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On our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia we moved between the two countries by boat along the Mekong River. This river has always had rather romantic, exotic images, a bit like Constantinople, Casablanca , the Yangtze River and Other places that just sound so exciting that you must go and see.
We stayed the night in Chau Doc in Vietnam in a lovely hotel right on the river. We had had a great day exploring this part of Vietnam, watching a family make rice wrappers for spring rolls, we had eaten some rather strange food local to the area, satay frog legs and an ell dish; neither of which I asked the recipe for to emulate at home but it was interesting none the less.
We boarded the boat and took our rather hard seats for the journey. The boat was a river launch a bit like a hovercraft so all closed in and it went very fast along the river creating a huge wash behind it.
After about forty five minutes we reached the border. We all had to get out with our luggage and go through border formalities. We then got back in and stopped a few minutes further down the river to enter Cambodia and once again we all got out and so did our luggage. It was sent through a very primitive scanner in a hut with a grass roof that was open on all sides. We sat on wooden benches under a grass roofed hut and waited for our turn at the passport and visa window. Around us were several scraggy looking dogs with some little children and a few hens scratting around for food.
Once you had your turn at the window the passport was stamped and visa sorted then once everyone had been through the system we got back on the boat again. The luggage was also loaded back on and off we went.
We stupidly had no realised quite what a long journey this was and after a few hours the scenery alongside hadn't changed. Lots of trees and a few huts and cows grazing but nothing really much changed hour after hour.
The journey was five hours in total and that sitting on a hard wooden seat in a stuffy boat racing along a river with scenery much the same. I am really glad we did the journey but I wouldn't rush to do it again.
When we arrived at Phnom Penn we had to climb out of the boat along a very narrow ledge and also get our case off the boat too. This required so pretty athletic manoeuvring and quite considerable strengthen and having watched some young back packers really struggle with their ruck sacks we opted for the paying a nice tip to the young local boat men as neither of us fancied a dip in the river.
I had envisaged us chugging up river on a nice open boat and being able to watch local people getting on with their day to day activities but instead we were inside a stuffy boat with steamed up windows. There was no option of outside as all there was outside was the ledge around the edge that we had to balance on to disembark and a small front part in front of the driver.
It was an experience but not one that I am in a hurry to repeat. We had another boat trip to come three days later as we went from Phnom Penn to Siem Reap on a boat too. This was a similar experience and not one I would recommend for scenery and a nice boat ride.
This was another few hours and a lot of this was crossing a huge lake so that all you could see was muddy brown water for hours.
On arrival at Siem Reap the boat just pushed into the mud at the front and then they let down a ladder that you had to climb down. Even the young back packers were looking slightly concerned as the boat was moving and the mud bank was wet and slippery. To cap it all we had to get our luggage off too and walk across the mud carrying it to the transport, car, bike, truck, bus or whatever.
Once again I am afraid we took the cowards option and paid a nice young local chap a good tip to bring ours down. He made it look very easy but having watched the other Europeans attempting the task I am glad that we didn't bother as one poor girl ended up on her bottom.
You can choose to take a bus from Phnom Penn to Siem Reap which is cheaper and equally luxurious or you can fly. I think I would suggest flying if you have the money and this is coming from someone who would always prefer to travel on land as you see more of the country that way but in this case I would fly!
So what did I think of my mighty Mekong experience? Well, I am glad I have done it and it gave us some interesting memories but it isn't something I would rush to do again. I tried not to think about what might have happened if the boat had had a problem in the middle of the huge lake as I am sure health and safety was not paramount.
Whilst on holiday in Vietnam earlier this year, during our stay in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) we booked a full day trip to the Mekong Delta through our tour guide, it cost approx $28 and picked us up and returned us to our hotel. We had an informative guide for the day for our group of 13, who told us a LOT of information about the region, it all became a bit much to take in after a while. The journey down to the river was about two hours in an air conditioned coach and it is nice to see the city disappear and see some of rural Vietnam, where a lot of the country's rice is grown. The place where we picked up our boat at My Tho had toilets and a few tourist stalls, I didn't check the prices, but nothing is that expensive in Vietnam. We boarded a simple motor boat that would seat about 25-30 people when full, which took us across the wide, brown river where we visited a local style farm house, where the owner (who lived in a more modern house) had traditional farm tools on display. There was also a gift stall, but nothing special, that you wouldn't find elsewhere I don't think. It was also a bee farm so here we had the opportunity to try honey tea (also had oranges in it), I really liked this and recommend trying it if you get the chance. Plus, we were also given some honey and peanut type sweets to try. Of course you could purchase if you wish. We moved onto another place nearby and we got to try some local fruits. Some were familiar: watermelon, and pineapple. Some less so: Jackfruit, dragonfruit and a type of lychee that you had to peel with your teeth and then when you ate it, you found it that it had a massive stone in the middle anyway, so you had very little fruit for all your efforts. Here there is also a local band you play local instruments and some ladies who will sing traditional folk songs. It is a very touristy trip. Call me a philistine, but Vietnamese folk music leaves me cold, the ladies sing in such high voices that it can sound a bit screechy. However they use some unusual instruments which make an interesting and effective sound, so it is not all bad.
On return to our boat we moved onto another stop for lunch where the meat/fish eaters got to try a local fish (Elephant Ear fish). With its eyes and skin on it was very ugly and scaly, and looked like it had maggots on it! Fortunately the staff here cut the fish as it looked quite boney. As a vegetarian I was spared the fish and got several other dishes such as some gorgeous spring rolls, salad, rice and stir fried veggies. The fish eaters also got a few other dishes to try. Portions were very generous and no one went hungry, the food was tasty and well cooked. We could purchase soft drinks and beer for reasonable prices here. The grazing water buffalo nearby seemed the only authentic thing about the trip. After lunch we boarded a small punt - four people per boat - and a local woman punted us up a narrow tributary. I really liked this part of the trip; we saw the mangroves, some wildlife and local people going about their business on the river. At the end we were greeted with a donkey and cart and four of us again got pulled down the road of a small village until we were able to join our boat again, they even provided traditional conical hats to wear in case you didn't feel enough of a tourist.
After this we stopped only at little touristy spots such as a coconut candy factory where they made coconut sweets before returning on our boat to greet our coach. It has to be said that we felt no pressure to buy in these places and it is interesting in part to see the local industries. On the way back, in the boat, they cut off the top off some coconuts and stuck straws in so we could drink one each, which was a nice touch.
I did enjoy the day overall, I know I moaned a bit above. It was a full day and I thought it quite touristy in places, especially when they sang to us and gave us the hats in the donkey cart, but apart from that we had a lovely traditional lunch, and saw some 'real life' activity on the Mekong. I would advise a day trip out here if you have the opportunity but do check the itinerary to make sure that you get some flavour of genuine Vietnamese Mekong life amongst all the activities they put on.