Our first city to visit in Vietnam was Can Tho. We would meet Stijn’s good friend Binh, whose family comes from Vietnam. We were to celebrate Lunar New Year together with him and his family.
As Phnom Penh was very stressful, we decided to flee from there few days before Tet (the most important celebration in Vietnam). We wanted to do it with a boat on the Mekong. To find one is quite challenging, especially, if you are not interested in several day cruise, but rather the cheapest and fastest option available. We ended up with the one offered by our hostel in Phnom Penh. Originally we booked a boat + bus ride, but we ended up taking the boat up until our destination. But first things first.
We had our nice Myanmar boat experience still in our head, so what we got, was merely ‘good enough’. There wasn’t much information about the trip, nor could our “captains” explain more. We were as confused as the 8 other passengers on the boat. Somewhere half way to the river border of Cambodia and Vietnam the boat suddenly was pulled aside. One of our captains exchanged his meal pot with a new one, brought by a small kid. We were not moving for more than 10 minutes. What is happening? Is it a lunch break for the captains? If so, I also want to eat! It turned out that we were waiting for another boat. As it arrived we had to change the boats. It was smaller, but at least faster.
Soon we reached the Cambodian border check point where we met a very restless attendant, who immediately started to conflict with some of the passengers. He was supposed to be a some sort of guide. The passport check went very smooth – Cambodians do not really make a big fuss about the whole procedure. Short and sweet. I was grateful to the woman selling drinks and snacks. Due to a misunderstanding with Stijn, I had not had breakfast. It was around noon – I was more than hungry. We stocked up with Pringles, fake Oreos and bunch of tiny bananas.
The next stop was the border checkpoint of Vietnam. We got of on a floating house, the guide picked our passports and disappeared behind closed doors. We had to wait in cafe area. The walls were decorated with glittery new year signs, calendars and images of fluffy cats. It was possible to get the same products we had just on the Cambodian side, but you could definitely tell that we were in different country – the atmosphere was way more cold and tensed. We were no more in easy-going, relaxed Cambodia.
There was some misunderstanding between the guide and a French couple that kept us on the floating border longer than needed, but once the issue was solved (there was no issue actually), we could get back on te boat. We got our passports back, but the officials never saw our faces.
The boat took the course towards Chau Doc, on a side branch of Mekong. We could finally see the river life. The water was more narrow, bamboo huts on the shore, boats, gas stations and markets un the water. We stopped at a office of the tour company in Chau Doc. We were supposed to take a bus from there. The creepy guide offered us to pay extra 10 USD each to continue our trip to Can Tho on the boat. We refused his “kind” offer, saying that we had already payed too much for this boat trip. We still had to wait an hour before our bus would arrive. After a while another man, who presented him self as “the owner”, started to talk with us and soon offered us to take the boat without any charge. It was supposed to be faster too. Well, ok. That sounds better than 4 hours on a bus that was not even there yet. The owner also tried to convince us to get out at another city, that was supposed to be less touristy than Can Tho, but he had no luck. We knew where we were going and why.
We saw the sun setting over the Mekong. Dense pink-orange skies with palms in the background. Probably the nicest moment of the day. The whole trip took much longer than it was promised, but by now we were already accustomed to that.
As we approached Can Tho, we saw more and more bridges and houses decorated with colourful, sometimes flashing lights. We passed by the main promenade – full with lights and people. For a moment it seemed like we had been taken to an amusement park. We were thrown directly into the busiest spot of the town. We did not dream of catching taxi there, so we opted for walking to the hotel. Soon enough we realised though that our backs are not strong enough to carry our backpack all the way. After standing close to busy roundabout for 10 minutes, we finally cached the attention of a taxi driver, who took us to our shiny hotel.
For once we did not have to worry about booking a place, about finding sim cards and the transport to our next destination. A big thanks to Binh’s family and friends, who kindly arranged practicalities for us. It must have been the most spectacular hotel we had stay in during our whole trip. There was enlightened staircase, antique style lobby and golden elevator. They like their lights and shine in Vietnam for sure.
Playing on the safe side in Cambodia (except for the bugs), we were determined to try more of local food. We had a consultation with Stijn’s friend, who suggested to try the local yellow pancakes: banh xeo. The taxi took us through the Disneyland streets of Can Tho, all decorated with countless lights. I could not believe the fairytale surrounding.
Quite naively we hoped that we could pay for our dinner with card or maybe dollars that we still had from Cambodia. Wrong! We had been sent to a place popular among locals, no card payment, not even sufficient English to guide us to the closest ATM.
After we had finished our meal – each of us had a pancake filled with meat and shrimps, accompanied with greens and Tiger beer – Stijn took a taxi to find an ATM. I had another beer. Once he returned (it took a while) we learned that it is possible to withdraw only 2 000 000 VND ( ± 80 EUR), taking into account the bank charges, it is very small amount. So if you go to Vietnam, taking some cash with you to exchange is a good idea. Card payments are widely accepted, but it is always good to have cash for street food & market.
As Binh was still on his way to Can Tho, the first days we spent exploring the city on our own. Mostly on foot. To be honest, we did not do much – it took a while to find place with Western food on the menu for breakfast (not mentally ready for a soup as a breakfast dish yet), so that took the whole morning. I had some writing to do and Stijn had collected a pile of works to be done. We ended up spending a day in a coffee shop and looking to the city through a big window.
We saw many lottery ticket sellers, mostly disabled people. During the New Year period the national lottery is THE thing. Every day the lucky numbers are announced. Every day new tickets are bought and sold. Every day there is a new draw so you can win every day. Streets are full with ticket sellers, some having a stand, some being mobile on their vehicle, some going from house to house with a loudspeaker attached to their carts. In one of the up coming days we were given lottery tickets as a gift. We remembered about them only latter and did not now where to look for results. Maybe we had become millionaires… Friendly restaurant waiters helped us wth finding the information. You can send an sms and simply receive the lucky numbers on your phone. As simple as that. Unfortunately no luck for us though…
Finding places to eat without a recommendations was not easy. I inspected Trip Advisor recommendations, foursquare, but I could not find something that looked appealing for what I had in mind. While Stijn was sitting with his works in the same coffee shop, I had already spent all my inspiration. I went for a walk and spotted a nice looking local place with self made table and chairs and a nicely designed logo. I could tell that it must be a new place or run by young people as the had their Facebook account mentioned. The only problem – the place was still closed.
I took a picture of the name and as I returned to Stijn, I looked their name up. The page was all in Vietnamese, but opening hours were there and some photos of food too. The sun was setting and Stijn was hungry enough to finish up his works. We went for our food adventure in the place I had discovered.
Quan Ong-Hai is indeed run by young people. The restaurant’s speciality is hot pots. Basically you are making your own meal. The menu offers few fish and seafood option. The menu was in Vietnamese, but luckily with pictures. On their FB account you will find photos of bugs etc, but we did not find those on the menu. We took something that looked like baked fish (probably herring). Every table gets a pot with a spicy broth that is placed on top of a fire, along with it come fresh veggies, dry noodles and a plate with your chosen main (a bunch of baked fishes in our case). All the rest is up to you – you can mix and match the ingredients in the bid pot, let it boil and then fish it out in our little bowl. We tried our best to control the whole process with chopsticks and many tiny plates that were placed on the table. The broth was very spicy, but the end result was very tasty. Fighting with the fish bones was another story, but we managed quite well, until I had a little clumsy tourist performance…
One of the waiters came to liberate us from some empty plates. As I turned to give her more space, I managed to spill the hot freshly pored bowl of soup all over my legs and belly. I was covered in hot, skin-burning, fishy substance, decorated with noodles sticking to my shorts and t-shirt. Great! The girls from restaurant reacted quite fast, gave me a bunch of wet napkins and let me use their toiled to wash off the soup. Quite embracing, I know… At least I can say that the teeny tiny kitchen and toilet were brand new and very clean. I guess the other guests had some stories to tell at home.
The accident triggered an emotion lava, but that is another story. Once the crisis was over, we decided to still have drink in the near by café with a name of 1985 (or something with 80’s). Stijn tried to convince the waiter to sell us beer, but it didn’t really work out. We ended up having peach ice tea. Since we asked not to add sugar (there is a very bad tendency to over sweeten beverages in Asia) the drink turned out to be very good.
We walked to hotel along one of the channels of Can Tho. The road side was full with flower vendors. The colours of yellow and red dominating the market. Locals buying pots and pots of flowers to place at the entrance of their homes and at the altars that every house and shop is having. Coming from a culture where cultivating and giving flowers on every possible occasion is an unconditioned action (it’s someones birthday – you give flowers; it’s long-time-no-see – you give flowers; a graduation – give flowers; a weeding – flowers, funeral – flowers), I loved how they decorate the surroundings and bring flowers to each other. I actually started to feel homesick and looking forward to taking care of my plants and planting new on the balcony. In Can Tho the motorbikes turned into driving flower bushes day and night. Everyone was getting ready for the New Year.