Continuing down the Mekong

Leah’s tummy was bothering her in the morning so she stayed in the hotel while the group hopped over the river to see a small fish farm and the Cham villages. Tourists feed the fish at the farm, but there’s no risk of overfeeding as they take up a total of 150kg of food a day. The farm we say spreads over 30mx10mx10m deep with approximately 150,000 fish being bred at one time. Staff have to dive in with the fish every morning to ensure any dead ones are removed before they start to float.

It costs around $60,000 to start up one of these fish farms and the return is around $6,000 every 6 months. In the photos, the water’s pretty murky due to it being the wet season. Pollution in the river is particularly high as rainwater washes through the rice fields carrying mud and soil down with it. In the middle of the dry season the water is more of a green colour and the fish are more visible. Mind, you see enough when you throw food in as they go into a frenzy fighting over the malt, seafood and vegetable tablets.

We next stopped at one of the Cham villages. These are a Muslim people, many originating from other countries and now settled here. They live in houses on stilts so that rising rivers don’t necessitate moving home too often. Having said that, signs posted on one dwelling show the flood waters with dates over the last 10 years or so. In 2000, not only this area but the main town of Chau Doc was under 1m of water.

Children ran round with waffles, selling them “six for one dallaaaaaaah!”. I haggled one of them up to 7 for a buck. The guy behind me haggled up to eight. Tightwad. There was also a girl there weaving towels using an impressive loom made from scrap wood, bamboo and string. I’ve seen such looms before, such as up in Sapa, but it never fails to amaze me what can be built from what is effectively waste material.

More children were grouped around a marbles game while several tourist parties plodded around their village. We got the boat back to the hotel where Leah was almost regaining consciousness but was still feeling a little ill. This wasn’t helped by being bundled into a dinky minibus with the rest of our group and having to squish into the back to free up all the front seats. It turns out that our “coach” was a public bus heading up to Can Tho and not just for our use.

The driver was typically manic so we made good time at the expense of some of our groups’ sanity. We only nearly died about 4 times. In my experience, not bad for a 90-minute journey. Oh, and our driver was prosecuted, which was quite funny. Not for driving like a madman, but for trafficking cigarettes. We were pulled over seemingly at random and the bus driven into a police compound. Two officers spent around 12 seconds searching the bus before “finding” around 40 cartons of cheap fags stuffed into the aircon system. Our driver and co-driver went mental at each other and people on the phone. I wish I knew more Vietnamese – I’m sure I’d have learned the full collection of swear words. “Today is meant to be Jim’s turn to be pulled over! I paid the f***ing bribe! Why do I get caught! I blame your wife!” and so on. Of course, the police took the cigs and gave the driver a nice pink sheet of paper in return.

When we got to Can Tho, we jumped out into the… erm… petrol station. I guess this is in lieu of a bus station here or something. Waiting for us was the owner (I think) of our hotel who was directing us to jump onto an available Xe Om (motorcycle taxi) for the ride to the hotel. A couple of our group were less than happy about this and voiced their complaints rather loudly. His excuse was that buses and taxis can’t get to his hotel, only motorbikes. He then relented and said maybe taxi, but it would cost more and it’s not his job as he is from the hotel and not the tour company – fair enough assuming the company hadn’t paid for taxis and he was trying to scam us. He sped off, saying he would go to the tour office and be back in 10 minutes.

While he was away (for more than 10 minutes) another bus from Chau Doc pulled up and a large bag (guess what it was full of…) was speedily thrown onto the back of a waiting motorbike and zipped off into some dodgy shop’s inventory.

The guy never did come back, but 7 motorcycles did. In honesty, this didn’t surprise or bother me. I was more concerned for Leah who’d not been on a bike before and was a little nervous about it, especially being ill, and a couple of the other tourists who didn’t seem at all happy about the idea. I’m glad to say Leah’s first ride went very well and I think Vietnam has introduced a helmet law, as we were provided with head protection – something that never happened in Hanoi. Perhaps it’s just more thoroughly policed down here.

The ride to the hotel was only a couple of minutes and – again – nobody died. Leah was definitely happier with aircon this time, so we paid an extra 80,000d (about $5.50) for the upgrade. It was lunchtime and the rest of the day was ours to spend looking around Can Tho.

We chilled in the room for a little while then went for a quick walk to have a look at one of the pagodas, another in a Chinese style like the one we saw in Chau Doc. There’s also a huge silver statue of Ho Chi Minh on a plinth surrounded by heavy chain which is very… bling. Vulgar, I suppose, but kind of cool as well.

Opposite, Leah spotted a travel agent (Cantho Tourist J.S Company, 20 Hai Ba Trung – and as it happens, the one mentioned in Lonely Planet. I’m mentioning this as they were really good so thought they deserved a plug) and we needed to sort flight tickets out. We’d been looking on Expedia for flights from Saigon to Danang, and they were weighing in at $145 each from Vietnam Airlines – far more than I’d anticipated. Pacific Airlines also do this route and the office offered both. We popped in and checked, and for the date we wanted, Vietnam was the cheapest by a small amount at a shade over $50 each. Including all taxes and so forth. Bit of a saving on Expedia’s quote all the same. The price also included the internal departure tax which is now placed on tickets instead of having to be paid at the airport. The same also applies to the $14 international departure tax (or it did later on when we flew from Hanoi, anyway).

As we walked back towards the hotel, the baking hot sun – possibly the fiercest I’ve ever felt in Asia – gave way to a sudden downpour of incredible ferocity. As we sheltered under the awning of a shop, the little old lady (and I mean this in the loveliest and sweetest way possible) signalled for us to come inside and join her. She was relaxed on a comfy chair and had some of those small kiddy plastic deelies that she was waving at.

Now, there’s no way you can ever turn down a granny with a heart-melting toothless grin, so we expressed our thanks and took our ringside seats as the downpour tried to become an up-pour with each drop that slammed into the tarmac and made its way skyward again. A Vietnamese boy, maybe 7 years old and rather chunky, ran around naked on the opposite side of the street attacking some discarded coconuts with a fluroescent green sword while the lovely granny mimed rain coming down and laughed. I’ve never done drugs, but I can believe this was like being on mushrooms.

By the time rain eased, Leah had been staring at pottery for almost 15 minutes and – partly because it was so nice and partly because the old lady was so nice – felt compelled to pick something up. She chose a nice bowl with a hole in the side and was likely overcharged for it, but we weren’t in the mood for a haggle. Job done, rain off, we did a quick internet check at Queen where Leah enjoyed a very nice strawberry ice cream while I ploughed through spam and let you lot know we were alive.

Just round the corner, we stopped for some Pho in a nice restaurant. Now I’ve had Pho in quite a few places in Vietnam, but this was without a doubt the best. For those interested, the shop lies on Hai Ba Trung almost directly between Hau an Liem (where the cybercafe is) and the next small street up, which is more like a large alley. You can’t miss it – only Pho place on that side of the street and quite large. 20,000d each for the basic soup and a home-made, sugar-loaded lemonade. Delish.

As we arrived at the hotel, we saw a minibus pull up and offload a few tourists, so the guy’s story from earlier was misinformed at best, a lie at worst. Hey ho. We still had no idea what time we were starting off in the morning. Fortunately we bumped into the Dutch couple who’d asked around and found that it was another 6:30am start.

We had a quick snooze then decided to head for the local museum. It’s opening hours are a little strange (09:00-11:00 then 18:30-21:00 on a Sunday), but it was only a short walk from the hotel and was something to do in the evening. Lonely Planet’s description of the English signage as “ample” is an exaggeration, to be frank, but doesn’t detract from otherwise how good a museum it is.

Most photographs have English descriptions underneath, but virtually nothing else does. However, most displays are easy to follow and even the gaudy electronic blinky-light things that Asian museums seem to love so much actually worked, which is a rarity. As long as you have an idea of what you’re looking at, it’s easy to follow. The life-size (thought small) pagoda inside is a wonderful exhibit, and there’s even a miniature version of the Chinese pagoda in town complete with stunning painting on the doors. Oh, and did I mention that it’s completely free? The building it’s in is gorgeous from the outside, too, with large carved stairs leading up between Romanesque pillars. Definitely worth the short walk.

On the way back we stopped at a couple of local traders and picked up snacky stuff. We weren’t up to another meal, but needed something to munch on. Laden with chocolatey, sweetie, carbonated bumph (and some baking which is sat there waiting to be munched as I type), we ambled back to our hotel.

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