My memories of the two years we spent in Vietnam in the mid-nineties have a slightly traumatic tinge on account of being denied entry in late 1996, part of a little house cleaning operation the authorities conducted ahead of the sixth congress of the ruling Communist Party.
With this in mind, I’m happy to be able to report that the three of us have just returned from a great few days in the town of Chau Doc, just across the Cambodian border in Vietnam. Apart from being a lot of fun it put a few of my ghosts to rest, if you know what I mean.
When we were based in Hanoi in 1996, we spent an interesting couple of weeks cruising around the Mekong Delta. We rented a car and hired a fantastic guide, an ex-solider in the South Vietnamese Army, who’d done time in a re-education camp, and whom Angela and I refer to to this day as the Forrest Gump of Vietnam such were the stories and experiences he regaled us with.
There’s a public ferry from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, but it takes about ten hours – a bit long for a two-and-a-half-year-old, even one as good a traveller as Tash. We took a faster boat, which cost more, but came with someone to facilitate immigration formalities, which can be very time consuming.
We had company on the boat. Just as we were about to board an old journalist colleague, Michael Hayes, former editor of the Phnom Penh Post, turned up and said he and some friends were going to spend the weekend in Chau Doc. This included Hurley, the owner of local Mexican restaurant Cantina, and the US actor Matt Dillon.
Ahh, sorry did you get that? –We hung out with Matt Dillon the star of Rumblefish, Drugstore Cowboy, There’s Something About Mary and Crash, just to mention a few favourites. He developed a strong attachment to Cambodia during the making of his film City of Ghosts in Phnom Penh. It added a touch of glamour bumping into him throughout the weekend and sharing a few beers with him at night (Angela even managed to slip him a copy of her book, so expect to see the movie rights optioned soon).
Anyway, I digress. The trip down the Mekong is fantastic. The relatively undeveloped Cambodia side of the border quickly changes when you hit Vietnam. The river traffic increases, as does the size of the boats; rice barges, sampans loaded up with fruit and vegetables, tug boats dragging what look like impossibly large barges.
There’s also a lot more development along the river. You get a real sense of how present the state is in Vietnamese people’s lives. There are government buildings everywhere draped with red flags, many of them still sporting the hammer and sickle, unsmiling police and loudspeakers hanging from telegraph poles.
We stayed in Chau Doc’s best hotel, the Victoria, on the Bassac River. Yes, I admit, it’s not our usual fare but we were able to secure a cheap deal courtesy of Michael Hayes, who gets discount vouchers in exchange for free advertising in his paper. The Victoria Hotel looks a like a French colonial building but was actually built by the Soviets in the eighties as a holiday retreat for their advisors in Phnom Penh.
Needless to say, Chau Doc has changed a lot. In the mid-nineties it was a sleepy former French colonial city on the edge of the Mekong Delta. There was a small market. I cannot remember where we stayed but I’m pretty sure the choice was limited.
Changes aside, it’s still a pleasant place to spend a few days. There’s still some pretty impressive French colonial architecture and quite a few places to eat. Fish from the Bassac are a speciality although the seafood is also good. The rule seems to be that the more down at heel the establishment, the better the food.
Getting out and about, there are some interesting temples, and you can climb Sam Mountain for stunning views of the countryside on both sides of the border, much of which at this time of the year – the peak of the wet season – is flooded.
A real find was our local guide Mr Long. An English teacher before 1975, he made a living as a bus driver until the political environment improved sufficiently for him to start practising his language skills again. He now runs a small tour business from his second hand bookshop near the main market.
Long has lived his entire life in Chau Doc and is a mine of information about the place. He’s also more than happy to personalise any tour you want.
He took us to Sam Mountain. He also accompanied us on our most memorable outing, to the floating market outside of Chau Doc. Early every morning boats gather on the Bassac River near the city and sell produce of all kinds, often to vendors who take it back and sell it in the city’s market.
People live, work, socialise and sleep on their boats that come complete with TV antennas, potted plants, lines of washing and household pets. Further up the river is a village of people who fled Cambodia in the early seventies and now live in floating houses on the water, along with a floating petrol station, floating gardens and pens under their houses where they raise fish.
Spending four days in Chau Doc with my beloved Roo and Tash was a great way to celebrate turning 42. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a thrill to have Matt Dillon wish me happy birthday.
That said, when it comes to celebrity status, Tash definitely had one over Matt Dillon on the Mekong Delta.
Wherever we went, people nudged each other, whispered dep (‘beautiful’), reached out to pinch her cheeks or stroke her arms as if she were some sort of good luck idol. Tash handled it all with good grace and unlike other local deities, didn’t require lavish offerings in order to be placated.
The Lady Xu, for example, whose temple is the most famous of those that dot Sam Mountain, has a preference for whole roast pigs, one of which we saw laid out at her shrine.
As Roo notes, the visit to the floating market was a highlight. My favourite feature: samples of fruit and vegetables flying like flags from bamboo poles to advertise wares on the boats. And Natasha got such a kick out of the fish feeding frenzy through the hole in the floorboards of the floating house, we had to scatter the feed five times to sate her curiosity.
I remember being enchanted by the Mekong Delta during our visit in 1996, and 12 years later, for me the place has lost none of its magic.
You can find Mr Long at Hoa Sen bookshop, 14 Nguyen Huu Canh St, next door to Mekong Tours and opposite the park. Mob. 0913 777 978. Feel free to mention this blog.
Reid on Travel is also recommended for information on Chau Doc (where I found Mr Long).