Sunday, 24 November 2013

Fri 15th Nov - The Mekong - Phnom Penh to Saigon

Sometimes the peculiarities of air routes and price structures force some interesting compromises. I wanted to get from Cambodia to Borneo. Getting from Cambodia to almost anywhere is much more expensive than getting there from Vietnam. So I opted to head back to HCMC and from there pick up a flight to Sarawak, but where on that big island? Kota Kinabalu? Miri? Kuching? I wasn't sure yet, but they were all reached via Kuala Lumpur, so I opted to buy some time and spent a night KL, see a little of that cosmopolitan hub city and make some Borneo choices. 

First though, I had to get into and out of Vietnam. I had two days left on my visa, and so chose to get a boat down the Mekong river across the border to Chau Doc which would take about five hours and then onto a bus bound for HCMC which should take about the same. Very achievable in a day I thought.

At 8.30am I got picked up and taken to the jetty at Phnom Penh on a tuktuk. Hanging on the wall of the boat building at the port, were photo posters on the wall of The Beatles and the Titanic (surely not a good omen for the days events). With Yellow Submarine playing in my mind we boarded the fast boat and cast off. 

These four boys end up in the strangest places.

Turns out, it was a fantastic morning. It cost $23, about twice as much as the same bus route, but took only slightly longer and was considerably more fun, picturesque and comfortable.

A much needed bridge under construction near the border.

Crossing the border into Vietnam, we had to disembark to get our papers checked, and I was duly reminded that my visa expired the following day.
Cambodian border post on Mekong River.

 A minute or two further downriver, we changed a little cash at a poor rate from an uncompromising lady and then continued for a final hour to Chau Doc. 
There the dozen or so people in our boat group parted company and I got a cyclo ride to another jetty where I waited for 20mins, then a minibus to the bus station where I waited for 20mins, and finally on to the bus, where we waited another half an hour before pulling away.

The bus station at Chau Doc/ Chau Phu is a bit of a work-in-progress 

 The bus stopped near Vinh Long, long enough to eat two successively delicious Ban Mihs. Yum yum.

The Mekong rivers, (for there are nine mouths flowing into the estuary) are very wide this far into Vietnam and there are very few bridges. Instead you see small ferries, carrying scores of scooter riders between north and south banks at several towns along the way. The route as the crow flies from Chau Doc to HCMC should only take four hours, but being on the south bank compels the buses to head out towards the coast before finding a suitable ferry/bridge combination across the branches of the delta. Queues of freight lorries and buses waiting for the ferry at Long Xuyen meant that we didn't get into HCMC until 10.30, seven and a half hours after leaving - if I'd known that, I would have found another boat on a different branch of the river and headed all the way down to My Tho. Sometimes though you just have to go along for the ride.

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