Finally, after 5 hours cruising down the Mekong River, a pulsating, ruddy-brown body of water flanked by tropical vegetation or colorful homes, we sighted Chau Doc. It grew out of the hillside, a mishmash of modern buildings and waterfront restaurants, apartments that teetered on steep slopes, cardboard or corrugated shacks, houseboats and other forms of floating homes. Teeming with activity, the Mekong provides food, bath water, transportation and recreation. Everywhere, barges hauled mysterious substances, tankers churned up the muddy water, small motor boats scooted people to various destinations, children leaped into the water to swim or bathe. Women sat on their haunches at the river’s shore, washing out dishes or the day’s laundry. A patchwork quilt, a city built up over time, probably destroyed again and again by floods or rains, Chau Doc was our first port of entry into Vietnam. While it may be poor, some houses looking as if they may topple into the water with one strong gust of wind, television antennae erupt from almost every rooftop, even the ramshackle huts that seem to exist half-in and half-out of the Mekong’s flow.
Our small speed boat/water taxi, which has provided us a most enjoyable ride down the Mekong from Cambodia, docks at a restaurant alongside the river. Excited, we disembark and haul our backpacks and luggage off the boat and onto dry land, where numerous Vietnamese men are ready to offer us assistance. It is several blocks to our hotel, so why not hire a porter? It’s hard to articulate why, but this city does feel different; it is apparent we are no longer in Cambodia. The people look different, perhaps more affluent? Many of them possess sharper facial features than the average Cambodian. The energy is different too. Maybe a bit more frenetic, the streets are all paved, the shops spilling out onto the road, people rushing about on foot or bike or scooter. Thankfully, there are almost no cars in tiny Chau Doc.
People stare at our small caravan of tourists as we walk toward the hotel. We smile, say hello back to the children who scream at us “HALLO”, feast on the various sites or Vietnamese noodle shops, kids running everywhere, men on bikes, women carrying the goods for tonight’s meal. The noodle shops are colorful, tiny kiosks with a few scattered tables and plastic chairs. People slurp and enjoy, the smell of cooking oil, fish sauce and garlic fill the air and make me want to pop in and take a seat. The sounds of Vietnamese fill my ears, so different from Cambodian.
Our weary procession marches on to the hotel, ready to clean up and venture out for our first cyclo tour and meal in Vietnam. People seem quite friendly and I feel a bit of the celebrity as so many people smile and wave at us. We drop our things at the hotel (a tired a worn place that has probably seen thousands of visitors just like me) and emerge back on the street to grab a cyclo and explore. Our guides are waiting.
The Chau Doc cyclo is not as luxurious as the one in Phnom Phen as it lacks a backrest. Our driver’s are far younger and more robust. One young man, a 16 year old who has left school to care for his family, is eager to show off his English and chats with me about life, his town, asking me questions about my life in America.
We are peddled along the water front to see the town’s famous statue dedicated to the catfish. Then we move on through crowded, narrow streets, past houses and shops selling everything from garish wedding gowns to funeral wreaths to electronics, fancy eyewear, auto parts, welding, and hair salons.
Most families live in the place where they work, so people spill out onto the streets from these open-front kiosks. It’s dinner time, and many families are siting on the floor around the table, faces animated by laughter and talk, bowls of steaming soup and other treats litter the tables. As we roll by, many people look up, wave to us, and smile. More children squeal “HALLO” and “American.”
We pass a couple of karaoke clubs and a few Internet shops, where young men sit bathed in blue light playing video games. Finally we arrive at our destination, a bar where we will experience authentic snacks and beer. Yummy! We invade the little place which is nothing more than the front of someone’s home with a few tables and chairs added. The host pushes some plastic tables together for us, un-stacks some child-size red plastic chairs and we settle in for our first tastes of Vietnam. Massive beers are delivered to our table in 1.5 liter soda bottles. We unscrew the frothy cap and pour. It’s not bad although a little strong in taste.
Next a women brings us some food, a few plates of mysterious meats to sample. One plate smells super spicy and looks almost like “wings.” I taste one and like the fresh garlic that has been applied very liberally. I was almost ready to nibble on another until I discovered that it was jungle bat….And we were taken to the kitchen in back to see the bats being prepared, some being skinned and churned into bat burger meat. The other plate was filled with inch-long cuts of meat swimming in another spicy sauce. Snake. Water snake, caught in the Mekong, cut up and wok seared. I had to pass as I was full up on bat.
Our cyclo drivers joined in the fun, downing their beer eagerly, ready to toast and sing Một, Hai, Ba, Yo each time we drank. They dove into the snacks and bat and got a laugh watching us attempt to taste these Vietnamese staples. Fortified by beer and bat, the cyclo drivers help us back up onto our rides, hop on and begin to pedal. A light rain has begun to fall; the streets are shiny and dark. Neon signs split the night and advertise the businesses of Chau Doc
We sit back, enjoy the ride, content with our appetizers and the friendly mood of this port city. Lazily we make our way back down the city streets towards the waterfront and a fancier restaurant for dinner – one that has a menu. It’s been a long day, full of adventure, full of new sights and sounds and tastes. Our first day in Vietnam and tomorrow we are off to Ho Chi Min.