Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong River Delta

By Jordan and Deena Fischer (@jordanfischer)

We spent a few more days in Ho Chi Minh City than we had originally planned to observe the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as local still refer to it, is a bustling Asian city of over 7 million people. About 200 of them are Jewish. We didn’t meet all 200, but we did meet about 40 expats and travelers at Chabad of Ho Chi Minh. It was a much needed break from travel that we used to reflect and eat delicious Israeli food. On top of typical Yom Kippur activities, (fast, sleep, pray, eat) we spent most of our time in Ho Chi Minh walking around and experimenting with street food, with a museum visit thrown in here and there.

Actually, our first attempt to visit a museum was unsuccessful. Our travel book, the Rough Guide to South East Asia on a Budget, said to keep an eye out around the museums for taxi drivers trying to tell you the museum is closed, then offering to take you somewhere else for an inflated rate. As we walked toward the War Remnants Museum a taxi driver yelled to us from across the street, ‘museum closed! museum closed!’ Armed with the awareness this might happen, we disregarded his warnings and confidently walked the remaining block to the museum. Turns out he was telling the truth! The gate was shut and no one was there. We could see retired US military aircrafts through the fence, but that was all of the museum exhibits we’d see that day. The War Remnants Museum didn’t have any power and thus was closed that day.

We came back the next day to a powered building full of local school kids and tourists from all over the world. The museum is in Vietnam, so naturally, its perspective on the conflict is vastly different than one we are more familiar with. Being there was an exercise in parsing apart truth and fiction. There were exhibits of US tanks, bombs, helicopters, airplanes, and guns that had been left behind.

There were also exhibits of the works of war photographers who died covering the war, and the more gruesome effects of chemical warfare. It was heavy. The museum is there to promote peace and clearly illustrate that no matter who wins, war is horrible for all involved.

South of Ho Chi Minh is the Mekong River Delta, a huge stretch of fertile land and water where the mighty Mekong flows out into the sea. We wanted to do a multi-day bike trip at some point in SE Asia, and the Mekong Delta seemed like the perfect place. We were looking to leave from Ho Chi Minh and ride across the river delta to the Cambodian border. After a little searching, we found a stock four-day tour with Vietnam Backroads that could be customized to suit our needs. Even though we signed up for a group tour, it ended up being just the two of us and Van, our guide and the owner of the company.

 

We rode through too many small villages to count, trending westward across the Mekong Delta. Most of the Delta is farm land.

 

Boats are a way of life there. We crossed at least four huge rivers, each about a mile wide, and countless smaller ones via ferry.

Many of the farmers who live in the Delta (especially on the western side) are Khmer. They look a little more Indian than the typical Vietnamese person, and they’re incredibly friendly. We rode through village after village to the steady soundtrack of ‘Hello!’ coming from the smiling mouths of most everyone who could see us coming.

At first we found this amusing, then we began to love them for it. Their intention was surely different, but these people became our equivalent of the cheering volunteers stationed at strategic points along the route of a running race. They got us through the hard parts. And it made their day to receive a return ‘Hello.’ Every now and then we’d get a ‘Where you fro?’ or ‘Wats yo name?’ Have you ever witnessed half a playground’s worth of children all saying hello to you simultaneously? We’ll never forget it. We joked that the local news would run a story with the title ”Westerners ride through town, town says ‘Hello!’ ”

Bicycles are still the primary mode of transportation in the Delta.

A number of locals welcomed us onto their land to see the farming and trades of the Mekong Delta. We saw people doing a whole lot with rice and fish and frog farms. We ate fresh fruit every step of the way.

The cycle of the rice crop is such that there are times when there is little to do but wait for the plant to mature. Many of the farmers are men, and when there’s nothing else to do they hang around, play a lot of what looks like volleyball, and gather to watch cock fights. (Cock fighting is illegal in Vietnam but not monitored in the countryside, as there is virtually no police presence there) We rode past both.

Well, almost. The cockfight we rode up to had just ended. The winner had already been escorted away by the time we had arrived, leaving the loser in the middle of a circle of invigorated farmers.

There was high water expected to come down the river and flood some of the few dry areas in the Delta. While none of it was as severe as the flooding in other parts of SE Asia, we did witness some flooding in fields and people’s homes. Van told us that when it floods, the adults worry about their crops and belongings and the kids play. Some things are universal.

Rain clouds approached the morning of our final day of riding. We were exiting a ferry as a light rain started. Within five minutes it was pouring. We took shelter in a carport owned by an older farmer. The man of the house greeted us and invited us into his home. His wife brought out a plate of freshly picked fruit from their farm.

With Van as our translator, the farmer told us about his family and his work. He had six children, five of whom were adults. One of the five, his 27 year old daughter, was still single. (Cause for concern for a countryside parent) Hoping to hear more about the farmer’s feelings about his single daughter, Jordan mentioned that his brother was also single and 27. The farmer’s eyes lit up. He quickly suggested that his daughter and Jordan’s brother Doug should communicate by e-mail, ‘just as friends’ of course. A few minutes later the following note was written by Van for the farmer’s daughter: Jordan Fischer spoke with insert farmers name on 13-10-11 and gave his e-mail so that insert farmers daughters name could contact him for his brothers information. As of now, we have not heard from her. We stayed at his place for about an hour before the rain subsided. We took it as a sign to leave before things got any more serious!

 

The afternoon of the fourth day we arrived in the outskirts of Chau Doc, our destination. In total, we rode 140 miles on a mix of single lane paved roads, winding narrow sidewalk-like paths, dirt roads, and single track.

 

From Chau Doc it was a short boat ride up the Mekong to the Vietnam-Cambodia border. We docked and stamped out of Vietnam, then a few minutes further up the river docked again at the flooded Cambodian Immigration Control office to get our Cambodian Visas.

The boat continued up the Mekong to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, with one change. They took down the Vietnamese flag and replaced it with the flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

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