On leaving Ho Chi Minh City ( still Saigon to the locals) we joined a river cruise, which was lovely. Just 28 cabins which were just what Agatha Christy would have expected. Slatted wooden doors sliding open onto the teak deck passage way, with deck chairs awaiting. All very much of ” Death on the Nile” ilk, but less formal than in days of old. No dressing for dinner, though maybe some of the guests had thought it might be required. Himself and I shared one large case,( shared being the operative word, Him 5/8ths and me 3/8ths) whereas I overheard another couple telling the cabin boy, that they had 4! Where would they store them, I asked myself! Another did dress for dinner, in her floaty pretty dresses with kitten heels, not good for going up the steep gangways to the top deck for G&T’s, let alone on the teak decking! Ah well I guess we all learn!
Breakfast Lunch and Dinner which were served in the dining room by smiling Vietnamese staff and announced by Jimmy ( the purser) banging a gong! All were a leisurely affair, especially Dinner, as we were going nowhere. But after breakfast and lunch there were trips, either on shore, on water or in a local limos , namely a horse and cart! We had our own Sampans attached to the boat but we also transferred to smaller ones, to navigate the shallow waterways.
We were fortunate to have as our guide the main man, who was extremely knowledgeable. I’m not one normally for guided tours, but sometimes, one just has to succumb and on this trip at least, without it, we would not have seen anything near, of Vietnamese rural and local life.
We visited Ben Tre for look at a coconut workshop, bees and honey and fruit orchards, tasting the fruit and all things coconut., off after lunch to see traditional pot making and a cooking class, on how to make Vietnamese Pancakes. ( According to Rick Stein, these are difficult to make but I will give it a go). Also on our list were visits to a bird Sanctuary, Magrove swamps ,Eucalyptus forests, Con Phuoc Island where the local industry is basket making ( made by a lady who was well into her 90’s and squatting), Local villages, farms ,nurseries, cabinet makers, fish farms, temples, brick works and paddy fields We also went to a primary school. Education is not free and most children go to school morning or afternoon , but not all day. Most of the villages we visited with cottage industries, were family affairs, note the 7-year-old girl, doing intricate inlay work on the furniture that her parents are making.
All of our side trips were extremely interesting and gave us a feel for local life. We did not see anything of local life however once we hit Cambodia, ( river life that is) and the difference between the two was incredible. It was as if someone had placed an invisible fence across the river, one side was hustle bustle, boats, working boats full of sand, or Rice, small fishing boats, Sampans and the like, but once the Cambodian officials came on board, and we were allowed to pass, quiet another story, almost no-one! Weird.
So onto food, you might have noticed that I have not mentioned food, ( apart from the Vietnamese Pancakes), well actually although the trip itself was amazing, in what we saw and what we did ( and I have not even got to Cambodia yet ) the food on the boat was disappointing. There was nothing WRONG with it, perfectly edible, but just not very exciting, BLAND is the word that springs to mind. Which brings me to my title, floating down the Mekong with food for Colonel Bland. Breakfast was pretty nondescript, I think on most days there was a noodle station, which was by far the best option. At breakfast we were given a menu for lunch and there was always a choice, but even when choosing the in principle Local option, it was just not exciting, and knowing what we had eaten on our Street food tour, it was disappointing .
Just one last thought, Cock fighting is Huge in rural Vietnam, so subsequently in each village that we visited, fighting cock in wooden cages were to be seen. And of course there is big money to be made or lost!
Nex Stop: Cambodia !