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Gooooood Mooorning Vietnaaaaam!

Going in Country

sunny 34 °C

He is walking towards me as if wanting to take my picture, but as he draws closer, it's becoming clear his out stretched hand isn’t there to offer assistance, but more to confiscate. His lips are moving and i can barely hear him but I quickly realise this border guard wants my camera. I hold up both hands up in the air as if to surrender, with the camera pointing up in a non-threatening position, as if it were a weapon. “Yes, sorry I won’t take pictures” I say, as I slowly put the camera away. The guard seems to slow his advance and then shout something in Vietnamese, sounding more annoyed, than authoritative as he was a second ago. He heads back to the other side of the road where he sits down and rests his rifle between his legs.

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I am now in Vietnam. In Country. I decide to avoid anymore trouble and head back to the Vietnamese immigration office, where the others were. We had just walked half a mile with our backpacks from the Cambodian border of Phnom Den, through no man’s land and into Vietnam’s Tien Bien. Relations between Vietnam and Cambodia are still icy and so the distance between the two borders is still a safe distance. After a stinking hot wait in the shade and playing a round of "Guess what's in the Fish Tank", we collect our stamped passports with our Vietnamese Visas and walk another short distance to a bus waiting for us. Luckily it’s a private bus and we pile on to get some relief from the heat and make our way to Chau Doc, a town situated on the Mekong River. It will basically be a stopover on the way to Ho Chi Minh City.

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We had already been on the bus for over 5 hours before crossing the border but luckily for us, it was only another hour to Chau Doc. I look around at tired faces, some asleep, some with the 1000 mile stare (a popular saying used in the Vietnam War describing tired soldiers). I myself am feeling very excited to be in Vietnam. That and the fact I could have been shot by a Vietnamese Border Guard because I thought it would make a cool Facebook Profile Photo. I wonder if anyone has been nominated for a Darwin award for a Facebook related death? Yeah, not to keen on that title.

we are greeted with some kind of weird arrangement of furniture

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Looking out the window, I notice the change straight away as we go through our first Vietnamese village. Unlike Cambodia, even the small villages have some semblance of modern life with brick shops and children with shoes. The ever present red flag, synonymous with communism is hung proudly everywhere with the yellow star signifying the Vietnamese Flag. School children are dressed in uniform, usually white with blue shorts and occasionally, I see women dressed in the famed Vietnamese National Dress. Named the Ao Dai, it is a tight fitting tunic, made of silk and usually white. I had seen it many times in Vietnam War films but it’s only now, in a different context, I see how beautiful the dress is on the slender Vietnamese female figure. I feel kind of sad to have associated such a thing of beauty with such horrible events all these years. I dare not try and take any photos.

You never know when you’ll get another good tub to do washing

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There’s nothing charming about Chau Doc. Just another city as our bus weaves through the crowded streets and towards our hotel. I don’t know anything about Chau Doc except that it sits on the Mekong River. Stepping into our room, we are greeted with some kind of weird arrangement of furniture, as if the last guest was a poltergeist. If you could imagine a room with a bend, but not at right-angles, more like 45 degrees. Now imagine two queen size beds, with one bed up against one end of the room, and the other queen bed ‘in front’ of the that bed, situated at the bend. I’m not sure why there were two beds in there but the room was barely big enough to fit one. One good feature about the room is the new bathtub, which I quickly convert to a human powered washing machine. You never know when you’ll get another good tub to do washing. Welcome to my Chinese Laundry.

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these women sounding like birds squawking in Vietnamese

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The plan for the afternoon was to have a boat ride down the Mekong River and check out village life on the River. After a much needed shower and a quick sanity check of photography gear (camera, lens, SD Cards, batteries), I am ready to take in my very first Vietnamese experience. Our guide takes us on foot through a local market and the noise and smells hit your senses like wet fish pulled from the Chicago River (or Cook River for all you Sydney siders). The mix of spices, rotten vegetables, fresh poultry, dried fish along with the sounds of Vietnamese women trying to sell you all these, shouting at you, and then one another and then to no one in particular. It’s like walking through a bird menagerie, they sound like birds squawking in Vietnamese. We were warned that the local Vietnamese could come across as quite rude and abrupt but not to take it personally. It may seem like they are to a westerner but to them, it is normal, especially in the market place. We stop at a box full of bright yellow chicks, and one of the girls comment, “Aw so cute”. I suddenly have a craving for Buffalo wings.

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We exit the market and follow the riverside where the boat is waiting for us. Before we board, the guide explains to us a bit about life on the Mekong River. There are houses floating on the river and are held to the banks to stop them from floating. Apparently, if you live in a ‘River House’, you do not have to pay government taxes and utilities. Communism ain’t all that bad. We hop into the boat and make our way down the river as we take in the scenery. There are all kinds of floating houses and boats selling goods on the river and even a floating gas station. We pull up next to one of the houses and the guide tells us he’s going to take us for a tour around a river house. We are greeted by some playful children, I guess they are use to having visitors around. He shows us the Fish farm underneath the house by opening a trap door on the porch. We look down to see all the fish swimming in there as he proceeds to throw in fish food. This sets off a feeding frenzy and the violent thrashing sets the pet dog barking like crazy. I’m tempted to put my feet in as my soles are quite dry and cracked and need some nibbling on...NOT. We are then led to the Pig Pen. Yes, a floating Pig Pen. The pigs are huge and there are over half a dozen of them in there. We feed them some of the river plants which grow abundantly. How convenient. They seem to be happy as pig in shit.

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I move into the house as I take some photos of the children. They pose and do silly things as children do. Some of the guys are quite surprised at how modern and clean the River House is, as the exterior does not reflect this. The furniture is fine solid wood and the floor boards are polished fit for a king. I move into the lounge and there it is, in all its crowning glory, a karaoke machine that would make my aunty proud. I almost burst out laughing as move to study the photos on the wall. The woman who greeted us, I assume the lady of the house pulls up beside me and points to the photos. “Is that you?” I ask pointing at her and then to the photo. She nods with a reminiscing smile. It is a photo of her, much younger, with what I can only assume is her husband. It is a beautiful photo of her, as she still is now, although much older, maybe in her fifties. She then points to another photo of, her sons? She then motions to certificates on another wall and points back to the photos. A quick study of them suggests they are certificates of some kind of academic achievement. I smile at her knowingly, as I’m quickly reminded of the times my mum would take my awards to show off proudly to her work workmates when I was a kid. A proud mum is a proud mum, anywhere in the world.

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some of them pack on three kids to a scooter

We say our goodbyes and take the boat towards the other side of the river where we spend the rest of the afternoon walking through the small village of Chau Phong. The locals wave to us and the children laugh and point at us with curiosity as they whiz home on thier bikes after a hard day at school.

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It’s a quiet relaxing boat ride back as the sun slowly makes its way to the horizon. We walk back to the hotel, past a school where the street is five scooters deep with parents waiting to pick up their kids. As they come out, some of them pack on three kids to a scooter, with some even driven by old grandmothers. Ridiculous!

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The night is spent eating at the small restaurant in the hotel as the nightlife in Chau Doc is non-existent. In any case it’s been a long day as I spend the time sorting out my hundreds of photos (so far) and making sure they’re backed up whilst the others play some kind of card game. It’s probably a good thing as we head into Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow.

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Posted by Al Jam 22:08 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cambodia river vietnam mekong doc tien bien chau

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