Riding the Mekong Delta: birds, boats, bats and bad roads
Even after the first couple of days, I was already noticing some differences between this trip in the Mekong Delta and our ride in northern Thailand earlier in the year. We were generally travelling less than half the distance each day, for instance – yet didn’t seem to be getting to our destinations any faster.
Why? A combination of bad roads, low speed limits and great coffee available at roadside stalls every ten minutes. The geography of the area didn’t help much either – roads regularly gave way to river ferries, often several times per day.
Those crumbling vessels made for pretty photos and fun interactions with locals, but were not a recipe for doing anything in a hurry. Most of the time that didn’t matter in the slightest … but occasionally, well, it did.
It’s a long way back from here
Just for something different, we were a bit late leaving Ben Tre. It didn’t help that the restaurant forgot to serve my lunch, but even so we should have been on the road at least an hour earlier than we were. It gets dark early in Southeast Asia – if you’re riding much after six pm, you’ll be doing it with your headlight on – and we were again taking the smallest roads we could find.
Still, it was well under 100km on the map. How long could it possibly take?
Well, when there are two ferry crossings involved and some of the roads look like this, the answer is apparently: quite a while.
The scenery outside Ben Tre was some of the best we’d seen so far, and the route that we chose is obviously not often frequented by foreigners. The stares that greeted us as we rode by were always curious rather than malicious, though, faces creasing in huge smiles as soon as we lifted a hand in greeting.
We didn’t have to wait long for the first ferry to take us across a narrow stretch of river, but even as we navigated our way through the markets and children afterwards, we couldn’t help but notice that the sun was rapidly dropping through the clouds. Scattering the chickens as we pulled in for gas, we exchanged nervous glances. This was going to be tight … and we weren’t at all certain that the boat we were aiming for even existed.
Still, assuming the vessel wasn’t imaginary, we’d be fine as long as the road wasn’t completely terrible.
The road, of course, was completely terrible.
With the light fading fast, we swerved and bounced along a track that would have made most mountain goats give up in disgust. If there wasn’t a ferry at the end of it, I didn’t fancy our chances of making it back in the dark without incident.
As we rounded the corner and rode towards the jetty, though, the sudden oncoming stream of scooters told us that our fears were unfounded. I’ve never been so happy to see a rusty little boat in my life. Kicking the bike stand down and brushing the worst of the road dust from my face, I finally had a chance to pay attention to something other than the rutted dirt a few feet ahead.
I guess it wasn’t a bad reward.
Distance covered: 77km
Ferries taken: 2
Stayed at: Cuu Long Hotel, Tra Vinh – at 580,000 VND for a double with a/c and hot shower, easily the most expensive and generic hotel of the trip. The room was clean and well maintained, though, and as an added bonus the price included the worst buffet breakfast of my life.
Hassle with passport: For a change, none
Temples, markets and very few storks
With the back-breaking ride of the previous day still fresh in our minds, it didn’t take much to decide to stay in town an extra day. With the lure of Khmer-style temples, interesting wet markets and the piece de resistence, stork-spotting at dusk, the attractions of Tra Vinh were apparently many and varied.
Oh, and there seemed to be far more coffee shops than you might expect for a town of its size. I was definitely in no danger of having to give up my rapidly-developing condensed milk addiction.
The temple I visited was indeed worth going to, an assortment of styles with an over-arching Khmer theme and friendly monks more than willing to practice their English with the sweaty wandering foreigner.
The real highlight, though, was the wet market. I’ve long loved Vietnamese markets – they are noticeably different to those elsewhere in the region, with enough colourful fruit, squirming seafood and random animal heads (complete with eyeballs, obviously) to keep you amused for hours. Especially if you’re walking in flip-flops.
The final, much anticipated attraction was, of course, watching the storks fly in to roost at dusk at a temple just out of town. Big things were expected. You could cut the tension with a knife as we neared our destination, our heads corkscrewing excitedly in the search for promised bird life.
And then, we saw them. Right there in front of us in the dusty temple grounds, shepherding their offspring away from us with a loud, indignant cluck.
What, a cluck?
Yes indeed, a cluck. These chickens were the closest we got to the much-heralded bird spotting, although as the sun set we did finally see several silhouettes circling above the trees. Were they storks? I can only assume so, but if so, they weren’t much of an attraction.
Still, not all was lost. As the chickens made a fuss nearby and those few maybe-storks soared overhead, the unmistakable tones of the Birdy Song emerged from a nearby window. Do the monks play that tune every evening, we wondered, or just when the tourists turn up? Was there a novice stifling his giggles as he hit play on the temple iPod? Had we stumbled on a little known Buddhist calisthenics routine practiced only on these balmy Tra Vinh evenings?
We pondered our discovery over a lukewarm beer that night, but came up with no good answers. I guess some things in life are just destined to remain a mystery…
Distance covered: 22km
Ferries taken: 0
Stayed at: Cuu Long Hotel once again. The breakfast was no better the second time round.
Hassle with passport: Still none
Bring on the bats
It was now official, we were well and truly out of the tourist zone. Until we got to Can Tho a week later, I didn’t see any other white faces. If we had been looking for somewhere off the beaten trail on this trip, I think we’d found it.
For the first time so far we took what was possibly the most direct route between two points on the map, following route 60 – the biggest road – almost the entire way to Soc Trang. Of course ‘biggest’ is a very subjective term in this part of the world, especially when it came to the little island that lay in our path.
This was the road that ran between the ferry to the north of the island and the ferry to the south. It was incredibly scenic – but a major highway it was not.
Soc Trang is an attractively busy town, with plenty of shopfronts and little coffee places to wander round and explore. It’s deceptive, though – the downtown area isn’t all that large, but the outskirts seem to go on forever. That probably explained the approximately 950 scooters per square metre during rush hour as we tried to navigate our way out of town towards the evening’s entertainment.
Yes, having not learned our lesson with the storks the night before, we were off to another temple to spot somewhat different winged creatures. Bring on those bats… right?
While not quite as absent as their feathered friends in Tra Vinh, the bats were still generally missing in action. A few turned up every time we decided to leave, mind you – probably just to mock us for having made the trip out there in the first place. We could hear hundreds of them screeching in the trees, but that’s largely where they stayed. So, we went to commiserate with a beer in the fanciest place we could find – only to find the one cafe in Vietnam that just serves coffee and nothing else.
And that, I think, summed up our evening.
Distance covered: 69km
Ferries taken: 2
Stayed at: Phu Qui hotel, Soc Trang. 300,000 VND/night for a large, clean triple room with a/c and hot water. Friendly staff thrown in at no extra cost.
Hassle with passport: None
Next up: amusing translations, unamusing karaoke and swapping bikes for boats to visit the southernmost point of the country.
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