The Magic Note: Can Tho to Phnom Penh

This story begins with a man named Mr. Triet, a travel agent who met Ellen and I upon our arrival to a hostel in the Mekong Delta town of Can Tho. We had bussed to the area because of its famous floating markets; every morning, a gaggle of boats congregate at places along the Mekong River to basically trade wares.

We took motorbikes from the bus station to the hostel – a somewhat harrowing and exhilarating experience when you also have a backpack to carry – and were checked in by Mr. Triet, who we thought managed the hotel (he didn’t. Oops). After waving off the usual hard sell of a tour of the floating markets the following morning, we set out to explore Can Tho and promptly got tremendously lost, making a wrong turn literally out of the driveway of our hostel.

When we came back, we had come around to the idea of a planned tour of the markets. After sitting down with Triet, we ended up booking a huge leg of our trip through him, including:

  • A market tour by “small-boat”
  • A bus ride later that afternoon from Can Tho to Chau Doc, a border town with Cambodia
  • A stay on a floating hotel in Chau Doc that purportedly had “fish swimming under your feet”
  • A boat crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia and on to Phnom Penh, the capital.

All in all, it sounded pretty good. The next morning, we were met by a silent Vietnamese man standing somewhat ominously at our hotel door  at five in the morning. Wordlessly – Ellen is not a conversationalist in the hour or so after she wakes up – we followed the man down to the docks. We boarded a rickety wooden rowboat with an outboard motor attached; it could not have been more than about ten feet long. The scenic ride to the first market, the popular Cai Rang area, took about forty minutes. The market was still getting going when we arrived, with people literally throwing pineapples from ship to ship. We rarely saw money change hands; the system seemed to rely more on bartering than anything else. We drank iced coffee on the boat, watching the goings-on as our driver, Can (easy enough) maneuvered us through the markets.

Before heading to a second, less-touristy market, we meandered down a Mekong canal and stopped at a rice noodle factory. Underrated. We got to toss (badly) the rice pancakes that served as the basis for the noodle and saw how the whole process worked.

After the second market, we lazily cruised down a river tributary. Ellen and I both got to try our hands at rowing; the Vietnamese row standing up and by crossing the paddles, so to move the boat forward you have to counterintuitively PUSH the paddles away from you. This took some getting used to, and yes there are pictures.

Can (the driver) unexpectedly gave us presents – carved pineapple, one of those pointy Vietnamese farmer hats, and two souvenirs woven from a plant. All in all, this was a trip highlight for me.

The trip got interesting when we returned from the markets. After an awkward exchange with Can – we weren’t sure if the hat was a present for Ellen or something he wanted back, but we ended up walking off with it – we went back to the hostel to meet Mr. Triet. After paying him, the guy gives us a scrawled note in Vietnamese without telling us what it says and hustles us into a waiting car.

We were understandably bewildered. Where were the bus tickets? The hotel reservation? The boat ticket to Phnom Penh? We had just paid for all of this and we had one single note, plus Triet’s business card (which was written in English – most Vietnamese definitely can’t read English, as we found later). Well, whatever. Triet said to get in the car, so we did.

When we got to the bus station, we were handed tickets by the taxi driver (phew) and left to wait for the bus to Chau Doc. After multiple false starts since we didn’t know WHICH bus went to Chau Doc, we somewhat miraculously boarded the right one and set off.

The trip passed uneventfully. Upon arrival in Chau Doc, we were accosted by the usual brigade of moto drivers asking us where we needed to go. It occurred to us that we had no idea where this hotel was, so I showed one of them the note.

The driver looked confused and thoughtful. After a second, he gestured us to follow him across a dark parking lot to his motorbike.

Okay. We are totally going to get our kidneys stolen. And we still don’t know what that note says – it could say “Please take these dumb tourists to the local organ harvesting facility. Kindly, Mr. Triet.”

Incredibly, we ended up at the hotel. The hotel was technically a floating hotel, inasmuch as it was fused to the dock and the two floating restaurants on either side of it. Still cool. With no booking, we walked into the main area and again handed the magic Triet note to someone looking official. The woman looked perplexed and asked us to sit down. She shouted to someone in a different part of the hotel in Vietnamese as we waited.

After a couple of minutes, an older gentleman came out. I leaned over to Ellen and said, “Oh, good, someone wearing pants. He must be in charge.” That turned out to be right – after another couple of minutes of everyone looking confused and Ellen and I wondering if we had been taken in a scam, we were shown to a huge corner room floating on the river. We even had a balcony! Ellen also discovered that by going out on to the balcony, you could see into the rooms on either side of you. She found a nearly-nude older Vietnamese man sitting in his room watching TV. Wonderful.

And rats. We could hear them squeaking in the walls. But the fan drowned them out, so it was like they weren’t there at all!

The next morning, we woke up around six for a 7 am boat ride to Phnom Penh. We were weirdly first shown to a floating fish farm and a random Muslim village along the way, notable because apparently the mosque and madrassa there was being bankrolled by the UAE. No idea why, and our tour guide kept referring to the locals as “Taliban” and “al-Qaeda,” a joke he found hysterical. On reboarding the boat to head to the border, the crew asked for our tickets, which everyone else pulled out on cue.

Uh oh. Ellen and I had no tickets, just the cryptic Vietnamese note from Triet. In desperation, we showed the note to the driver, who looked confused (theme!) and yelled to our tour guide in Vietnamese. The guide made a dismissive gesture, which didn’t sound good, but the driver suddenly broke out into a smile and waved us on board.

Mr. Triet has some PULL.

Finally, we get to the border crossing with Cambodia, which was literally a wooden ladder rising randomly out of the water and leading to a pair of ramshackle huts saying “POLICE CONJUGATION FACILITY.” I don’t think “conjugation” is necessarily the right word, but who’s complaining?

Our Vietnamese tour guide, through this whole crossing, was nervously running around and sweating. It seems the two countries are not so friendly, and we wondered if he was afraid of getting detained. In any case, he didn’t get back on the boat with us as we went on.

After another twenty minutes of a scenic boat ride, we transferred to a larger boat and continued on. The ride to Phnom Penh took about two hours and was far more enjoyable than the bus. Once we got to PP, we walked to a hostel we’d found online the previous night. (We’re good planners.)

Since this post is getting long, I’ll stop here – but you may have realized there are no pictures. That’s because I lost my camera on the bus to Siem Reap, where the Angkor Wat temple complex is, and had to embark on an insane journey to try and get it back. So stay tuned!

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