A Travellerspoint blog

Nine Dragons

Meandering on the Mekong

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Last Saturday we did a daylong boat tour of the floating markets and canals around Can Tho. We started the day bright and early, around 5:30 am, and climbed into our small boat, this time with a guide who spoke some English. As we motored towards our first destination, the Cai Rang market, our guide, a former Vietnam War medic, told us many interesting facts and stories about Vietnam. For example, the name Saigon comes from the Vietnamese words “sai,” meaning “a lot” and “gon,” meaning “cotton.” A long time ago, a northern king went to the south for business and, noticing the abundance of cotton trees in present day Ho Chi Minh City, bestowed the name Saigon on the area. We also learned that the Chinese called the Mekong Delta “Nine Dragons” because as the river enters Vietnam it splits into two branches, and then the northern and southern branches again split into 6 and 3 branches, respectively, hence the name “Nine Dragons.”

Anyway, the two floating markets, Cai Rang and Phong Dien, were pretty similar except there were bigger boats and way more tourists at the Cai Rang market. Both markets were amazing to see. Little boats were everywhere with all kinds of fruits. Each boat had a tall pole at their bow on which they would hang whatever fruits or vegetables they were selling so that buyers could see what they had from a distance. Little old Vietnamese women would paddle their small boats up to various boats and buy a few dragon fruits here, maybe a watermelon there. It was very interesting to watch.

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At one point we ventured down a side canal and got off the boat to go watch rice noodles being made. They processed the rice into a milky liquid, which they then poured onto a sort of hot plate for a few seconds, before using a bamboo tool to pick up the rice sheet and place on a mat for drying. They used the husks of the rice grains as the fuel for the fire to cook the sheets, and then used the ash to fertilize the next rice crop. No waste!

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After the markets, we turned into smaller canals for the journey home. This part was fascinating. Houses built on stilts were all over the place, and as we passed by little kids would come running to the banks and wave at us, giggling uncontrollably when we waved back. There were floating gardens of water hyacinths, a very useful plant to the Vietnamese people (there is a Vietnamese saying “Lazy as a water hyacinth!” because water hyacinths grow in patches on the surface of the river, and just float around). As we soon learned by watching the families on the banks of the canals, the locals use the rivers for bathing, washing dishes and clothes, as a bathroom and, maybe most importantly, as a highway. As we floated down canals, it reminded me a lot of the videos on the Discovery Channel of people going down the Amazon, with plants and shrubs everywhere we looked.

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Unfortunately, there was a fair bit of trash too. We saw a few dead animals floating around, not to mention bits and pieces of Styrofoam caught in the weeds. Several times over the course of the day our driver had to untangle the propeller from a plastic bag. But overall the scenery was extraordinary and very peaceful.

A bit while later we stopped at a restaurant on the side of a canal for lunch. This place was obviously geared towards tourists; as soon as we sat down, two people came over and started giving us massages. We didn’t even have a chance to say no. They felt really nice, but as soon as they were over they made us pay 100,000 dong (about $5) for them. That kind of irked us but the food was good. Laura began to dislike the place when our driver brought over a small green snake and tried to get her to hold it. To make things worse, while we were eating a little boy brought over a rooster and was pretending to throw it at Laura, which she didn’t like. I thought it was kind of funny at first, but when the kid didn’t relent I almost stood up and chewed him out. Luckily he stopped before I had to do that.

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Our lunch put us into a food coma, so it made it difficult to sit through the long, hot boat ride home, through a portion of the river we’d already seen 3 times. When we got back to our hotel, we decided to take a nap that turned into a 6 hour slumber. All in all, we had an amazing time that day and found the whole trip to be very much worth it.

- Galen

Posted by galaurasia 06:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boating Comments (1)

Crossing the Street in Vietnam

You know how you're going to die, you just don't know when... It's exciting!!

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Posted by galaurasia 03:59 Archived in Vietnam Tagged motorcycle Comments (1)

Trials of a Traveler

Lessons on the Mekong

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Galen and I met a year ago today at a ranch in rural Montana. Now, we are in Vietnam with no passports or visas. Who would’ve thought? Not me, that’s for sure. The Mekong Delta was beautiful… peaceful, enthralling, and exotic, full of both laughter and hard work. Life on the river for the Vietnamese seems arduous, yet rewarding. The adults were cutting wood, trading and buying food, and moving dirt, while the children were swimming and playing and waving enthusiastically at the passing tourists. The river serves as a trash can, toilet, shower, laundry machine, “highway,” as well as a play area for the children. For us, the Mekong was a place of lessons.

1. When checking out of a hostel, make sure that the hostel owner returns your passports. Check, double, and triple check. We failed to check, and realized our mistake well into our bus ride back to Saigon (HCMC). Luckily, we were able to get through airport security with passport/visa copies and our domestic IDs to make our flight up to Nha Trang. How and when we will get our passports back remains to be seen, as there are still some logistical and language barriers to overcome.

2. There are two menus at some restaurants. We wandered into a restaurant on the main drag in Can Tho, for some dinner and beers during the U.S. - Slovenia soccer game. The food was mediocre at best, and bugs were flying everywhere (in our drinks, on our food, etc.) but otherwise the atmosphere was nice. When it came time to pay the bill, however, we found that they had charged us not only for more items then we ordered, but more for each individual item. When we asked to see the menu to verify the charges, they brought us an entirely different one than we had before. After a bit of arguing, they realized that we were not another couple of dumb Americans, and charged us the original price. We didn’t leave a tip.

3. Most importantly, in the words of Susan, “remember, it’s an adventure!!”

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On a more positive note, after our menu debate, Galen bought half a kilo of lychees… a delicious, if not disturbing looking fruit. Lychees are a little bigger than golf balls, reddish-green, and covered in thick hairs. After peeling the skin away, a sweet and soft white (delectable) flesh is revealed. Below the fleshy part, the inner seed is a bit sour if you happen to get a bite of it. It’s some of nature’s candy! For only 40 cents a kilo! Fantastic stuff.

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- Laura

Posted by galaurasia 03:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged educational Comments (0)

Drifting Away

I'm On A Boat!

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The Cu Chi tunnels are about 50 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. They were used by the Viet Cong as a hideout during the Vietnam War (or, American War as the Vietnamese call it). It was from these tunnels that the VC launched several attacks, including the Tet Offensive. The Cu Chi tunnel tour was one to remember – we had a hilarious Vietnamese guide, who told us many stories and jokes. I opted out of going into the tunnels themselves, but Galen endured the 50 m trek through the .9 meter tall and .75 meter wide pitch-black tunnel, complete with a bat. He was literally dripping with sweat and covered with dirt when he emerged.

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During our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, we made friends with about ten others our age. Later that evening, we all joined up for dinner at drinks at “Allez Boo,” to watch the World Cup. Among a group of non-Americans, Galen was surprised to find himself the only soccer fan. We exchanged stories and advice of past trips, ideas for future adventures, and danced the night away.

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A small Vietnamese boy, who claimed he was 7, joined us at the dinner table, in hopes that we’d buy a toothbrush or nail clippers that he was selling from a little crate. He entertained us for about twenty minutes with songs, dances, and jokes. He even knew the bottle-topping trick, and made Galen’s beer spray and spill everywhere! Others tried to get pictures of him sitting on my lap, but being the clever salesman that he was, he hid his face behind a fan and said, “Want picture? Must buy!” Smart kid.

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Today, we took a small, wooden, 2-person boat that was driven by a little Vietnamese woman with a cone hat down the Mekong. It was AWESOME. Our destination was the Cai Rang Floating Market, but the hour-long boat ride there was the real treat. The homes and shops along the river were all held up by wooden stilts in the water… with corrugated tin roofs and clothes hanging out to dry on wooden railings. Little Vietnamese children would wave enthusiastically as we went by, and loved it when we waved back. Our driver purchased pineapples from a boat passing by, and before we knew it, we were enjoying fresh, juicy pineapple – carved into a spiraled popsicle.

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We met a retired schoolteacher from Florida today. 21 months ago, she sold everything she owned that wouldn’t fit inside of her backpack… house and car included. She has since been to Antarctica, South America, and various places in Asia. She has no plans to return anytime soon, and says she could not be happier with her decision. Wow! Talk about adventurous.

- Laura

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Posted by galaurasia 23:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boating Comments (1)

Back when I was in 'Nam...

It's a bird, It's a plane, No... it's a flying Asian woman!

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Wow. What a first day in Vietnam. It started with a jolt when upon touchdown our plane bounced about 50 feet back into the air before thundering to a shaky stop. We gave each other sarcastically nervous smiles, not knowing it was only the first of many heart-stopping moments to come. Starring out the window of our taxi, we couldn’t help but laugh at the hundreds of motorcycles surrounding us. I heard there was an abundance of them here, but I didn’t imagine anything like what we saw. There must be 300 motorcycles for every car on the road! After checking into our downtown HCMC hotel, we set out on a walking tour outlined in our guidebook. We were enjoying some (much needed) coffee when it started to rain, but we didn’t care; it was hot and muggy, and we felt a natural shower would actually make things more comfortable! (and we were right ☺) Navigating our way towards the biggest market in Saigon, we realized that the motorcycle flocks were going to be a force to be reckoned with. We waited (and waited) for an opportunity to cross a busy road, beginning to wonder if it was a lost cause. Finally, we realized we would just have to go for it, dodging and weaving our way through the crosswalks as bikes zoomed past us as if we weren’t there.

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After browsing the market (which turned out to be pretty much like every other market I’ve been to around the world), we were walking towards the War Remnants Museum when we suddenly heard a scream and loud thud. I turned my head in time to see an old woman flying off the hood of a taxi and come crashing down on the street as the taxi screeched to a halt. Even though the collision had sent her shoes flying 20 feet away, she managed to walk off under her own power before sitting down to compose herself. During the entire episode, cars and motorcycles buzzed by as if this sort of thing happened daily.

After almost witnessing a traffic fatality, we entered the War Museum expecting to see some interesting exhibits about the Vietnam War. The exterior courtyard didn’t disappoint, as it held tanks, planes and helicopters from the US army, complete with turret guns and missiles. After that I was excited to see what was inside but I was completely unprepared for what we found. I had always heard that the war was pretty messed up in many ways, but I never fully understood it. Walking through the galleries of photographs documenting the atrocities committed by our military, we couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed to be American. I’ll spare you the details, but some of those pictures were truly haunting.

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After an hour of being disgusted with our military, we were tired and hungry so we decided to do the rest of the tour in a couple days so we could get some food and take a nap. I had read in our guidebook that Bill Clinton had eaten at a restaurant on the way back to our hotel, so we figured it must be a decent restaurant. It did not disappoint. After crushing our first ever bowls of pho, we both decided that we were very much fans of Vietnamese cuisine.

Men with bike carriages followed us for blocks, probing us to say “Yes” to a ride around the city - and just as I’ve found with the other foreign countries I’ve visited, the word we will utter most is, simply, “No.” Laura’s mom told her that being it Asia wouldn’t “hit her” until she got off the plane and smelt the air. And boy, was she right. The humidity, the warm rain, the dirt, and the smog all mix together to prove that we are definitely not in Kansas anymore.

-Galen

Posted by galaurasia 09:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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