Bangkok shopping

Surprisingly, electronics in Bangkok are not cheaper than in Europe. The selection is enormous, confusing, and colorful like only Asia knows how to do. The Panthip electronics mall is a vertical Akihabara – six floors with everything from cell phone protectors to blinking LED jewelry. The biggest game in town is Android tablets, not cell phones anymore. Much of the time the devices crammed into the booth displays are one generation behind, and much is ultracheap Chinese junk.

The electronic market further south is like Chinatown, a dense maze of stalls under plastic tarps. But instead of vegetables and fish, you get cables, components, loudspeakers, more LEDs, synthesizers, batteries, and everything else designed to move electrons inside. Plus bootleg DVDs and CDs. Foreigners get grabbed by the arm and bodily dragged into back offices where the bottom drawer is stuffed with porn.

Bangkok

Left Vietnam on the last day permitted by my visa. The time passed quickly. Bangkok is easy to reach from anywhere in Asia, and I like it, so I’ll be spending a few days here.

Although I have seen Bangkok Grand Palace before, it’s been a long time so I spent a few hours there, early in the morning before the tourist buses descend on it like locusts. Since the palace is used by the king on various occasions, it’s run by the army. Not just security but everything, including selling ice cream, in proper uniforms. In a few places they have separate shoe racks for foreigners and Thais. The whole place is restored with such perfection that it feels a little sterile.

Floating market

Can Tho is a much larger town in the Mekong delta. There are tourists here, but most come just for the floating market. Those who stay get to see it when it starts, at 6:00, before the day trippers arrive.

All the farmers and fishermen load their wares on large boats, and park it on a wide section of the river, out of the way of the Mekong traffic. Smaller boats flit back and forth buying fruit, vegetables, or fish, and others are tiny floating lunch restaurants. I got myself a private boat, but there was a big tourist barge or two visiting as well. The market people pay no attention. There are floating markets just for tourists where little else but souvenirs are sold, but this is the real thing.

Afterwards my boat took me for several hours on a tour through the small side canals, and we visited one of the fruit gardens. Tropical fruit tastes very different if taken directly from the tree.

Mekong delta

South of Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, the Mekong river reaches the sea and forms a huge delta. There are some well-worn tourist trails here, but Tra Vinh is too remote for that. I haven’t seen another westerner all day, and there are a lot of stares and hellos when I pass. There is the usual market in the center of town with the usual hustle and the usual smells, all for the locals with no souvenirs at all. Food is all karaoke bars and dodgy streetside food stalls. Vietnamese food is great, but if the average price of a meal is one euro there are limits.

They do have a couple of wonderful Buddhist shrines – rare in this communist country – and endless trails along the riverside. The river is central to everyone’s life here, and it’s full of boats of all kinds that have only one thing in common – they look as if a good kick would reduce them to a pile of floating rubble.

Mountains

Just returned from another motorcycle tour of Vietnam’s mountainous interior, along the Ho Chi Minh trail at the Cambodian border, for three days. People get rich here with coffee, and replacement their traditional but drafty wooden houses with gaudily ornamented concrete ones, sometimes right in the middle of the village next to a bamboo barn.

The scars from the American War are still visible; some hills are still bare after being bombed with napalm and agent orange. But the Vietnamese are very effective at illegally destroying their own environment – there are stacks of logged trees and clearcut and burned mountainsides everywhere. Those coffee plantations need space I suppose.

The border to Cambodia is still off-limits to foreigners, but the locals on their Chinese-built open motor tractors farm every available space. There are few big towns, and those few are very unattractive. There is very little luxury. But the locals are friendly as ever and gawk at the big foreigner; they aren’t getting many of those up there.