River Cruise on the Mekong

Vietnam: 5 days on a Mekong river cruise

Dusk was settling in as the Pandaw ship was slowly making its way further downstream the hectic Vietnamese portion of this Mekong river cruise.

Not wanting to miss a minute from this impromptu show, I ascend to the sun deck to admire the desultory choreography taking place before me, mentally thanking our captain’s nerves of steel. We had only just left Cambodia but the contrast was already quite striking; the bucolic scenes of the tranquil countryside were far behind us, both figuratively and literally, as we entered the chaos that is the Mekong Delta.

Cable ferries, fishing barges, dredging boats and private vessels crisscrossed dangerously just a few feet below, apparently unfazed by the ear-splitting horns of our ship – it seemed as though everyone was too busy disputing its little portion of Mekong to care.

Crossing the Indochina peninsula maritime border between Cambodia and Vietnam was a smooth process and we arrive in Chau Doc right on the dot.

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Chau Doc

With is Muslim community and its mosque, Chau Doc is a rather unusual place; in fact, it benefits from a surprising cultural diversity for a village this size.

I leave the antique wooden barge and hop on a rickety bamboo bridge that will lead me across a canal carpeted by lush floating plants. Perched high on the banks of River Bassac, the stilt houses allow me to cheekily observe how locals live Heading towards the high street, I stumble upon a minuscule yet fragrant – to put it lightly – street market.

At this point, a PSA is necessary. Even if there were anything vaguely resembling a public health code in Vietnam, let me tell you that it is not heavily enforced.

Fish worryingly wait for their inevitable faith wriggle in a makeshift basin. In Vietnam, fish is only decapitated at the request of the client in order to demonstrate freshness. Raw meat is stored in a wicker basket on the back of a motorcycle fully exposed to the blaring sun. Lorries and buses zoom past just a few metres from the scene and yet, this is just how markets are done in Vietnam, with no one to give it any second thought.

For lack of sustainment – I do not think neither my stomach nor my immune system would be keen to forgive an affront of the sort – I leave the market with what I think is a rather good series of images, surprised at and thankful for the spontaneity and friendliness with which Vietnamese people greet photographers.

Through the excursions on this Mekong river cruise, I’ve had the chance to visit a floating market, an artisanal fish farm and even a community whose livelihood is almost entirely based on rice by-products. A sudden deluge keeps me holed up inside the building where the centre of production is. It’s just as well. I now have plenty of time to greet the workers and admire their craft, from the women in charge of making paper rice to the men overseeing puffed rice.

Sa Dec

I was also able to visit Sa Dec. With a population nearing 150,000 inhabitants, this place has the allure and the atmosphere I expected from busy South-East Asia. It once was the informal capital of the Mekong Delta in the 19th century.

European tourists beeline for the sino-French house portrayed in The Lover novel and film by Marguerite Duras, which is an autofiction based on her early life in Indochina. It’s actually a delightful urban pagoda dating back to 1895 and this is where the protagonist Huynh Thuy Le lived. Those unfamiliar with the author discovered the immense public market, which unfolds over several blocks; meat, flowers, fruits, vegetables, fish, rice… the stalls pile up and yet none of them is vacant.

Ho Chi Minh City

Formerly known as Saigon, the capital takes me by absolute surprise despite the abundant advice I received before I got here. I thought I was mentally prepared for the nonsensical pandemonium. How naïve of me! In Ho Chi Minh City, crossing the street is nothing short of bravery: in the absence of traffic lights, eight million scooters continuously dash towards their destination without a care in the world for helpless pedestrians. The only possible way to reach the adjacent sidewalk is to spot a gap – however small – in traffic, step onto the street confidently and hope for the best.

Experiencing Saigon is also done by visiting its historic attractions spanning French colonisation to the American war. Alleys where time seems to have stood still. Incensed-out temples. The strikingly European Notre-Dame cathedral. The discordant Palace of Reunification. The Cu Chi tunnels. Ho Chi Minh is complex and full of layers!

There are more than enough things to do in Ho Chi Minh to keep busy for a few days. In fact, I would require a full week simply to taste the gastronomic offering. Pho! Grilled meat! Noodles! Spring rolls! Alas, I only have 48 hours to make the most of the capital on this Mekong river cruise and I choose to top it off with rooftop sunset drinks at the posh Rex Hotel.

Vietnam’s history make it a country heavy with contrasts. As such, I feel must be visited on several occasions in order to fully comprehend its identity. I’ve only scratched the surface but I choose to see it as an excuse to return rather than an all-too-short trip.

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