Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On My Way to Cambodia: Hanoi to Chau Doc

As you can see from the photo above, I woke up to rain and fog in Hanoi. It was little bother, though, as I would soon be on a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, which is smack in the middle of the dry season now, and by the end of the day would reach Chau Doc, a charming little town on the border with Cambodia.

I took my first-ever flight with Air Mekong, whose flight schedule was more convenient for me than that of Vietnam Air. The ticket was also $35 cheaper. I found the seat to be small, but otherwise the flight was smooth going. They also fed me, which made me happy.

I got into HCMC at 11:35, then grabbed a taxi to Mien Tay bus station. The taxi driver, I soon discovered, was from Hanoi, though he’d moved to HCMC more than 20 years ago. He had nothing good to say about life in Hanoi, and he’d recently gone back to celebrate Tet with the family he still has there. He said people in Hanoi only think about money, that they cheat everyone constantly, and he also complained about how bad the coffee there is. As if to prove this to me, he pulled up to the side of the road, parked, and left the taxi idling. I saw him walk to a sidewalk coffee stand, then return with two large, sealed plastic cups full of iced coffee.

He handed me one and asked if it was better than the coffee in Hanoi. I took a sip, swooned, and nodded while still sucking on the straw. I’ve never had a taxi driver treat me to a coffee while in the middle of a fare. It’s nice that I can still be surprised after almost seven years here.

When I got to Ben Xe Mien Tay I somehow figured out how to get a bus to Chau Doc within the hour. (Thank god I speak Vietnamese. I pity the poor souls who go there expecting to use English, or expecting to find any sort of organized system to locate information.)

I ended up buying a ticket to Chau Doc on Hung Cuong lines. I paid 105,000 dong ($5.03) for the ticket, and had two seats all to myself.

It was nice to have access to a window so I could take photos of the journey, though it turned out that I was on the “less photogenic side” of the bus, as much of the river scenery, and a town with an endless series of kilns, was on the other side of the aisle (the right side).

It didn’t take long for the city to give way to the countryside, though that doesn’t mean that the roads were ever empty.

The vividly-green rice paddies gradually lost their color as we traveled farther south, and we came upon more and more bridges—over small rivers, tributaries, and streams—as we made our way deeper into the Mekong Delta.

We stopped at a traveler’s kiosk about two hours into our journey. I made use of the passably-clean restroom and then bought one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in Vietnam.

The heo quay, or crispy pork, was beyond excellent, and I wish I’d bought two of them though I was full after the one I ate.

We kept going south, and waterways became more prevalent. So did areas of construction.

Somehow I felt nostalgic for the Vietnam I knew a decade or longer before. The towns here are less developed than in Hanoi and HCMC—the towns here are nothing like Hanoi, however—and I felt a bit as if I were back in the past. It felt good. It felt really good.

I think this partly had to do with the heat, but it also had to with the types of things I saw along the roads—the waterways, the less busy streets, the greater feeling of quietude, the smell of what nature one finds here, an indescribable quality about the light in the south of the country, the architectural styles in the countryside and small towns…I could go on.

At one point, as the sun was beginning to fade, we had to board a ferry to cross a narrow river.

Soon after that we found ourselves entering the city of Long Xuyen, which was strikingly urban, and vibrant, after the small towns and rural villages we’d passed through.

Eventually it grew dark enough that I could no longer take photos from the back of a moving bus—everything ended up blurry. At about 7 p.m. we arrived in Chau Doc. I immediately bought a ticket for boat ride up the Bassac and Mekong rivers to Phnom Penh. I used the Blue Cruiser company and bought an express ticket for $50. The ride was meant to take three hours. However, it took a little more than five hours, and we were passed along the way by two of the “normal” boats that only cost $22. (Yes, I kicked myself repeatedly for wasting $28 just to save a little time.)

I stayed at the Trung Nguyen Hotel (no relation to the coffee company), where I paid $12 a night for a nice little room facing the market.

For good local food, as I requested, they recommend a place called Truong Van, which was a block-and-a-half away. There were about ten backpackers there, and three or four Vietnamese, but I was too tired to go anywhere else and so I plopped down and ordered fried fish (ca hong) and veggies (which turned out to be a salad of raw greens and cucumbers). With a beer, it ended up costing me 60,000 dong ($3).

The night wouldn’t have been complete without some good old southern che, so I found a che buoi (pomello che) stand and for 9000 dong ($.43) I satisfied that craving.

After that, I went to bed and crashed.

By the way, sorry the photos aren’t so good; most were taken from the back of a moving bus.

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