In the second half of a double feature about the Classic Mekong river cruise with Pandaw River Expeditions via their Canadian wholesaler GLP Worldwide, our journalist recounts her experience in the Indochina peninsula.
Dusk was settling in as the Tonle ship was slowly making its way further downstream the hectic Vietnamese Mekong. Not wanting to miss a minute from this impromptu show, I ascended to the sun deck to admire the desultory choreography taking place before me, mentally thanking our captain’s nerves of steel. We had only just left Cambodia but the contrast was already quite striking; the bucolic scenes of the tranquil countryside were far behind us, both figuratively and literally, as we entered the chaos that is the Mekong Delta. Cable ferries, fishing barges, dredging boats and private vessels crisscrossed dangerously just a few feet below, apparently unfazed by the ear-splitting horns of our ship – it seemed as though everyone was too busy disputing its little portion of Mekong to care.
Crossing the maritime border between Cambodia and Vietnam was a smooth process – there are very few things a few dollars can’t fix in these parts anyway – and we arrive in Chau Doc right on the dot, ready for tomorrow’s expedition.
Villages of the Mekong
With its Muslim community and its mosque, Chau Doc is a rather unusual place; in fact, it benefits from a surprising cultural diversity for a village this size. I leave the antique wooden barge and hop on a rickety bamboo bridge that will lead me across a canal carpeted by lush floating plants and finally emerge next to stilt houses. Perched high on the banks of River Bassac, they allow me to cheekily observe how locals live by peeking inside their rudimentary dwellings.
I head towards the high street at a leisurely pace where I stumble upon a minuscule, raucous and fragrant – to put it lightly – street market. At this point, a PSA is necessary: even if there were anything vaguely resembling a public health code in Vietnam, let me tell you that it is not heavily enforced. Fish worryingly wait for their inevitable faith wriggle in a makeshift basin (in Vietnam, fish is only decapitated at the request of the client in order to demonstrate freshness) while raw meat is stored in a wicker basket on the back of a motorcycle fully exposed to the blaring sun. Lorries and buses zoom past just a few metres from the scene and yet, this is just how markets are done in Vietnam, with no one to give it any second thought.
For lack of sustainment – I do not think either my stomach or my immune system would be keen to forgive an affront of the sort – I leave the market with what I think is a rather good series of images, surprised at and thankful for the spontaneity and friendliness with which Vietnamese people greet photographers.
Through the excursions on the Pandaw cruise, I will have the chance to visit a floating market, an artisanal fish farm and even a community whose livelihood is almost entirely based on rice by-products. A sudden deluge keeps me holed up inside the building where the centre of production is. It’s just as well; I now have plenty of time to greet labourers and admire their effort, from the lady in charge of making paper rice to the men overseeing puffed rice.
I was also able to visit Sa Dec. With a population nearing 150,000 inhabitants, this place has the allure and the atmosphere I expected from busy South-East Asia – I learn that it once was the informal capital of the Mekong Delta in the 19th century. European tourists beeline for the sino-French house portrayed in The Lover novel and film by Marguerite Duras, which is an autofiction based on her early life in Indochina.
It’s actually a delightful urban pagoda dating back to 1895 and this is where the protagonist Huynh Thuy Le lived. Those unfamiliar with the author discovered the immense public market, which unfolds over several blocks; meat, flowers, fruits, vegetables, fish, rice… the stalls pile up and yet none of them is vacant. Here, I feel as though I’m truly at the centre of the activity and this vigour makes me twice as excited for our final stop, the Vietnamese capital.
Ho Chi Minh City
Formerly known as Saigon, the capital takes me by absolute surprise despite the abundant advice I received before I got here. I thought I was mentally prepared for the nonsensical pandemonium. How naïve of me! In Ho Chi Minh City, crossing the street is nothing short of bravery: in the absence of traffic lights, eight million scooters continuously dash towards their destination without a care in the world for helpless pedestrians. The only possible way to reach the adjacent sidewalk is to spot a gap – however small – in traffic, step onto the street confidently and hope for the best.
At this point, I’m not sure whether I’m sweating because it’s 40 degrees outside or because I’m genuinely frightened for my life, but the rush of adrenaline throws me into an uncontrollable laughter once I do make it to the other side all limbs visibly unscathed… until I have to do it all again 100 metres further.
Experiencing Saigon is also done by visiting its historic attractions spanning French colonisation to the American war, from alleys where time seems to have stood still to incensed-out temples, and from the strikingly European Notre-Dame cathedral to the discordant Palace of Reunification, and, of course, the Cu Chi tunnels.
There are more than enough things to do in Ho Chi Minh to keep me busy for a few days – in fact, I would require a full week simply to taste the gastronomic offering. Pho! Grilled meat! Noodles! Spring rolls! Alas, I only have 48 hours to make the most of the capital and I choose to top it off with rooftop sunset drinks at the posh Rex Hotel.
The audacity and the complex history of Vietnam make it a country heavy with contrasts that I feel must be visited on several occasions in order to fully comprehend its identity. I’ve only scratched the surface but I choose to see it as an excuse to return rather than an all-too-short trip. I’ll see you soon, dearest Vietnam.