Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City and for those of you who are a bit delicate it will be a great challenge to discover its beauty. I love the fascinating Ho Chi Minh down town. We have just booked in at a small guest house with such friendly staff that we feel at home straight away. We have a great view from third floor. Lovely breakfast included in the price and as much coffee and tea as you can drink – all day – every day.
We are soon on the street roaming the dirty back alleys. The locals are milling around selling coconuts, cooked sweet potatoes, balloons, soft drinks, rubber bands and what have you. Heaps of rubbish is piled up everywhere and the smell is definitively a challenge to your system. In places it stinks to high heaven and it seems to me like a risk to my respiratory passage to do any deep breathing exercise. We have been on the move for several hours to get here and our tummies are telling us it is time to refuel. There is plenty of food vendors lining the dusty streets and one of the local markets is not far from the guest house. This is our choice for the day. The market is busy as a beehive and on a hot day like today with blossom, nectar, fish heads, intestines, nuts, herbs and cheeses readily available there are millions of hard working wing borne friends flying in all directions amongst others Blow flies in big numbers so remember to keep your mouth shot. Time fly, money fly, Blow flies.
The pleasant smell of roses has long evaporated and is replaced with a mixed smell of sewage, food in decay and a variety of animal droppings. After a while I get use to the exotic smells and I can actually hear my stomach rumble again. For a minute I thought that I had lost my appetite. There is so much food to choose from. I fell like having a nice noodle soup. Peder choose the same just to make it easy for the cook. The soup vendor has a few tables. Unfortunately all are full of customers seated on small plastic stools but in Vietnam like many other Asian countries people do not linger for long but appear to be in a hurry to eat and leave. We only have to wait two minutes and the waiter makes room for us by means of shuffling customers around and we squeeze in between some rather colourful old women. They smile as we sit down. The vendor wipes the table space in front of us. Previous patrons left plenty of food and chilli sauce dipping on the table top. Many a local will spit food onto the table top if they can’t chew it like chicken bone and cow horns or in a rare case if they don’t like the food. It looks rather messy and does not really encourage good appetite. The flies patrolling table tops become even more active as well and when you have a close look the table top has a slimy looking surface as well. Not sure if it is the varnish that they use one can only guess. Pamper yourself and indulge in the Vietnamese food culture. Expose yourself to this wonderful experience. Use all your senses and feel in possession of all your faculties. Put yourself in the picture and make a new discovery.
Now is time to do my famous visualisation where I attempt to omit all surroundings such as people, animals, insects, and smell, just simply everything. Right now you only see your plate of food in this instance the soup bowl. With practice you get really good at it. Deep breathe in and the lovely smell of herbs steaming form the soup fills your brain with images from your veggie garden at home. Dumplings and spring onion greets your tastebuds. Visualise yourself sitting in a clearing in a beautiful forest. The birds are singing and the honk from the busses and mopeds milling around you fades away one by one. The soup is delicious and soon we are happy like pigs in mud.
Full of energy and glass noodles it is time to explore some more of the market. If you ask my opinion the dry fish department stinks heaps. Sea cucumber and smoked sea weed mix with mackerel and sardines. I guess I like the fresh sea food market better hoping it is a bit more accommodating. The meat department makes me dizzy. I think I am going to get sick. Pig heads with eyes staring at me. Intestine by the metres, distended goat stomach, liver and hearts it is all too much for this little blonde girl. It makes my skin crawl. My stomach ulcer if I ever had one flares-up and prompts me to head for the noisy and polluted street.
Sipping ice tea at a corner stall with a breeze coming from the next door flower shop makes life so much easier. For your information the herb and spice market is another cosy place to sip coffee or tea. However do not breathe in deep. It could start a reaction of sneezing that will not stop for a while especially if you are vulnerable to hay fever.
There is a corner restaurant in our street where the cook fabricates some absolutely delicious food. It is a very busy business and a great place to eat and sit and watch life goes by. Locals dragging carts piled with old cardboard and paper to the recycling bin somewhere in a back street. The rubbish is all sorted every plastic bottle is a precious item. Gosh could we learn a lot from these people. I even have a suspicion that some street cafes recycle the straws but as I said it is only a suspicion. I have just been observing this one place where they empty out the left over drinks and then dip the drinking glasses in a dirty looking bucket of water leaving the straws floating. Well I keep an eye on the straw container in every drink shop and make sure that our straw is from a new packet and not recycled. I will bring my own next time. It’s already on my bucket list!
It is like the places where the chopsticks are sitting in water all day long with the eating part of the chops in the water. I find it even worse when the chopsticks are made from wood and not plastic. The same good advice for next meal would be to bring your own chopsticks. Put it on your bucket list. In many places the cutlery and chopsticks are dipped in boiling hot water just before you have your meal. It is all comforting my stomach which appear to be lined with stainless steel by now. It is amazing how little trouble we have had so far in regards to nasty bugs leading to diarrhoea.
We stay for ten days in Ho Chi Minh before we get fed up. We book a trip on the Mekong River Delta and on another sunny day we kiss the city goodbye. Cramped in a small hydrofoil craft we speed through the dirty waters of the Mekong.
This is great fun and before we know we have reached another filthy harbour where we change to an old wooden boat which takes us to a homestead on some island where we are booked in for the night. Wow this is exciting. The homestead is an attractive building with a lovely garden with old fruit trees and banana palms. Please don’t ask me where exactly we are but for sure somewhere in the Mekong Delta. It is quite amazing to think about how many times we have been somewhere without knowing exactly where we were and not being worried about it. This homestead is rather romantic and we settle in. The room has a large double bed made of bamboo with mosquito netting to use in the night time. It is very rustic and has got character. Like all other visitors staying overnight we help with the cooking.
It is very pleasing to be in the countryside. It is so nice to escape the big concreted city and all the traffic noise. After a lovely dinner we make our way to the jetty and golly gosh I can’t believe my eyes. The river is choked with one cargo boat after the other. The traffic is enormous. I did not notice before now. I am totally speechless. All night long I hear tugs sailing past a very new experience for me.
After a nice breakfast early next morning we take off on a daytrip on the Delta. We ply the waters of the mighty Mekong River in another old wooden boat. There is plenty to have a look at and we do have a tour guide on board who knows a lot and she speaks very good English so we are kept up to date with what is happening around us. We visit a floating market. It is colourful with boats loaded with every thinkable vegetable and fruit. Don’t look in the water as it is alive with all sort of imaginable rubbish the colour of the water is muddy grey filthy. You would definitely not like to go for a swim. You would get tangled in old plastic bags, sea weeds, old rope and fishing line. If your luck runs out you might be swallowing old cigarette butts, rubbish from the market place and that of the open sewage system. “Look Peder, fish eyes and assholes all bum up”
I don’t know where to go to have a pump out! I never thought about it! Then on the other hand there are so many things you don’t really think about. The captain is slowly approaching a jetty. This is our first stop for the day and we are going to visit a factory where rice paper is produced. Getting off the boat is easy enough but the jetty consists of two planks only and they are rather wobbly. We never wore proper foot wear as this was just a daytrip on a boat. We should have kept our boots on. Peder had just got new bifocal glasses in Ho Chi Minh and you need time to get use to them. This is Peder’s second day of wearing them and he is a bit out of focus. I quick smart make my way to firm ground turn around to face the boat.
I see Peder’s facial expression change as he loses his balance. He looks like one who is going under without really wanting to. Once in the Mekong River he looks desperate and in need of help. The security blanket gone this is just awful. I could have laughed but I refrained. Had it been hidden camera it would be different. This was a serious situation. I cry out loud: Shit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I drop all that I have in my hands. I can’t care less about my beauty box, camera and wallet. My baby lover boy is in the drink. Oh my Goddess. I have only got one Peder and there is no one like him! “Keep your head above water”, I yell. Next I just shout to Peder to hold on to the slimy slippery jetty pole. I reach out as far as I can and I grab his arm. The captain is almost as fast as me and soon some of the other passengers help to pull this wet walrus of a monster out of the water.
A thousands things can go wrong and lucky the tide is coming in. Good for Peder that he went in the drink between the boat and the jetty and not in the fast flowing current. We could have kissed him good bye. Man overboard! See you at the river mouth!
Once on safe ground Peder is shaking all over his body and our tour guide is fast and on her toes. She goes to get hot ginger tea with garlic and heaps of sugar to fight off the shock. She is back in three minutes Peder still shaking in his flip flops manage to drink most of the tea.
This is all happening next to the jetty at the small rice paper making factory and many of the workers get involved. An elderly man and his wife in particular are very worried. They insisted that Peder rest in one of their hammocks and so he does. The factory turns out to be their home as well. A lady takes off to the market to buy Peder a new pair of shorts and our guide goes to buy a towel. Well does he get some attention!!!!!!! When you think about it, it is amazing what we actually do to get a bit of attention nowadays!
At the end of the session when Peder has rested and feeling OK again the elderly man tells our guide that Peder is lucky not having hurt himself. He also says that Peder is lucky because he is Santa Claus. (I might just explain that Peder has a big wild beard and does look like Santa especially when he wears his round spectacles). I do hope that the old man will also remember that Santa is lucky because he lives together with Miss Claws! Later in the day it turned out that Peder has hurt some of his ribs while being pulled out of the river. He can’t laugh for eight days. Well there you go still lucky and for sure we are being looked after. I have known this for years.
Being rather adventurous and brave I may add we did another boat trip please keep your fingers crossed and what a fascinating trip it was from Siem Reap to Battambang in Cambodia crossing Lake Tonle Sap and further travel on the river system. With the floodwater receded it turned out to be a leisure trip of 7 hours and 45 minutes on hard planks for a seat and not much space for our long legs. It is not every day that you get hard skin on your bottom. Last time it happened was during a boat trip also on the Mekong River this time from Huay Xai in Laos in the Golden Triangle one of Asia’s two main opium producing areas where you should not be at any time if you follow your mother’s sound advice. We had an overnight stop at Pak Beng where we were offered all the dope we could carry in our bags but reclined the good offer. We ended up in Luang Prabang. That was a trip and a half but I am not telling you this story just now as I hate to be sidetracked. If you don’t like having dinner with members of the Golden Triangle Drug Cartel or even mingle with them take the destination off your bucket list. Be advised that your devoted gypsies went there and did it all for you. Now keep reading feeling safe in your best recliner armchair.
Lake Tonle is one of the worlds most varied and productive ecosystems. This region has always been of central importance for Cambodia’s food supply. It is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia and one of the richest inland fishing grounds in the world. Designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997. Chock a block full of sediments which contains nutrients great for plankton that then feeds plants. Food in abundance and high quality. No fishing allowed during the floods as this is breeding time. Fishing starts at the end of the rainy season.
Heaps of birdlife. Reptile population including the nearly extinct Siamese crocodile and a large numbers of freshwater snakes. I hope that Peder will be safe on board and on leaving the boat this time. I don’t want him to swim off with a crocodile. Or be eaten by the Mekong giant catfish which is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. The fish is 2.4 to 3.0 metres long. You would not like to meet a hungry fellow like this. It is said that the cat fish is vulnerable to chemical changes, which is beneficial in alerting authorities of trouble in the river ecosystem early on. That’s just awesome!
A few passengers had to sit on the deck getting well and truly cooked in the heat of the sun. We were just lucky to get a seat each downstairs in the shade. Before we could depart about 20 passengers had to leave the boat as the harbour police call around and thought the boat was just a fraction overladed. To me the boat looked as if it was loaded to the eyeballs or a newer version: packed to the rafters. So another boat was organised and after mocking around for a while we were ready to departure at 8.30am only one hour late. Out here we also refer to these sorts of delays as “rubber time”. If I am not wrong this is the everyday circus of getting a tour on its way. Off we chug and as the boat was doing full throttle it would have been comfortable with earplugs but we had not thought about it as we knew it was a slow going boat and took it for granted to be a quiet trip. We learn every day.
After a while and well across the open lake and long time into the river system passing lots of floating village’s skipper had to navigate through a very narrow natural channel with scrubs and trees on each side.
Branches bending and flipping all over the place hitting passengers sitting at the rails and therefore had to move in and the people seated in the middle of the boat had to stand during this passage. After the passage it became hard work for skipper and his crew as the river narrows and turned into one bend after the other. Skipper had to slow to snail pace and it was time to really have a good look around. We had by now reached the poorer section of the lake settlements. The houses or rather the huts were either floating or build on stilts some dwellings were boats only. Many a roof was worn out. Most of them made of palm leaves or tarp. Well what a mess on the ground surrounding the huts. It looked more like a rubbish tip than a place where people could live. I guess you can say that the inhabitants are caught in the fact that they do not know what to do about the modern plastic such as bottles, wrappings and bags. The nature an absolutely beauty but most of the dwellings are dumps. No building inspector makes it out here and many a hut looks like on the last leg of a hubbub life. To be honest these camps would be condemned and unfit for humans to live in then bulldozed had it been Australia.
One could say that the dwellings looked like an area hit by a cyclone but on the other hand none of the dwellings would have survived a cyclone. Mind you many have to shift during the dry season to a wet area so that they can keep fishing and surviving. The lake surface during the dry season is about 2,700km² and during the monsoon season it is 16,000km². Well there you go there must be an awfully lot of water and mosquitoes around.
Some dwellings have power from generators and we do see a couple of antennas so some have a television. Not much privacy in a hut as the whole family share the floor for work, preparing and eating their food and of cause sleeping and making love whichever comes first. It does take a few kids for the parents to survive the old age when they cannot work anymore. I guess the production rate is high. Swampy looking place at the moment which will dry up to hard ground and crack later in the season and there will be no water for miles.
I was just wondering how they go about drinking water. I know that the lake and river system is all fresh water but the river is used for everything. Washing bodies, toilet visits, fishing, washing the clothes and all the kitchen gear. There is plenty of fuel in the water from the boats leaking oil and petrol as well. The people here live and survive on the fishing industry and it looks as if they are fishing all day long. Then drying out the fish in the sun with a dark swarm of flies around. Other sorts of fish is caught and the fish head is cut off. The fish is cleaned in the lake/river water and fat removed. Then the fish is salted and will continue to macerate for several months in order to become a paste called ‘”Prahok”, a condiment that complements almost any dish. And I hate it! The smell and the taste! All part of the fish is used. The heads are dried in the sun, becoming a good fertilizer. The fat is boiled to make soap.
Some people fish with bamboo rods with a string attached I am not sure what they use for hook. Some have small nets to cast and others have bigger nets to set. Whatever the equipment and the catch it is obviously enough to keep them going. The people here are also known for producing a most exquisite fish sauce which they by the way put in many dishes like this lovely chicken mango salad dish I just had. If you ask me about the added fish sauce I can only say what a shit of a life style! So I had to kill the dish with soy sauce and down I gulped the food.
So here are all these lovely smiling kids having a ball in the wetlands never having to go to school and maybe never wearing clothes. Never getting the opportunity to learn to read and write. Maybe they are growing up becoming the next generation of great fisher men and fisher women.
The interior decoration out here is the sunset and sunrise always and forever changing colours. The birdlife is amazing creating the entertainment joined by the choirs of frogs. Welcome to the most peaceful part of the world a place where the long drop dunny is short and drops straight into the river to float past the neighbouring settlements to be mixed with greasy looking dishwashing water for the next settlement to enjoy a swim and a good clean up. Don’t eat the yellow snow I was told when I was a child! You can only wonder and ponder upon mortality rate and would a doctor ever make a trip to the wetlands for the annual check up?
I guess it never happens. These people live a tough life from hand to mouth. No help to get and if they go to bed hungry one day they just have to work harder tomorrow to catch more fish to fill the many stomachs. There are no unemployment benefits or the likes. Here everyone is his own architecture of his own future. May their Water Goddess look after them for now and forever!
One day these communities may not exist anymore. People might go to town to live hoping for more money to earn and more comfortable lifestyle however they eat a lot of fish in Cambodia. Half a dozen chooks doesn’t make a basket. They don’t even have a mail run out here and why would they care anyway most of them can’t read or write. It is only us who rely on a daily delivery and if not in time we start to panic. Here life goes on, snail mail or no mail and all the kids make a big show of waving to the bypassing boats and tourists. This brings a smile to the visitors face grim with facts of life on Lake Tonle Sap. My heart goes out to the people on the Lake. They might not even know what time it is but their knowledge of fishing is unbeatable. Restrictions and regulations keeps us in line at home in Australia. What a relief! Which other way would we be able to control ourselves and keep in good line with life!
And so we got to Battambang after all.
You can never know what will happen when you launch into travels like this. You can’t prepare yourself for any sort of happenings. Just trust you are looked after and in good hands. It is the same like crossing the street in your neighbourhood you never know what’s around the corner.