Hochi Minh City, Vibrant & Asian (2007)

Hochi Minh City, Vibrant & Asian (2007)

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Scores of scooter-borne Santa Clauses wove nonchalantly through chaotic traffic. Floating markets sold plastic pots, flowers and fruit to customers in houses that also miraculously floated on the Mekong river. Disembowelled and dried snakes hung from hooks while live specimens eyed us warily from glass tanks in wayside eateries. Lovers gazed into each other’s eyes in parks unmindful of the stench from sewers. We were at Vietnam’s Mekong delta town—four working women with grudging families back home, footloose on a self-designed, self-indulgent, self-funded trip. This was the starting point of the Mekong delta cruise that would take us to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and from there to Siem Reap, better known as Angkor Vat, the world’s largest temple complex.

It was a lot more festive than we had imagined. The town was festooned with colour bulbs, its eateries were buzzing with customers. Slung across the quay was an incongruity—an illuminated hammer and sickle, the symbol of Vietnam’s ruling Communist party. The riverside promenade was cluttered with locals on their evening walk while the wharf hummed with dinghies and boats.

We, however, hadn’t got tickets on the boat that would take us into Cambodia. Didn’t Lonely Planet assure us that there were many boats sailing every day? So off we went looking for a transport company. As it was Christmas, only two speedboats were sailing and both were full. But, of course, we were welcome to take the slow boat, which could take up to 14 hours to reach Phnom Penh. Sensing our desperation, the shopkeeper offered tentatively, “If you’re willing to pay 50 US dollars per head, we could perhaps squeeze you into the speedboat that will sail at 7.30 a.m. tomorrow. You will reach in three hours.” This for a trip that normally costs only 9 US dollars! Greed gripped us too. Why pass up the chance to see Phnom Penh? Might as well reach early and see the city before we proceed to Siem Reap.

Bright and early next morning, we were on the speedboat to Cambodia. I climbed on the roof of the boat and colonised it as only Indians can—with a book, a shawl, a water bottle and a few munchies carried all the way from Saravana Bhavan in Delhi.

The river was throbbing with life. She was mostly mellow, sometimes moody and occasionally menacing when huge waves lashed the deck. The mighty Mekong, one of the few major river systems in the world, has never been dammed and is the source of sustenance for millions of people in four countries—Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Apart from the Mekong, the countries share a common Hindu heritage. Their ‘wats’ are scribbled over with exquisite murals from Vishnupurana and Ramayana. French, Thai, Imperial and Communist influences have produced a truly curious cocktail. In any of the Mekong towns, you can nonchalantly sip Beerlao and bite into an authentic croissant sitting under a sloping canopy laden with gilt figurines of asuras and devas. Orange-robed monks not older than your teenage son scurry past men in olive-green uniforms, their epaulettes dripping with brass stars of the Communist party. Incongruity takes on an entirely new dimension here.

When the transport company said three hours, they meant to the Cambodian border, not all the way to Phnom Penh which would take another four hours. So we had only reached Kaam Samnor, the Cambodian town on the Mekong—not your typical international border. Cambodian immigration officials offered us bananas as we waited for our passports to be stamped. There were picnic tables for visitors to catch up on lunch as friendly officials scrutinized papers. With orchids sprouting from coconut trunks, carrom boards strewn around under trees and chickens scampering under your feet, you never feel an alien, even if you are the only Asian traveler there. However, time, whether yours or theirs, has little meaning and you soon learn to flow with the tide—in more ways than one.

After a couple of hours at Kaam Samnor, we set sail. Cambodia was a sharp contrast to Vietnam’s semi-urban landscape. Emerald rice paddies swayed gently in the breeze while golden spires of village pagodas rose skywards. We watched huge flocks of geese and ducks being herded by boatmen in conical hats. Villages on stilts dotted both sides of the bank. Four hours after we left Kaam Samnor, the silhouette of Phnom Penh’s gorgeous palace and temples floated into view on the left bank. The cruise was at an end even before we had begun to savour its many delights.
But we drew comfort from the knowledge that we would track Mekong all the way to Laos through the next 10 days.

(Published in The Indian Express dated Jan 11, 2008)


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