Châu Đốc & The Mekong
On day eight of our tour, we crossed from Cambodia into neighbouring Vietnam. We had a few hairy moments at the border as our tour leader was questioned as to why he’d entered the country twelve times in the last twelve months (non-Vietnamese tour leaders are forbidden as it takes a job from a local), but after his shrugged response (“I travel a lot”) had raised a few eyebrows, he was permitted to rejoin us. It was another half hour to Châu Đốc from the border, and the time was spent listening to Rod, our tour leader, explaining some of the differences between Cambodia and Vietnam.
“The Vietnamese seem a lot ruder,” he said, “They shout ‘OI’, but it actually means ‘Hey you!’ and is deemed inoffensive.” He had cottoned on to our fondness of Cambodian Amok, and informed us that we wouldn’t find it again; instead, it would be replaced by Pad Thai and Phở. None of us were quite aware just how much a part of our lives Phở would end up playing. It is a delicious noodle soup normally served with either beef, chicken or seafood. It’s a must-have for every meal in my opinion. It was also pointed out that traffic regulations were a lot stricter. But, after seeing a man on a motorbike in Cambodia wheeling his intravenous drip along beside him, anything was an improvement.
After unloading our luggage at the hotel, we paid a quick visit to the market before clambering aboard two longboats for a guided tour up a branch of the Mekong; the Hâu River. Several things were apparent: there is no differentiation between men and women when it comes to manual labour (in fact, throughout my time in Southeast Asia, it because very apparent that the women do the bulk of the work), fishing and fish farming are the main trades, floating petrol stations actually exist and an interestingly high percentage of people living on the water have a television.
That last one seemed particularly odd seeing as the average wage per annum for a Vietnamese fisherman is US$1,200. However, whilst visiting a fish farm on the river, we were told that, by way of an incentive, the government provide a free television and satellite connection to anyone who converts their floating house into a fish farm. Ingenious!
Flooding is obviously a huge problem, not for the residents of the floating houses, but for the locals who live in small villages a little way inland. We visited a small clutch of houses on stilts, built to evade the rising waters. Looking at the height of the first floor level, one could assume they’d gone slightly overboard with their precautions. I did. That is until one sees the markings of previous years’ flood levels. The highest, recorded in 2002, was drawn at 20 feet above the current water level. Quite extraordinary, and relatively difficult to imagine living in such a setting, where, for most of the year you can walk everywhere, but in September and October, you are required to row.
As the sun got lower in the sky, we returned to dry land and walked back to the hotel, where Joaquin and I decided to hop on a motorbike each and drive up to Mount Sam to watch the sunset over the paddy fields. A 20 minute journey later and we were stood on top of the mountain, looking over a very misty Châu Đốc; not quite the breathtaking view we’d hoped for. But it was no matter; we had both vowed not to pass up a single opportunity, so we were glad to have done it and knew there would be other chances to take stunning photos along the way.
That evening, we got a real taste of Asian culture. We’d heard the whisperings, but never thought it true. Something mythical whose verisimilitude was unknown to us, until we arrived, and I can now confirm that whole buildings dedicated to karaoke do exist! We booked a room for two hours, ordered our drinks and perused the menu for the first song to play on the 50-inch television and surround sound system. We giggled amongst ourselves at the wailing emanating from the room next door, before realising that, if we could hear them, they would definitely be able to hear us.
The funniest thing is that, to avoid copyright, the karaoke company film their own music videos in the style of the original. I guarantee you will never see anything stranger than a weedy Vietnamese man lip syncing to Meatloaf whilst riding an obviously stationary motorcycle against a green screen. Nevertheless, that evening was spent belting out everything from Bohemian Rhapsody to YMCA, and it was great fun. The UK is missing a trick!