Mekong

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

After staying out late the night before, the early morning bus trip into the Mekong Delta came far too early.

We were on the bus and ready to go at 7 a.m. When we got on the bus we realized we were part of a large tour group that would likely result in a highly regimented and overly touristy trip through the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. While this was exactly what it turned out to be, there probably isn’t a better option to travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh via the Mekong Delta without a lot of additional transportation planning.

Our guide had terrible jokes, many if which he repeated over and over again throughout the journey.

One the first day we traveled from Saigon to Can Tho with stops along the way for short boat rides through narrow creeks, lunch on a small island and a short trek through a fruit plantation.

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Our day ended in the town of Can Tho, where we were left to our own devices to explore and find a place for dinner.

After dinner we browsed through a few of the town’s underwhelming markets, which we stocked full of cheaply made clothes and trinkets, before making our way back to the hotel excited to see the Mekong’s largest floating market the next morning.

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Once again our day started bright and early with breakfast at the hotel before we set out with the group for the river dock in the center of Can Tho. Our entire group quickly boarded into a long narrow boat and we set off down the river toward the much anticipated market.

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The market was promised as a significant part of the tour and we were expecting to spend quite some time cruising back and forth between the many boat stalls purchasing fruit and veggie snacks. Of course, like many of these organized tours we only took one quick lap around the market before they quickly hustled us on to the next scheduled group toilet break.

From the market our boat headed deeper into the delta and we stopped at two more destinations nestled back in some of the small canals connected to the larger river.

The first stop was at a small family workshop that produced rice paper. We were able to spend about 15 minutes watching this local family work during the mid-day heat over burning ovens. It was actually a really cool process to see in action.

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Our second, and last stop, before returning to tour buses was at a small riverside village. Upon arrival we were able to rent pedal bikes and take a quick ride along the banks of the various canals, peaking into the lives of small homes and shops lining the water’s edge.

At the conclusion of the bike ride, we all piled back into the boat and set our course back to Can Tho and the awaiting tour buses.

The early afternoon was spent sitting on the bus as we made our way toward Chau Doc near the Vietnam-Cambodia boarder. En route we stopped at Tra Chu Bird Sanctuary, a flooded forest and swampland that is home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.

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We toured the mangrove forest in a bunch of small row boats and saw countless storksand other birds as our boats slid through the still, quiet waters.

By the time we returned to the bus from the sanctuary dusk was already beginning to set in. It wasn’t too long before our bus pulled up to our hotel in Chau Doc for our last night in Vietnam.

It took us quite a while to find somewhere to eat, but we finally found somewhere amenable and then finished the evening walking along the river bank.

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

We woke up on Saturday morning ready for our slow boat ride to Phnom Penh.

The day started as expected. We boarded a boat and visited a small fishing village before heading up river toward to Cambodian boarder.

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It was when we arrived at the boarder control after only 30 minutes in the boat that things took a turn for the worst. After passing through immigration we learned despite the fact we purchased a “slow boat” ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, the “slow boat” portion of the trip was only from Chau Doc to the boarder. From the boarder we were expected to ride in a tiny minivan the rest of the way to Phnom Penh.

Although the boat was not supposed to take us all the way to Phnom Penh, it was supposed to take us to Neak Leung, with a mini van ride the rest of the way.

After a massive argument with the captain of the boat and a phone call to TNK Travel, we were unable to resolve the issue.

“It’s not a slow boat then, is it? It’s more like a slow bus.”

Frustrated and annoyed we piled into the minivan and drove the rest of the way to Phnom Penh and the Funky Monkey Hostel.

 

 

Halong Bay

Thursday, May 15, 2014

We were up early getting our breakfast pho before heading on a shuttle that would take us to meet our ‘junk’ for our two night Halong Bay trip.

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We had splurged on a fancy double room and of course decided to save some cash by smuggling booze onboard. Undisguised, it was proudly flashed around to highlight our forward planning. The 24 pack was confiscated in about 1.2 seconds. James fought to get it back. My mom encouraged this behavior, which only inflated his confidence further and somehow we ended up making a deal with the crew that we wouldn’t drink the beer, but instead just store it in our room.

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Of course this agreement was forwarded on to the captain and while cheersing to my Mom’s arrival we had an aggressive knock on our cabin door, demanding the unopened box of booze be returned to staff where it would be closely guarded upstairs.

We agreed to hand over the box of beer, but not before we removed half of the beers, hid them in our room and resealed the box with a couple of pieces of my beloved chewing gum. We even remembered to re-fill the box with water bottles to fake the missing wheat weight. With our case of beer disguised to be full and resealed, we over-politely returned the box to the crew and giggled as we smuggled our hidden beers in our pockets to enjoy the view from the sundeck.

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They caught on, and before we even left the protected harbor, calls were being made to our hotel reception informing them of the inflated price that these troublesome noncompliant passengers would be paying upon their return to the hotel. We put up a convincing fight, eventually got what we wanted and happily and freely continued consuming our very warm, but cheap, beers on deck as we set off gliding between the gorgeous green rockery.

We had a smooth ride clearing out of the busy harbor and eventually found ourselves lost among the 2,000 limestone islands.

We were called to the dining room for a fancy lunch and then they herded us off the boat to visit the massive Sung Sot cave.

Once we emerged from the darkness of the cave, we were quick to jump onto kayaks and explore some of the islands on our own.

The day was perfect. The air was clean. The emerald water made you forget this World Heritage Site is in real danger of being quickly destroyed thanks to eager tourists like ourselves.

As we jumped back onboard, silky clouds danced in the sky, creating a beautiful stage for the setting sun to cast her brilliant colors across this southeastern sky. We were again offloaded from our boat onto the small island Ti Top, where we would play in the lukewarm water as we said goodbye to daylight.

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We were back on the boat to happily reunite with our warm Saigons. James did a freezer drive-by and snuck an exchange of his warm can for a cold one and like the amazing boyfriend he is dropped it off on our table and then disappeared to pull it again. The captain came over to our table, and interruppted the conversation I was having with the adorable couple across from me. He shouted loud enough to demand attention from the entire boat and I sat there embarrassed and confused about what the heck he was so upset with me about. He picked up the chilled beer that had just sweat all over his white tablecloth and I connected the dots.

Fed up with these junk boys babysitting our every move, I headed to the back of the ship to try squid fishing before the main course was even served. Within a few minutes I was pulling a lop of rubbery tentacles closer to the surface. After the squid ejected more ink than a Canon printer, I was getting orders to keep reeling him in. The crew collected him and within the quarter hour, served him up for dinner.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

We quickly had breakfast before saying goodbye to our favorite crew and switching to another boat which would take us to Namgat Resort.

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We expected a dumpy overpopulated island camp which would serve as our overnight home, however we happily exited the boat to our leisurely private island. We were treated to a private beach, volleyball and soccer courts, outdoor tables and a long walk across a wooden bridge to our secluded overwater bungalow.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Our final morning in Halong Bay was spent at a pearl farm. Seeing as the only jewelery I was adorning was composed of hemp and beads collected throughout Africa, I wasn’t planning on donating much interest.

Of course – it was incredible. I learned a lot about cultured pearl farming and I’d say it was a welcome inclusion into any Halong Bay package.

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A grain of sand, or any unwelcome visitor can enter an oyster and the oyster will start producing nacre around the invader. Decades later – you have a pearl!

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Patience is a virtue- but it would take a healthy couple of lifetimes to create your favorite expensive necklace. So humans are invasive and have devised a way to shave a few decades off the process. The oyster is opened up by a grafter equipped with enough tools to be confused with a dental hygenist. He very carefully inserts the nucleus (basically a starter pearl) and graft tissue into the pearl pocket, lets the oyster close back up and then back into the bay they go. The same principle applies – the oyster will produce nacre to suffocate the invader and a brilliant pearl will form. Two to three years later, you have yourself a single pearl!

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We returned to land and headed back to the vans for the several hour drive back to the Serendipity Hotel in Hanoi where we switched our bathing suits for hiking shoes and headed out to get some grub at Gecko restaurant before boarding our overnight train to Sapa.

Q&A with Sawubona Magazine

In June, Sawubona, South African Airways’ in-flight magazine published a Q&A column about our journey around the world, which began in January 2013 in South Africa.

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Continue reading (page 16)