large bus station at the edge of town, and we definitely were not there.  We 7 tourists ultimately refused to get off the bus, as no local passengers were departing, and ultimately were transported onward to the actual bus station, some 10 minutes further on.  It all was one more ploy to try to get us to pay exorbitant payments in the middle of no-where to get on into town, and presumably then to get taken to some of the dreadful hotels I noted on Trip-Advisor which exist to make life miserable for tourists who buy the cheap Mekong Delta tours (these are sold by a number of agencies in Cambodia and Vietnam, and as near as I have been able to determine, ALL should be avoided – buy a real tour from Saigon, an all-inclusive Vietnam tour, or travel on your own with caution).

Chau Doc was lovely, on a relative basis, after the bus trip.  It has a nice river walk, and I again found a wonderful hotel, with even more amenities than the one in Ha Tien, for $15 per night.  It also had the best receptionist, who spoke wonderful English, and arranged my morning private boat and English speaking guide to visit my first floating market.  What most people come to the Mekong Delta area to visit are the colorful floating markets.  Many people actually live on floating houses, on boats, and on stilt houses over the rivers and canals.  I was told the markets on land required payment to the police for space (I could not understand if this was considered rent or bribes), whereas the floating river markets are free commerce, unregulated.  Large numbers of boats gather in the middle of the slow-moving channels of the Mekong River, each boat usually specializing in one type of produce, and the people come in boats of all sizes to bargain and buy.  The Chau Doc floating market is small, but the boats are fascinating.  Each boat had a long pole at the front upon which it tied the particular produce it was selling.  I also visited a “fish farm”, which was a floating house on the river with a large cage running the length of the house built beneath it in the river.  In the cage two species of fish were raised, thousands of them, and the tourists could feed them food pellets, which when sprinkled on the water would attract the fish into an incredible splashing feeding frenzy.  Finally, I visited a Cham village, built on stilt houses, which my English speaking receptionist described as a “minority” village; the Cham are an indigenous people, today practicing Islam.

The on-shore market sells the fish, as well as all manner of exotic fruits.  Along with fresh fish, dried fish and salted fish, are long rows of stalls selling all manner of pickled fish piled into steep mounds in yellow plastic basins.  The all female vendors enjoyed “baiting” me, trying to get me to taste the rather disgusting looking and smelly, slimy, gelatinous masses, while I was taking photos,  and apparently were making jokes at my expense; all in good fun and amusing.

From Chau Doc I finally got a real first class bus, which never completely filled, stopped only at a handful of real bus stations, had cold AC, and traveled from Chau Doc to Can Tho in only half an hour over the promised 3 hours.  Can Tho is the largest city in, and the cultural center of, the Mekong Delta.  Here I am staying in a more upscale hotel, the Saigon Can Tho.  “Upscale” means that it has exactly the same amenities as my other hotels, but with larger bathroom with a tub with shower curtain so you don’t wet the entire bathroom floor with your shower, better furniture, an elevator, and costs more than twice as much.  Still, a nice deal for $35; I had to bargain that price down from the initial quote at just under twice that.  It does have an ok buffet breakfast included.  I should mention that one amenity I have had in almost all my hotels, because I always look for it, is outside balconies overlooking interesting streets or markets.  There is nothing quite so relaxing after a day of travel or touring than to sit outside on a balcony as the sun sets, read a sci fi book, drink cold local beer and smoke my pipe, amid the noise and colors of the local location, whatever it is. 

The Saigon Hotel also has an internal travel agency that quoted me 3 times the price I paid in Chau Doc to rent a private boat to visit sites on the Mekong and the famous Cai Rang floating market.  Today I went directly to the river docks to start inquiring re trips to the floating market.  I soon was accosted by a boatman who spoke a little broken English, assuring me he could provide me transport for a much better price than any agency (and of course this almost always is true if you can avoid the middlemen).  I tried to tie down an understanding with the boatman, but our language barrier was producing real problems.  Then a guide from Ho Chi Min City happened on the pier, and helped translate for us.  I confirmed a deal for tomorrow to take me to the Cai Rang floating market (the largest and most famous on the Mekong Delta), which included me giving him a down payment of 100,000 dong (to assure him I would show up tomorrow at 6am and not leave him without a customer), and I had a picture of me taken with the boatman showing me giving him the 100,000 note (to act as a receipt);  I also took a picture of his boat’s id. 

All seemed rather silly  (though recommended by the guide), as the 100,000, although a lot to him, is just under $5 US, and I then promptly hired the boatman for an immediate 1 ½ hour tour around the main island dividing channels of the Mekong River near Can Tho, and so already developed some rapport with him.  On this tour we went under the almost 2 kilometer suspension bridge which spans the Mekong, and so connects southern Vietnam with the rest of the country to the north.  I was much impressed with the size of the Mekong here, some 90 kilometers from the sea.  It seems well over a mile wide, and relatively deep; and this is the dry season.  In the Cham village in Chau Doc they had a stone stilt holding up a corner of a house which was marked in paint with the high water mark for each of the past 20 years – the highest flooding was in 2000 when the water went a foot above the stilt houses’ floors, and at least 15 feet higher than the current river height.

We stopped on the island between the two channels of the Mekong and I visited an orchard where they grow trees with the fruit they call the man (sounds like mong), which looks something like small red bell peppers growing in clusters on trees, but tastes between an apple and a pear. So many of the market fruits here are exotic.   The orchard kept some sad looking monkeys in cages, but seemed to feed them well.  Monkeys have such picturesque expressions, almost human, up close. 

After visiting the Cai Rang floating market and some other river sights tomorrow, I intend to return to Chau Doc, and from there to take a boat up the Mekong back into Cambodia, where I will start heading toward Angkor in the north-west part of the country, which really is the ultimate reason for this trip.  Later, Dave

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