I’ve fallen in love with Vietnam. The Mekong Delta was incredible. I finally found the innocence that I knew was there and I can put into to words what I felt in Saigon and Hanoi. I can remember trying to explain to my mom, stepdad and aunt how odd Saigon and Hanoi felt which I attributed to the tourism industry (and still do). How people overcharge and put on a face to get your dollar. They said they didn’t mind and thought it was normal. After all, it is helping the Vietnamese economy and they are just making do with what they have. And I wholeheartedly agree. But I think this comes at the cost of one’s soul as a country, to a certain extent. I can’t explain the feeling you get when you experience a country from the perspective of an observer – where people let (and welcome you) to simply observe. They give a smile and a wave and continue upon their lives. But it just all feels so fake when you know they are only smiling and waving because they want you to buy something. That’s capitalism, I understand. And as was argued, they are just trying to survive. But my point is merely that it feels really different. And it really shocked me. Vietnam was the first place I ever experienced that and if you are only on vacation, that’s all well and good. It certainly makes travel a lot easier. But I look at tourism (knowing full well that I am partaking in it) as a kind of prostitution of the country. Although it provides capital, it also detracts from the quality of the experience – which is why less touristy places are so much more appealing.
So anyways, I found this in the Mekong Delta. It was incredible. People say that the southern Vietnamese are friendlier than the northern due to the fact that food was never very scarce in the wetlands of the Mekong and people were able to share much more with strangers. They say that in the north, due to the scarcity of the food in the past, that the people are only friendly to those in their family unit. I don’t know if this still applies, but the people in the Mekong were incredible.
So I booked a three day tour of the Mekong from Saigon. It cost $22 bucks (hotel, transport, guide, boat trips included) and took off the following morning. Your only option here is to book a tour, unless you have lots of cash. A boat rental is nearly $45 bucks by itself and if you wanted to do all this solo, not only would you have to talk to a lot of people (who spoke English) to find out what to visit and where to go. You would have to pay a lot for boats and buses and guides and stuff like that. And it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Although there were lots of tourists (well, not lots, but plenty), tourism is very immature here – and you can tell. For one, all the places you visit get paid by the tour operator for each tourist so you don’t worry about them pushing trinkets onto you with each visit. The people just go about their business and you go about yours. It was great.
So day one was spent on the Mekong River. We saw little villages on the river banks, visited a coconut candy factory, and then took a row boat through the little inlets barely narrow enough for our boat past houses made of sticks and straw and people washing their clothes or fishing in the river. We then visited a garden in MyTho where they had all these monkeys and a little pond. One of the baby monkeys was able to escape from his cage and entertain us by standing on some peoples heads while he ate a banana.
The next day was spent visiting a floating market which basically consists of a bunch of boats selling everything you can imagine in the river. They stick whatever food they sell on a big stick and put it high up in the air so everyone can see what they see and people take their row boats over to buy food. We then visited a rice noodle factory (which is really quite interesting) and a crocodile farm and we eventually ended up at the base of a mountain which had many Buddist temples built into it on the Cambodian border. We hiked to the top of the mountain and watched an incredible sunset (which I was able to enjoy alone at a secret spot halfway up the mountain that I found). It was interesting because the whole town had loudspeakers broadcasting Vietnamese everywhere. You could hear it echoing everywhere as you climbed the mountain. Then at sunset some music played everywhere. It was really strange. Propaganda?
So anyways, we climbed back down the mountain (which had steps so it’s more like we stepped down the mountain) and went to the hotel to take showers before dinner. The guide conned us into taking a bunch of cyclos to the restaurant saying that the driver had to fix the AC (but everyone knew he was full of it) which we of course had to pay for and I got a kick out of toying with the tour guide.
“So he’s fixing the AC, huh?”
“So it should be nice and strong tomorrow, eh?”
“Well…he says he’ll try to fix it. I can’t make any promises. This is a good price for a cyclo, though!”
Sometimes you know you are getting conned but you just sit back and take it. After all, these guys needed the 60 cents a lot more than I did and if all it took was a bit of a lie to get us all to fork out the money, that’s all right. This was a bit altruistic of the company, I think. It was just to spread a bit of money around the town and I honestly don’t think they were getting a cut. That’s not too bad. Had we not been lied to, we would have insisted on taking the bus because it should be free and no one would get the money.
After dinner, the guide took me to the office to pay for my boat ticket to Cambodia (where I am now) and then we took the cyclo back together. I chatted with him about his life. His wife died of cancer a few years back. He told me that he learned about a new cure for cancer that he wished he would have known before he agreed to let them treat his wife. You just need to cut off the tail of a cobra, put it in a yellow coconut (not a white one, mind you) and drink it. It kills the cancer, simple as that, unlike western medicine which makes all your hair fall out and makes you sick. If only he would have known. So anyways, his son got in a motorcycle accident a few months before and he had to take care of him. His head got cracked open and apparently he has some brain damage. He was also a fighter for the VC in the war. He fought in Cu Chi (which is where those tunnels are) and had a huge section of his shoulder and a few toes missing from machine gun fire.
He told me all this matter of factly after I asked about each thing. He didn’t ask for money and he didn’t seem sad. He didn’t make it a sob story like lots of people do. When we got back to the hotel, he said goodnight and headed in to take a shower.
I spent the rest of the evening chatting with the owner of the hotel (who was my age and whose dad actually owned the hotel). We chatted about music, English, and Vietnam. We talked about how much it costs to run the hotel and how much he pays for beer and the like. It was really informative.
The next day was spent visiting a fish farm village which is a house with a huge tank below it where they breed fish and then a Muslim minority village with some really cute kids and then headed towards the Cambodian border. We putzed along in our little boat and kids on the shore waved at us from their houses or their parents’ boats. We saw people fishing and washing clothes. People fixing and cleaning boats. People laying in hammocks relaxing. It was great. About an hour into the trip, a motorboat sped by and picked me up and then we rocketed to the border.
And from that point on is a post in itself so I’ll continue it later.
I’ve recovered from my exhaustion. I’m ready to keep traveling and seeing new stuff. I am of course still sick of the cheesy traveler chat everywhere but that comes with the game. There’s not much else for complete strangers to talk about.
Cambodia (where I am now) is cool. Interesting fact: They eat spiders!