July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

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My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

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At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

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At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

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We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

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The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

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Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

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Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

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This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

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… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

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There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

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As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

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Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

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And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

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It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

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And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

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There were also some quiet backwaters…

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… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

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It was lovely to wave back at them…

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… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

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July in Vietnam: Arguments and the Overnight Bus

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The motorbike ride didn’t end quite as I would’ve liked it to. Just as we were about to enter Cuc Phuong National Park, Hu told me that we had only a few hours left. I was taken aback because my understanding with the travel agent in Sapa was that the whole point of the trip was that Hu would take me to¬† Tam Coc andCuc Phuong National Park, then drop me off at Ninh Binh, a transit town a few hours south of Hanoi. However, on the second night Hu told me that there wouldn’t be time for me to do Tam Coc as well as Cuc Phuong and I opted to drop Tam Coc in favour of the monkeys.

On the day we were in Cuc Phuong, we got lost finding the right entrance and wasted about an hour going the wrong way. When we finally got to Cuc Phuong, Hu told me that we only had an hour there because he needed to get back to Hanoi to catch his train back to Sapa. I was furious because the whole point of the trip was to give me flexibility to explore the national park at leisure. If time really was tight, half day would have been fine, but an hour was pushing it. Besides, I’d made it clear while making plans with my tour agent that I’d wanted to spend time in both Tam Coc and Cuc Phuong, so the agent should have budgeted enough time even though we were delayed by an hour. I’d paid for this, and expected them to carry out their side of the agreement. After an increasingly heated phone call to Sapa, the tour agent agreed that Hu would take me round Cuc Phuong, drop me off at Ninh Binh and then his job would be done.

However, Hu waited till we finished lunch and the Big Tree visit before insisting that there wasn’t enough time and that he would have to leave me in the middle of the national park if I didn’t leave with him that instant. I adamantly held my ground, firmly told him to stop as we rolled past the Primate Centre, and got off the motorbike. Leaving my pack strapped to the bike, I stalked into the Primate Centre, and got two tickets. I figured that he might as well go in since it was also his first time in Cuc Phuong. Hu refused the ticket and sulked while I returned to the Centre, determined that my trip wouldn’t be affected by his behaviour.

I made good progress and was very soon back on the back, with Hu griping away about missing the train. I talked through his schedule with him and reasoned that he would make it with sufficient time. Even if he did miss the train, the travel agent would make sure that he would get on the next one and that there would be contacts in Hanoi that would take him in for the night. Each time, I countered his resentful complaints and persuaded him to continue the trip. The last heartstopping, frustrating moment came when he stopped again by the side of the road, this time only 3km away from Ninh Binh to say that he had to stop now and drop me off by the road so he could go home. I almost screamed but doggedly pressed him onwards.

Thankfully, mercifully, he managed to get me to Ninh Binh in one piece and scooted off after I reluctantly (my turn now) tipped him. I hope he made his train in time.

Next, I cleaned up at a guesthouse that arranged for overnight buses to Hue and got myself a very nice dinner of goat meat wraps with tree leaves! No pictures, but it was very tasty and filling. Quite special and a very unique experience eating stringy tree leaves and tasty but tough goat. Quite soon, it was time to hop on the night bus. Look how cool their utilisation of space was! It’s structured in such a way that there’s just barely enough room for a midget to lie almost prone. There’s a little cubby hole to stick your legs into that fits under the head of the person in front. Stacked up in a double decker, three columns of these beds filled up the bus. Quite a few people fit in and I found it far more comfortable than crouching at the back of a motorbike. After such a long journey, I slept quite soundly, waiting to arrive in Hue in the morning.

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July in Vietnam: More Motorbike Adventuring

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The motorbike trip took me off the well-beaten Lonely Planet path. Not only did I not find any descriptions of the towns I passed through in the book, I also fell off its map. I still can’t quite place the route we took through the northwest of the country. The first night, I stayed in a nondescript town with only a main street. It could’ve passed for any provincial outpost anywhere in China or the rest of the Southeast Asia. No pictures of that because it just didn’t seem worth it.

But the second night was spent in a charming little village that was back in the Lonely Planet book. Mai Chau lies in a beautiful valley filled with padi fields and its thatched bamboo stilt houses with electric lights and flush toilets were very welcome. Here’s a very relieved me coming into Mai Chau after being absolutely chilled in the drizzle and fog.

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As we set out the next morning, the morning mist had yet to lift. The motorbike laboured a bit as it made its way up the hillside.

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And the spectacular view of Mai Chau valley was revealed. The patchwork of different shades of light green and brown against the deeper green of the surrounding hills was such a sight to remember. It perked me up when I wondered what on earth I was doing suffering muscle and joint pain in the middle of nowhere going God-knew-where.

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It was rare to pass by anyone at all on the road and here, both rider and bullock herder gawked in equal measures.

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Some bits of the road were rather hazardous, especially with the summer rains. There were numerous landslides, one so bad that there was mud everywhere and the original road was impassable. Some enterprising locals cleared paths to get round the worst of the mudslide and extracted a toll for each vehicle that went past.

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On the last day, the road started to get better. We were nearing civilisation!

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But of course not without first passing by some beautiful scenery of the distant hills.

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The early morning light made everything look so clean and fresh.

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It certainly did make everything very much worth it, especially the short stop to stamp off the cramp in my legs and the crick in my knees.

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It was the last I saw of the highlands of Vietnam and I was sad that there wasn’t time to see any more.

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The next thing I knew, the sun had come out in full force and we were in the lowland areas in the southern Hanoi region. This area is characterised by the limestone formations, something like an inland Ha Long Bay.

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It was lovely to be part of the traffic, savouring the country life. We pulled up at a local place for lunch, a simple affair of boiled chicken, rice and herbs served with fish sauce. The chicken was the toughest yet the tastiest I’ve had. Nothing yet has surpassed that amazing concentrated chicken taste from a chicken that probably spent plenty of time running about pecking in the dirt for real grubs and real food.

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I drew nearer to my final destination, greatly anticipating my next stop with the monkeys.

July in Vietnam: The Madcap Motorbiking Adventure

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Maybe my hide had been toughened by the experiences of the last week, maybe my sense of reckless adventure got the better of me, but still I don’t know what got into me. After being harangued for my previous experience, the travel agent suggested I take a motorbike ride down to my next stop, the Cuc Phuong National Park, where I was up to more monkey business. He assured me that the motorbike driver, Hu, was absolutely proper and wouldn’t even try to touch me. Excellent that we got that sorted out and we were off.

Our route took us past the spectacular Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall) where I spent ages gawking and trying to figure out whether the water droplets falling on me were from the drizzle or the splash of the waterfall.

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It was a steep but very scenic walk up to the top…

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… and the views were nothing short of spectacular.

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We went past Tram Ton Pass which, according to Lonely Planet, divided the warmest and coldest places in Vietnam, Lai Chau and Sapa. As expected, when hot and cold met, you really could see air. It was mistily beautiful and mysterious, one of those places that has to be seen while you’re there. I couldn’t get any pictures because my camera was hopelessly fogged up. As we headed downslope, the mist cleared up slightly and I managed to catch some of the amazing scenery in pixels.

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Some parts of the hills gave way to little pockets of land flat enough for padi. It was the first harvest season and villagers were working hard to dry their harvest along the road, …

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… and subsequently thresh it by hand.

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It was tough work in the fields and it was also tough work staying on the bike. It was my first time for long at the back of the bike. Astride behind Hu, I had to hold myself straight and not grab onto him for propriety’s sake. It meant a mean day-long workout for my abs and thighs. When my abs were tired, I stood up slightly on my knees and when my knees were going to give way, I held my abs in to straighten up. The only alternative to this tough workout was to slump with my face against Hu’s back and I wasn’t about to let that happen. Boy was it tough going. I was so glad to get off the motorbike when we came up to a river crossing.

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Here, there were geese on the banks waiting for us. They must have thrived on the grass growing along the muddy banks.

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After waiting for enough customers at a little shop/tea-shack and chatting with the proprietor to pass the time, we got on board the little boat to get across.

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And after a short two-hour ride more, we were at a village homestay where the pigs very enthusiastically greeted us in the dusk.

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It was also where I very enthusiastically tackled my food (yes, the portion in the picture is only for two!) after a long day’s workout and passed out in the roomy common room of the stilt house.

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More next post.