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Vietnam~On the Mekong River

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Travel Features >> Vietnam~On the Mekong River

Vietnam~On the Mekong River

July 21, 2011

Vietnam isn’t all that violent American war movies dripping with blood and gore might have you believe. The past is buried, the future bright, and the tourists streaming in- to cruise on the Mekong river; to see beautiful old pagodas; to bask on golden beaches; to feast on tropical fruit and fresh-from-the-water seafood; to live life Vietnam style. Yes, sir- this is a country which believes in giving visitors a warm and friendly welcome, and with the wealth of history and natural beauty Vietnam has to offer, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s being inundated by tourists eager for greener pastures.

The more lazy- and the well-heeled- will probably stick to big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, dreaming incense-rich dreams of Miss Saigon and doing the mandatory rounds of the pagodas, the temples, and the mausoleums. The more adventurous of the lot will perhaps hire a luxury boat to go on a day-long cruise around Ha Long Bay, while the die-hard fans of life in the rough will do it the hard way- which is really, when you come to think of it, the best way. Aboard a traditional Vietnamese rice barge, down the Mekong River.

The Mekong River rises in the snow-bound mountains of Tibet and wends its way, down 4,000 kilometres, meandering through five countries- China, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, until it reaches the South China Sea, where it spreads vast tentacles of water in one of the world’s most fertile deltas. The Mekong Delta sprawls over 2,500 square kilometres, a patchwork of lush green rice fields, estuaries, orchards, floating bazaars and quaint villages which look straight out of a history book. The area, known as the `rice bowl of Vietnam’ produces more than half of the country’s entire rice. The river itself, known in Vietnam as Cuu Long, has nine mouths, which, if you believe the local legend, were created by the thrashing nine tails of a mythical dragon.

Whether you choose to believe that legend or not is immaterial; anyway, when you’re aboard a rice barge, you won’t have too much time to mull over the folklore and the history of the Mekong. You’ll probably be too busy visiting riverside shops, factories (producing such exotic delights as rice crisps, vermicelli and rice paper), mango groves and snake farms. Or watching the unique Water Puppet Theatre. Or photographing graceful young Vietnamese women in elegant ao dais and conical straw hats, at work in the fields. Or trying your hand at making a ceramic vase in a pottery shop. Or… there’s really no end to it.

Most river cruises on the Mekong start at Ho Chi Minh City, and travel downstream, passing villages and towns which are an experience never to be forgotten. Sampans and canoes row you into smaller estuaries, and cycles (Vietnam’s most popular mode of transport) allow you to explore further inland. A cruise can be as short as a day, or as long as a week, depending on what pleasures you’re willing to allow yourself.

You’ll be invited to step into handicraft shops, eat juicy pineapples, visit riverside temples and bonsai gardens, and much, much more. Nearly all barges make their way south from Ho Chi Minh City, stopping en route at Long An, My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho, and Long Xuyen, before heading back. All stop at the main sights along the way- the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh; the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels, which were built during the war with the US; and the Lady Chua Xu Temple. Longer trips take you as far as Ha Tien beach and Chua Hang Grotto, the latter a cavern full of stalactites.

So whether your trip’s a brief respite from the bustle of busy Hanoi, or a long leisurely voyage of discovery, you can look forward to an unforgettable tête à tête with the Orient. From incense sticks to juicy rambutans, from lacquerware and ceramics to huts standing on stilts above the water- Vietnam, undiluted and authentic, with only a teensy-weensy veneer of commercialism- and that too not harsh enough to spoil the experience. This is it: Vietnam up close.

The Nitty-Gritty and the Hard Facts:

Getting to Vietnam: Both Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, and its other big city, Ho Chi Minh City, have international airports with connections to destinations abroad, most notably Bangkok and Hong Kong. In addition, there are land crossings into Vietnam from its borders with Laos, Cambodia and China.

Staying There: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer decent accommodation, with prices ranging from about $20-50 per night for a budget hotel to $50-100 per night for a room in a mid-range first class hotel and deluxe hotels would be above $100. All across the country are small inns and private guesthouses which are much cheaper and offer a more undiluted taste of Vietnamese hospitality.

Costs: Vietnam is not very expensive, and you can see and do a lot in fairly little. Tariffs for rice barge trips vary considerably, depending upon the degree of luxury offered, the length of the trip, and the size of the group. An individual would pay, for a day trip, about $150; a group of 4 or 5 people could reduce that figure to around $70 per head. Longer trips, of about 5 or 6 days, could cost $1,000 or more for an individual traveller, while 2-3 day trips come for upwards of $350.




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