Our last morning in Phnom Penh a van picked us up at our hotel. It drove around to other local hotels gathering several more westerners before taking us to have our visas checked to make sure we wouldn’t be turned back at the border. On the drive a German lady sat by us. She was a farm girl and showed pictures of her family’s herd of cows. Cambodia checked our passports on their side of the border and after a certain amount of confusion we walked across the border and once again handed over our passports, this time to the Vietnamese officials. There was a planned 40 minute delay, giving us just enough time to eat breakfast at the cafe. Public transportation in these parts seems to always deliver you to where they want you to eat, for which they are undoubtedly compensated.
From there we boarded a boat and traveled for hours down the Mekong River. I’d expected to see some wild jungle, but on this long stretch it was mostly rice fields and small villages. To quote my Facebook post: Also saw many fisherman, floating houses, houses on stilts, brick factories, people flying exotic kites, ferry boats, classic Vietnamese farmers and more. Stopped to see a fish farm.
Before this trip I wasn’t familiar with Can Tho. It is one of the largest cities in Vietnam and is located on the Mekong Delta. The riverfront area where the tourism is located is definitely upscale and pleasant. Al and I are still “backpacker travelers” at heart but our hotel was pretty snazzy and a surprisingly good value, if you consider a nice room for two (with breakfast) for $18 to be a fair price!
We ate a fine breakfast at the hotel and after getting our group together at another hotel we boarded the boat and headed downstream to the floating market. There were many boats there buying and selling, along with the tourist boats checking out the colorful scene and yet other little wooden boats trying to sell pineapples, coffee and bananas to the tourist boats.
Many of the boats were “wholesale boats” selling tomatoes and watermelons, bananas, rice, coconuts and whatnot to people who would retail the produce. Families lived on many of these larger boats.
Our next stop was a family rice noodle “factory.” As I understand it, it is primarily rice flour and tapioca flour. They would mix the concoction and ladle it out onto a layer of cotton cloth over boiling water, then smooth it into a flat sheet. They’d cover it up for a minute or so, then lift it off with a bamboo “whisk” for drying in the sun. For heat they burned rice chaff. As the final step the dried sheets of “rice paper” were sliced into thin rice noodles by machine.
Finally, we visited a rice processing plant. It was remarkable how much the place looked and smelled to the old “feed mill” in my home town. The Mekong Delta is a major breadbasket area.
Back at Can Tho the guides sorted everyone out and put us on our assorted buses for the trip to Ho Chi Minh City, still usually called “Saigon” according to some locals, “because it’s easier.” I couldn’t agree more. On the way we stopped at a little town for a final sorting of the foreigners and it was here we bought some of what I call rambutans, but the locals call Chom Chom. You peel the fuzzy exterior and there is a sweet fleshy fruit similar to a very good tasting grape. The seed inside is not eaten.
We passed endless rice fields and villages on the way to Saigon. We drove into Saigon through a sea of motorcycles, the primary transport of the locals. Most people are very nicely dressed. Most “motos” have one rider but often will have a two people or even a child or two riding. It was a wild swirl of lights and activity as we walked to our hotel. Happily, it is on a relatively quiet side alley.
Vietnam is a rapidly developing country, that’s for sure, and much more modern than most of us realize.
Today is Al’s last day “in country.” He flies home tomorrow. It was fun spending the last week or so with him. For me, it’s on to Dalat.