Saturday, July 18, 2015

Speed boat from Vietnam to Cambodia

The cheerful receptionist at the Thuan Loi Hotel in Chau Doc was remarkably casual about my Speed Boat ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. Firstly, she had misunderstood my departure date. I quickly corrected her, making desperate circles with my fingers and wrist to indicate "two days later". 

She helped me buy the ticket, rather, she pulled out a receipt book from the drawer and wrote me a receipt to acknowledge receiving payment for the boat ride. I paid the equivalent of US$24 in VND, after a ballpark conversion using the hotel calculator. That's it? I wondered. "Pickup 6:45 from here", she said, and smiled even more. Seeing my doubtful look, she continued "Confirm, 6:45." 

Part of her day's work. First time for me. Maybe once in a lifetime for me. Well, looking back, I hope not. 

Life started at 4 AM on the river, as usual. I was up early, listening to the sounds of boats chugging up and down the river and was down by the reception well before 6:45 AM. Several other passengers showed up. All of us waited. Some peered at their watches or mobile phones, wondering what the next step would be.   

The staff in this hotel start work early, by 6 AM. So my cheerful receptionist friend was already there, smiling away, ready for the day. I suggested in sign language that she call the boat company. She did that. "Pickup coming", she cheerfully informed me. In about a minute, two Cyclos showed up. Cyclos, ok, I understand. To pick up the passengers. However, two cyclos? How on earth can 4 people and about 10 bags fit into 2 cyclos?  

One of the drivers pointed to his Cyclo and said "Bags". Ok, I get it, we arrange 10 bags into 2 Cyclos, but where do the people sit? The Cyclo drivers quickly made off with our bags, without another word. The passengers looked at each other and quietly followed. It appeared by then that the group had given up. As for me, all I wanted to do was keep an eye on my red bag. There she blows!

We passed my favourite cafe that was not open yet. A few metres later, the Cyclos suddenly turned into a gate. I realized with a huge sense of relief that we were at the pier. Our speed boat was waiting, and bags were being loaded. The staff checked our tickets and asked us to wait. 

Other passengers showed up soon, all the bags were loaded, and we were all aboard the Hang Chau Express Boat. No seat numbers, you need to clamber in and find a seat. 

The seats are quite comfortable, reclining, aircraft style. We passed homes set by the water and soon the Mekong river began to open up. 

The sunlight from the rising sun painted light and dark patterns on the surface of the river.

The crew of the boat soon started handing out the colourful Cambodian Visa-On-Arrival form along with the Cambodian entry-exit form. It turned out that forms are needed for exit from Vietnam. So, all the forms that I had carefully pre-filled, printed and brought were not needed. For entry into Cambodia, we had to hand over a photo and the US$30 visa plus US$4 processing fee. While some folks object to the unofficial processing fee, it has in fact become a part of life in developing countries.   I treated the US$4 processing fee as a 'chill fee', allowing me to look around and enjoy the scenery while the passport and immigration work got done.   

The Cambodian entry-exit form looks like this.

We were also provided with a packet that contained snacks, a banana, juice and water. Looks good for a few hours.  

The Vietnamese border check point housed an X-ray machine, cafe, toilets, money changer and a waiting area. Quite relaxed. The passport stamping work was done in a room inside the building. Once the passports were stamped, all the passengers were asked to clamber back on board.

In hardly a minute or two, we reached the Cambodian check point and had to get off again. I asked the smiling official whether photography is allowed. "Yes", he said.  

The Cambodian immigration facility was set in a large garden. First step, the stacks of passports and forms were 'processed' in the covered area by the gate. 

The 'processing' took a while, maybe about 30 minutes, good for wandering around all over the garden. The garden presented an amazingly relaxed atmosphere, almost like a temple site that visitors go to on sight seeing tours. 

As I waited, the view across the broad Mekong River was remarkably soothing. As if the world was in no hurry to go anywhere. Reminded me so much about another relaxed border crossing experience. Junior and I had crossed the land border at Namanga between Kenya and Tanzania in July 2014.  It's such a pleasure to come across border crossings that are still cheerful and relaxed. 

After about 30 minutes, maybe longer - I have no idea since I had not taken the trouble of peering into my mobile - the crew of our boat brought the stack of passports, read the names. held up the passports and handed them over one by one. We then had to line up by the adjacent building and present the passports to the officers inside. Windows served as counters. The officer verifying my passport thumbed through the pages, and suddenly broke into a h-u-g-e grin. "Second time?", he asked, absolutely thrilled. The stamps from my previous Cambodia entry and exit in April 2011 had made his day. In turn, the happiness of the officer made my day.  

Back on the boat, I gazed at the waves caused by the speed boat and the greenery of the Cambodian landscape for a while. No stilt houses here. 

I hopped across to the front section and sat by the driver. Two hours more, he seemed to indicate, in sign language. Quite typical, no English spoken here. It was a different view from the front, watching the massive Mekong go quickly by. 

Predictably enough, it rained. Quite hard. The front door and windows were closed, I went back to my seat and watched the scenery change as we approached Phnom Penh. A massive suspension bridge and then several tall buildings appeared. 

Over the next couple of days, I would be meeting friends in Phnom Penh. We had got introduced to them during our last visit. A simple family that had got devastated by the atrocities of the the Pol Pot holocaust and have been quietly rebuilding their lives since, and also helping many others along the way.

Previous: Chau Doc, Sam Mountain and Tra Su Forest

Coming up: Phnom Penh, a second time 


Friday, July 17, 2015

Chau Doc, Sam Mountain and Tra Su Forest

Two nights at Chau Doc turned out to be a good idea. It helped to not only to look around the interesting natural, historical and cultural sights in the area but also to recover from the week of non-stop bike riding. The Chau Doc district borders Cambodia, and there are a huge number of temples, as well as a few remnants of the impact of the attacks of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army in the late 1970s. The green rice fields are an amazing and soothing sight.  

Riding further south west along narrow roads to Tri Ton, traffic is pleasantly thin. 

We stopped at Cafe Pho Nui to meet a friend of Nam from Nha Trang who is an teacher in Tri Ton. The cafe was full of bikes and people. Now I know why the roads are deserted. Looks like most folks chill out in coffee shops in Vietnam. 

While in Tri Ton, Nam headed over to a Honda workshop. The hex nuts that hold the front shock absorbers in place needed a bit of attention. The efficient mechanics did that in 10 minutes, even though ours was a Suzuki bike. They declined to charge for their services. While this was happening, a lottery ticket sales lady also managed to joined the conference. 

Oh, this was super timing. It rained like crazy for about 20 minutes. It was barely 10 AM, and the morning had been bright and sunny. Talk about monsoon short, sharp, moody rainfall.

The skies cleared up soon after, like magic, while we headed to the Tra Su Forest, a bird sanctuary with Mangrove forests. 

You need to go out deep into the forest in two boats. First, a larger boat takes you up to a point.  

The canals go through the Mangrove forests with a large variety of birds. The trees form a green canopy, as if to greet and welcome you.

The second trip is on a kayak, go ride further inside the forest. It gets incredibly quiet, except for the chirping sounds of birds and the almost non-existent sound of the paddle slicing effortlessly through the water. 

For whatever reason, a sense of anxiety struck me while we were deep inside the mangroves in Tra Su forest. Probably the scariest moment of my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Maybe the eerie silence was the catalyst of such thoughts. I began to think...  what if the boat lady stops the kayak...  what if she gently rocks the kayak... and blackmails me...  what if... 

Oh well... Banishing such nasty thoughts, I returned to admiring the scenery and the low bird sounds. As we were riding around in the dense forests, I figured I need to take a photograph of the boat lady. She actually stopped paddling and posed for me. Later, she used her limited English on me, saying "This way" and "Bye bye" as I got off the kayak and headed back to the larger boat to head back to the start point. She took off her conical hat and flashed a wide, happy smile. Little did she know that I had been suspecting her intentions not too long ago.  

Tra Su Forest is indeed extremely beautiful. And haunting. Looking back, the dense vegetation and the silence of the kayak ride all combined to make up a rather eerie atmosphere. A perfect recipe to get weird thoughts flying. 

A few kilometres outside Tra Su Forest, the landscape is quite different from further up the Mekong Delta, with acres of palm trees growing all over the area. 

After the hard work since morning (!!), it was time for a well deserved break. This time to sample the cool drink from the black palm fruit. 

In addition to the cool drink, a variety of candies and other products are made from the crushed palm fruit.  

The rest stop turned out to be a super chilling station. I counted about 100 hammocks distributed across three sections. The  largest chill zone I had encountered in a week of travel! 

The other attraction in the Chau Doc area is the Sam Mountain, a holy mountain for the local people. The road to the top is in reasonably good shape, and gets steep towards the top. 

Views overlooking the paddy fields into Cambodia are quite pleasant. 

Nam said it is important that I have a picture at the top of Sam Mountain. A picture would convince family and friends that I've had the privilege of visiting the holy Sam Mountain. So, for the records, here we go. 

Sam Mountain was also the site of several battles involving the resistance against the French. Guns or cannon were poked out of the slots in the thick walls. Bunkers were built to shield the soldiers on the top of Sam Mountain. This spot could be maintained better, I thought. I guess the focus is on the Pagoda further below.

The tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau, a local military chief from about the early 1900s is situated at the base of the mountain. The entire monument is very well preserved. Looking back, the overall excellent state of care for historical monuments in Vietnam, including ancient Khmer temples actually surprised me.

Nam and I also went to the Lady Xu Temple, one of the major religious sites in South Vietnam located at the base of Sam Mountain. Burning incense sticks are offered in prayer by devotees. Nam did so, and invited me to join him. While visitors offer burning incense sticks, a roast pig is offered to the deity by the priests as an ritualistic offering. 

The roads outside the Lady Temple are choc-a-bloc with little stores selling fruits, incense sticks and other offerings. An extremely colourful street. Some shopkeepers try to stop you as you ride along, imploring you to buy from their store. A number of food stalls are also located on the street outside the Lady Temple.

Our order that afternoon was large bowls Noodle Crab soup, with the usual generous portions of Greens and Vegetables. As always, cooked fresh and hot. 

Hiding inside the Noodles, Crab cakes, Greens and Vegetables was a large dark cube. Turned out to be congealed pig blood. 

The ride back from Sam Mountain to Chau Doc was smooth, the very last leg of my trip around the Delta. Nam was scheduled to drop me off in the hotel and head back to HCMC. 

So, it's been a busy yet relaxed week. Starting with the trip through the back roads of HCMC, I had set off on the motor-bike trip through the Mekong Delta. The Laughing Buddha in My Tho. The Canals and local hospitality in Ben Tre.  Khmer villages and temples, and steering the huge ferry across the mighty Mekong in Soc Trang. The floating markets in Can Tho. Canals, boats, rice fields, rain and smiles all over. It's been a unique trip.

Said good bye and exchanged best wishes with Nam, he had an 8-hour ride back to HCMC. For me, it's been an extremely unique trip. Certainly raised further possibilities for the future. 

In case anyone wishes to get in touch with Nam, this is how you can do so: 
Nam: +84 979 636 879

I would be hopping on to the Speed Boat from Vietnam to Cambodia early the next morning. That should be a memorable ride!

Previous: Riding west to Chau Doc


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Riding west to Chau Doc

Having experienced flavours of life in several towns and villages south of HCMC, and glimpses of the way in which the massive Mekong river system drives the economy, it was now time to head west towards the Cambodian border, to Chau Doc located on the Hau Giang river. 

We had realized that it does take time to ride around, particularly if you wish to do it at a safe pace along predominantly wet and sometimes slushy village roads in the rain. Consequently we decided to skip going south to the coastal town of Rach Gia. Setting off around sunrise at 6 AM, our boat trip down to the floating markets in Cai Rang had taken over two hours to complete that morning.  Our hotel was conveniently located, about 5 minutes walk from the river. We were set to leave Can Tho by around 9 AM. Nam wrapped up our bags in thick waterproof plastic sheets and strapped them to the back of the bike. Scooters and motor-bikes are omnipresent in Vietnam, however, as with other cities and towns along the way, the traffic was extremely smooth. Discipline - or perhaps consideration - within chaos may be an appropriate description of the way in which riders give way to each other in a pleasant manner.

The quiet roads were a perfect invitation to stop a while along the greenery of the rice fields lit up by the slanting rays of the morning sun. We absorbed the warmth of the sun while we could.    

Hmmm... what's this? We stopped suddenly, and figured that mushrooms were being cultivated. The friendly ladies showed us the mushrooms that they had collected in the boxes. Smiles and gestures are commonly accepted substitutes for English communication throughout the Mekong Delta. 

Mushrooms are allowed to grown within neat rows of hay. The ladies sift through the hay and pick up the mature mushrooms. I guessed mushroom cultivation is cyclic. The next batch is started off when one batch of is done. 

A little girl bravely rode by, her little plastic shopping bag dangling from the handle. 

The waterways are the arteries of the region. Cargo boats keep chugging along all day. 

A patch of road construction resulted in detours and dust along the way. We stopped off at a very pleasant cafe in Long Xuyen, mid way between Can Tho and Chau Doc, for a fix of strong, drip coffee. 

Ah, yes, this cafe provided free WiFi, as well. I was happy not to connect, relishing the flavour of the coffee, and looking at life going by. 

We seemed to be following the waterways to Chau Doc. We reached the town just around lunch, so stopped off at a little Soup place along the road. 

Warm green tea, rice, veggies, meat, soup and chillies - all for the equivalent of about US$1. We had experienced an amazing variety of tasty street food over the past week. Oh, I just realized that I had not even opened the little bottle of hand sanitizer that the missus had carefully packed for me. 

The bottle of hand sanitizer was stored in the side pocket of my duffle bag - supposedly for easy access. However, the duffle bag would be all wrapped up in thick plastic and strapped solid to the bike everyday. So, that was the reason for the hand sanitizer not being opened. The green tea in Vietnam served is boiled, so I had got used used to drinking that at every meal. My natural Indian immune system and will power were my defenses against the occasional ice that was encountered during some meals. Moreover, street food stalls - like this one at Chau Doc - would be frequented by locals. The turnover of food is generally quite high, and consequently, fresh. 

The food stall (with a few plastic tables and chairs) was set up on the foot path right outside the front door of the cheerful owner's home.  

Lunch done, we set off again to look around Chau Doc. The Cham community forms part of the population here, among their occupations is Fish Farming. Fish is cultivated in submerged cages right under their home, rather, the part of their home overlooking the river, often standing on stilts. A very common sight all over the Chau Doc area. 

Riding further inside, we went right into the Cham villages. Sadly, the state of cleanliness was nowhere near the reasonably high levels we had observed in the villages as we rode around the Delta. Even the relatively poorer Khmer settlements were quite clean, there was no noticeable litter, garbage, boxes and general things thrown carelessly around. 

The streets and markets presented a rather disconcerting sight of ladies all covered up in black. Quite different from the rest of Vietnam. 

Time to move on, ride around some more, check into our hotel and experience the air of Chau Doc. This little cafe with friendly owners who spoke one or two words of English, was located right next to our hotel. Perfect for sitting around, reading and watching life go by. The cafe provided WiFi, as well, which I used to translate English words to Vietnamese in my efforts to communicate with the owners. 

Endless cups of hot drip coffee, and jugs of warm, green tea flowed by that evening. A good time to stroll around the neighbourhood, as well. 

Saigon Bia and water would typically replace the Coffee and Tea as the evening went by. Tables and chairs would be set up to prepare for an increased number of guests in the evening. 

A view of Hotel Thuan Loi, set along the Hau Giang river, with a conveniently located cafe right next door. An interesting street with a school, an army building, numerous small stores as well as a local market. 

The staff speak extremely limited English. I was looking for a cyber cafe to print out my Vietnam border exit form which I mistakenly thought I would need. It was impossible to communicate that to the staff. The owners of the cafe next door helped out. Ultimately I decided not to take the trouble of printing the exit form and take life as it happens. The form was not needed. More on that in another post...

The Hau Giang river is visible across the reception as you enter the hotel. 

A neat double room with a mini-fridge (works well), air-con (also works well), TV (no idea whether that works!) and attached bath (with hot water) sets you back by about 250,000 VND (about US$ 13).

However, the sitting area over looking the river is the real bonus. It's almost a room with a view. Perfect for many hours of meditation after a several hours at the cafe next door, listening to the sound of an occasional boat going by in the darkness. 

Life in Vietnam, particularly along the river, begins early in the day. Small and large boats start chugging by at about 4 AM, and some keep going till way after dark. 

Stepping down towards the water's egde from the hotel brings you closer to people's homes, busy with their lives. I did not stay long, not wanting to intrude. 

There was some more looking around to be done in the Chau Doc area the next day.  

Previous: From Soc Trang to the Floating Markets of Can Tho