The Mekong Express

“If this is the tourist bus, where are all the tourists?”

It’s a question that’s been asked a few times on this trip, enough that it’s become a bit of a joke. The first time it came up was in Mexico, taking a bus to the pyramids. I was the only foreigner on the buses there and back. This was made extra obvious at one point when we came upon a military roadblock and all the males had to exit the bus for a search. I might have stood out just a little amongst that lineup of locals getting patted down by Mexican troops on the side of the highway. Also, there were buses in India and Thailand where not a word of English was spoken and we really started guessing a little as we started making stops closer and closer to our destination. It can sometimes be a bit of a guessing game without a crowd to follow.

Today though, it was quite the opposite. The “Mekong Express” bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City was at least half full of foreigners, most of them westerners. It’s honestly a little jarring stepping onto a bus like that. You travel to the other side of the world to get away from things and to be immersed in a totally different culture. On most trips though, there are bottlenecks in transit and at destinations where you join those inevitable amalgams of tourists from around the world. Today was definitely one of those bottlenecks. Here we are on a luxury bus maybe half-full of the finest ambassadors from the west. Genie pants, “Five fingers” shoes, dirty dreadlocks, Charles Manson facial hair, Ironic eyeglasses, not-so-ironic travel hats, Tank-tops advertising SE Asian beers, fanny packs, giant backpacks coated in dirt, “mandal” sandals. You really need to focus on the sights outside the bus window to be reminded that you’re still in a foreign country. Looking at the passengers on our bus, I thought Vietnam must be a pretty popular tourist destination. It’s just a shame that so many western travelers maintain an appearance consistent with getting their meals at a soup kitchen and sleeping under a bridge.

Anyhow, riding on that bus I was wondering just how touristy HCMC was gonna be, given the group we were riding with. As soon as we arrived, those concerns disappeared. You get off the bus, grab your bags, and ten feet down the sidewalk you’re immersed in a throng of Vietnamese people. Phnom Penh is a big and bustling city. At three times the population, Ho Chi Minh City is a metropolis. We just arrived this afternoon and only have some brief first impressions so far. The city is packed, traffic is dense, and crossing the street is almost as dangerous as India. Basically, with few actual signaled crosswalks, you just kinda play a game of Frogger walking across in the middle of hordes of motorbikes, cars, and buses. Move steadily and predictably, and they “should” drive around you. That’s in contrast with India, where you just step in front of vehicles with the expectation that they will slow down or stop to let you cross. It’s pretty entertaining to see the looks on some of the fresh tourist groups when confronted with crossing a major road. A combination of fear and horror. If you wait behind some of the groups to cross the road, you’d never get across.

HCMC

What else? Briefly…. French Colonial influence is much more obvious here than in Cambodia. Lots of bakeries. We sampled some sweet breads for dessert… not terribly unlike some of the Mexican bakeries, with big airy lightly sweetened rolls, and donuts with bittersweet chocolate. Good Stuff. Lots of coffee shops, and they definitely appreciate rich, strong coffee here. Whole sections of the city have French Colonial architectural elements. The entire square around Notre Dame cathedral looks like Europe. Many of the buildings around it are new, but they’ve still been constructed in the classic European style, so it really seems to be something embraced and maintained here.

Notre Dame, HCMC

Notre Dame, HCMC

So that’s about it today… got settled in, did a little window shopping and walked the streets a bit.

Wrapping up… Now, this is by no means a food blog, and I know there’s nothing worse than reading someone else recounting their every meal. I’ve been told though that we have an allotment of food mentions once every three posts…. If that’s the rule, then I guess we’re due for another food mention. And on that note I’ll close with a couple food items:

I tried to show a few examples of some of the more exotic (to an American) fruits we’ve sampled while here. There are a few more that we’ve come across, and I’ll try to check them out and post pics eventually. Today we came across, not a fruit, but just a food item that piqued the curiosity of Martha and me both. At a brief bus stop, among the many people hawking food items like rolls of sticky rice and roasted corn, were several people selling odd looking bundles of plants/flowers. They seemed to be a hot item, so Martha ran out and bought a bundle. I’m sure she paid WAY too much because she handed over the last of our Cambodian Riel (about U.S. $0.80). Oh well though, no need for the Riel after the bus ride anyway. Martha came back with a couple bundles of the stuff and the bus took off.

We weren’t sure what to do with it at first, and then we watched a guy outside the bus pop out one of the plants little blackheads to get at the seed:

Ok, there you go right? Well that’s where I got ahead of myself. It looked like one of the guys outside just chowed down on the little plant pimples, so I popped one out and crunched away. YUCK! Angry alkaline bitterness, it tasted like poison! I actually had it wrong, the good stuff is one step further. It wasn’t the first time on this trip I’ve done something like that (BTW, the purple pulp on a mangosteen peel also tastes like poison).

Ok, there it is, the actual little seed. Like a raw peanut, crunchy and watery. Not bad, but not so good that you want to eat a ton of them. People made a hell of a mess eating these things and discarding the waste all over the sidewalk. I’m pretty sure they are lotus flowers, unblossomed I guess. I’m really not sure what the proper way is to refer to them as a snack food though.

Later in the evening… First meal in Vietnam was a pretty easy choice… Pho Ga and a spread of appetizers. Good stuff!

Pho 24

Hopefully a nice full day tomorrow. Until then…

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3 Responses to The Mekong Express

  1. Christine says:

    I like the food, accommodations,observations…everything!!

  2. Pedro says:

    Hey its your blog. Write whatever you want. This is a good memoir for future years. I wish i had written all about everything and every minute of my trips in 1975 to europe and 1980 to Japan, thailand, hong kong , phillipines, singapore and Hawaii. I barely remember anything. write all about everything food, tuk tuk, ruins, everything with detail. it does not matter repetitive is good.

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