Thursday, January 03, 2008

So Long Cambodia, Hello Vietnam

The hotel gets one credit in its favor. The wake up call was on time and it was a real person, not a recorded message. We raced through showering, went up for breakfast and was treated to some unusual sights along the riverfront. There was a large group of people doing their exercises as a group not far from the hotel. About ten minutes later, Ron spotted an elephant walking down the street. There was a man walking along side of it, but not riding it. The elephant was meandering down the street like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Every time I see Caucasians walking the streets, especially single women, I wonder if they knew what Cambodia was like, are they disappointed or overwhelmed, and then I wonder where they have been, and where they are going. The same thoughts about expectations occur to me about myself. I still have not processed it fully, but I have found it more intense than Malaysia, definitely in a positive way. There is a liveliness amongst the dirt, the chaos, the poverty that is energetic. There is no way to describe the traffic other than sheer madness. Regardless of whether it is a two or four lane road, there are no lines and seemingly no rules. Everyone drives wherever they can find room to fit between other cars, scooters, or bicycles without regard to what direction anyone else is going in. It is a combination of Italian and Egyptian driving taking the most negative of both.

Obediently, we made it to the lobby by 6:50 am only to be told, we would not leave until 7:30 am giving us time for breakfast. We had already shoveled it down, so only had to wait for our ride. We were transported in a new Toyota equipped with GPS and a steering wheel inlaid with wood. Our very young driver, a replacement for the one we were told would drive us, was competent and had the patience of Job to drive this route. It was not until the last ten minutes of the 1 ½ hour trip that the road was paved. We passed innumerable schools, so there were hundreds of children of all ages in white tops and blue pants or skirts, competing with road space with motorcycles and cars. We were praying for their safety, but they all looked like seasoned commuters trailblazing their way to their destination. There is not four turns of the wheels without hitting a pothole; in some places the entire road is dug out making it like driving through a valley before reaching street level once again.

Arriving at our destination seemed to be a mistake at first; it looked like someone’s battered car mechanic’s garage. Our driver assured us this was the correct place to be and waited for the young man there to get Vietnam forms for us. We filled out entry and exit forms and another list in triplicate. We were left sitting on benches in this dirt yard with a rundown corrugated metal building in front of us, not knowing if there was a river nearby. The driver told us before he left that the boat would arrive at 10:00 am, an hour yet to go. An hour’s sleep missed out on…

As the clock reached 10:00, other buses arrived and dropped off bedraggled travelers. In total, there were six of us and it was time to board the boat from behind this curious establishment. The luxury boat we were sold on was less than such. Carrying our luggage precariously down a gangplank of a dubious nature, we boarded a boat with two long wooden benches down each side. The crew, a family of father, wife, and son were more than pleasant and pleased to have the work. The deck we were promised to walk around was there, but the information missing was that the deck was only one foot wide, no barrier between you and the river, and a handrail at eye level. The upper deck was only accessible by maneuvering this width challenged deck as was the toilet, neither of which I had any intentions of negotiating.

With the challenges of getting to the toilet, I became obsessed with having to use it, willing myself not to have a need, but worrying about how I would get to it if I did. If I fell off of the deck, how long would it take for anyone to realize it? I used all of my mental energy trying not to concentrate on bodily functions, but when told not to think about pink elephants, they always appear.

The beautiful scenery was as valid as the deck to walk around. It was not unattractive, just repetitiously green with trees. I forgot to mention that I used to have nightly dreams about drowning while on a boat. It all started after watching the original version of the Titanic, but in my nightmares the boat is always less pretentious and similar to the one we are on. Therefore, I immediately notice there are no lifejackets and swimming to either side of the river are beyond my lung capabilities even if I had never touched tobacco in my life and only floated on my back.

Our travel companions were a mother and daughter from The Netherlands plus a Swiss couple. We are not sure of their relationship, but he had his big toe painted red on one foot and all of his toenails except the big toe painted red on the other foot. One toe had a ring on it and his left earlobe had a dime size hole in it sans an ear stretcher. My only resource for avoiding drowning and bathroom thoughts was to stretch out trying to sleep on the wood bench. Most of the others went to the ‘upper deck’. When I did snatch a snooze, I had dreams of the boat overturning, not good. The journey was 2 ½ hours before we pulled up to shore. I was hoping it was for a bathroom break and stretch, but it was Cambodian Passport Control. We filed out to show our passports; it was relatively easy. The guard looked at our Visa, pulled out our Exit card and then stamped it with so many rubber stamps; it would make the Hungarians jealous.

We were herded back on the boat, sailed for another ten minutes and docked again. This time we had to take our luggage with us for Vietnam Passport Control and Customs. The plank to reach shore was about the size of a balance beam in gym class. Being able to get over this with luggage in both hands should have qualified all of us for an Olympic gymnastics team. Once over this toothpick of a board, we had to climb rocks and eroded shoreline to get to the top. I guess if you can make it, you deserve to enter the country. This may be their endurance test for entry.

After handing over our passports to a guard who looks them over, we get waved on to a building to have them stamp, stamp, and stamp again. We all passed with flying colors, and then there was Ron. There was a problem with his Visa, but we could not understand the problem. I was told to continue on, but could see him from where I was told to go. I had to pay another $1.00 for some reason; the Visa already cost $20.00 from the Embassy.

We had all had our passports stamped, but Ron was still waiting to pass GO. Finally, he was told he could pass. The problem it turns out was that the Embassy put 2007 for his entry and exit dates, not 2008. Mine was done correctly, but we never caught it when we picked them up.

A very beautiful young Vietnamese woman shepherded us to a ‘restaurant’ where we had to wait for them to do yet something else to our passports, probably check them against wartime or CIA records. During this wait time, we were encouraged to order lunch, but I still had bowel-kidney obsession, so passed on that offer.

When it was time to re-board the boat, it was now a Vietnamese boat with a different crew. Actually, the boat was slightly nicer with eight sets of double seats with a narrow walkway down the center. Not having an upper viewing deck, they did have a back deck, but with no room for luggage, I was wedged in and holding tightly. This portion of the journey had a young woman working it. Her exact role was unclear, but she collected tickets from the passengers. Two Australians were added to our group. Their Visa did not start until January 3, but they showed up on January 2nd and were not able to cross. The tour guide took them home, gave them dinner, a place to sleep, and breakfast before returning them to the boat today.

This section of the river was narrow enough to make getting to either side easily accessible doing the doggie paddle. At last I could let go of one fear. The views were interesting to say the least. We witnessed water buffaloes being washed in the river; people fishing with huge nets, ducks caged on the water, children swimming in the mud brown water, and families out for a boat journey to who knows where. It made the last two hours of the trip captivating.

Reaching land, we were greeted by young men who wanted to be our drivers to our hotel. Their version of a tuk-tuk here is a bicycle with a wooden seat in the back. Ron and I crammed into one with our luggage, Ron hanging over the edge. Fortunately, it was not far to the hotel. We found out hotel by chance on a site called It had some good reviews, so we booked it for two nights. We are at the Trung Nguyen Hotel 86 Bach Dang in Chau Doc for $15.00 a night, we have a spacious double bed room (they call these twins, but the beds are double sized), a TV with over 50 channels and free WiFi. Tile covers the floor in the room and decorative tiles adorn the bathroom. Breakfast is included. We have a balcony with two chairs and it is air conditioned. We were really lucky with this one.

After consulting the guide, we were headed out of the hotel for dinner. Our tuk-tuk driver was waiting for us and wanted to ‘drive’ us. Since it was only two blocks away, we declined. He promised to find us again. We went to a local restaurant that was empty on our arrival, but had a waiting group of people when we left. The food was tasty and plentiful, while the cost was cheap. However, the friends who had lived here told us we should bring plenty of American singles with us to pay for things since they are regarded higher than the Vietnamese currency, the Dong. When we asked at the hotel if it was true, we were told that hotels you can pay in dollars, but restaurants and markets you have to use Dong. Gosh dang it or gosh Dong it, we purposefully took out extra dollars from the ATM in Cambodia to have US dollars. Their ATMs only spit out dollars if you don’t have a local account. If we had known, we would have waited until we arrived here.

Being full from dinner, we did a walk around. The night market was still active at 7:30pm, although not all stalls have electricity, so they sell in the dark. The city is still active in early evening with people setting up make-shift kitchens on the street or sidewalks and plunking down nursery school sized chairs at miniature fold up tables for their patrons. The cultural differences are alarming at times, yet the resourcefulness is ingenious.

In search of a larger hotel where our chances of getting a coffee would be better, we found a restaurant/guesthouse that serves coffee. We were not there longer than five minutes when our tuk-tuk driver shows up with a fare he was dropping off at this restaurant. Losing him is like trying to shake a summer cold. He sat down with us like he had been invited. His voice and accent are as jarring as a mosquito when you are just falling asleep, yet he did hook us into a trip tomorrow. We arranged for 10:00 am.

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