Chau Doc side
Our hotel in Chau Doc was excellent. A strangely modern block, styled in an art deco fashion perched on the corner of the street overlooking the main market place.
The next morning we surfaced at a respectfully late hour, missing breakfast, so set out to find a café to take in Chau Doc. After settling for orange juice and coffee we had enough time to get a feel for the place. Unlike the other parts of Vietnam we’d visited, Chau Doc doesn’t really seem to have embraced the tourist invasion, and we pottered around the town like strangers in a strange land. The truth is Chau Doc is primarily a working fishing town and provincial market place, the fact that it sits on the border with Cambodia is about the only reason that anybody would really choose to visit.
We eventually began to frequent a restaurant that looked out onto the Mekong (or a tributary), wide, alluvial, dotted with branches and whole trees sweeping past on the current. To pass the day we decided to go on a tour of the river and surrounding countryside. After being collected from our hotel, we caught a small boat, and began the tour by visiting the floating market, unfortunately it was pretty dead by the time we arrived as it was mid-afternoon. The boats themselves were large hulks, their masts decorated with the produce they sell. A whole village revealed itself on the water, bustling with activity, the river belied the town’s more sedate atmosphere with fishing nets being flung, engines being repaired, boats filled up with petrol, an old woman on all fours supplicating herself to an alter on her boat roof.
Another interesting feature was the presence of the Cham minority people on the river bank opposite Chau Doc. As we wended our way up river, the bamboo trees parted and the brilliant white onion dome of a mosque came into view. The Cham here are a split from their Cham relatives around My Son. There the Cham practice a type of Hinduism, while here in Chau Doc they are Muslims. The Cham are generally larger built than the Vietnamese, with more sallow, flatter faces of an almost middle eastern appearance, their clothes brightly coloured tunics, long skirts and scarves.
After the brief stop at the Cham village, we boarded the boat again and visited a floating fish farm, which luckily for us was in the process of emptying it’s stock, by sorting the fish into size and species for sale. Huge bamboo baskets carried by two men would be dumped onto a canvas sheet, then a succession of boats moored alongside would collect the sorted fish.
The journey finished with a short trip up a canal that seperates Vietnam from Cambodia. Strangely, the French decided that the canal wouldn't be the actual border between the two countries, and even now Vietnam stretches another 500 metres over the far bank...something the Khmer Rouge didn't appreciate particularly, as they spent most of their time shelling Chau Doc.
Having trailed the Intrepid tour groups for the entire length of Vietnam, it came as no suprise to find ourselves on the speedboat to Phnom Penh with another batch on our last morning. A short xe om ride and we found ourselves next to the Victoria Chau Doc hotel (a strange break in the space/time continuum must have been responsible for placing the Victoria hotel here - it was so ludicrously out of place in a working fishing port...), as we waited to board the boat we were able to grin to eachother that the tour we'd taken the day before cost an extra $20 for the priviledge of having it booked by the Victoria! The speed boat looked a bit smaller than the one we'd seen in the pictures in the hotel, but it was reassuringly firm underfoot, and the upholstered seats were actually very comfortable.
The Intrepid guide said that the first hour of the trip would be the most interesting for riverlife, so I happily snapped away until we hit the very relaxed immigration check. A perfunctory passport check and x ray and then back into the boat and up river again for a kilometre until we hit the Cambodian border check. It felt strange leaving Vietnam, no longer ex-pats, but tourists. No more entertaining moments where we could suprise people with a smattering of Vietnamese, instead a reversion to the wide eyed innocence and a massive sign over our head screaming 'SUCKER!'.
The Cambodian passport control did look that little bit more tidy, but the immigration officials proved to be the a stony faced bunch (the sought after look,I suppose).
After that the speedboat ramped up and we were off.
The most noticeable thing between Vietnam and Cambodia in relation to the Mekong was the lack of activity on the Cambodian side. Chau Doc was a swarming mass of junks, fishing boats, ferries, canoes, fish farms, trawlers, and floating houses, while in comparison the Cambodian water remained empty bar a few very small fishing canoes or a brand spanking new western tug or fuel vessel. It seems it's a relatively recent return to the water for the Cambodians.