Friday, July 11, 2014

Stalking around in the Mekong Delta, Việt Nam

As soon as I came back from Sen Monorom, I immediately booked a minivan in Phnom Penh - I had to leave the country within one day! So with my ever-trusty backpack, my new visa and much enthusiasm I moved toward the Cambodian-Vietnamese border crossing of Ha Tien, southern Vietnam.

A few steps away from Vietnam  - the border crossing in Ha Tien.

Because I experienced my previous border crossings without incidents, I rather arrived with optimistic feelings about it. But this one time the border official actually tried to scam me - he really tried to charge an additional $1 for not having an «International Vaccination Card» with me. I told him to in a polite way that his claims were complete bullshit and that there's no official charge or whatsoever. That guy first got a bit pissy but after a few exchanging looks he finally gave up. What a douche. However, the rest of the crossing procedures were a joke. The backpackers even had to walk through a metal detector that was supervised by - surprise - nobody. Every tourist could have smuggled drugs or whatever they wanted into the country without problems.

But after five minutes the salvation struck me - I finally landed in Việt Nam, land of the rice paddies, old women with conical hats and a rich history.

Ha Tien is a typical border town with all its advantages and comforts. It's an easy place to exchange money at a good rate and you can easily recognize the cultural differences between the neighbouring countries. First of all there's the language. Now that everything's written in westernized roman letters it's much easier read signboards or to learn some crucial words. Secondly, everything is much cleaner than in Cambodia or Laos. The roads and the sidewalks are tidied up and the locals take good care of their property. The infrastructure seems more advanced and the improving economy can be felt in every aspect of life. And in the third place, the Vietnamese sure do like coffee and scooters. In basically every town in Vietnam you can find at least one café in every corner, I'm not exaggerating. And in this country there passes no minute in which you don't see at least one scooter driving around. According to a local I spoke with the high taxes on cars are one of the many reasons why Vietnamese often prefer cheaper scooters.

Hey, and the locals were a lot more welcoming than in Cambodia!

Just on my third day I already got invited by those guys.
A local pagoda in Ha Tien

Ha Tien downtown, note the communist-inspired monument
This rock, locally called Thach Dong,...

... was once invaded by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

I later found out that Ha Tien was one of the border regions that Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge soldiers decided to attack in 1978. As I wrote in my last blog post these ridiculous attacks were the major reason for the Vietnamese Army to invade Pol Pot's Cambodia in the same year. During the defence of Thach Dong several Vietnamese soldiers died and are now commemorated in a memorial cave within that limestone rock.

Inside the memorial cave
A look out of the cave at the border region between Vietnam and Cambodia

A quick look on the map of southern Vietnam suggests that there are not many major islands near Ha Tien, but appearances often are deceiving. The bigger island that appears to be near to the Cambodian coast, Phu Quoc, belongs actually to Vietnam. This island was also a target of Pol Pot's expansion plans during his fateful reign. I decided to pay the island a visit for a couple of days with the famous «SUPERDONG» ferry that only takes 45 minutes from Ha Tien to Phu Quoc.

In the lap of luxury - inside the SUPERDONG ferry.

The ferry connections to Phu Quoc Island

I stayed for only two days on Phu Quoc Island, which was not so much in retrospective. Furthermore the weather was not as good as I had hoped. I soon realized that the Vietnamese rainy season started, and even for the next couple of days it looked pretty bad. But even then I've had great fun while discovering the island with a rented scooter. Supposedly the beaches of Phu Quoc count to the cleanest in this region (for how long I'm asking myself).

A so called Phu Quoc Ridgeback, a local dog breed

A typical Phu Quoc beach - nice and quiet.

Now guess what's that mountain in the background - it's Bokor, the Cambodian ghost town mountain I visited before!
I'ts needless to say that this is - *gasp* - a waterfall.

The fishing industy on the island is quite sophisticated too

Of course the Vietnam War is quite omnipresent in pretty much every region in this country. If there's not a historical site where a battle was fought, then there's at least a museum to cover this bloody chapter of Cold War history. Also here in Phu Quoc. During the reign of the «American Puppets» in Saigon (a common disambiguation for the former South Vietnamese Nationalists) the «Army of the Republic of Vietnam» (ARVN) held a camp for Communist Prisoners of War on Phu Quoc. Most prisoners in that camp used to be Vietcong guerrillas or NVA soldiers. It's also worth mentioning that the French colonialists also used to have a P.O.W. camp nearby before they retreated from Indochina, so Phu Quoc already has a long history of being a prison island.

The infamous P.O.W. camp of Phu Quoc
How a vicious ARVN officer may have looked like

How prisoners were punished for misbehaviours

A so called «Tiger Cage», also meant as solitary confinement

The prisoner barracks in the main camp

Most of the exhibition was about how the P.O.W.s were tortured

But at some points I couldn't hold back grinning...

The most interesting part was that...
... once the VC prisoners allegedly were able to dig an escape tunnel.

Yeah, the museum was not bad at all, especially if you consider that there was no entrance fee. But I somehow couldn't help myself thinking that many explanations sounded a quite biased, if not a bit propagandistic. Of course, the ARVN were not known as angels at all when it came to prisoner interrogation or treatment of prisoners. But if everything what's written in the museum really was true, then the ARVN would have lead one of the worst extermination camps in history here. Beside that there was also a lot of background information about «revolutionary heroes» and «martyrs for the communist cause», etc.

Yeah, Phu Quoc was awesome. The locals were overly nice, there was a lot to explore and it was not too touristic. While I was there, the government was just about to finish a two-lane expressway on the island, so I suppose that big changes will hit the island soon. Maybe in the near future Phu Quoc will share the same fate as the Thai counterparts Koh Samui, Koh Phangan or Koh Tao?... Let's hope not.

I again took the ferry back to the mainland, and afterwards went to check out the Mekong Delta. I visited the mega cities Ca Mau, Can Tho, Vinh Long and Tra Vinh, all together extremely fast developing places full of nice people and almost no foreigners. The video below should sum up the highlights of my odyssey in the famous delta region:

From the southern cape of Vietnam (Dat Mui), the Mangrove forests of Ca Mau, the canals in Vinh Long up to the rice fields of Tra Vinh I guess I've seen pretty much in the Delta Region. I think I especially had the best times in those places that were still untouched by mass tourism - there aren't any scammers, hawking kids or other obscure creatures that just are lurking for stupid backpackers. In the contrary, in those towns the locals were happy to invite you to a beer (or two) and to teach you new Vietnamese words. Most Vietnamese (except the younger ones) can't speak English or any other foreign languages, so learning basic Vietnamese is a must for any foreign backpacker or tourist.

The famous conical hat is often worn by farmers or peasants
A catholic church of Cai Be, near Vinh Long

A typical Chinese temple,..

... with its beautiful interior. Found in Can Tho.

A statue of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's revolutionary leader

A monument at Dat Mui, Vietnam's most southern cape

A visit at a local candy factory near Vinh Long

One of the biggest Buddhas I've ever seen, near Tra Vinh

Endless rice paddies - an ideal symbolization of Vietnam's countryside

By the way, I recently booked my flight back home. It was quite a good move to wait so long (hey, more than 5 months), travelling flexibly is one of the best things you can do. On the 12th of August I'll head back to the premises of William Tell and Globi - my beloved Switzerland.

Stay tuned and thanks for dropping by!

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