Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Over the Hill and Through the Woods

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Our second day on the Yamaha Nouvo takes us from My Tho to Can Tho, a journey of roughly 120km over four hours. Fresh from our two-star hotel king-size bed sleep, we head out towards Vinh Long along the north side of one of the river forks of the Mekong Delta. The road gets progressively smaller as we leave My Tho behind. It starts out as a two-lane highway, then drops down to a one-lane highway. The lanes then narrow even further until we find ourselves nearly brushing against the larger oncoming vehicles – and then there are no larger oncoming vehicles, owing to a set of bridges with ever lower weight limits. It’s easy to see why: one such bridge is made of little more than wood planks that creak ominously as we putter across. At one point, we take a narrow bridge across a small canal that’s barely wide enough for one scooter, hoping desperately not to lose balance and pitch over into the canal. A couple more sketchy bridges, and then we’re on an unpaved hardpack dirt/gravel road for a few kilometres before being dumped out onto the QL1. Somewhere in this whole mess we stop for breakfast, two steaming bowls of Com Tam with pork in a hearty broth, at a small roadside vendor who is quite surprised to find two Westerners all the way out here.

Even with the questionably engineered bridges, this is instantly a lot scarier, since we have to get across two lanes of lawless traffic to pull a U-turn into the opposing direction. Against all odds, we make it to the other side intact and are on the QL1 bound for Vinh Long and My Tho.

Our CouchSurfing host, An Tie, is meeting us at 19h00, so we have some time to explore Can Tho. To start with, we have to find out where we’re supposed to meet him; we have an address, but no idea how to find it. As we’re driving down one of the main streets, a middle-aged woman on a scooter pulls up next to us and asks: “Where are you trying to go?” We show her the address we wrote down, but she isn’t familiar with it; fortunately, she knows a cafe with wifi nearby, and offers to lead us there. Once there, she tries to sell us a variety of tours and accommodations.

As a traveller, this is part of life. Most people are friendly and helpful. Some have ulterior motives to their generosity: they want to sell you whatever they can. Learning to separate the two and deal on your own terms is something you have to learn, no matter where you visit – the exact same thing happens in Europe, US, and everywhere else tourists bring money.

We look up the meeting location, a 24h snack and coffee joint, over some tasty juices: one tamarind-peanut, one pennywort. We sit around killing time, then decide to take a walk down by the river. The Mekong delta is known for its floating markets, of which there are a couple nearby. You can hire a boat to visit them for 300 000 VND (15 USD); the operators congregate in this park, and were out in force as we strolled by.

What better to ease our sweaty, tired bodies than exercise? Okay, maybe there are many better things, but we decided to punctuate our walk with a quick bout of exercise on the machines in one of the downtown parks. There’s this one apparatus with parallel right isosceles triangles that we try multiple different exercises on. We get about two minutes in before a nearby policeman, obviously amused by our bizarre approach, shows us the intended usage: you put your feet in the center, then perform upwards incline pushups using the lower part of the triangle.

After this, we roll around town a bit more and happen upon one of the campuses of the University of Can Tho. With not much else to do, we check it out! The university has roughly 20 000 students, with about 1 000 computers available in the various computer labs. They specialize in agricultural science and management, but there is a computer science program with roughly 500 students. We ask around a bit, and manage to get a tour of their main library! This being the summer, the student population is substantially lower; they still run classes, but most students will return late August for the fall semester. Later, we learn that average tuition for residents here is about 3 000 000 VND (150 USD). Only in America, it seems, has higher education become such a pricey commodity…

On our way back into the main part of town, we’re confronted with a snarl of traffic around this one park, which it turns out is hosting a free concert sponsored by Pepsi from 16h00-22h00. As we found before in HCMC, Vietnamese students are eager to practice their English, so we quickly find ourselves with an entourage once inside. This can be overwhelming at first, but it’s also a great way to speak with locals and learn something about the culture here. (It does, on the other hand, make us feel more than a little bad for not knowing much Vietnamese.)

It’s finally time to meet up with our host, so we head to the upstairs part of the 24h cafe where An Tie is busy hammering out some guitar riffs with the rest of the Acoustic Coffee set. They sing some traditional Vietnamese songs (which they inform us are mostly melodramatic love ballads) before stepping into some Adele – and then we’re invited up to sing Lady Gaga’s Born this Way, which we croak our way through by reading the lyrics off one of their smartphones. (Second bad-feeling moment: we don’t even know our own popular songs as well as they do! Oh well; we make up for it a bit with a slightly better version of Truly Madly Deeply.)

After a couple of hours, it’s time to head to An Tie’s house; we dodge hectic Can Tho traffic for ten tense minutes to arrive at a series of rooms clustered around a courtyard mainly used for motorbike parking. Can Tho is not in a highly malarial zone, but just in case (and perhaps also for dengue) he has a pair of mosquito nets rigged up for the night. We rinse our clothes in the washbasin, then set them out on the line in the courtyard. We then rinse the sweat off our bodies, ladling water over our stinky limbs with the small bucket in his washroom. It feels so good to be clean again! Personal hygiene accomplished, we climb upstairs to watch a movie before bed. We’re headed for the bat pagoda in Soc Trang tomorrow to complete a quest given to us through Expedition, which promises adventure!

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  • Tôi chỉ trả tiền phạt thôi được không? Can I just pay a fine now? The Vietnamese police reportedly will stop foreign drivers and claim that an infraction has been committed. We haven’t run into this yet, and hopefully we never will; Western culture hasn’t properly trained us for institutionalized bribery.