Monday, November 18: Another river day

Monday was our second and final full day on the Jahan. Unlike the disaster last week that was the Ginger, we’re not anxious to get off. In fact, we’ve gotten even more friendly with Elizabeth and Andy, our new Swiss friends. We’ve had our meals with them, talked with them over drinks and exchanged impressions and photos from our outings.

This morning was the third of the three excursions via launch from the Jahan as we make our way up the Mekong. We’re still in Vietnam, but only a few miles from the Cambodian border (1). Tri (2), our guide, announced this morning that the guides and Captain – who are Vietnamese – would be leaving the ship at the border, and Cambodian guides and a Cambodian Captain would be boarding.

Everybody got a cyclo, November 2019

First on today’s agenda was a visit the town of Tan Chau. We motored to shore in the launch, and then we each boarded a cyclo for a ride around town. These are small carts pulled by a bicycle. We each got our own, but the guide insisted that regular Vietnamese would ride four or even six at a time (3). With only one passenger, some of the drivers were racing with each other, passing on the straightaways and laughing.

The cyclos dropped us at the local market, where we tipped our drivers more than the suggested $1/person.

Only the healthy stuff, November 2019

Sally and I walked around the market, which by this point in our trip was no longer remarkable. There was a section of fresh meat and fish, all laying out without refrigeration in the heat (4). Not what I would want to eat.

Fish food, November 2019

The final stop before we returned to the launch and the Jahan was a fish farm floating in the river near the banks. These are all over the place; we saw them two days ago way down in the Mekong Delta nearer Saigon, and along the river. It’s basically a floating structure, perhaps 50′ along each side, that uses nets draped from the outer perimeter to contain tilapia (5) that are raised from fingerlings to about 3 lbs. Two men can operate the farm, which consists mostly in this case of mixing feed and feeding the 100,000+ fish swimming beneath us.

Washing the deck, November 2019

It’s obviously hard work, as these two guys were chiseled.

On the way back to Jahan, we said goodby to Tri in the traditional way: with a tip.

Cambodian river bank, November 2019

Around 2:00pm, we left Vietnam and entered Cambodia, our last stop on this journey. Nothing immediately changed on the river, but gradually the river banks became less industrialized. Cambodia is much smaller, less populous and poorer than Vietnam.


(1) Sheen’s Willard was searching for Brando’s Kurtz in Cambodia.

(2) Pronounced tree.

(3) For what it’s worth, I saw no one but tourists in a cyclo while we were here.

(4) I chose to show you pictures of pretty fruit rather than rotting meat. You’re welcome.

(5) And some other similar fish whose name I never really understood.

(6) Cambodia’s per capita GDP is $1,600, Vietnam’s is $2,740 and it has 6x as many people.

Sunday, November 17, Part Deux: More on the Mekong

This cruise on the Jahan has some similarities to our trip to Africa: each day you’re up early (1) for an excursion, then come back to the ship for lunch, and continue with an afternoon excursion before returning in time to clean up and go for dinner. And you need to clean up; after a full day wearing sunscreen, the heat and the humidity, a shower is definitely on order.

Industrial fishing, November 2019

The afternoon outing took us out in the launch again up a channel that was fully dominated by the fishing industry. Not just the fishing boats, but fish farms in the river, and processing plants along the banks.

Fisherman, November 2019

The fishers range in size a single guy in a small boat pulling in his nets with a dozen or so fish to large farms with were raising tens of thousands of fish.

Men eating, women doing dishes, November 2019

But the highlight of the afternoon was a stop at Thanh Island.

Smoking, November 2019

The village there is about as “authentic” as you can find while on a tour – the only westerners were our group, and there were no gift stops, souvenirs for sale, street beggars or any of the usual trappings tourists see.

Preparing for the feast, November 2019

Instead, we saw people doing what they might do if we weren’t around.

Elders, November 2019

Towards the end of the walk we sat in a multi-purpose building where an elderly man and woman sat and talked with the group. It was staged, of course, but their comments were real and they answered questions from the group.


Sunday, November 17: A very full day on the Mekong

After two relatively quiet days, Sunday was chock-full of activity. Like any cruise worth it’s fare, the Jahan has lots of activities available. Tai Chi at 6:30am, breakfast starting at 7:30am, and the first of the two included tours at 8:30am.

Breakfast was a lovely buffet in the comfortable dining room, complete with an omelet bar. Like dinner last night, they offered both Western and Vietnamese style food. We met a lovely couple from Switzerland yesterday as we were waiting to board the bus, and we’ve now had two meals with Elizabeth and Andy. Most of the tables in the dining room are for more than two people, so it’s great to find people you like to be with.

The ship holds up to 52 people in 26 rooms, and there are 43 on this sailing. They divided us into two groups and assigned each of us to a guide (in our case Tri) and a local launch for the day’s activities. We were issued radios so we could hear the guide without him having to shout over the launch’s engine roar.

Going upriver, November 2019

As we motored away from the Jahan across the width of the Mekong to a smaller branch leading to town of Cai Be, I couldn’t help flashing on Martin Sheen motoring up the river in the patrol boat in Apocolypse Now, looking for Marlon Brando. The thrum-thrum of the motor just triggered me …

Fishing, selling, carrying cargo, November 2019

Life on the Mekong River, and the tributaries and channels that make up the Mekong Delta, revolves around everything the river has to offer. We passed fishing boats and farms of all sizes and types. We stopped at a floating market, where the dealers act as intermediaries between the nearby farmers and merchants who sell the produce in town.

Three places to live and work, November 2019

Many of the boats are also homes for their owners and families, at least part time. We frequently saw boats with hanging laundry and outdoor kitchens, and a man, woman and child moving up the river.

Cai Be itself wasn’t that exciting. We landed at a small area where there was a factory that made coconut candy, rice paper and other items and watched some demos. Typical group tour stuff: Tri led us from place to place and explained what they were doing, while we all crowded around. Or, in my case, took a couple of pictures, then wandered away to look at other stuff.

Back at the Jahan, lunch was another excellent buffet. I’m beginning to get comfortable with this ship (1), overcoming the bad feelings from the Ginger.

To be continued …


(1) Good thing. We’re aboard for three nights.

Saturday, November 16: Back on the Mekong

This morning we packed for a two stage transfer to our next accommodations, which was also a transfer: the Jahan, a cruise ship that sails up the Mekong River from a point 40 miles south of Saigon to Siem Reap, and back. That voyage takes seven days, but we’ll only be aboard for the first three, disembarking at Phnom Penh.

You’ll recall that we were on the Ginger overnight last week, and it didn’t go so well. Ginger is operated by Heritage Lines, which also operates the Jahan. So you can imagine that we were a bit nervous as we set out.

Jahan, November 2019

The first part of the journey was a transfer from our hotel, the Park Hyatt, to the meeting place at the Renaissance Hotel. That piece was handled by Tours of Indochina, our outfitter. As usual, they sent a guide and a driver. The transfer was less than a half mile and it took more time to load and unload the car than to drive over. Really, we could have managed a taxi ourselves. But that’s how TOI rolls.

The second part was two buses transporting about 30 of us the forty miles. Our bus was escorted by Tri, who will be our guide during our stay on the Jahan. The good news is that this was well organized – they knew who we were, gave us clear directions on where to wait, etc. The bad news is that this was beginning to feel like what we hate about group tours: everyone lined up and moving as a group.

Cabin 207, November 2019

In any event, by 2:00 we were in our cabin and by 3:00 the ship departed. Then came an info session and safety information, with a complementary welcome drink of champagne (1).

The safety briefing was given by a crew member, who also introduced the ship’s officers: the captain, the chef, the food service manger, the cabin service manager. It was straightforward. The information piece, which described how our itinerary would work and the first day details was given by Tri. We realized that he was both very competent and entertaining. He would interrupt himself to tell a personal story, a joke, or give some insight into how Vietnam has been recovering from the war. The jokes were usually pretty corny:

“A man walks into a bookstore and asks for The Man Is Master Of The House. The shopkeeper, a young lady, replies “Fiction and comedy are upstairs, sir.””

This was all a good uptick from the Ginger. As was dinner, which was a delicious compendium of Vietnamese and Western dishes. I think we’re going to like this one.


(1) Or at least some sparkling white wine; we never saw the bottle, but that’s what they called it.

Tuesday/Wednesday, November 12/13: The Ginger Cruise

Warning: this s a bit long, and a bit of a rant. But once I started, I couldn’t control myself.

Tuesday morning we left our Hanoi hotel for a two hour drive to Lan Ha Bay, where we boarded the Ginger for an overnight cruise. Lan Ha Bay is a newish part of Ha Long Bay, where day trippers and overnight trippers go to see fascinating islets which dot a large area. We saw advertisements for excursions to this area all over Hanoi, most offering a round trip bus combined with a several hour cruise.

Ginger, November 2019

At the advice of our travel consultant, we elected to stay overnight on the Ginger, a luxury boat with twelve spacious cabins. We wound up getting the largest cabin on the boat, a suite with wrap-around windows and a forward facing deck. Decadence strikes again.

We had assumed that we would be picked up by a driver Tuesday morning for the two-ish hour drive, and also on Wednesday to return to Hanoi. But as I alluded to in the last post, our expectation that we wouldn’t see Sunny after Monday was wrong. Sunny and our driver would accompany us to the Ginger, then hang out overnight in a nearby hotel, and take us to the airport the next day. So we needed to plan for four days worth of tips for them rather than two. Not that it’s that much money, and they’re both very nice, but I didn’t really see the value in having a guide sitting in the car with us and spending the night in a hotel. All of which we paid for, of course.

At least our luggage made it, November 2019

Anyway: we boarded the tender at the check-in dock around 12;10, and 10 of us (1) motored out 15 minutes in the drizzle to board the Ginger.

Our suite, November 2019

The Ginger is about a year old, and is really nicely furnished. In addition to our spacious suite, there’s a very roomy dining room, an open foredeck with tables, lounges and a jacuzzi, and a small library. The lousy weather made all of the outside stuff pretty useless.

Welcome drinks, November 2019

The first order of business was an orientation session, where Minn (2), the cruise director, outlined the safety procedures and our schedule for the next 23 hours. Lunch would be at 1:00, followed by our afternoon excursion.

Lunch was pretty mediocre, but turned out to be the best meal we would have.

For the afternoon excursion, we read in our itinerary that we would “disembark at Viet Hai Village, a small village on Cat Ba Island, where we hop on bikes (electric car available) for a tour along small paved roads towards a quiet village nestled in a valley. Meet and greet local villagers and see their daily routines at homes, school, and work.”

Okay.

We paid good money for this, November 2019

We didn’t disembark at any village, but past the end of a road being paved, forcing us to walk in the rain along the side to where our vehicle was waiting.

There were no bikes there, which is just as well. It was raining.

If the open vehicle was electric, it was the first one I’ve seen that emitted carbon monoxide from an exhaust pipe.

The road was small. And paved.

The road to Viet Hai, November 2019 (7)

When we stopped after about 30 minutes, we were all lead into a covered area to sit on small plastic chairs while Minn explained the geology of Lan Ha Bay. In heavily accented English. To an audience of four Germans, two Belgians, and four Americans (3).

The cultural portion of our voyage, November 2019

We then were moved about ten feet to a second set of small plastic chairs while Minn showed us various whiskeys and brandies made locally, including one aged with a cobra in the bottle. And another with scorpions. Exciting!

On the way back in our stretch golf cart, we stopped a couple of times to take pictures of ourselves in front of cloud-obscured hills.

And that wasn’t even the worst part of the trip. When we got back, Sally and I went for the complementary massages that came with our cabin. Mine was good. Sally got the trainee, who gave a unbelievably terrible massage. Sally was afraid that the masseuse was going to hurt her.

Because of the massages we didn’t have time to go to the cooking class that the other eight guests seemed to enjoy.

Karsts and fisherman, November 2019

Then there was a mediocre Pina Colada, followed by a mediocre dinner. After dinner we had a choice of activities: squid fishing in the dark and rain, or watching a BBC movie about two guys trying to get to Ha Long Bay from Ho Chi Min City. We passed on both.

Wednesday’s schedule was also interesting. Tai Chai at 6:30, followed by kayaking at 7:30 (4). Three people attended each. Then back to the cabin with time to shower and pack, as you needed to have your bags in the hall by 9:30 when breakfast was served (5). Breakfast itself was terrible – cold French toast, horrible coffee that actually never came, and white bread toast that wasn’t ordered.

Around 11:15 we were back in the tender, heading back to shore.

The rain stopped.

Floating village, November 2019

So: this mini-cruise had all the things I hate about cruises: mediocre food, lousy excursions and activities, being herded around in a group like sheep, being on someone else’s schedule and no ability to go and do something on your own. The cabin and ship itself were great, and the crew were pleasant (6) and helpful. And of course they’re not to blame for the weather.

As we were waiting for the tender, Sally filled out an evaluation form. Being the nice person she is, and liking the staff, she gave the Ginger mixed but basically positive ratings. My evaluation would have been less positive. But you know that by now.


(1) The boat has 12 cabins, and was apparently full yesterday. I guess no one wanted to cruise with us. Or they read the weather report.

(2) His name tag said Minnie Minn.

(3) Minn is a really nice guy. It’s not his fault we don’t speak Vietnamese.

(4) We were still experiencing periods of drizzle and heavy rain mixed with a bit of brightening.

(5) The only food available before then was a bit of fruit, reheated croissants and perhaps the worst coffee either of us ever had.

(6) Excepting the killer masseuse.

(7) These are approximately all the local people we saw.

Thursday, November 7: Cruise to the caves

Thursday started early. Really early. While we’ve had to set alarm clocks any number of times on this trip to ensure that we got our included-in-the-price breakfast before a morning tour, today we were to see the monks walk asking for alms. And provide them with said alms. This is an 800 year old tradition whereby devotees and now tourists place sticky rice in bowls carried by the monks. This provides food for the monks (although they have other food as well) and, at least for the devotees, shows respect for the monks.

A young monk collects sticky rice from Sally, November 2019

So we arose at 5:00, met our host at the front of the hotel at 5:30, and sat on cushions he had placed along the street in front of the hotel with bowls of sticky rice. We had to don sashes properly wrapped around us. About 40 monks passed us in four or five groups (1). While I got the picture above, I was mostly busy digging handfuls of rice out of my baskets to drop into the bowls carried by the monks. Also, it was still before sunrise, and pretty dark (2). Most of the images I shot didn’t come out.

By 6:15 we were back in our room house. Sally went back to sleep, while I caught up on the blog.

Taking the kids to school, November 2019

We had a late breakfast and then I walked into town to see what it looks like during the day, with no guide, and no night market. It’s a pretty sleepy town. There are extremely few regular cars here. Traffic in town and the surrounding area is dominated by motorbikes and tuk tuks. The tuks here are different than those we saw in Thailand. At least in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, they are used for short trips and mostly by tourists. Here they’re a major form of transportation, and so they are bigger and more robust.

Our Captain & crew, November 2019

Our main activity for the day was a river cruise on the Mekong. We really had no idea what to expect other than sitting in a boat all afternoon with our guide and having some snacks while we looked at the scenery and made of couple of stops. I think we were both a bit afraid that we would be uncomfortable in the hot sun and bored. It turns out we were anything but uncomfortable, and we weren’t bored either.

The Mekong Queen, November 2019 (3)

The boat was a big surprise. It was extremely long and narrow for its length, and setup up to accommodate maybe six guests. We, of course, were only two. There were two king-sized day beds separated by a bar and serving station. We were outnumbered by the waiter, the captain and our guide.

Dove Mountain, November 2019

The scenery was beautiful. We’re just at the end of the rainy season, so everything is still lush and green. And with the boat moving and creating a breeze, and being shaded from the sun by the roof and some clouds, the temperature was about perfect.

Whiskeytown, November 2019

We made two stops. The first was a little village where they distill whiskey, which was cute. The second, our endpoint, was a cave where 2,000 Buddhas sit looking down (4).

River life: even monks have to work sometimes, November 2019

Along the way we saw that the Mekong is still a river where some people have not moved into the 21st century.

Stairway to wisdom, November 2019

The last stop was a pair of caves which rise above the river which house hundreds (5) of Buddhas, reportedly placed there by local villagers over hundreds of years. The lower cave is a couple of steep flights up, and the upper cave is a couple of hundred steep steps up.

Billions of Buddhas, November 2019

We just visited the lower, which contains most of the Buddhas (6).

Afternoon catering, November 2019

The cruise home was peaceful. In fact, the current was strong enough that the captain slowed down so we wouldn’t get home too early – this was supposed to be a sunset cruise. But we enjoyed our afternoon snacks (7). Unfortunately, the sky clouded over before sunset so it just got dark.


(1) There are more than 1,000 monks in Luang Prabang.

(2) 1/13s, f/1.8, ISO 3200 dark.

(3) Not really it’s name, which was written in Lao script. Which I can’t read.

(4) Buddha’s eyes are almost always shown looking down as he meditates.

(5) Our guide said there are thousands. I’m not sure that’s true, nor am I sure about the provenance of the statues. The information I can find all seems pretty sketchy.

(6) Apparently the local villagers are no more energetic than we are.

(7) There was enough food that Sally didn’t need dinner.