I returned to Viet Nam for the second time in late April 2005 to attend a veteran’s, photojournalist’s and war correspondent’s reunion to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the end of the war; April 30th. I had already decided to tour the Mekong Delta, where I had never traveled, so, after a week in Sai Gon attending events, photographing the sights and visiting with friends I set out. Delta Adventure Tours offers a 3-day package tour continuing on into Cambodia on the morning of the fourth day but as I wanted to spend more than one night in each town I made arrangements to pick up the trip every other day.
Day One, Friday, 5/6: Sai Gon to My Tho. At 8:00 AM myself and about 14 others board a boat at the wharf on Ton Duc Thang Blvd. for the trip to My Tho. Cruising down the Sai Gon River we pass a large variety of commercial craft heading both up & down-river; merchant ships, heavily-laden cargo boats, small sampans and fishing vessels. As we get further away from the city we pick up speed and the banks change from buildings to lush green foliage. At 11:30 we arrive at My Tho. My hotel, the Chuong Duong, is right on the river. After lunch I explore My Tho, a pleasant little town on the banks of the Tien Giang branch of the Mekong. I visit the Cao Dai temple, the ferry landing, the Central Market and then just wander the streets until dark.
Day Two, Saturday, 5/7: Ben Tre. After an unsuccessful negotiation the previous afternoon to hire a car through Tien Giang Tourist to take me to Ben Tre today, I have to decided to go there on my own. Primary goal is to find and photograph the two Cao Dai temples there. I cross the river on the ferry. After some difficulties and a rather roundabout journey I arrive at the first temple just in time for the noon service. The kindly elders show me around the whole complex which I have carte blanche to shoot. After a late lunch I wander the town visiting the market and waterfront. I pass on trying to find the second temple; my limited Vietnamese language skills are not up to explaining, its Saturday, Ben Tre Tourist offices are closed, there are no taxis, only xe om, xe may loi & xe dap loi so, in the late afternoon I get a xe om back to the ferry landing to return to My Tho.
Day Three, Sunday, 5/8: My Tho to Can Tho. I spend the morning shooting in the market & around town. At 12:30 the Delta guide arrives to inform me that the bus that is to take us to Can Tho will be late due to a flat tire. I wait it out in the rain with the others. We get off around 3:00 PM; it’s slow going; traffic + rain = accidents. The highlight of this trip is crossing the new bridge at Vinh Long. At the ferry crossing there’s a 30 min. wait to cross the Hau Giang so we don’t arrive in Can Tho until well after dark. I get a xe dap loi to my hotel, the A Chau, where, after a little negotiation, I get a balcony room for $2.00 more than an interior. Then it’s out for dinner and a quick look around before retiring early.
Day Four, Monday, 5/9: Can Tho. Up early & down to the waterfront, which is bustling with activity. I let an old woman persuade me into going on a 2-hour canal tour in her small boat. Not as interesting as advertised but I get some good shots. After lunch I meet Anh Hau, a former ARVN interpreter who speaks excellent English. I retain his services as a guide & we set off on his xe om to explore the city; the market, a couple of temples and other sights. Can Tho is a really nice town. Friendly people, great sights & good food. I’m having a great time here.
Day Five, Tuesday, 5/10: Can Tho. Up at 6:00 AM for a 7:00 AM departure on a boat trip to the Cai Rang & Phong Dien floating markets. This is very interesting; lots of activity as we move among the boats selling every kind of fruit & vegetable grown in the Delta. After a brief stop at an orchard for fruit and tea we head back to town in the pouring rain. After lunch I hook up with Anh Hau again to continue exploring Can Tho, including a trip to the supermarket to get some provisions for tomorrow’s trip.
Day Six, Wednesday, 5/11: Can Tho to Long Xuyen/Chau Doc. At 8:00 AM we’re off on the bus to Long Xuyen where we’ll get on a boat to continue on to Chau Doc. The bus trip is uninteresting but the boat trip is fantastic. It’s great to be back on the river again, this time the Hau Giang, and I’m enjoying, and shooting, the variety of sights along the way including the sunset. We arrive in Chau Doc after dark. While the others pile onto the tour bus I get a xe dap loi to my hotel, the Thuan Loi. It’s been an exhausting day so I decide to treat myself and have dinner at the Victoria Chau Doc, the city’s luxury hotel. A sumptuous meal served by gorgeous women in a beautiful colonial-style dining room. Who could ask for more!
Day Seven, Thursday, 5/12: Chau Doc. Up and out early to go exploring as I have only one full day here. The morning is spent in Chau Doc town in the markets, temples & waterfront. After lunch I hire a xe om for the trip up Nui Sam, where I go to the temples and get my first look at Cambodia from the summit. The landscape is green & lush with rice paddies extending in every direction. At the base of the mountain I visit two more temples before heading back to town. Dinner at a floating restaurant caps off the day.
Day Eight, Friday, 5/13: Chau Doc – Vinh Suong. My last day in Viet Nam. A few tense moments this AM as I think the Delta folks have forgotten about me & I’m going to be left behind. A few calls solve the problem and as if by magic a xe om appears to take me to the boat landing. The trip to Vinh Suong takes about 2 hours. We disembark and climb up the riverbank to clear Vietnamese immigration & customs. In the customs shed there is a gigantic airport-style X-ray machine; an anachronism in this remote place. Upon exiting a crowd of boys vie to carry our bags for the 200-meter walk into Camdodia. After passing Cambodian immigration it’s onto another boat to continue upriver to Phnom Penh, but… that’s another story.
Summary: I set out to see if I could travel around Viet Nam by myself with minimal planning and assistance from organized tour operators, as I like the freedom to go where & when I want. Surprisingly, I was able to do so without much difficulty. When I was ready to move on I consulted my guidebook, chose a hotel, called ahead and reserved a room. This worked every time. I then called Delta in Sai Gon and told them I was ready to pick up the tour. To be sure there were a few tense moments when I thought I had been forgotten but they always came through, if a bit late. My limited Vietnamese-language skills came in quite handy and at the very least drew surprise, smiles & laughter from those I was attempting to communicate with. The cell phone I purchased in Sai Gon was a lifesaver. I’d do a similar trip again without reservation. Everybody I met was warm and friendly and eager to help; many even volunteered without my asking. I’d encourage anyone contemplating a similar journey to… GO FOR IT! In short, I had a wonderful time, made some new friends and got to see one of the most fascinating areas of Viet Nam – my way – not sitting on some tour bus.