Saturday, 25 July 2009


The Lonely Planet edition for Vietnam dedicates roughly ten pages to dangers, scams, annoyances and thefts. Spread throughout the book these methods range from petty acts of criminality to more, shall we say, in your face methods of appropriating your goods. On page 468 they make some attempt at reassurance with the words “In spite of all of this, don’t be overly paranoid.” Which is almost like saying “Yup, you’re gonna get done so don’t worry be happy.” Paranoid I was. By the time we entered Vietnam my camera bag was attached to the belt loops of my jeans by a length of chain and a steel clip. “Let’s hope they don’t take your pants with them too” my Vietnamese friend Huy, back in the UK, commented. The bag itself is padlocked closed and our rucksacks are chained together and locked. Happily we are three weeks into Vietnam now and nothing has gone missing, in fact we have not run into any trouble whatsoever and the Vietnamese have been superbly friendly. Of course we are not out of the woods just yet, but we are well over half way through and Vietnam has been the best place we have been to, if it is possible to make such fickle comparisons that is.

We entered Vietnam from Cambodia and arrived in the riverside and coastal town of Ha Tien. Ha Tien is a border town and during the 1970’s was heavily attacked by the marauding Khmer Rouge army. Thousands of civilians were murdered and tens of thousands residents fled their homes until the Khmer Rouge was toppled by the Vietnamese in 1979. In an unkempt, rural way Ha Tien possessed a charming character with blue and red fishing boats docked along the river and one horse motorbike streets. A new modern bridge crosses the river and to the right as you head away from town the gulf of Thailand glistens below. We rode into town on the back of motorcycles, rucksacks balanced at the front of the bikes, followed by the driver followed by one of us followed, in my case, by a camera bag and a tripod. It was an ungainly entrance, but a method of travel we were soon to master as there are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam. A couple of things became quickly apparent in Ha Tien, firstly that next to nobody speaks English and secondly, that the budget guest houses are like something out of the Hammer House of Horror. The first place we looked at had our local motorbike riders shaking their heads and muttering about the massages and ‘boom boom’ - that would be a happy ending to your massage and not an all night party as you could be forgiven for thinking. We looked at a couple more places, each grimmer than the one before until eventually our motorbike drivers convinced us that our best bet would be the beach, situated 8km away. It has to be said that the motorbike driver who spoke (some) English was a bit of a sly old dog and maybe there were better places in Ha Tien that he decided not to show us. He was quite keen on getting some cash out of us for the running us out of town meant that he could do this. In any event it was a fortuitous decision as the beach in Ha Tien was completely un-Westernised and consisted of fully dressed Vietnamese people in their jeans and golf shirts wading into the ocean and frolicking in the waves.

An intrepid photographer darted in after them snapping pictures and then holding his camera and flash head high before the approaching waves drenched his equipment. The beach in Ha Tien was also memorable for it’s seaside restaurant whose menu, boasted “Blind Gobi Orange Fever,” or “Steamed Swimming with Beer.” We never did ascertain what these delicacies were but my mirth was short lived when I got to “Grilled Dog.” To add to this startling revelation, three pooches mooched around the porch and panted by our feet. Were they livestock…? Pets…? I don’t want to know. One way or another the staff found us to be an amusing spectacle as we attempted to decipher the menu and they attempted to decipher us. We left town the next day, making our way to the bus step where we had breakfast with the locals and a grinning elderly gentleman offered me a wife swap, his for mine. The locals howled with laughter and Nipun seemed up for it but I figure better the devil you know.

We caught a minibus inland to a town called Rach Gia before getting a second bus to Can Tho. The Vietnamese are not too shy when it comes to personal space and it was not too long before the man next to me fell asleep on my shoulder. I woke him up a couple of times by jabbing my shoulder into his face as we bounced along the road, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough to make my point. He was unabashed though and within minutes he was drooling and softly snoring again, his cheek pressed to my shoulder and his body at a jaunty 45 degree angle. The journey itself was beautiful and as we travelled through the Mekong Delta with the sun setting we traversed several rivers and canals, all crammed with markets and boats and buzzing with activity. We arrived in Can Tho at about eight o’clock that night and after months in Laos and Cambodia it was an eye-opener, the town hummed with life. Ubiquitous neon signs for bars, coffee houses and hotels lit up the night and motorcycles came at you from every plausible angle. The town was truly alive with life and light and was the most frenetic city we had seen in about three months. It felt like being a yokel from the county. Situated in the Mekong Delta Can Tho is the largest city in the region and serves as the transportation and economic backbone for the region. Our explorations took us through town where we had KFC and found a shops that sell high street fashions, new laptops and phones and sound systems. On the other side of the town is the river front, which during the evening makes for a refreshing retreat from the city and also has some very fine restaurants.

Our main reason for stopping in Can Tho was to see the floating market and we arranged this down at the waterfront with a lovely lady who spoke broken English and served as our guide for the boat trip into the market at 5.00 AM the next day. The floating market was, for me, a fairly unique experience and really enjoyable. As you get into the market you can order good quality hot black coffee from one of the boats next to you, or should you fancy a nibble then a bowl of noodle soup. Most of the boats sell fruit and fresh veg, the produce being easily identified from afar by a length of bamboo that, like an aerial, protrudes into the air. At the top of this bamboo there will be a melon, or a bunch of rambutan fruit. It is exotic and thoroughly enjoyable. Like many of the Vietnamese towns we have been in Can Tho also has myriad small alley ways to discover and explore, with markets selling anything from boat propellers stacked high to clothing to a man who has set up a barbers chair and cuts hair and cleans out ears. And then were back to the bus station again negotiating our fare out of Can Tho by minibus, headed for Saigon.

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