January 31st, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – When traveling independently, inevitably you have difficult and tiring days; the kind of day where some unexpected barrier pops up every step of the way, frustrating your plans and your psyche. Our adventure crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam via the Mekong river was one of those days. Most travelers on this route take one of the two tourist boat options organized by guesthouses in Phnom Penh and HCMC (for most trips, most travelers seem to use the guesthouse buses rather than trying to travel independently, it baffles me why these people who pretend to personify the adventure traveler avoid creating their own adventures). We of course are not most travelers and, as we have done whenever possible, chose to do it ourselves. The first step was easy and smooth; we got the next bus out of Phnom Penh for the town of Neak Lueng on the Mekong river.
Now for a little side story: There is no building in town more than 32 years old because in 1973 American bombers mistakenly blew it to oblivion killing hundreds of civilians. The army tried to hide the event from the press and the world but an intrepid journalist, Sydney Schamberg, managed to get into the area via river and exposed the story. In response the army offered $100 per head for the killed; an amount which pretty much sums up America’s official value of human life back then. Today of course our official Pentagon policy is to not bother counting foreign civilians killed; they have no value at all. Kind of makes Mr. Bush sound a bit disingenuous when, on the recent anniversary of Roe, he preaches about creating a Culture of Life by scaling back abortion and stem cell research; protecting unborn Americans may represent a culture of life but being indifferent to the deaths of born and unborn Iraqis is inconsequential. Not that there may not an argument to be made for policies around abortion, but the hypocrisy in the rhetoric is absurd.
The bus dropped us off on the west bank of the river near the ferry terminal for boats crossing the river, which all vehicles heading directly to HCMC must do. We wanted to hire a boat down river to the border supposedly from a terminal south of this building; unfortunately this proved problematic. As we asked around, communicating as best as we could with locals, we were directed to a cafe across the street where the owner made a phone call and told us to wait. After a few minutes two motorcycles arrived which we were told would take us to the border; we had heard reports of people taking motorcycles on the dirt road but did not relish the idea ourselves. Unfortunately, she said there were no boats and, since the price for the motorcycles was less than I had expected to pay to hire a boat, I did not bother looking for the pier; my first mistake of the day. Riding on the back of a moto, carrying a 30 pound pack, is no picnic to begin with, but at high speeds on terrible dirt roads with rickety bridge crossings for over an hour, it is just painful. I tried my best to divert attention from the aching joints and muscles by concentrating on the remarkable scenery we passed as we drove through rural Cambodian towns, with kids coming out of school in their little uniforms and people carrying on their daily lives all around us. But when we finally got off the bikes at the cafe owner’s son’s house near the border, the only feeling left was pain. At this point the son, an alarm should have gone off in my head, gave us two options: we could either get on the tourist boat when it arrived for an additional $2 or we could take the motos through the Cambodian exit procedures and take other motos on the Vietnam side to Chau Doc. Having come this far it made no sense to wait the hour or two for the tourist boat, and he assured us the road was better on the other side of the border, so we carried on. Since he had said the boat was an additional $2 and did not say the motos would be more money than we had agreed on back in town, I did not ask what the price would be; mistake number two. Once we worked our way through the multiple stops that made up the exit and entry procedures we were ready to continue on to Chau Doc. There were a decent number of tourists crossing both ways at the border; but we did not meet a single one not with the tourist boats. As we pulled away from the border two young girls came to shake our hands and say goodbye; they were also nice enough to translate what the cycle drivers were saying, “$5 each, for both $10,” so we now knew the price. The road on the Vietnam side was much better, it was actually paved, and if my body didn’t already ache so much the trip would have been fairly easy. Unfortunately, even the minor pain of this ride just increased the pain from before and I was aching. When you are in physical pain you are more susceptible to rash decisions, and this would be the cause of my next two mistakes. Traveling through the Mekong Delta inevitably means ferry crossings; and this trip was no exception. On our first ferry a man came up to me with tickets in his hand asking for money, it appeared that he was asking me to pay for our motorcycle’s transit. This bothered me because we had agreed on a price, but as the man just stared at me and my driver said nothing I took out a dollar (I had no Dong yet) and tried to arrange for a fair exchange. A man on the boat exchanged my dollar for dong at a reasonable rate and the ticket man handed me seven tickets and took the money. Why was I paying for seven tickets? I was not happy and started asking why I was paying so much. It would not be until later in the day that I would figure out what happened; I had not bought tickets for the ferry, I had bought seven lottery tickets, and thus mistake number three. When we could finally see the city of Chau Doc and had just one ferry crossing to get there, it was such a relief. We were arriving 1-2 hours earlier than the boat that left an hour before we did, and even with the mistakes the trip cost only $9, right in between the fast and slow boat prices. At this point it was early enough to get a bus to a more interesting town in the Delta so I tried to ask the drivers to take us to the bus station. However, they apparently did not know where the station was, despite my pointing to it on the map, and they started asking around. One guy, who spoke some English, said he would show us to the station and the motorcycles followed him to a bus company office. We got off the cycles at the office, paid the drivers (who had the nerve to ask for more money than the $5 that had been agreed on at the border) and went to buy the tickets. I asked the agent how much and she replied $10, this sounded terribly off to me and I was shocked, but I saw no other option around. I should have walked away, we could have walked down the road and got transport to the actual bus station, or we could have stayed there for the night, but I should not have paid for the tickets; mistake number four. We were shoved into an SUV which took us to the actual station where we were shoved into a minibus; the actual price of the ticket should have been only $3. We were told they would stop at a bank for us to get money before heading out; but we never did. The minibus ride was okay, the landscape was quite impressive, but I was tired and ready to call it a day. As we got closer to our destination it occurred to me that they may not be taking us where we wanted to go. The minibus was supposed to go all the way to HCMC and we wanted to get off in Vinh Long, there was a bridge across the river 7 kilometers north of the town which was the way to HCMC. As feared, the bus dropped us off at some cafe just before the bridge and drove off; I was furious and at this point not enthralled with Vietnam or the Vietnamese (my previous experience with Vietnamese was the woman I bought my house from, and those of you who remember that process know I should not have been surprised). We had no choice but to take one of the motorcycles around into town and were able to get ourselves to a hotel for the night. We went out to make arrangements for a boat trip around the area in the morning, to get dinner and to find an ATM to get money. At the government tourist office we were able to book a trip for the morning and the woman told us where we could find an ATM. We followed her directions and found nothing, we asked several people who pointed us in various directions each leading to nothing. In the end, there were no ATMs in this town and we ended the day in pain from the journey, a little lighter in the wallet yet with no Vietnamese currency and without a particularly positive view of this country or its people; we could only hope things would pick up in the morning.
Our morning boat trip around the canals and rivers of the delta began to turn around our experience. We had a very nice Vietnamese woman guide us as we traveled to the Cai Be floating market. On the water we saw all the traffic of boats carrying goods, mostly produce, to and from the market where you could buy all sorts of fruits, vegetables and other things off of ships. The purveyors of these floating stalls live on the boats and we saw them going about their daily lives; washing and hanging their laundry, brushing their teeth and washing themselves all while selling their goods to whomever rowed up beside them. Following the market we stopped at an alligator farm where we saw the little reptiles being raised for purses, shoes and dinner (I hear it tastes like chicken) and then headed to a producer of various sweets where we saw rice snap, crackle and pop and got to taste a variety of local snacks. After stopping at a bonsai orchard the tide had dipped so much that we could no longer take the motorized boat and had to switch to a traditional boat rowed by a local woman. By the end of the trip, we had a much better view of the country than before and headed to the bus station to catch a ride to HCMC; they even charged me the right price.
Saigon is a fascinating city; it seems to be the most crowded we have been in yet, the traffic is tremendous as the roads are fully congested with row and row of motorbike. We happen to be here in the weeks leading up to Tet (as Chinese New Years is known in Vietnam) and this adds another dimension of excitement to the city and the whole country. In all the temples people are busy polishing and cleaning in preparation, at the markets people are buying decorations for the home, dragon heads for parades and fireworks for fun. The colorful flower markets are gearing up and sweets abound as everyone stocks up on traditional decorations and foods. But beyond the immense liveliness of the city is a history of uneasy war; visiting the reunification palace (once called independence palace it was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government) and the war remnants museum (once called the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes), despite the one sidedness of the presentation and the hysterical propaganda in videos, you cannot help but feel sorry for what this country has been through. Even lunch at the simple Binh Soup Shop revealed the commitment of the Vietnamese to their independence; it was here 35 years ago that, while U.S. soldiers ate at the tables, the Viet Cong planned and executed the Tet offensive. Taking a tour of the nearby Cu Chi tunnel system, a tremendously impressive series of tunnels used by the Viet Cong to control the area surrounding Saigon, we were guided by a Vietnamese veteran of the U.S. army. He spoke passionately about the Vietnam war, a war he says lasted for a hundred years from the time the French colonized Indochina until the Chinese ended their brief incursion in 1980, and the desire of the Vietnamese for independence. In this light, you can see how they view the involvement of the French, Japanese, U.S., Chinese and Russians as the true cause of their conflict; and you have to wonder if our focus on paper politics, instead of reality on the ground, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan will not inevitably lead to the same results.