Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon) is the only place where our bags got heavier – significantly heavier. The city is a shopper’s paradise. We were in the market for sporting goods as both Mariza and Eulain required new trail running shoes (again) and a quick look at the labels confirmed that the shoes that we bought in Europe and South America had their origins in Vietnam. The challenge was clear. We had to find “originals” at a bargain price in a city that is littered with knock-offs. Even our morning runs through the streets and in the large inner-city parks turned into a scouting expedition for sporting equipment stores. The city parks are very well maintained and early in the morning they are filled with hundreds of keen exercisers playing badminton, doing yoga, hopping in groups to the beat of loud music, stretching, shaking, running or walking. In our experience, this placed HCMC on par with Budapest when it came to enthusiasm for public exercise.
Our quest was filled with perils. Firstly, there was the onslaught of hard selling vendors who only relented when you turned your back and walked away, and even then some would persist. Then there was the sheer number of shops and stalls that all seem to sell very similar wares, all at very different prices. To get to the best price you have to complete the haggling process a number of times for any given item. But what finally proved to be our downfall, was the constant barrage of desirable goods at attractive prices that made us lose all sense of reason and objectivity. In the end we loaded our backpacks not only with two pairs of new shoes, but also with eleven new exercise shirts, three shorts and about fifteen meters of dress fabric!
Heaving under the much heavier load and eternally grateful that we did not buy the six hammocks we haggled down to just under $1 each, we left HCMC for a week in the Mekong Delta. We spent most of our time in the cities of Can Tho and Chau Doc. One of the highlights of Can Tho was puttering through an early morning floating market in a longboat. Water vessels of all sizes congregate to exchange wares at a particular bend in the river, identifying their produce on offer by hoisting a sample up like a flag on a long pole on the boat. Weaving between the boats and barges of fruit, vegetables, timber and other products, peddlers in little rowboats offer coffee and noodle soup to the dawn merchants and their clientele. We spent the rest of the day exploring little canals lined with stilted homes flanked by rice paddies. The way of life is so vastly different from ours.
In Chau Doc, our hotel was on the main square and only two blocks away from the Mekong River. From our fourth-floor balcony, we had the perfect view of the informal food market that sprung up every evening. Over a basic noodle soup dinner we had a delightful conversation, in very broken English, with the stall owner. We were some of the very few tourists in the city and caused quite a stir and drawing many side remarks. The city mostly functions as a local border stop-over between Vietnam and Cambodia. The next day, our morning run took us right through the centre of the large local market. No touristy souvenirs or sportswear here! We had to side-step and duck a few times to get through the malaise of baskets, buckets and tables covered by low tarpaulins, much to the amusement of everyone. One of the things that we enjoyed about our runs in every city is that it usually took us a little deeper into the neighbourhoods at a time of the day when there was still a lot of household activities going on. Chau Doc was no different and our sweat was rewarded with many colourful sights, a lot of hellos and waves from children and parents getting ready for the day.
Very fittingly, we left Vietnam on the Mekong, heading to Cambodia on board a twenty-five passenger high speed ferry. It is a surprisingly broad river with a lot of activity. A six hour trip took us (and our heavy backpacks) to Phnom Penh and the eighteenth country we arrive in during the past eight months of travel. We have been to Vietnam! (And we have a lot to show for it!)
– Jarik –