Yes, We Have No Banana Pancakes #7: Southern Cambodia to Saigon – Cambodia and Vietnam

Southern Cambodia to Saigon, Asia
Southern Cambodia to Saigon

After hanging around Ratanakiri a little too long, we proved just how intrepid we really are by hopping a nice, clean, air-con flight to Phnom Penh. We’d really built the city up in our minds, and our disappointment on arrival proved the adage that “expectation is pre-meditated resentment.” To be fair, we passed through the city three times during our month in Cambodia, and it seemed to get more manageable each time, but I don’t think it’ll ever be one of my favorite places. It was difficult not to get tired of slogging through dirty streets, not to lose patience with having to say “No, thanks” to 100 moto taxi drivers a day, not to succumb to what the Lonely Planet terms “beggar fatigue.” Once again, though, Erica saved the day by whipping out her paper and markers: instantly the street kids went from demanding money to smiling for their portraits. We found a real haven in Friends/Mith Samlanh, an outreach organization providing services for 1500 street kids a day. One of their projects is a restaurant where former street kids can learn job skills, and we spent many hours there, sipping coffee, eating tapas, and discussing the old quandary: To Give or Not to Give.

Another great good place is the Starfish Bakery in the beach town of Sihanoukville. Their founding principle takes the form of a parable:

A Buddhist monk was on the beach with his apprentice the day after a fierce storm. Thousands of starfish had been washed up and were stranded on the shore. Stooping down, the monk carefully lifted a single creature and returned it to the sea and safety. His young disciple wondered aloud why his master bothered to do this when it made little difference to the mass of helpless creatures. As they walked along, the monk picked up another single starfish and gently replied, “It makes a difference to this one,” as he returned it to the sea.

Sihanoukville was a great refresher – the clean water and nice breeze helped, and the smaller scale gave me a chance to see people as individuals instead of that “mass of helpless creatures.” We made friends with the folks at Aster’s, our favorite beachside restaurant and with some of the boys and girls who walk up and down the beach all day selling fruit from baskets carried on their heads. Those who can afford it go to school in the mornings and sell fruit in the afternoons. English class is $5 a month, but the restaurant workers only make $30 a month, and the fruit sellers’ income depends upon how many beachgoers are buying mango and dragonfruit that day. One day we had an impromptu English conversation party. The primers available in the local market date from 1950′s England, making for hilarious dialogues about bad English coffee and the merits of Yorkshire pudding.

We did make it to Siem Reap to see Angkor – Wonder of the World and all that – but it was sometimes hard to feel the proper awe when surrounded by thousands of other people doing the same thing. A couple of boys asked if they could practice their English by joining us in our survey of the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. We weren’t much help when they asked us for the English words for things like Hanuman and Garuda, but we had a lot of fun looking at the Churning of the Ocean of Milk together and naming the carved prawns, crocodiles, lions, and elephants.

Back in Phnom Penh for one last time, we stayed at the friendly Diamond 2 guesthouse, but found ourselves in one of the strangest rooms so far. The ceiling was covered in pink and purple satin, and the walls were quilted and very padded, with a pattern of 12-inch lime green and bright red roses. A sanitarium for the flashy lunatic?

We and a million gnats took a boat ride from Phnom Penh across the border to Chau Doc in Vietnam, stopping at no less than three border posts to fill out paperwork, including a $.05 “quarantine fee.” Does the fee inoculate us against the mysterious pneumonia everyone’s talking about?

Thank goodness we didn’t listen to all the horror stories we heard about Vietnam, because so far we’ve had a great time here. Chau Doc is a pleasant riverside town with a great market chock full of little pork chop-and-rice shops. For 1000 dong, about 6 cents, you can also get a great streetside dessert of two kinds of sticky rice mixed with coconut and folded into a little waffle.

We took a 2-day tour of the Mekong Delta, and while being shuttled around with a bunch of other tourists isn’t usually our first choice, it was an easy way to see some sights with a minimum of decision-making. We saw where most of the catfish consumed in the U.S. comes from – it’s farmed under the homes of Mekong Delta dwellers, with each house supporting 80,000 catfish. We also saw a rice threshing place, an incense rolling demonstration, and assorted other examples of Vietnamese industry. The best part was a trip to the floating markets of CanTho. Hundreds of boats bump along the canal, buying and selling, and each boat has a long bamboo pole jutting into the air with a sample of its wares stuck to the tip like a 3-D flag. Most boats specialized in one thing – tomatoes, pineapples, watermelon, but some boats had crabs, potatoes, pineapples, and lemons all on one pole.

From Cantho we headed to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city (with a brief stop in Mytho, where a caged monkey developed a strange attachment to me), and we’ve been here for about a week. Saigon is quite clean for such a big city, and the street sellers are less persistent than the ones in Phnom Penh, if no less ever-present. We’ve been on a search for baw bun, the rice vermicelli, grilled beef, and spring roll dish we liked so much back in southern Laos. We’ve had several dishes bearing the same name but little resemblence – luckily, though, they’ve all been delicious, and they cost $0.50 a bowl. We’ve also drunk lots and lots of Vietnamese coffee, including a pretty special variety the details of which I won’t reveal (do a Google search for ‘coffee weasel vietnam’).

Aside from the comestibles, the other highlight of Saigon has been the background music: every evening, the alleys are filled with the sound of chimes, as roving massage practitioners advertise their presence, each with a different little tune. Of course, then a cell phone goes off or a Honda Dream honks by, but it’s nice while it lasts…

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