When you cross the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, an invisible line is passed and the kramas disappear only to be replaced by conical hats, flowing ao dais and mono-print pyjamas. The river's banks become more industrious, and then, as we take a right to head south from the Mekong to the Bassac River somnolent Cambodia is left behind and boisterous Vietnam arrives.
Chau Doc sits at the junction of this bridging canal and the Bassac River. A thriving trading hub, Chau Doc is incredibly brightly coloured -- as if a container-load of pastel paints were dumped on the market and the population went mad. The town is a decked out in bright hues of pink, baby blue, purple and the occasional pastel green.
Down on the ground, it has a boisterous energy that is striking after the slower pace of Cambodia, but what is most telling is the obvious affluence. It's only after walking around in Chau Doc --
hardly the apex of Vietnamese wealth, that we really just how impoverished Cambodia is, and just how acclimatised we had become to it during our two years there. From the solid pavements and clean wet markets to the standard of street side stalls and restaurants it doesn't matter where we look we're struck by how much this country appears to be going forward as Cambodia continues to slide backwards.
Holly settles down in a comfortable restaurant (the Bay Bong which is seemingly recommended in just about every guidebook on earth) while I head out to find some comfortable lodgings.
A word on Chau Doc hotels -- the standard is amazingly good and great value. For US$5 you can get a perfectly adequate fan-cooled room with tv, hot water bathroom and perhaps even a bit of a view, while for $10 you get the works -- there are a few brand-new hotels in town and they're outstanding value. While you can spend $110 a night at the Victoria Hotel, you'd be mad to particularly as you'd be sharing the terrace bar with moaning staff from the Oz embassy in Phnom Penh.
In the afternoon we did a trip out to Sam Mountain -- a small hillock loaded with pagodas and a view from the summit. Lazy that we are we opt for a motorcycle to the summit and it is money well spent -- the view is reasonable but hardly breathtaking.
One of the big attractions in Chau Doc are the floating houses that surround the area -- fish farming is a big deal and many of the raft houses maintain huge fish farms beneath their floorboards. Today I did a dawn boat trip through these floating houses and it was excellent. Dawn brought with it stunning light and fascinating life scenes -- kids getting ready for school, grandparents brushing their few remaining teeth, women selling morning snacks while in the distance, against the brilliant green of river reeds, a lone women in her shimmering white ao dai rows past. A highly recommended trip.
By 8am, the sun is well up and the market has awoken -- stuffed baguettes, piping hot coffee with an inch of condensed milk at the base, the never ending stream of kids ... hello hello hello hello hello -- I've lost count of how many times I've said that today and it isn't even 10am.
From the decade ago I was last here the town has changed a lot -- more affluent, cleaner and far more industrious. But in many ways it hasn't changed at all. The smiling kids, the pestering motos, the smooth fruit shakes -- sometimes the best things never change.