Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cai Be & Sa Dec, Vietnam & Life Aboard the RV Tonle Pandaw

This is Post #3 of the Vietnam & Cambodia section.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

RV Tonle Pandaw
This morning, we boarded our 61-person ship!  We'll be on here for seven days, and I'm hoping I don't get sea sick.  Viking Tour Cruises takes excellent care of their guests.  When we boarded this morning, there were several crew members waiting to help each of us up the steps.  At the top, we were welcomed, and then given a key, a wet washcloth, and a freshly cut coconut to drink straight from the tree.

Drinking Coconuts with Grandma Jean

So far, the two meals I've had in the ship's restaurant were delicious.  I returned to my cabin from lunch and found that a member of the crew had delivered my suitcases.  Looking around the room, I found ten bottles of water.  By the expression on my face upon seeing them, since you can't drink the tap water there, you would have through I had struck gold.

RV Tonle Pandaw - Upper Deck

There are four levels on our ship: the sundeck (moon deck at night), the upper deck, the main deck, and the lower deck, where I'm staying.  That's correct - if this were the Titanic, then I would be on Leonardo DiCaprio's deck.  Not bad.  Except that in this case, all the cabins on each level of the ship have the same accommodations and cost the same amount.  I have an adorable, little cabin which has every amenity I could possibly need including a bath robe, an air conditioner, and a hair drier.  Next to the bed, there's a writing desk and one of those circular windows that ships have.  From the window, I can see that I'm just inches above the surface of the water.  After seeing my cabin and the writing desk, I immediately thought of the cabins in the movie version of Titanic.  I totally feel like that's where I am...well, except for the sinking park. I've never been on a cruise before this (unless a 3-hour Norwegian fjord cruise counts), so Titanic is really all I know about cruises.  Already though, that's changing.

RV Tonle Pandaw - My Cabin
In the afternoon, we took our first excursion off the ship to Cai Be, a Vietnamese village in the Mekong Delta.  We disembarked from the ship and took two smaller boats over through a floating market to the village.  In the market, which consisted of several boats, our guide explained to us that each boat has a bamboo stick that goes straight up in the air, and that whatever hangs from the bamboo stick is what the people in the boat are selling.  We saw some coconuts for sale.

The homes along the river, which were mostly huts and shelters, were propped up on stilts to prevent flooding in case the water level rose.  However, they only had about two feet of extra height.

Making Rice Paper
When we arrived in Cai Be, we entered an elaborate structure under which several people were making products to sell.  They demonstrated how to make coconut candy, Mekong rice whiskey, cobra wine (with a real cobra or scorpion in the bottle), rice paper for wrappers, and popped rice candy.  There are rice paddies everywhere here, so it makes sense that so many of their products are rice-based.  A few times, we passed by people working in the rice paddies who were wearing cone-shaped bamboo hats.  They really wear those!  I love the hats.  They're so stylized and fun!
Before leaving Cai Be, I purchased a set of five pairs of chopsticks.  I love eating with chopsticks.  Now my challenge will be cooking something that you're supposed to eat with chopsticks.  The people I've encountered so far in Vietnam, including in Cai Be, seem to prefer payment in US Dollars (USD) instead of Vietnamese Dong (VND).  They're always surprised when I pay for something in their currency instead of mine.  We were told that in Cambodia, you can even get USD from the ATMs.

RV Tonle Pandaw - Dining Room
This afternoon in Cai Be, it struck me that I'm having an unusually luxurious experience for a visit to a developing country (I hope "developing country" is the current, politically correct term.).  For that matter though, this particular cruise could be considered a luxurious experience even in the United States.  Everywhere we go, we have five-star accommodations, people helping us, greeting us, bringing us anything and everything, etc.  The stark contrast with the huts and shelters we're cruising past is...well, it's clear that we're on a luxury vacation.  I feel like I'm being treated like royalty, and I wonder what the people living in the towns we pass think of us.  On the ship, my cabin is cleaned twice per day and gifts are left nightly on my bed.  There's a room down the hall from my cabin which offers different types of massages and a pedicure for 20 USD.  I doubt the people in the shoreline villages are getting pedicures for 20 USD.

My visit to Guatemala, another developing country, in 2009 was quite different from this trip.  There, we stayed with a host family and had running water for about 12 hours per day.  We were directly plopped into the culture.  Here, we visit the culture during the day excursions and cruise in style at night.  I'm not complaining - trust me, this is fantastic, and it certainly makes visiting a developing country easier and very comfortable.  I feel a little awkward and a little guilty going through these villages because I am lucky enough to have so much more than so many of these people.  I'm also noticing the difference between a student-run community service trip and a cruise taken by people who either have careers or are retired from their careers...plus me.  I am the youngest person by several years on the trip.  Most of the guests talk about the work they do/did and how they mostly travel now.  I talk about starting graduate school and my super-fabulous and extra awesome year working abroad and traveling.  One cool thing about hanging out with retirees turned globe trotters is that they have tons of life advice.  Their lives all turned out how I'd like mine to go (healthy and traveling a ton), so I'm soaking up their advice and travel tips like a sponge.

Many families live and work on their boats.
In the few days that I've been in Vietnam, I have noticed that there are tons of people everywhere.  Our guide told us Vietnam has a population of around 90 million people.  What sticks out to me most is that we see so many people each day who are just relaxing and sitting around the side of the street.  Not everyone has a place to be and something to rush to.  Our guide told us that Buddhism is the main religion in Vietnam, and that in Vietnam, they strongly believe that money doesn't buy happiness.  This idea appears to fit neatly with the lifestyle many people have here.  That said, he also told us that Vietnam is run by a cash economy, instead of on credit.  Most people are paid in cash for their work, and as a result, a lot of income goes unreported.  Additionally, he told us that people, even if they're buying a house, will usually pay for the entire purchase in one cash transaction.  If you don't have the cash for something, then you simply don't buy it.  I think that's a very healthy attitude towards saving and spending.  I doubt there are any reality shows about Vietnamese people being tens of thousands of dollars in debt from buying holiday gifts for everyone under (around!) the sun.  That said, I cannot imagine paying for a house in cash.  I wonder if houses cost less there.

After dinner on the ship, I was pleased to realize that I had not yet gotten sea sick!  Returning to my cabin, I found a gift on my bed - one of those really cool bamboo hats!!  What a lovely finishing touch for the first night on the ship!  If you see someone wandering past Nordstrom on Michigan Avenue in a Vietnamese rice farmer's bamboo hat next year, it's probably me.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Our visit to the food market in Sa Dec, Vietnam was especially exciting for me because one of my favorite things to photograph is food.  Even better if the food looks exotic, spiky, and brightly colored!  The food in this photo is referred to as "the messy haired fruit"; I think the actual name is "lychee".  After returning home from this trip, I found some lychees in a grocery store, but all the spikes had been removed.  

In this particular food market, the main items for sale included fruit, chickens, live fish (extra fresh!), rice, and vegetables.  My eyes bulged a bit when I realized that the fish I was looking at were still alive.  Frequently, they would jump out of their overcrowded, shallow tank of turbid water, flip over in the air, and fall back in!  
I guess they want to show that their fish are fresh.  So fresh that they're still alive...eek!

As I strolled through the market behind our tour guide, I noticed that everyone was staring at us.  At first I dismissed the staring as people checking out a group simply because we were a large group.  The people working in the market were all very friendly to us. They would smile, wave, and chorus, "hello," and then get excited when we waved back.  Back on the ship, our guide explained to us that they were looking at us and at our clothes because the only time they really see Western people is on TV.  He mentioned that tourism is picking up, but Asia is still really far away so Westerners don't wander through all that often.  With each village we visited, I noticed that people would come up to us and comment on the light color of our skin, our straight teeth, and our clothes.  One woman even tried to explain to me that many of the women in her village carry umbrellas on sunny days to keep their skin from getting darker.  She was surprised when I told her that many people in the US sit out at the beach for the purpose of darkening their skin.  When they commented that our clothes were so beautiful, I replied that I though their hats were really cool.
Ironically, half of our clothes they commented on were made somewhere in Asia.  For example, many of the Gap's clothes are made in Vietnam.  I wish there was a Gap out there - What a joy it would have been to purchase their clothes without the extra import fee!  Amazing and ridiculous at the same time.  Most places we went shopping at on this trip sold their merchandise for cheap prices.

Brick Factory
One particularly interesting thing here is that so many of the workers make things that I, perhaps because of my socioeconomic position, never think about making.  While on the cruise, we stopped at several small Vietnamese and Cambodian villages along the Mekong River, visiting places where one family made bricks, one wove baskets from leftover plastic, one made rice paper, etc.  The quality of their products is so consistent that it was hard to believe all the items were made by hand without visiting the families in their villages and observing them at work.

In the evening, our guides taught us about wedding rituals in Vietnam.  The main religion in Vietnam is Buddhism, and in Buddhism, rather than hiring a person to officiate a marriage, you simply obtain a license to marry and pray to your ancestors to make it official.  A series of gift exchanges is also involved.  Superstition based on zodiacs, who you marry, and that date of the marriage, holds quite a bit of weight in the realm of matrimony here.  I was interested to learn that superstition, religion, and the family play such large roles in the marriage process in Vietnam.  In the US, many people are becoming less religious, almost as if religion and traditional practices are falling out of fashion.  I think that the mindset of individuality not only draws people away from doing everything based on their family's practices, but can also draw people away from rigidly adhering to traditional religious practices.  Surely, there still exists a religious youth in the US, but I think it's fair to say that that group has shrunk, often in favor of other interests.

Monday, July 9, 2012

I missed all the excursions in Chau Doc, Vietnam today because I got sick.  I guess I wasn't quite careful enough about avoiding the water.  Or maybe it's something else.  Who knows?

Nice hat! (Vietnam)
In the afternoon, we crossed the border from Vietnam into Cambodia.  The Viking Cruise staff makes every effort to pamper us.  They even took our passports to the immigration officials for us so we never had to go through any sort of immigration procedure.  I was too sick to leave my cabin, so I'm really glad they were able to do that for me.  They also had the ship's chef prepare an assortment of soups for me to eat until I felt better.

While I'm impressed by the treatment on the ship, other travelers seemed to think of it as normal for a cruise.  As one said, "It simply won't do to lose any of us or let any of us get injured."  I can't say she's wrong.  I know the company doesn't want that and the countries don't want that.  The people we've encountered here know very clearly that one way to build up their tourism sector is to take excellent care of visitors.  Sometimes when we get off the ship for a village excursion, the pathway is a little shaky, so they re-construct the bridge for us.  When we return to the ship after a day walking through muddy trails, they clean our shoes and later deliver them to our rooms.  I'm pretty sure no one has ever cleaned my shoes for me before.  Even the housekeeper makes my bed not once, but twice per day (found that out when I took a nap midday).

Looking forward to feeling better tomorrow for our arrival in Phnom Penh!

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