Saturday, February 9, 2008

Traveling in Vietnam

Read first installment here
Read second installment here
Read third installment here

Three-Day River Cruise. Having taught for an intensive 6 hours a day for five straight days I was ready for some r & r. The cruise left from Can Duoc, an hour-plus drive from Saigon and ended in Can Tho, about three hours away. The cruise company arranged the transfer for me, this time an air-conditioned Toyota SUV. It was another interesting trip through the countryside, but I’d suggest trying to arrange a package when you book instead of paying separately for the transfer.

Arriving at the end of a road in Can Duoc, I saw what was clearly the tour boat across the river. The small boat that is towed behind for excursions was sent across to get me. With help my heavy suitcase and I made it down the worse dock I have ever seen—simply various sizes of boards affixed to the muddy river bank in a semblance of steps—and safely onto the little boat, and my adventure had begun. I took a lot of pictures, the best of which are in my Flickr slideshow.

I was greeted with a hot towel and glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice and shown to my stateroom. The boat is mahogany, or something that looks just like it, throughout and only about a year old. The stateroom with double beds and built-in furniture was small but efficient. The bathroom was one of those “the bathroom is the shower stall” affairs, but that’s ok. Water pressure was only a trickle and the difference between hot and cold water was negligible, but it was serviceable.

Having rid myself of some of the mud I accumulated on the trip across the river I went up on deck to meet John and Irene, my traveling companions. They hail from Cardiff in Wales and couldn’t have been better company. They are both well read and well traveled, and John is a retired ship’s captain who was a great source of information.

The boat had been waiting for me and pulled out into the river almost as soon as I got on. It was always a relief to get the breeze from being underway to take the edge off the heat and humidity of the delta. Although it is the dry winter season in January, it is still hot and the sun is fierce, so pack good sun block.

It was soon time for lunch in the open-air dining area. What ensued was a parade of courses that was the equal of the multi-star restaurant I had experienced earlier in the week in Saigon. It began with a plate of shrimp on greens that would have been a perfectly good lunch by itself. I may have lost track of the dishes, but there was also a roll-your-own spring rolls course, a whole deep-fried fish (just for me), a generous stir-fry, and of course fruit—and I may have missed one (or two). That began our three-day--and largely unsuccessful--campaign for fewer courses at each meal. The food was wonderful if you like the Vietnamese cuisine, which I do very much. If you didn’t like Vietnamese, you were out of luck.

Late afternoon we disembarked with Hai, our English-speaking guide, for a walk around a village and its marketplace. The excursions were planned for early morning or mid/late afternoon to avoid the heat of midday, a good choice.

The sunset viewed from one of the upper decks was indeed spectacular. We had drinks on deck, accompanied by some of the best fried dumplings I’ve ever tasted. That was followed in due time with another multi-course feast. The boat docked around 9 p.m. each evening, “so we could have a good sleep.” I was tired to begin with, and the activity and the massive amount of food made that easy.

The next morning (after a multi-course breakfast) we passed the first floating market, which is quite a sight. We disembarked and toured a village factory where rice paper and rice wine were made. The working conditions are primitive and the hours are long. The redeeming feature was that these rural workshops are open air, but I really can’t image what they must be like in summer. That afternoon we had a rather adventurous walk around a very rural area. The path was dry, caked clay—rough walking but manageable. Again, I can’t imagine what it must be like in the rainy season. The people were generally welcoming and unfailingly polite. Even watch dogs were polite—barking but not threatening the strangers walking down the village paths.

The people are dependent on the river to get their goods to market, although we saw bridges being built at several points. Barges were loaded with sand and gravel for construction. Family boats took produce of all kinds into the cities. Entire families live on their small boats and we were told that children were able to go to school on land when they were old enough. Our boat was engaged in the leisurely cruise we had been promised, but it was constantly being passed by heavily-loaded boats in one direction and empty ones flying back in the other direction for another load. It was a fascinating panorama that went on from early morning to late night. Children on the banks of the river got great delight from greeting and waving at us and having us wave back. I never got over how welcome the Vietnamese made me feel in their country.

On the last morning we got a close-up look at a large floating market, which was a real treat. Our final excursion was a pleasant walk around an area that is thickly planted with fruit of all kinds. Some like pineapple, papaya and mango are familiar to Westerners. Others like dragon fruit and water apple and many others whose names I can’t remember or never knew are unfamiliar, but wonderful. On my trip a year ago I decided that Vietnamese fruit is special. This trip confirmed that.

We were taken by boat to our destinations about 10:30 that last morning. John and Irene were staying in Can Tho for a few days while I was returning to Saigon for my flight the next morning. The crew of the boat was busy preparing for the next group of tourists who were due to start arriving at 11. There had been only three of us on this trip; there were 11 boarding on the next cruise. I was careful to specify a group on this multi-day cruise, but clearly numbers vary if the size of the group is a concern.

I’m really glad I made the effort to get out and experience some of the countryside. It was an unforgettable experience, although it definitely does qualify as adventure travel. It’s not for people who want all the modern comforts and conveniences and expect modern transportation at every turn. For me, it was well worth a bit of roughing it in return for sights and sounds that I’ll never forget.
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Unknown said...

I find your Blog to be very interesting, perhaps the first time that I "get" the whole Blog thing. I have to say that when I read about your trip to Vietnam it really opened my eyes to how that part of the world has changed, in a good way. I am old enough to remember reading the San Juan Star every day as a kid and looking at all of the bombing runs from the day before on the front page map. I remember some of my friend's brothers going there to fight. I can also remember the stories that I heard while working as a dishwasher along side of the many refugees that had come to this country in the late 70s. Seeing their scars and bullet holes, my idea of Vietnam was very different. But I guess reading your post today ties (at least is some way) into the HD special "1000 Places You Should See Before You Die", I watched over the weekend showing the killing fields in Cambodia. Today the country is alive and very beautiful full of fantastic people, a much different place. I can see that the world is ever changing and your trip is a very vivid example of that. I am sure that it was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed reading about it.

MaryLou Roberts said...

Thank you. I was surprised by so many of the same things on both my trips there! I'm glad I had this way to share them.