Day 5 and 6: River cruise on RV Mekong Pandaw
Day 5: Border crossing into Vietnam
After a couple of mornings on the ship, I began getting up early to jump on the exercise bike in an effort to ensure I wouldn't come home a butterball as a result of all the daily feasting. There was only one exercise bike up on the sun deck, and one of the guys in our group liked to use it just before breakfast, so I made it my mission to wake up and get on the bike long before he (or anyone else) would dream of being up. I'd get up around 5.30am and cycle for 45 or so minutes. I brought bring my camera with me so I'd be ready to take photos of the sunrise. I'd then have time for an early riser cup of sweet, strong coffee before jumping into the shower to be all ready for the breakfast gong at 7am.
This morning, a selection of fruit as usual - pineapple, watermelon and green bananas.
I longed for fried noodles but they never made a reappearance beyond Day 3. This morning, no menu was presented at breakfast for us to select our lunch main courses, which had me intrigued - what would be served for lunch?
Today, the ship would cross the border into Vietnam. There would be no land excursions; instead, a movie in the saloon bar, fruit and vegetable carving demonstrations after lunch, and plenty of relaxing on the sun deck. The excursions had been so far well organised and interesting but I think many of us were just as happy to have a rest day.
Experience or relax?
Even when not on a media trip/famil, when each day is typically jam-packed to squeeze in as much as possible in a relatively short space of time, I find whenever I travel to a new town, city or country, I feel like I'm wasting the experience of being there if I'm not actively doing, seeing or eating something that I couldn't do/see or eat while at home - I've never been one to read a book by the hotel pool or at the beach (I always think: "I can read a book at home!"). As a result of this compulsion to get out and about and do/see/eat things, I have a great time, but don't usually end up feeling like I've had a break. What about you - do you travel/holiday to 'experience' or relax?
The mystery of lunch was solved as soon as I walked into the dining room - today's main course was noodle soup, made to order in front of you.
In addition to noodle soup, the usual sumptuous salad buffet. Again, the same conundrum: where to start?
I posted an image of the rope/string cheese on Facebook and was very interested in readers' responses - according to you guys, you can get it in Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Anywhere else?
The chefs had outdone themselves today! I started with salad, then moved on to noodle soup, then cheese, then dessert. In addition to getting on the exercise bike every morning, I enforced a self-imposed rule on top of my usual of "give everything a try" philosophy - "but no going back for seconds!"
Dessert was a buffet of sorts too - a selection of sticky rice, custards and jellies, fresh mangosteens and crepes with orange sauce, placed on your plate a la silver service. Note: if eating mangosteens for the first time, watch out for the red juice that leaks out of the skin as it can stain your clothes.
After lunch, we went back up to the sun deck to enjoy the river view and warm breeze.
We'd been admiring the both deceptively simple and breathtakingly elaborate fruit and vegetable sculptures on display at the buffets, and this afternoon one of the chefs gave a fruit and vegetable carving demonstration. She started out with the simplest creation involving a tomato, then an ornate carving of carrot rose, and last of all, an attention-grabbing melon.
As sunset approached, we settled into cocktail hour before dinner, enjoying some rather tasty morsels along with icy cold tall drinks.
I was surprised at how hungry I was, considering my lack of activity today. First up, cream of oyster and straw mushroom soup.
Next, a gyoza. I was delighted by the crispy pan-fried bits on the dumpling skin.
I had chosen the pork meat balls for my main course. The meat balls themselves were tasty, but I was surprised by the sparse appearance of the dish. Admittedly, I had been eating all day, so a light dinner was a probably good idea.
Dessert was a sago pearls in coconut milk, topped with chocolate shavings. Tomorrow's excursions would take us into Tan Chau, Vietnam.
Day 6: Tan Chau
The variation to the breakfast offering today was French toast. Chewy, pillowy squares of golden-brown French toast.
After breakfast we boarded a smaller boat to travel into Tan Chau Canal where we visited a fish farm at a floating village. In terms of the fish farm, there wasn't a lot to see, to be honest - though we did witness a feeding frenzy as fish food was sprinkled into the fish pens. I spent much of the time stepping gingerly on the rickety planks, some of which were rotten and felt like they might snap under too much weight.
We next landed at Tan Chau town where rickshaw drivers were waiting to take us on a ride.
The rickshaws here have no shade, and there are tiny handles to hang onto on either side of the seat. There isn't suspension to speak of on these simple pedal-powered carts - you will feel every bump and hole in the road as you trundle along. For those of us mad keen on taking photographs during the ride, keeping balance on the rickshaw while hanging onto our cameras and keeping them still was a challenge.
Note - using a camera strap
This may seem an obvious tidbit to share, but for anyone who travels with a camera, I strongly recommend using a strap when out and about, especially if you want to take photos on a moving rickshaw (or ox cart, or cyclo...). In the past, I used a wrist strap with my compact cameras, and a neck strap with my Panasonic G2 - I now use a more heavy duty strap for my current camera. It may look daggy, but you should never have to 'lose' a camera because you dropped and damaged it. Of course, common sense must prevail too - if travelling in an area where a camera will draw attention and place you in danger of being robbed, then keep it in your backpack rather than wearing it on the strap. If I don't feel the camera and I will be safe, I don't take photographs.
We found ourselves in traffic that consisted mostly of motorcycles and bicycles. Occasionally there'd be a truck, close enough to touch as it roared past.
Our rickshaw ride ended just as the dark clouds rolled in and the heavy tropical rain began to fall in a short but intense burst of storm. We got back on our boat to travel to our next stop - a Cham village. Our guide explained the Cham people originated in an ancient kingdom of Vietnam called Champa. Today, Cham people can be found in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. They are mostly Hindu and Muslim; the village we visited had a Muslim population.
Note - money and bargaining
Like in Cambodia, the US dollar is widely accepted in Vietnam. When changing money, ask for smaller denominations as not everywhere you shop will have change for larger notes (especially if you anticipate shopping at markets). I'll play the game and bargain where it's the done thing, but personally, I'm not a serious haggler. As long as I don't think an item's grossly overpriced for what it is, or that I'm getting ripped off, I never feel the need to bargain my way to a rock-bottom price - frankly, the amounts we're talking about are usually small anyway (why fight over a few dollars, or worse, a few cents?). I always remember this is someone's livelihood - I think a seller trying to make fair and reasonable sales in order to earn a living to feed his or her family is far more important in the scheme of things than me saving a few bucks on a souvenir - bargaining should help you reach a fair price so that neither buyer nor seller are ripped off. Here are some good tips for bargaining. Also - "bargaining" and "bartering" do not mean the same thing.
Back on the ship again, it was time for another lunch. The soup was chicken and eggplant soup with coconut milk. Like the Cambodian pork mince soup previously served, this hearty soup was loaded with tasty treasures and could've been a meal on its own.
For my main course, I had chosen ban xeo (Vietnamese pancake), which was filled with pork mince, carrot and bean sprouts, served with nuoc cham (Vietnamese fish sauce-based dipping sauce).
Dessert was sliced mango and banana fritters with condensed milk.
In the afternoon, some of us watched a movie in the saloon bar - The Lover, based on the book by Marguerite Duras. The crew told us tomorrow we'd be visiting the house in Sa Dec that inspired Duras to write the novel. After the movie there was an opportunity to learn more about Vietnamese history and culture, with a Q&A session with our Vietnamese guide. Overall, another leisurely afternoon.
At dinner, the starter was a shared sushi platter, garnished with wasabi and pickled vegetable julienne, served with soy sauce and little bowls of Japanese seaweed soup.
For my main course, I chose the mutton curry, Myanmar style. The gravy was on the oily side, but the mutton was tender and flavoursome.
Dessert was a velvety and rich chocolate tart, the kind that made conversation slow right down.
The ship moored overnight at Chau Doc.
Note - the social aspects of a cruise
Our group of six sat together for most meals. We were strangers who met on this trip and were enjoying getting to know one another. A couple of the guys in particular in our group had great stories to share and had the rest of us enthralled or laughing hysterically most of the time. Some of the other cruise passengers were quite perturbed by our group always sitting together at meal times, and one gentleman even asked (in a friendly way) whether we were intentionally keeping to ourselves because we were shy or simply did not like socialising. We explained the circumstances which had made us travelling companions (and that we were socialising!) and told him he and any other passengers were most welcome to join us at any meal. We did, by the way, socialise with other passengers up on the sun deck and at other times during the cruise. If you are not kind of person enjoys chatting with strangers, you may loathe the social aspects of a cruise, especially if you are travelling on your own or just with one other person - you will probably find strangers seated with you during meal times or choosing to sit with you simply because they think you look interesting and want to talk to you! It's impossible to totally avoid the chit-chat and being on a ship, there aren't many options for escape! On the other hand, if you can talk to anyone and love to meet new people, cruises may suit you very well.
We're getting closer to the conclusion, but there's still more to come in this series - one more day on the cruise, and a day in Ho Chi Minh City. See the river cruise posts so far.
TFP travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.