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