The mag­i­cal Mekong

A cruise on the mighty river is a dra­matic in­tro­duc­tion to Viet­nam

Scottish Daily Mail - - Travelmail - by Richard Man­ton

THE night mar­ket in Sa Dek was packed with shop­pers. Just a week be­fore the Tet Fes­ti­val, when the Viet­namese cel­e­brate the lu­nar New Year, fam­i­lies were rush­ing to buy food, dec­o­ra­tions and cloth­ing. And the big­gest prob­lem with the crowds? Most of them were on mopeds.

In­stead of walk­ing to the stalls, the lo­cals – some­times with a fam­ily of five perched on one bike – just rode up, which made nav­i­gat­ing the nar­row river­side streets tricky.

Viet­nam is flooded with mo­tor scoot­ers: The coun­try’s 90mil­lion peo­ple own 45mil­lion of them and from the choked streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the vil­lages dot­ted along the Mekong Delta, the bikes are im­pos­si­ble to avoid.

Hoang, my guide, nav­i­gated us through the hot and noisy colour and hus­tle of the clothes stalls, ven­dors sell­ing peach and apri­cot blos­som to dec­o­rate homes and rows and rows of brooms, buck­ets and mops (a spring clean be­fore Tet is a must for ev­ery fam­ily).

We stopped for a beer at a food stall, eat­ing fiery BBQ chicken and eggs cooked in their shell on skew­ers over the coals be­fore head­ing back to our boat. The mighty Mekong is cen­tral to Viet­namese life, and tak­ing a cruise along the river and the delta trib­u­taries is a fan­tas­tic way to see the coun­try.

Based on con­verted sam­pan, Song Xanh of­fer small hosted tours. I was trav­el­ling alone with a crew of three plus Hoang. We mo­tored out of Sa Dek to where the river widened, chug­ging to a bank­side berth well away from the town next to tow­er­ing jun­gle alive with bird and in­sect noise and the oc­ca­sional screech from macaque mon­keys.

My bed had been cov­ered with a mos­quito net and al­though I was rocked to sleep quickly by the gen­tle mo­tion on board, I was wo­ken with a start at 4.30am to what sounded like a mil­i­tary band. Stum­bling to the bow, the tinny noise of mu­sic fol­lowed by rat-a-tat speech spilled out of the inky dark. Hoang later ex­plained that in ru­ral ar­eas, the lo­cal com­mu­nist chiefs broad­cast half an hour of mu­sic and news to make sure lo­cals are up ready to work by 5am.

It easy to for­get that you’re in a com­mu­nist coun­try. There’s little sense of the dead hand of au­toc­racy guid­ing the lives of the peo­ple we passed on the rivers and canals that snake off the Mekong.

While poverty was ev­i­dent in the tin shacks and col­laps­ing wooden shel­ters along the river­banks, we were greeted en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, from the friendly waves from fish­er­man and farm­ers, to the shrieked greet­ings from chil­dren splash­ing in the shal­lows or run­ning home from school.

Af­ter a fab­u­lous break­fast of noo­dle soup, fresh fruit and strong Viet­namese cof­fee, we set off for a gen­tle cruise to the town of Cai Rang, motoring slowly through the float­ing mar­ket, with the bamboo canes that dis­play each boat’s pro­duce sway­ing in the breeze.

These were farm­ers who sail south with their cargo of sweet pota­toes, cab­bages and onions, liv­ing on board un­til they’ve sold ev­ery­thing be­fore head­ing home to start the process again. On the delta, we passed barges sat low un­der the weight of rice, and long boats full of peach blos­som sail­ing north west to the im­por­tant mar­kets in Ho Chi Minh.

In the ru­ral south there is little

HOANG had been a trans­la­tor dur­ing the war, sent to the front in the dy­ing days as an ar­tillery­man be­fore a stint in a re-ed­u­ca­tion camp af­ter the com­mu­nist vic­tory. But he bore no en­mity to the com­mu­nists; nowa­days, he ex­plained, only those in the far north of the coun­try try to re­live old bat­tles.

I left Hoang and the sam­pan at Can Tho, head­ing back over­land to Ho Chi Minh. Quan, my guide for a tour of the city, loftily dis­missed my con­cerns about the traf­fic as he strode pur­pose­fully onto a pedes­trian cross­ing. Only the cars and bikes and vans didn’t stop. They sim­ply swerved round him, he in turn an­tic­i­pat­ing the ones that won’t stop in a stac­cato ver­sion of chicken. To toughen me up, he put me into a cy­clo, like a bi­cy­cle rick­shaw,

and we shot off into the traf­fic, me at the front be­ing ped­alled by a man twice my age and half my weight.

Talk about a thrill ride! We flew through fruit mar­kets and past food stalls, the women all wear­ing non la hats and the men all smok­ing, some stag­ing im­promptu cock fights with the birds caged in chicken wire cloches. And the mo­tor scoot­ers, pump­ing round the roads and streets and al­leys in an end­less flow­ing move­ment that pays no mind to tra­di­tional traf­fic con­ven­tion.

Not just sin­gle rid­ers or pil­lion pas­sen­gers, but en­tire fam­i­lies – and car­ry­ing ev­ery­thing and any­thing. Cows, goats, TVs, an­other mo­tor­cy­cle en­tire – and that’s just the reg­u­lar bikes.

For deep in­side the city’s District Five, the scooter Dr Franken­steins have been hard at work with their weld­ing torches, splic­ing mopeds with wheel­bar­rows, shop­ping trol­leys, dumper trucks, old cars and pick-ups. These night­mar­ish cre­ations can carry as much as a van, the rid­ers steer­ing from in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble po­si­tions while the en­gines belch blue­black smoke un­der the strain of their hellish mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

AND in the mid­dle of this au­to­mo­tive dystopia, a new lan­guage has emerged: the horn. One blast means ‘I’m be­hind you’. Two quick blasts, I’m about to pass. Two long blasts, don’t you dare. One long blast: you dared. From the falsetto peep-peeps of the mo­tor scoot­ers, the in­sis­tent parp­ing of the cars to the basso pro­fundo roars from trucks and buses, the ca­coph­ony is as star­tling as it is in­sis­tent and slightly ter­ri­fy­ing.

We stopped at a Taoist tem­ple, where I mum­bled a thank­ful prayer. We walked to Septem­ber 23rd Park, which in the weeks run­ning up to Tet is trans­formed into an enor­mous flower mar­ket of mind-blowing beauty. Here, be­neath the shim­mer­ing steel and glass ar­chi­tec­ture of this thriv­ing, mod­ern city, the ven­dors spend three weeks sleep­ing in ham­mocks, hop­ing to sell enough apri­cot blos­som to keep their fam­i­lies in rice for a year.

Nguyen Hue Street, in the shadow of an enor­mous bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh, is closed off for Tet and be­comes the fo­cus for the city’s cel­e­bra­tions.

Nearby, Quan took me to a cal­lig­ra­pher in tra­di­tional dress who was writ­ing spe­cial mes­sages on lucky red en­velopes which are used to gift cash to friends and fam­ily at new year. He wrote three for my wife and chil­dren, a beau­ti­ful and sym­bolic sou­venir that cost less than £1.

We walked to the city halls, and Quan whipped out his phone, show­ing me Hugh Van Es’s 1975 picture of the he­li­copter evac­u­a­tion of Saigon. ‘That’s the build­ing there’, he ex­plains. ‘Peo­ple think it was the US em­bassy but it was the CIA HQ.’

Nearby was the Rex Ho­tel, whose bar was the key hang­out joint for jour­nal­ists and mil­i­tary top brass dur­ing the war. We didn’t stop for a drink – the con­flicts’ ghosts have long been laid to rest in this ex­tra­or­di­nary coun­try.

Af­ter a brisk lunch of shrimp curry, BBQ pork and salt­fish stew, we walked back to the Park Hy­att Ho­tel, my base in the city. Quan stopped in front of a large carved stone me­mo­rial. I’m puz­zled by the scene; a 1950s car, a flar­ing ex­plo­sion, a build­ing shat­ter­ing. All I can see is the date: Christ­mas Eve 1964. ‘It’s to com­mem­o­rate the bomb­ing of your ho­tel,’ Quan ex­plained. ‘The Vi­et­cong blew it up, killing many Amer­i­can ser­vice­men based there.’

The at­tack changed Amer­i­can pol­icy from low-key Spe­cial Forces ad­vis­ers to­wards ful­lon de­ploy­ment of com­bat troops by the thou­sand.

In the cool op­u­lence of the lobby, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine it as a mil­i­tary base. The ho­tel is Saigon’s grand old dame, still an oa­sis of calm in a fran­tic city, a place of busi­ness deals and quiet hand­shakes, of so­ci­ety wed­dings and af­ter­noon tea with maiden aunts. It’s lux­u­ri­ous but won­der­fully un­stuffy; per­fect for this city of con­tra­dic­tions – of a one-party com­mu­nist state with a Peter Man­del­son-style at­ti­tude to be­ing re­laxed about the rich, the beauty of the city and its grind­ing poverty, the tow­er­ing bril­liance of the ar­chi­tec­ture and the river where peo­ple still live in huts fash­ioned from palm leaves. Next morn­ing, I bat­tled though the traf­fic, head­ing east to the coast and the re­sort of Mui Ne. As the city dis­solved in the heat, the coun­try­side opened to flat farm­land and vast palm plan­ta­tions, tour buses bat­tling the steady stream of mopeds on the sin­gle-track roads. The town it­self is a ram­shackle beach­side re­sort with clus­ters of ho­tels on the wa­ter­front and a main shop­ping street packed with bars and seafood restau­rants.

MIA Mui Ne is a bou­tique re­sort, with 32 in­di­vid­ual sapa houses and bun­ga­lows. Mine had a spec­tac­u­lar out­door bath­room with an enor­mous rain shower – per­fect for wash­ing away the grime of the city as par­rots screeched in the lush trees over­head.

Down at the beach, past the pretty pool, the sandy beaches opened in a broad cres­cent and on the wa­ter, dozens and dozens of kitesurfers zipped over the waves in a riot of colour­ful sails and flash­ing boards. There’s a kitesurf­ing school here and a cou­ple of days’ train­ing will get you out on the wa­ter (al­though per­haps not do­ing full loop-the-loops favoured by the ex­pe­ri­enced surfers).

The re­sort has a won­der­fully re­laxed feel, with an el­e­gant spa and blissed-out cou­ples shar­ing can­dlelit din­ners at the pool­side restau­rant. The grounds are im­mac­u­late; pretty paths twist­ing through the grounds cre­ate a real sense of pri­vacy and de­light­ful de­tails (mos­quito can­dles lit for you in the rooms at night, bot­tles of cold wa­ter read­ily re­stocked, pool at­ten­dants al­ways on hand with fresh tow­els, bril­liant din­ing) made for a happy stay – and not a moped in sight.

Delta de­lights: A riot of colour at the busy Cai Rang float­ing mar­ket, above. A con­verted sam­pan is the ideal cruise boat, left

Bliss­ful re­treat: Lux­u­ri­ous Mia Mui Ne is the per­fect place to un­wind af­ter the big city bus­tle

Bike of bur­den: Mov­ing a heavy load

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