THE MEKONG DELTA.
After Buon Ma Thout and the southern highlands of Dalat and Bao Loc, it is time for the most southern part of Vietnam: The Mekong Delta. Although it is a rather flat area, it still have some rather interesting features, the real warm weather being one of them.
2/2. A short afternoon flight from Buon Ma Thout brings me to Ho Chi Minh City, former known as Saigon, just as it get dark. The tour takes 45 minutes and cost §81. Alternately, I could have spend $20 and eight hours in a bus without any out-view.
The airport is real near the centre of the city, and I take a taxi to the old city, just on the shores of the mighty Saigon River. Right now, I am only going to spend one night, but I will be back for my last days, visiting nurseries and seeing the city. And I plan to leave quite some of swollen luggage here.
It is steaming, above 30C and humid, and I guess that is the case all over Mekong. Accordantly to the forecast, some days with 50% chance for showers, 22-33C. Pretty much the same for Ca Mau, way down south. Guess I will have to bring the rain suit, and one fleece - just in case.
It seems like the original plan have worked quite well. Actually, the week I had for buffer is "untouched", and I might have to find a few more sights in the Mekong Delta, avoiding spending more time than necessarily in Ho Chi Minh City. I only have a couple of sights and 2-3 nurseries to visit.
As no surprise, the taxi driver tries to add an extra §10 for "airport tax", re-calculated into a bunch of dongs. I tell him that I saw him paying 10KD, and that is what he gets. He make a scene, make a phone call, but he figures that if he want to leave with his review mirror still attached to the car, he better hand me ALL the change, before leaving.
Al least, I am in front of the hotel I wanted. They are out of single rooms, but I get a double for §12. It actually suits me fine, using US§ now. I still have 620 left, and no reason bringing them back home. Friendly staff of three tiny girls, nice room and I'm out within five minutes. Still a bit of daylight, and I want to find a motorcycle for tomorrow morning.
Take a walk around the block. It is huge! Plenty of tourists, even the white ones. Haven't seen any since Ha Noi! Lots of cafes and restaurants, but I wait until I get to the back side of the block, and in an alley, the locals are eating. Some nice roasted pork with sticky rice, but even here, the prices are 2-3 times what I use to pay.
Back at the hotel, I have a coffee, at five times the price I paid this morning, and absolutely no hints to where to find a motorcycle. One more tour, and a girl handling flyers from a massage clinic tells me: On the backside of the other block, you find lots of motorcycles.
Oh-yes. Almost every shop rent out motorcycles. I make a deal several times, and guess the last one, is the one I address in the morning. One week - or was it six days - for $40, and it is a rather big, and not that old bike. A bit of discussion about the deposit. The wife insists on the passport, I offers $300, and agree on $500 - about the value of the bike.
On the way back, I have absolute no intentions on buying candy, but when a store have a full rack of Haribo; who can refuse? Outside the neighbour to the hotel, a police-officer band are playing. They should have talked about which tunes before playing! No reason for quitting their day jobs for sure. When I am down in the reception to get the code for the wifi, I use the "invisible remote", and they stop right then! Sure get one point from the girls, who have suffered for almost a hour.
Diary, photos, laundry and then some planning for the next week, and re-packing. And then it is midnight - although it does not sound that way: This is party street. I on-plug my earplugs, and I can't hear a thing. Well, until five o'clock: Then the bloody band is back! Must be a funeral or something like that.
3/2. Breakfast at the hotel, and just before eight, I try to find the guy who offered me a deal on a motorcycle last evening. He said he would be there at eight, but I don't seem to be able to find him. Try a few others, but they won't let me take the bike outside Ho Chi Minh City. If it was me, I would have it the other way around, and drive them to the city-limit sign.
The traffic is intense: I guess you sometimes can see 1-200 mopeds at a red light! When it turns green, it is just like penguins: No one like to be the first. The crossing traffic only stops, when the first one from the other side start crossing. Just as with other business adventures, the "maintenance of helmets" are all ten fund along one block.
Finally, I find a man with hair on his chest. He wanted my passport, but after a lot of negotiating, he get $500. Exactly the same Yamaha as I had way op north, this time for $42 for a week. He points me to the nearest gas-tank, and I head off. The city centre are dominated by roundabouts with 5-7 roads - and some minor ones too. Some have significantly more roads than my detailed map shows!
Get the gas and head out the right way. After 5-10 kilometres, I notes the odometer and speedometer don't work. Can't be bothered to go back, negotiating that, and I simply turn in at the first mechanic. New cable AND gearing for 150KD, which I think is well spend. When there are no cities limit signs, you newer know when you are there, without the odometer.
It feels like the city are endless. First after at around 20 kilometres , it opens a bit. After 30, there are a few rice fields behind the houses. I crosses rivers, several other cities and roundabouts, and somehow, they always fails to write any of the names my map have, on the few road signs.
The landscape is flat! Here are canals all over, and I get some new motives. Pull-over for an ice-coffee on a quieter stretch, and drive on, only doing around 60 Km/t. The buildings starts to "thicken", and I reach My Tho around noon. The hotel I was looking for seems to have gone, but I find another, offering the same.
A short walk brings me down to the mighty Giang River. Round the corner, and I am at the marked. Pretty much the same as usual, both outdoor and indoor. The other sight the city have to offer - besides from boat rides - is the Cao Dal Temple.
I made a rough map at the room, and even though the temple should be located right outside the Lonely Planet map, I figured I could find it. I find one temple, but it have another name. Walk a few kilometres more, and have to give in. Back at my room, it seems like I got the right temple after all. Unfortunately, it was closed, but I got some views of the drying tea and other products in its yard. I comfort myself with a couple of pirogs. Tastes great, especially when I figure the "eyeballs" are just tiny eggs.
The heat is pressing, at least 38C and near 100% humidity. I write a bit, and grab a "grand-pa" with the air-con on. I could have driven on the next city, but I have no rush at all. I let the worse midday heat fait, and hit the market again. The mist still hang over the city, making real good photography impossible - but that don't stop me for trying.
As I thought, the other side of the river have now more light, and the stilt houses, build in the river make some real nice motives. I crosses a river, and take the back-side of the same houses. Here, it is fruit en-gross. Every shop have their specific fruit. Coconut, melons, red onions, bananas, rambutan and so on.
A barbershop get my attention: Could be nice with a bit less hair in the sides. He have one customer, who get a haircut, a completely unnecessarily shave and a real thorough ear cleaning. Several different sticks, cotton sticks and a lotion. I stick to the cutting... He does not understand a word I say - but neither do my local barber at home.
The sun kind of penetrates the mist, and I think I catch some great shots of this back-street. They are defiantly not use to tourists! There are lots of boats with "Tourist" on their wooden hulls, but I only se two whites. Back thought a business district, and a night marked. I'm ready for the foodcourt, but they aren't Another cup of drip-drip, and back to write a bit more.
It is dark at six, and I try the food stands on the other side of the road, along the river. Here are seats for 1000s, but we are hardly 25. Guess it is off-season here too. Home to sort the photos. 127 of which the 100 is of the stilt houses on the other side of the river. Roughly cut down to 45.
Still having some planning to do. Howie want to join me at one or two national parks, and I have to figure when I'm there.
4/2. A great start on the day: Pork chops with sticky rice and a great soyasouce. I drive a bit back to catch the A1 once again. It remains more or less city until I reach Vinh Long. I do a couple of stops on the way, one at a nursery, but it seems like it is mainly Da Lat plants they are selling. Many stops at bridges, some offering a fantastic view at the waterfront. Water-palms, old wooden houses, houseboats and nature in general.
I crosses one enormous bridge, sponsored by New Zealand, it seems. In other places, it is old concrete bridges, which slowly are replaced - with new concrete bridges. I reach a huge open plane, mainly with huge rice fields. I do a coffee stop, but it seems impossible to get the drip-thing here. Always ice-coffee. It is all right, but I misses the creamy condensed milk.
I reach Vinh Long after 80 kilometres, and find the waterfront. Just as I read, I am offered a boat tour to the floating marked, the canals and much more, right away. I get a rather good price: 300KD for two hours. Might sound a bit expensive, but I got the boat for my self, although here are room for 10-15 passengers, but I don't have the day for them to fill it up! Out in the enormous river, a group of low, muddy islands are found. Here should be a great chance for seeing wild orchids - if it wasn't for the old trees have been cut down.
Now, it is endless tiny fruit tree plantations. We stop at a nursery, supplying the seedlings, but I am more interested in the wild. I see a Calotes, front half orange, back end yellow. One of their trees is star-fruits, which I think is a first for me.
We go up some smaller and smaller canals, until we are stocked. It is low-tide, and the boat-hand jumps over board while the captain and I use bamboo sticks to push us through to the other side of the narrow and shallow canal. Along the sides, the roots from the mangrove stands up like pointy fingers. Mudskippers jumps around, and a few kingfishers shows up as glimpse in blue.
We can't make it to the floating marked, unless we wait several hours, and I hope to see another, further down, so I call it a day. Here are loads of water-hyacinths, which is an invasive species. Kind of pity, it look great flowering, as it does here. The tiny wooden canoes are everywhere. They are used to transport anything around here. We catches up with one, distributing ice. Along the shore, many nets are sat up, catching tiny fish, using the tide.
Every time I think I spot an orchid, it turns out to be just one more water hyacinth, stuck in the branched, left by high-tide. After two and a half hour, we reach the city again. I make a short round to the market, but I am eager to get on. The next stretch is a smaller road, and I hope to get a bit out in the countryside. More bridges, more interesting and camera catching river sides.
I reach the waste rice country. Almost endless fields, most almost ripen or even harvested. I see a single machine in action, but else, it is the remaining stubs on the fields, and endless drying areas. Many along or even on the road. When I crosses the major rivers, big boats, loaded with rice dominates.
The speedometer fails, and I do a stop. It is millimetres - or the next bump - from falling out, dropping the gearing. I find a tiny twig, and make a temporally solution. I would hate to have to buy yet one more! And I am so depended on the thing, the lack of road-signs to blame.
Another stop, mainly because their view is a large rice field. It is actually great driving in the heat of noon. Open fleece and gloves for sun protection, and I'm fine. Flip-flops - and a thick layer of sun-screen on the feet does it. Reach Tra Vinh almost too soon. The 70 kilometres felt like 20, but is is a pretty good road. Make a tour around the city in the country side.
It should just be "one of the prettiest cities in the Mekong delta". Well, it is not bad, but I won't call it pretty either. Find my hotel, which is a bit of a challenge. It have two names, two fronts and the address I have is a mix. Anyway; I get a descent room for the normal 200KD, drop the driver cloths and bag, and do the very large market on the other side of the square.
I leads me down the the river, and I do a few more tours through it. Their radio tower is yet one more Eiffel tower, and the rest is quite modern, Vietnamese style. People are real friendly, and I bet they does not see pale people like me ever day!
I do a few loops in the more "established" shop area, and find the river again. Three boats are covered in plants from the delta. Here, they are sold for the many pots people have on their terrace, in their front yard and anywhere else they can fit it in.
On my second tour at the market, I invest in a bunch of tiny, sweet bananas. I guess the fibres will be appreciated by my stomach, not much in, what else I eat. One more ice-coffee, this time in front of the city's new mall. Real posh to look at, but the one I have visited have been slightly disappointing. Well visited, but nothing you can't get on the streets.
The sun gets low, and I head back to the hotel. Fund a piece of wire, and fix the speedometer cable. Not pretty, but efficient! Arrange to have the bike drown in at night, and redraws to my room for diary writing, while people prepares the night market. I passes it earlier, and I guess they need a couple of hours, before they are up and running. The 150 photos are sliced back to 77 - not that efficient.
The night market is slightly disappointing. Where the main street was teeming with life, the night market is only half filled with shops, almost no customers. Cloths, shoos and 20KD jewellery. And no food stands! Back in the main street, I find a stuffed baguette and then some non-soup thing, which is pleasant. Finishes off with a pineapple-strawberry smoothie. Near by, some live concert with play-back are held. Every one sits on their mopeds, on the road.
Back at the hotel, I help the owner filling out the papers he have to. He can't figure which country I'm from, what my home address is and so on. Neither can he a single word English. Guess he doesn't see many tourists these days...I haven't seen a single one.
The usual late night planning reveals: The huge and for me: Important Floating Market in Cai Rang in NOT in Soc Trang, but up in Can Tho, and it is best before eight in the morning. I am 112 kilometres and a ferry away! Can't solve this other way, but early up, right through Soc Trang the first time, see the rest of the market, return to Soc Trang and the Bat Pagoda, then down to towards Ca Mau. Or skipping the most southern Ca Mau forest, and only doing the drive - or quit that too.
5/2. An early start to the day, a stuffed baguette for breakfast, and I'm off to some southern adventures. Across the huge island I'm on, and catch the ferry to Soc Trang. On the way, I passes small villages, rice fields, a bit of fruit trees, some vegetables and the only thing new, is the temples. They have a huge fenced lot, and are in a different style. Buddhist, but bright colours and Chinese style.
I do pass a church from time to time. Further up north, they were heavily inspired by Asian architecture, down here, they are more European Protestantic, but way more colourful. I find the ferry pretty easy, but there are some disagreement about, wherever I am on the right ferry or not. I'm use to that, and when the ticket woman say I'm on the right ferry, I trust her. 20 mopeds with owners, and we are off.
I thought it was just across the river, but we are going upstream quite some. Well, my map have been wrong before, and accordantly to it, here are only one road, heading the river on both sides for 25 kilometres to each side. "Can't go wrong".
As we reach the other side, I just follow the rest, thinking they are going to the big city. One after the other, they turn down tiny patches. The "road" we are on, in just a cemented trail, not wide enough for a car. Then, I am alone, and have a bad feeling. Well, with only one path, what can go wrong?
After around five kilometres, I reach a narrow, sealed road. I follow it, asking for directions every time possible. In average, every second point either back or forward. If there are tree persons, one will point back, one forward and one just shaking his hand, meaning he don't know.
I have had this experience many times, but I failed to capture it on film. Here, it is slightly more annoying, because no one are sure or agree. I show the map to 25-30 people, asking them to point to, where we are. None - I say NONE, are brave to just give it a try!
At one point, I find a road-sign with several roads and city names on. None are found on my map. 15-20 kilometres due south is way too much: I should be heading southwest. U-turn, and back again one the only real but still narrow road. I passes one tiny city, and I do a bit of asking around. No one seems to know the name of the city, nor be able to point it out on my map. Bit scary, somehow...
I try one of the tine patches going west, where I want to go. It leads to yet one more ferry. Then I know what has happened - I hope: I find my self on the tiny mud bank, in the river! I thought we had passes that right away, taking off with the first ferry this morning. Two hours on a pile of mud! Even the rivers suffer from low tide, and seems rather dry, scatted with boats.
Short trip across this arm of the river, and this time, it looks more like it. More temples, but I'm going for Chua Doi, known as the Bat Temple. Giant fruit bats are found in the huge fig trees outside the temple. It should be 3-4 kilometres outside the large Soc Trang, but I have a hard time orientating. The sun is almost vertical, no roads I find are on my map, and the sun is practically vertical. Roads here, like in most towns meet in roundabouts of odd angles.
I am looking for a motorcycle taxi for a long time, and finally, I find one. He make the score of the day, but I get to the right temple. Slightly disappointing, though. Here are only a few bats, they sit way up in the very tall figs, and the temple is nothing special. Some musicians are playing, and it is not that bad.
Considering the crowd outside the area, I have expected something more. Turns out it is just locals, wanting to pray. Well, I know where I am, and what I want to see next: The open landside. First by A1 down to Bac Lieu. It is now just a small road, this close to its end.
Two lanes and pedestrian/moped lane next to them. Unless this lanes were indented for drying rice? That seems to be the main function these days. Many bridges, the only high points in this large and totally flat landscape. The rice fields seem almost endless, only plantations of coconut and a few sucker canes break the horizon.
A ice-coffee in Bac Lieu, and after haven driven a bit around town, I head a bit back on A1, to the small Nga Nam road, leading west on. A First, it is surprisingly good, but then it turns into a sandy road. Along it, low stacks of rice straws are packed and watered. Can't figure if it for feeding of fertilizing?
It turns into a one moped lane, and ends at a couple of hand-pulled ferries. On the other side, the sand continues, but slowly, it getting wider. Then it is sealed, and I get the afternoon sun in just right. Numerous motives on my side of the road where the canal is. Bricks to a house arrivals on boats, duck-farms, straw houses, little boats in the canal and so on.
I keep checking my direction, and when I drive under a big road, I figured: It must be the Can Tho road. Well, it might be one day. At present time, it is a wide gravel road. Bit difficult to drive on, but it is in the right direction. I am heading for Cai Rang, where one of the large floating markets are held. In the morning between six and eight. It should be located six kilometres outside the "capital" of the region, but I see no reason to go into a huge city, just to go back in the early morning.
Been driving 256 kilometres today, but it feels way less. Guess I got into practise now, and it have been good roads in general, and not much traffic.
I find a hotel real close to the site, and settles in at five. What gave them away was the "2" in their name. A sign with "hotel" or a name including that would be helpful. I would have liked to go all the way down to Ca Mau, but I have to get back to meet Howie up in Tram Chim, and save some days for Ho Chi Minh City.
70 kilometres away, but that is two hours each way at best, three more likely, and I would need time to explore the mangrove forest too. And then I discover that I actually did have that day: Bummer! Don't feel like doing a national park AND 475 kilometres in one day. Howie just have to tell me about Ca Mau Forest when he have been there.
Write a bit while I wait for the restaurants to be ready. Get a noodle soup near the hotel, but then I take a tour down to the centre of Hung Loi - or whatever this city is called. It is on the other side of the river, and it is not Cai Rang on this side. It is really amassing how much the cities are alike, all the way from the north to the south. Some lack of cause the old city centre, which have been lost during one or the recent wars, some are small some large, but still: Alike!
As I am experiencing it, the temperature of the air and the coffee are the major different. Well, the mountains are less than a meter down here, and the roads in way better conditions. I find a cafe that understand my affection of condensed milk - but not hot coffee. Sit-down and finished the diary and photos, hoping Howie will answer my email. Bit annoying not having internet at the room! I just have to hack someone in the nearby city
6/2. As usually, when I have to get up early, I sleep real bad. Wake up every hour and then half hour. At five I give in, and starts the day. When I reach the reception, there is no one there. The gate is closed with a big lock, and I can't get out. I even got away with paying in advance, and "forgetting" to hand over my passport, planning this early start.
Takes half an hour before I get the gate opened. The the moped have a flat back tire. Easy to explain what's wrong, and I get directed to two brothers, who not only fix flat tires, they start early! He leaves the wheel on, and lit up a strange gadget. With a lighter, that is.
After it have heated up, the tube goes in under pressure, and he find the nail that caused the flat. Half an hour and 20KD later, and I'm off. To my huge disappointment, the floating market of Cai Rang, which should be Vietnam's largest, is not located under the bridge I was told. Star asking around, but no one understands what I'm looking for. Two directs me to the normal marked, next to a bridge, the rest just shake their hands: No knowing anything.
After desperately have tried that 30-40 times, I head back to the hotel to collect my backpack. One would think a picture of the marked would help. Well, the first 20-30 are still unaware about what I'm looking for, and I have now spend one hour getting here and three hours driving up and down rivers, asking for clues. I have to face it: The market - if it ever excited - will be closed by now.
I had three things I really wanted to see in Vietnam, besides from the work-related orchids: The huge waterfall in the north. I succeeded, but it would have been a bigger experience if it haven't' been raining and freezing cold. Second site was the rice terraces of Da Pa. I did see them, but it would have been better if they were green or flooded. This floating marked - or another floating market - was my final wish, and I have failed totally!
There is nothing else to do, but drive to Tram Chim National Park, and hopefully meet Howie. There is no direct road, but I figure I better play it safe, and stick to the major roads, although it is longer and boring. It seems like I newer really leave town, I can only glimpse the enormous rice fields behind the small houses along the roads.
I stop for coffee from time to time, not that I need it, but my bud does! Here in the south, it is common that the road cafes have hammocks. Look tempting, but I have to keep the speed up, if I am to make it all the way to the national park today.
I stop to make a few photos on the way; A huge flock of real pink ducks - must be coloured artificially. Easy to recognise for sure! The fermented rice strays are apparently made for fertilizing: They are spread out on some fields. A swamp with true lotus' make me stop for a proper photo. Unfortunately, the ones along the dry shore are either picked or non-flowering.
It seems like you never leave the river in southern Vietnam. If is not one one side of the road - it is on the other. There are huge areas in-between rivers, but I doubt there are any roads. Can't see any, and none are marked on my map. That somehow explains all the houses along the road. I try to find a cafe, facing the river, but I think I have to pass around one hundred, before one have their terrace partly facing the river. I find it way more relaxing than the busy road I've been driving on. They even have a nice gecko and a Calotes.
There are only a few lorries and trucks on the roads. All goods are transported on the river in old, wooden vessels. In some places, charcoal are made into "fuel-cells", the most common for cooking, it seems. They are dried along the road. Bricks are made from river mud, and it is transported in cubics. Next to the mud, red bricks are piling up.
I figured I won't have to stop on every bridge: I got it covered! And then again: Here, at low tide, the stilts are high! And the sheets are tinplates, not bamboo around here. Way less charming!
I reach the end of the line: The large city of Chau Doc, right next to Laos. I stop at the market, but besides from a couple of new fruits, it looks just like the others. Same goes for the houses with shops. It is a big river, and there are quite some traffic on it. Some metres out, stilt houses stands, high above water right now. Further out, it is houseboats.
I drive back one kilometre, and catch the ferry to the next island in the Mekong Delta. Here are a lot of people, and curtsey only gives you a ride on the next ferry - or the one after that. My map is a "bit rough" in this area, but I try just to follow the big road, hoping it leads to the ferry for the mainland, on the other side.
This time it actually works, and I end up in the Dong Thap district. The huge rivers I crosses have houseboats on them. Tinplates, and not charming at all! It is getting late, and accordantly to the Lonely Planet book, I have to find the headquarter for the National Park, which doubles as the state-run guesthouse. It should be en a village before the ark, and I find the village, but no one knows anything about a headquarter.
End up in the village the park share its name with, and start asking for the national park. Smiling faces, no one have a clue to what I'm babbling about. At this point, I'm sure it would be easier to teach sheep to dance polka, than to got one straight answer out of a Vietnamese!
Now, it is really late, and unless I want to drive real long to find a bed, I got to find one now. So; I start asking for a hotel. They haven't a clue to, what a hotel is. The classic head to one side, hands underneath does not help. I do bigger and bigger loops around the square with the market.
A Karaoke sign catches my tired eyes. I have seen that before on some hotels, and bingo: They have rooms. Unfortunately, they also have karaoke. These room and the hotel rooms are on the same floor. Either beds or huge speakers, a frame of strong beers and a couple of microphones. It have to be said: I hate karaoke, and this is fare the worse I have hear! My ear-plugs damps some, but I feel like stroking some one! Hope they fall over before I do.
I am trying desperately to keep Howie up to date, but although here is internet, I don't seem to be able to send mails. Standing on the bed, raising the computer up to the window, I receive a few, but I can't send. Try around the city, but fails to hack any. Finally, but with the life at stake: Here are the first mosquitoes I have felt - and here are a lot! At ten, I am ready to head the sheets - if it wasn't for the karaoke. Does people think is sounds better, just because it is higher??? If so, they are so WRONG!
7/2. Early up, despite the nightly karaoke, and out on the road, leading the to Tram Chim National Park. Howie have send me the text to ask for it, and after a bit of the usual ping-pong, I'm there. It turns out to be a bird-park, and right now, it is completely flooded. I can only go there by boat, but they supply me with one, skipper and guide for 800KD. That is a lot of dongs, but I can bring seven friends...
Well, if it is good, I'll bring Howie tomorrow, if not, he save the drive and I save one more night with karaoke and cold showers. The guide speaks a rather good English, and he know his birds. We see a lot! Most herons, guess there are at least 10 different species, and then I spot something big, way out on the flat area.
At first I think it is workers, but then I se the head of one, and I ask the guide, if it not the famous Eastern Sarus Cranes, Grus antigone sharpii. He and the skipper becomes all excited, and I guess it is. They are rare, and the tallest flying bird - up to 170 centimetres! Considering I have now seen the African ostrich, the southern Albatross, the giant Buzzard, the Andes Condor, I think I now safe can say: I have seen the largest bird on the planet.
Although we are around 250 metres from them, they look rather big. While they look at them, I find some floating plant, that I haven't seen before. Seen relatives, but not this species. I also spot a water lily-like plant, although the flowers are small and feather-like.
The birds keep coming: Some giant darters and some smaller cormorants, two species of ducks, big black and white kingfisher and a couple of smaller species, bee-eaters, swallows, large and blue water hens with red heads, smaller water hens, some kites, a black bird with spitted tail I can't remember the name of, flycatchers and some more of the 251 species, found within the parks large area.
We do a stop at a huge bird-watch-tower. I guess it is made of iron, but then covered in a thin layer of concrete, making it look like thin branches. It is really tall! The top level give us a fantastic view over the area. The area consists of two original types and one man-made. There is the swamp forest, on the really scatted islands, the waste swamps, which will dry out and the canales, made for fire control.
Recently, they have learned the patchwork system, but the canales remains, being filled all year. Now, the water have dissented around two metres, and within a month, the last two metres are gone, and the entire area - except the tiny bits of forest - will turn brown. The trees have found the dikes made by the canal digging.
I get a lift to one of these dikes, and get a bit closer to the wild. Dragon flies, eggs of the giant swamp snails (eaten in Europe as escargots, a lot of fish, some real big, a giant wasp, some nice plants, and the calm of the wild in general. Water lilies, lotus' grass - a lot of grass and more grass.
Soon, it is time to head back. Scare the same herons, ducks and cormorants, and this time, I get a bit closer to the white lotus. After two and a half hour, we are back. I have asked for wild orchids, but to my surprise tell the guide me: Here are none. Then I see no reason for Howie to drive up here, nor for me to be mistreated with karaoke one more evening/night.
Back to pickup my bag up at the hotel, and send Howie a short mail, channelling the Tram Chim tour. Find a cafe that can make ice-coffee with milk, and starts to re-plan. Some days ago, I thought I was missing one day to go to U Minh Forest. Now, I kind of have one or even two days too much. I need some days in HCMC, but not five!
Read about the area: Nothing sounds real interesting. On the map, I find a dotted road. Only one I have seen on the entire map, and it is in a area I haven't seen. That does it: I have to drive it. It looks pretty straight, and around 50 kilometres, as the crow flies. But; and I am aware of that: Here around it is as the butterfly flies. Even though the area is completely flat and alike, the roads tend to follow the rice fields, zigzagging a lot!
It is only passed noon, and I feel like I am taking half a day off. And what to do on the day off? What about a nice moped drive! I think I have the time, and drive slowly, like the locals. 40 Km/t. Stop for photos wherever something catches my eyes. Some of the fuel cells, a man riding a water buffalo, the flimsy bridges I cross, on of the typical chopped trucks, endless rice fields, a gas station with only moped tracks through the grass in front of it. Boats, palm-leave houses, more wooden bridges, water hyacinths left to dry - for the fibres.
I enjoy not being stressed by a fixed target at a specific time. A stop in a little village for coffee, but when I see two of the local kids drinking something "new", I got to try it. Some jam with huge seeds in, is blend with water, ice is added along with peanuts. Taste good, but cant figure the peanuts? In one village, a karaoke is sat up. Not since the good old days of reggae on Jamaica, walls of speakers like that have been seen!
Stop for gas outside Moc Hoa, and then into the dotted road. It start with a narrow but sealed road. After the first wooden bridges, the two set of wheel tracks starts to cross each other, and the sealing have gone. Here only drives mopeds for sure.
Bridges I only dare to cross because of I know how much stuff the locals have on their mopeds, when they crosses them. Some boards are missing, the whole thing twist and bend under my weight, but they last. While the track seems rather quiet, the canales are more busy.
In some stretches, the traffic get more intense, only to die out after the next X or Y road - of which my map have none! Ask for directions from time to time, just to be sure. One guy leads me to the local school, and they draw up a map, and write the sentence: How do I get to Hiep Hoa - in Vietnamese. I show it at the next 25 X,Y and Z on the road.
I have enjoyed this tour, but the shadows are getting longer, and the last bit have been on a wider, but really hard road. Loose gravel, deep tracks and quite some moped traffic. When I reach Dong Thanh/Duc Hue at five, I start looking for a hotel. All point me further down the road. Same happens in Hiep Hoa, and then I think I end in Hau Nghia/Duc Hoa, unless it is Duc Hoa - the other one. The dotted path turned out to be 80 kilometres, but that was a real nice track.
Find a group of moped taxi drivers, and do the sleep-sign. One get the idea, and leads me around eight corners to a narrow dirt road. Turns out to be a nice hotel, and both him and I are happy to transfer 10KD. As we do, it turns dark. My cloths are stiff with dust, and I don't seem to be able to shake it off. My compass, filled with water or oil, have now a cloud of dust within it!?
Six corners back to find some food. After having done the whole centre, it seems like I have the choice of noodle soup or noodle soup. The first one is all right, but I spot some duck at the second, and try theirs. Better, but for 50KD, you would expect that. One of the women there speak surprisingly good English.
When I, on the way home, ask for coffee, she somehow hears it, and calls me from a place which actually sell coffee. Turns out she have had a Danish boyfriend - without learning a word of cause. She happens to be without boyfriend for the moment, but my wife ought to join me in the morning... She pay my coffee.
Back to work with the 185 photos, of which most are excellent images of; where a bird just was - or blurry images of what might be a bird. I have never claimed I could take photos of live birds! Reptilians, insects, plants, but NEVER birds! Somehow, 71 have some sort of motive, and I leave it for that now. Diary, and then a bit of planning for tomorrow.
It seem like the only slightly interesting site around here is up in Tay Ninh: The Cao Diasm have its Great Temple here. Just like the religion it self, the building is a strange mix of a bit of everything. With a bit of luck, I can find the back-road up there. This is kind of back in the southern part - the one above the Mekong Delta. Somehow, it turns midnight before am finishes.
BACK IN THE SOUTH - ABOVE THE MEKONG DELTA
8/2. A slow start to the day, but at eight, I have received my passport, got my noodle-soup and hit the road. I drive by compass, going north towards Tay Ninh. Here are a grit, although rather open, of minor roads. Have to cross the major 22 road, and chooses to do it in Go' Dáu - just because of its name.
When I reach Tay Ninh, I somehow get out of the right eastern road, and soon, I am in Long Hoa, which is home to the centre of Cao Daism. Their "cathedral"; Holy See, dominates the city with some extensive gardens and squares. Although here are no tourists, it is clear they are use to them. English speaking and rather unlikely to take a No for an answer.
Lonely Plant states: "... the sect's Holy See is one of the most striking structures in all of Asia.". Man, I am disappointed! I have seen a pedestrian bridge in Singapore, which impressed me much more! A tour around their garden reveals a nice flowering orchid from the Apostasioideae subfamily. There are a prayer session within well over an hour, but I rather go and see some countryside.
Due east, passing the outstanding Nui Ba Den, a 850 meter mountain, raising from the flat plains of corn, rubber and rice. It is holy and surrounded by temples and legends. I am satisfied with a look from the distance, and head on towards the huge Dau Teing Reservoir.
It is build not in the usual canyon, but on a huge, flat plain. The dam surrounding it seems endless, but I see how fare I can go. It is a gravel road, and after around 8 kilometres, I head down to the parallel sealed road - for a few kilometres: It is so bumpy!
I end at a gate, and figures: This is where I leave the reservoir. A bit U backwards, and them I'm on a eastern course again. I have some city names - but none are on the few road signs, and I don't care. When I in the evening compare my GPS logger data with Google maps, they show I have driven exactly the way I wanted: Scary! I have followed the Cambodian border, just a bit inland, just as I followed the Lao border the other day.
Down from the dam, I enter a endless plantation of rubber trees. They are not dormant here, and there are no sign of the sun underneath - not even on the road! I'm getting closer to one of the major roads, heading towards Ho Chi Minh City, and the roads I'm on, widens. Not the sealing, just the dust. Here, the term "dusty towns" make sense!
I have not crossed many rivers, but one of them are bluish-green; kind of pretty. I reach the huge city Dong Xoai, of which I know absolutely nothing. It is only three, and I could make it to Ho Chi Minh City, but why? I will have three and a half day, and I am down to one nursery and three sights: The Jade Emperor Pagoda, the Botanical Garden and the Giac Lam Pagoda. All are in walking distance from my hotel.
Howie have promised me to give a tour, and then I guess I will have seen enough of that giant city. Here in Dong Xoai, I see the pagoda or is it a temple on the other side of the road, the marked and some of the shops in centre of town. I find some luggage hooks for my moped at home, but can't find cloths nor shoos in my size. Pity; the quality and price are good!
At a coffee shop, the girlfriends arrivals with lunch. They offers me some, but I passes: It looks just like sheets of plastic with a bit of spices on. They eat it, and I figure it could be rice pancakes. I try a bit, and it tastes something in-between. Another course is slices of completely transparent rice pancakes with meat-sauce. It looks exactly like sliced plastic! I feel like being in candy-camera!
Find some supper on the way back, and eat it on the roof of the posh hotel. It is among the three highest buildings in town, and offers a great view over the mist-covered city. Down a store to my penthouse to do some needed laundry. The pans I have been warring for the last six days are stiff with dust, and I need them for the hot Ho Chi Minh City as well.
Considering the dust in my compass, I am wondering how the camera, computer and I, look inside? It just can't be good. Another thing I been wondering about, is the difficulty I have had pronouncing the city names right. I thing I have figured it out: Their alphabet was made by French friars. So it is based on the French obscure way of pronouncing the letters.
On top of that, they have a lot of sign around the letters. Their details are real narrow, and I can't pick-up the differences. It is like "meet" and meat", just with five other words in-between, which means something completely different. Not something to expect from an old mathematician to figure!
9/2. The 100 kilometres down to Ho Chi Minh City is a two hour, one coffee stop drive. No photo stops; I kind of have seen it all! I return the motorcycle, and he wants $5 extra because it is dirty - he haven't seen a dirty bike then, and $6 because I'm one day late. I tell him how things are, and I get a feeling of, he actually respects me for that. I give him credit for knowing, when he have lost.
Back at the hotel Kim to receive my things and book four nights. I could save the last, because I leave at midnight, but it is nice to have my things stored and a shower after a long, warm day in the city. Write Howie to arrange, and relax in the hotel's street bar, waiting for reply. Spend the time making a few more slideshows and calculating the price of this tour.
Howie picks me up, and we drive out to Saigon Orchids & Flora, a 40 years old company. The have around 200 species, and produces to the Vietnamese market, mainly because of the CITES causes problems, exporting. We are welcomed by Tran Khanh Tuan, one of the owners.
Besides from being a real pleasant person, he knows a great deal about issues that I find interesting. We share some of the thought about CITES being protecting - or not. Then we do a tour around the nursery, while he explains about the culture of their plants, watering, fertilizing and so on. Once again, I am amassed about the amount of fresh air the plants have. That is really an issue we have to take up at the Botanical Garden!
Their own collection is absolutely astonishing: The orchids sits on the stems of giant, live Cycas. They provide the base and the shadow needed. And it looks great! A real treat in the middle of this giant and busy city, and some more valued knowledge for me.
10/2. I start the day, handing in my one fleece jacket to a laundry. It sure needs it after all the dirt roads, and I am afraid I will need it, as soon as I reach home. Roomers have it: We got -10 to -15C. Why do people settle in a place like that???
Then I walk out to the combined ZOO and Botanical Garden; Thao Cam Vien, Saigon. The tour through the city does not reveal anything new, except a orchid, a fish and a bird salesman. The amount of mopeds strikes me once again. A good thing is that they actually are four-stroke engines. That means way less smoke, than from the oil, the two-stroke engines would burn.
I find the botanical zoo easily. It is rather old: From 1864! Here are not that many animals, but in general, they are treated well over averaged. I find only a leopard in a way too small cage. The botanical garden, on the other hand, is a disappointment. It is, just like the one in Ha Noi, more like a old arboretum, with names on some trees.
However, there are some shade houses - locked - but housing some orchids and other families in a strange mix, and some nice collection of bonsais. An other small area have yuccas, cacti and Euphorbias. Next to the bonsais are a lot of orchids on some giant stems. Along with the layout of the ZOO and the area it self, it is worth a visit, and the 8KD in entrance. I do several lops, document some animals and plant sights. I even get lucky with a bird for once.
Then I continues to The Jade Emperor Pagoda. I was build in 1909, and it is a typical Chinese temple. A large collection of huge statues and some real impressive wood carvings for ornamentation. Outside are three enclosures: One with tortoises, one with soft turtles and the last with freshwater turtles. You can buy them at the entrance, along with live fish. Sure hope the re-cycle them...
I take the long way home, searching for anything interesting. Fancy hotels in the embassy area, hairdressers competing: how little cloths can the young female employees ware (little!), and when I reach the public parks, I'm impressed.
It is astonishing what you can achieve with a couple hundreds employees! Singapore, you are second! Orchids, giant Euphorbias, cacti, Cycas, bonsais, pools, colourful flower beds, a huge miniature temple - they have it all! Fare better than most botanical gardens I have seen. There are even names on some of the trees.
Just as I turn the corner to my street, it starts to drizzle a bit. So fare, I have been real lucky with the weather in the south and Mekong delta. Glad I ditched the boots somewhere up north. My rain suit have been insurance enough. I am in "backpacker central", and decides to try the pizzeria I passed on the way home. I have been avoiding the fished I feared, but just plain/sticky rice is now a rare treat. I have had enough glass-noodles soup for a very long time now!
11/2. Not much interesting I know of, which I haven't seen. Last sight is the oldest pagoda; Giac Lam. It is quite some distance from the hotel, but I have the time, and take the walk. It brings me through the Cholon district, which is China-town.
I pass several temples and pagodas, but only stop to photo one pagoda. It is made in concrete like so many others, but it is quite impressive. I passes several shoo shops on the way, and I have to admit: The ones I brought, have had better days. Bit hard to find some big enough, but for 500KD, I am willing to try if my feet don't get smaller, getting back home to a 55C lover temperature!
The Giac Lam temple complex is rather large and open. A low, old temple draws my attention, and of cause the tall pagoda. Would have liked a bit more after that walk, but no. Turns back, trying to do parallel streets. Take some concentration: I don't have a map, and the odd angles and huge roundabouts does not help!
A few stops on the way back for coffee and some cookies, and that reveals something new: Coins! The first I have seen, are these 500 Dong coins.
I reach the hotel at three. A cup of tea, then some work at the room, and it is suppertime. The challenge is to avoid both noodles and touristed places - in that order. I don't feel like going home - minus15C, worked pilled up and so on. Would like to continue to Cambodia...
Spend the evening looking at people passing the hotel, figuring an excuse for staying. First I succeed with, second not.
12/2. Slow start on the day, followed by the enigma of getting everything packed, and at the same time have access to the things I might need on the tour. Then a slow stroll through the parks and the very touristed market. Not much room left for the locals to buy what they need.
I am done with the city and restless. Even thought I'm not looking forward for going home to the Danish, rather good impression of a fridge: Cold and dark most of the time, I am impatience. Try once more to get the slideshow program to show the comments I have made for all pictures.
Seems like it will never get midnight, and I can take a taxi to the airport - just to wait three more hours. And then one more; the flight is delayed. Where I shared the flight down here with Vietnamese, I this time fly with Ukrainians - and two Danish girls.
13/2. It is morning before we leave, and I get to read all my diary once more, finding even more errors. A tiny meal, and then most try to sleep, although it is morning. The 12 hour flight feels real long! One hour in Kiev to find a new boarding card, passport- and security check, and the gate. Manages it in 15 minutes clean! Kiev offers -20C and a thick layer of snow. That makes Copenhagen's frozen sea but only thin layer of snow and the 0C seem almost cosy!
Status: I been travelling 5000 kilometres on mopeds/motorcycles, 2000 by airplane, 1000 by bus, 250 by car, 80 by train, 25 by boat and a lot by foot! The price have been around $7000 for my company, $3400 for me. I have seen quite some wild orchids, and learned a lot about their habitat and preferred environment. Some I wouldn't have believed, if I haven't seen it! I have taken a bit less than 5000 photos, way less then usual. All in all: A great tour!