Going Places: The glorious chaotic waterways of Indochina

Going Places: The glorious chaotic waterways of Indochina

Leaving Phnom Penh behind in a cloud of smoke and spray, we roared along the shoreline past ramshackle houses teetering on stilts, work-worn fishing boats dragged up under trees, and brown-bodied kids waving their little arms off.

By John Cooney

If you really hate boats, don’t bother sightseeing in Vietnam & Cambodia. Sure, you can see a bit from the front seat of a rusty ‘cyclo’ or the back seat of a tired taxi. You can don your smelly track-shoes, walk dusty streets, and clamber over crumbling temples. But if you really want to ‘get’ this eye-popping region and its remarkable people … sorry, you’ve gotta go out on the water!

Water. We take it for granted, don’t we? Turn on a kitchen tap, run a bath, flush a toilet – and there it is! Nothing to get excited about. But for millions of Asians, water means everything. They live alongside it or on it or in it, just like their ancestors did. It feeds their families, irrigates their crops, washes their clothes, takes them to town, and rocks them to sleep at night. Generation after generation, they’ve been born on the water and died on the water.

Which is why water’s the best place to feel their pulse …

On a warm Wednesday morning we crossed one of those waterways: TONLE SAP, a vast shallow lake in the heart of Cambodia. Our ‘speedboat’ – the Rambo Express – was an ugly, submarine-like thing made in Russia. And rather than sit inside feeling claustrophobic, we copied the locals: sprawling outside on the roof and getting wet.

Leaving Phnom Penh behind in a cloud of smoke and spray, we roared along the shoreline past ramshackle houses teetering on stilts, work-worn fishing boats dragged up under trees, and brown-bodied kids waving their little arms off. 

The Rambo Express eventually slowed, found a gap in the mangroves, and spluttered into the ‘main street’ of a floating village. I couldn’t believe my eyes! 

It was a fishermen’s shanty-town, built of thatch and sticks and plastic. Here was somebody’s home, anchored in the stream, pot-plants sprouting on the veranda. There was a Catholic church, patchy-blue, floating just above the waterline. Here a one-room schoolhouse, tied up by a garden planted in the muddy bank. There a semi-submerged pen, holding four pink pigs. 

There were people-people-everywhere: women in coolie hats paddling canoes … men fishing with bamboo poles … families eating together under makeshift shade … and naked kids hello-ing us while they splashed about in the shallows.

A happy, watery, sunshiny shambles!

Another time, in North Vietnam, we found ourselves aboard an authentic Chinese junk in the middle of HALONG BAY – an astonishing emerald-green seascape about three hours’ drive from Hanoi.
It was pitch dark outside, coolish on this expanse of inky water. But we weren’t alone. Dozens of other junks and sampans, some lit up like Christmas trees, were also anchored amongst the jutting islands. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ was playing from one of them, the sound reaching us easily as our crew served dinner: fresh-cooked seafood! 

It was sea-misty next morning as we topped-up at breakfast, then motored out through the forest of pointy limestone rocks. 

Dropping anchor an hour later, we were ferried (in sturdy bamboo boats) to a floating fish-farm – each family’s houseboat connected by planks to others, their hungry, hand-fed fish kept in bamboo cages beneath the floorboards.

More recently, not far from Ho Chi Minh City, we were welcomed aboard a luxury riverboat for a week-long MEKONG CRUISE.

By the time it runs out in South Vietnam, the mighty Mekong has surged more than 4000km. And awaiting us upstream was Vietnam’s bustling ‘ricebowl’, the Mekong Delta … followed by the rural peace of Cambodia … followed by the mind-boggling temples of Angkor Wat (but that’s another story).. 

Our seven-day cruise flew past in a hard-to-remember blur:
• relaxing on the sundeck, cool drink in one hand, camera in the other, while the thriving riverbank activity scrolled slowly by
• sleeping like babies in our well-appointed cabins, the Mekong lapping gently against the hull
• marvelling at floating markets, a traffic-jam bedlam of overloaded sampans, with neighbours noisily trading fruit & veg
• inspecting the onshore making of rice-paper, sugarcane-candy and potent ‘snake-wine’ (rice-whisky with pickled snakes afloat in each bottle!)
• crawling up a steep, clay bank, then climbing onto ox-carts for a wild, hilarious ride to this humble pagoda where a bespectacled Buddhist monk gave us his blessing
• visiting a dirt-floor school where cute kids showed us their reading skills, practiced their English, and sang: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands …”

An adventure? Absolutely! It rarely gets better than this …