Thursday, January 12, 2006

THE MEKONG DELTA: PetStarr does the Delta.

After conquering the Cu Chi tunnels on my one-day tour from HCM, I figured there was time to fit in a two-day sojourn to the delta, so back to TNK (venerable home of the delightful Mr Thong) I tramped.

For US$18 they'd drive me there, feed me lunch and give me a night's accommodation, as well as a tour of the area, which I felt was more than reasonable. As it turned out, it was a bloody good deal.

Our first stop was to get off the bus and hop on a boat to visit a marketplace in god knows where (I have a feeling it might have been the town of My Tho, but no one really had a clue) where we had a generous 15 minutes to look around. You could buy fresh pineapple, cut so that the woody part of the stalk forms a stick to hold it with, or all kinds of crazy fruits you can't get back home. One woman was selling fried bananas with some kind of coconut yoghurt on them - absolutely amazing, and only 30 cents.

Yes, we have LOTS of bananas...

Then we cruised around the river a bit more, looking at the scenery - no tropical forests or picturesque riverbanks here. Thousands of people live in these shanty huts that are so badly (yet ingeniously) constructed you can't imagine how they don't all just collapse into the river. I was hoping our accommodation wouldn't look quite like this.

Travelling on the cheap? Try our delightful riverside cottages...

We cruised down the river a bit more and ended up at 'Turtle Island', a sort of mangrove mound in the middle of the Mekong, where we had lunch - pretty boring meal of instant noodles with tofu or beef, and some fruit (hey, what do you expect when lunch is included?)

A fishing boat on the Mekong.

After that we took a trip to a place where they make coconut candy by crushing the coconut flesh to get the milk and cream, and then mixing it with caramelised sugar before rolling it into lengths and chopping it up. I am crazy for coconut, so I bought way too much of it and consequently have to carry about 2 kilos of the stuff on my way to Hanoi. C'est la vie. We had cups of lemon and honey tea in the coconut thatched hut, and "enjoyed" some traditional Vietnamese music. I'm sorry, I know it's thousands of years old and steeped in CULTURE and you guys love it, but really... to me it just sounds like "Haaaeeyyyyyyy honnny honnnny hunnnnnggggg... AAAEEEIIIIEEEEEEEEEE feeeerrnnnny honny merrrnnnng...." It's just terrible, and explains why no decent pop song has ever come from Asia. Sorry, the truth hurts.

After the coconut craziness the tour guide (Phuc - a very groovy looking guy who never took his sunglasses off) announced we were now "Get in rowboat". Oh dear. Fortunately, it wasn't US who had to do the rowing, but some poor overworked Vietnamese girl who yabbered the whole way to her mates on the other boats (probably about how fat we all were and how she longed for a lighter load).

She's only smiling because we haven't gotten in the boat yet.

PetStarr does the Delta.

The view from the front of the boat as we journeyed down a tributary of the Mekong.

After many hours of "messing about in boats" we finally made our way back to the bus for a wonderful three hour ride to Can Tho (pronounced Can Tur), the biggest city in the Delta and our stop for the night.

On the boat I had gotten chatty with another Aussie from Perth called Bronwen, so when the hotel announced "TWO PERSON ONE ROOM" we buddied up and checked in together. Another aussie from Sydney, a guy called Peter who I had met on the Cu Chi tunnels tour did the natural Aussie thing and became pseudo-guide, yelling out "IF ANYONE'S KEEN FOR DINNER MEET DOWN HERE IN HALF AN HOUR" which seemed like a good idea to us.

And so I met Peter, the engineer from Cronulla ("Don't even ask me about the riots, mate, it was a nightmare,"), Sam, the engineer from New York ("I'm not a REAL New Yorker, I've only lived there a year..."), Casper and Mary, engineering students from Copenhagen ("Why are there so many engineers here?"), Mary, the American economics student from Korea, and Guy, the retired guy from Italy. Or was it Canada? Or France? No one could tell. He turned out to be the group's resident weirdo - there has to be one in the pack. (After we all laughed heartily at the "Chateaubriand with spaghetty" on the menu, he actually ordered it. Enough said.)

On the way to dinner we saw a man being "cupped" on the street - that is, he was lying down on a towel while a woman flashed a lit torch around and stuck glass jars onto his back. Apparently this ancient technique is supposed to suck toxins out of your skin, or relax you, or something. Gwyneth Paltrow made it famous when she rocked up at a movie premiere with the distinctive scars on her back, but I bet Gwynnie never did it like this.

Looks REALLY relaxing, doesn't it?

As we all stood around and took photos of this poor man trying to enjoy his relaxing treatment (well he WAS on the street) the other cupping man says "You want try? You want try?" Our intrepid leader Peter was the first to volunteer. He thought he was going to get a sample - maybe a cup on the arm. We ALL thought he was going to get a sample. Apparently not. 20 minutes later Pete's still lying on the ground, with this guy going crazy putting cups all over his back, bending his legs, standing on his butt and massaging him. It was all rather amusing - especially when the next day the welts still hadn't gone down. Hopefully customs will let him back into Australia and not think he has some strange bird flu variant.

We found a restaurant called 'Mekong', which we thought was highly appropriate, and had a great dinner, getting completely drunk on Tiger beer with Peter leading the charge ("Come on guys, one more, where's your Aussie spirit?") and then I had to mention snake wine and well... I think you can see where this is going.

Good for what ails ya.

After four big bottles of Tiger each, and a shot of snake wine, it was 1am. Given that we had to get up at 6am to resume our tour, we felt it was a good idea to go back to the hotel. Well, a sensible idea anyway.

The next day was much more relaxed than the first (although all the Aussies were nursing extreme snake-wine induced hangovers) - they took us by river to the Can Tho floating markets, where all the local farmers get out on their boats and sell everything from pineapples to lettuce, tomatoes, bottles of beer and everything else, all from boat to boat.

"You want buy pineapple?"
"No, I just want to take your photo."

After that, thankfully, they plopped us on a lot of smaller boats and just cruised us around - no tour guide spiel, no talking, no hassles, just cruising. Very, very nice. I had a nice little snooze as we breezed down the Mekong, before ending up at a place where they make rice noodles. Not all that interesting really, but we did learn that these people only make US$14 a month. Made us all feel pretty bad for haggling over the price of food back in the city.

I bet SHE doesn't complain about the price of her noodles.

Another contender for CUTEST PHOTO OF THE YEAR. I'm really outdoing myself with these.

Speaking of haggling - I know I've been banging on a bit about the price of things and "being ripped off" etc. but ultimately I know that someone's ended up with money they need more than I do. What really pisses me off are these travellers who come here to "experience the real Vietnam" and then lord it over all the locals. I'm looking at the French here. Guys, you haven't owned this place since 1945, it's time to let go now.

Waiting for our tour bus to go home in Can Tho, I bought an ice cream from a street vendor (mango and vanilla cone, superb). Then some French woman comes over, completely to type - linen pants, long salt and pepper hair gathered back with a tortoiseshell pin and Birkenstocks. She says "How much did you pay for that?"

"14,000," I say.
"Huh. Double," she says, with her nose in the air.

I knew exactly what she meant, but I figured I'd let her have her moment to prove her thorough and enviable understanding of the Vietnamese pricing system.

"Double what?"
"Double everywhere else. It's a rip off."
"Yeah, well to me that's $1.40, so WHO GIVES A SHIT?" I say, and walk away postively loving my ice cream. She really pissed me off.

Finally, thought I'd post this photo of an interesting soft drink they have here that New York Sam ordered on our way home.

Bad marketing ideas #122: calling your yellow coloured soft drink 'Number 1'.

And before I forget - another photo from Hong Kong of a guy I found amusing.

The beasts do what now?


  1. Amazing photos, amazing subjects; you're really capturing the culture. I won't need to travel there thanks to these shots :)

  2. Jennifer, wrong attitude! Doesn't this lively blog make you WANT to travel there???? Goodonya, Pet, for keeping things like money in perspective. When the holiday's long over, you'll have forgotten the price of anything you bought, and care even less that you paid 70 cents too much for an ice-cream, but the memories will still be real and vivid. Thanks for taking the time to post this.

  3. Pet - you are hilarious!!!!!

    I am very jealous. Sounds like you are having a lot of fun. Bloody Frenchies.....Quel Blague!

  4. Fantastic shots!

    loved this post.

  5. What's really scary is that I was there at about the same time.

    I did the rickety boat, I did the coconut candy (I still have plenty, it is way too sweet for me), I enjoyed the 'traditional' Vietnamese music - which was actually modern Western pop music so badly transposed as to be unrecognisable.

    I have a funny feeling we had the same tour guide, but I don't remember his name. He told us that there are no poor people in Vietnam, all the poor people sneak through the Delta from Cambodia and kept getting sent back. He also said that in the tourism industry, they don't care what country you're from if you're white, you're just a 'big ass tourist'. All Vietnamese people have small asses, he explained, because they have squat toilets. If you relax on the toilet, you're not getting any exercise and your butt gets bigger.

    We had the tea with the honey, and there was a honey liqueur to put in the tea that tasted like fire. But it tasted better than the tea.

  6. Was this your tourguide?

    I don't remember his name but he sounds like how you described.