Fifth in a series from the ruins and rivers of Southeast Asia
On the edge of the Mekong, Cambodian and Vietnam flags flapped in an early morning wind at the border station. Crew aboard the Avalon Angkor approached soldiers from the station with some trepidation, as border officials here are known to insist on strict compliance with all formalities.
For instance, entrance visas for each passenger — I bought mine for $167 through VisaCentral in Washington, DC, two months before the trip — must be written in perfect order. Today, for instance, was March 2, 2013. Woe be it to anyone whose visa began March 1 or March 3.
Are your papers in order?
That is why, when first we met as a tour group in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a week earlier, our cruise director Phiem collected all our passports and inspected them for the visa date and other requirements. If any were dated incorrectly, Phiem would have begun a complicated procedure to buy that person a new visa that would arrive before March 2.
No worries. By 9:15 a.m., formalities were concluded, soldiers had returned to their stations, and we were a boatload of legal travelers, motoring along one of the great waterways of the world.
The Mekong begins in Tibet and flows through China, Laos, and Cambodia before reaching Vietnam’s delta, providing power, food, irrigation, and transportation for millions.
Humor and tragedy on the screen
The evening before our Mekong River entrance into Vietnam, aboard Avalon Angkor, passengers watched an after-dinner movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Showing this old war film, with its humor and understated themes of tragedy, was a smart decision by the cruise company, Avalon Waterways.
The movie set the stage for the rest of our journey in Vietnam, where the war still resonates in daily lives nearly half a century later. The film was set in Saigon in 1965 (click for snippets, with Robin Williams as DJ Adrian Cronauer, who fights the officiousness of the military and falls in love with an unattainable Vietnamese girl).
Avalon Angkor’s shallow draft — it needs about 4 feet, 7 inches of water — allows the captain to escape the busy Mekong for some of Vietnam’s shallower, quieter backwaters, a man-made channel called An Phu and the Hau Giang River, to the town of Chau Doc.
Our paths along the water highways of Vietnam are packed with vessels of various sizes and uses: fishing boats, ferries, sampans, barges bursting with rice, other food stuff, building materials, and people.
Buying a little ngo gai, and some doi
The best travel experiences, said our Vietnamese leader Phiem, are when you immerse yourself in a foreign culture, get beyond your comfort level.
So, he sent us in small groups into a street market in a town along the Mekong River that does not see many foreign travelers. Our goal was to buy three items.
Phiem gave us a shopping list in Vietnamese, but our spellings and pronunciations at the market must have been way off.
We bought the wrong stuff with some of our Vietnamese money that amounted to about $2, returning with bananas instead of garlic, cherries instead of coriander.
I did manage to take a picture, as requested, of rats ready for sale, piled high in the middle of the picture below.
We had fun, and the smiles from vendors helped us past any discomfort zone.
The vendors seemed to revel in our ignorance, which is not true in all markets, said Phiem. Vendors are making their living, and some have had their fill of bumbling travelers.
Next: Saigon, more freedoms, but people are careful
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com.