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Stranded on the Delta

VIETNAM | Sunday, 26 May 2013 | Views [336]

While in Ho Chi Minh City, I met a fellow American named Rachel (from NC) who helped nudge me over a little boundary that had been holding me back most of my time in Asia. Every time I'd landed in a new country, I'd wound up spending all my time in the first city I got to. I was really getting frustrated with this - Bangkok kinda sucks, and I'd heard only amazing things about the islands down south and Chiang Mai and Phuket are both supposed to be awesome. Rachel wanted to get out of the city, and with her pushing me along, I managed to get out too.

Together we went down to the Mekong Delta. Now, sometimes a hurdle looks enormous until you jump it, then you look back at the tiny little thing and wonder why it was such an overwhelming barrier. To get down to the Mekong Delta you have to book a tour. You can book a tour in your hostel, in your friends' hostel, in a hostel down the street, or even (if you're feeling crazy) in any of the travel agents that line the street all the way down there. The Mekong Delta comes in three flavors: 1, 2 or (yep, you guessed it) 3 days. After checking with six or seven different places, we chose to book with Rachel's hostel, as it seemed to have the best balance of cost, ammenities, and likelyhood of being there when we showed up the next morning. We also booked the 2 day option, choosing to spend one night at a 3 star hotel (instead of a 4 or 5 star, or a homestay).

The next morning we showed up bright and early at 6 AM. The tour wasn't actually leaving until 7:30, but we had to have breakfast - the Vietnamese are absolutely amazing when it comes to making sure you're fed; breakfast was always free and it wasn't just bread and cereal, they'd actually cook you omelettes or make you a sandwich. Then a group showed up to collect us and take us to the actual bus itself. One thing one learns about travel in Vietnam, it's never through just one company and it's never just one step. While you're reading, keep a count of how many handovers you see - that's pretty much the norm. In fact, let's count together - this is 1.

Boarding the bus (2), it was a pretty homogenous group of white people - which isn't that shocking, we're pretty much the biggest slice of tourism in Asia - most everybody else lives there or doesn't travel much. Even though we were leaving so early, we were still in the heart of rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City, which is a unique beast that seems to live on regardless of the time. Our tour guide did his best to keep us entertained and informed in the hour or so it took just to get out of the city, and spoke English with a pretty minor accent but had an odd habit of repeating himself in five or six word chunks. Five or six word chunks. He went on to relate the following bits of information:

  1. The number of motorbikes in Vietnam is 3/4 the total population of Vietnam.
  2. Part of this is because if you're a man and you want a girlfriend, you have to have a motorbike. "In America you say 'No money, no honey'. In Vietnam we say 'No motorbike... no honey.'" (Rachel and I spent a good portion of the trip trying to come up with something that would actually rhyme - my best attempt was "No motorbike, no girl-you-like".
  3. If a man has a small motorbike, then he has a small girlfriend.
  4. If a man has a big motorbike, then he has a BIG girlfriend.

There was also some information about bathroom habits in the countryside - "You see gentleman standing on side of road, he is peeing. You no see ladies on the side of the road, they go behind the bushes for peeing." Needless to say, I found him way more entertaining than I should have.

When we got down to the river itself we transferred from the bus to a boat (3) and set out to see the floating market - "Biggest floating market in the world. Bigger than the fake one in Thailand - no tourist junk here, only fruit and vegetables. Real market!" It was a little late in the day for the market, as business tends to be fast and furious around 5:30 in the morning and trail off as the day wears on and stock dwindles. From there we saw rice paper, coconut candy and popped rice get made the authentic, ridiculously hot way. Then we took a ride through some of the little streams that branch off the river in traditional canoes (4) they row by standing up and crossing their arms while making little figure eight patterns with the oars - you kind of just have to see it. I think this was my favorite activity of the day - cruising silently down these little streams past dilapidated huts and the occasional tomb (the Vietnamese used to bury their ancesters wherever - in the middle of a rice field for instance, with a simple concrete crypt, because they believed it established the land as theirs; after all, their dead were buried here), the gentle rock and sway of the boat...

All too soon, and luckily as it started to rain, we were back on the main boat and away toward the bus we'd come in on. The rain came on fast and hard, and Rachel and I couldn't resist a good five minutes of Forest Gump quotes ("And one day, it started to rain..." "Sometimes it even seemed like it was raining up..."). The bus started to head back towards the city, and at one point the tour guide asked how many people were doing the 2 day tour - three hands went up. 3 day tour? No hands went up. Well, of the three, Rachel and I made up two, and the third was a girl from Australia named Vineeta. It being Vietnam, and me being the only guy, the tour guide assumed I was going to be leading our little intrepid band (to be fair, I was also the oldest by a good 6 years).

He drifted down the aisle, squatted down by me and handed me a piece of paper. "The other bus is running about an hour late, so we're going to drop you off. If it doesn't show up in two hours, give me a call - that's my cell phone." I told him I didn't have a cell phone, and Rachel and Vineeta swiftly chimed in that they didn't either. "Well, borrow somebody's."

With that settled, they deposited us in this great big three-walled cafe, where all of the signs were only in Vietnamese. Now this might not sound like a big deal, but up until this point every sign we'd seen had been in English FIRST, then in Vietnamese if it was in another language at all. Furthermore nobody working there/hanging out at one of the tables spoke English either - and there weren't that many people to check. So, with no other recourse, we waited. And waited... One hour, an hour and a half, then an hour and fifty minutes, and right when we were starting to get really nervous, a bus pulls up and the tour guide frustratedly waves at us to get on.

So we board the bus (5) and the first thing we notice is that the tour guide is Chinese/Vietnamese, and everybody else on the bus (except one dude who didn't say one word for the remainder of the trip but was definitely American) is Chinese. The second thing is despite there being three of us, there's one seat. The tour guide exasperatedly told us to take our seats. When we pointed out the obvious inconsistency (after first sending V to the only obvious seat) he flips out and down these two little hotseats - flimsy contraptions that take up the last remaining space between the sliding door and the real seats in the van. He then goes up and sits on the hump behind the gearbox next to the driver.

We drive and drive and drive and eventually come upon this enormous bridge - just ridiculously oversized. It had been four-lane highway so far, and in an interesting dearth of highway construction skill every quarter mile or so where the pieces of road were joined up there was usually a gap of several inches in height between one section and the next - our driver took to swerving crazily across the lanes as each gap approached in an attempt to lessen the impact. So the bus pulls over to the shoulder in front of this huge bridge and our new (and much less patient) tour guide tells us the following things:

  1. There are a lot of bugs out here.
  2. Dont get bit, as we don't have time to take you to a pharmacy tomorrow morning.
  3. Be at the bus station by 8 tomorrow morning, or you have to get a new bus.

As we begin to pepper him with questions about what the hell is going on and where the bus station is and where we're supposed to go next, he jumps back on the bus and pulls away as an old toothless man wanders up next to us. This new guy doesn't speak one word of English, but waves for us to follow him across the freeway - not really having any other options, we follow.

Traffic in Vietnam is nuts, and crossing four lanes of busy rural highway with a big backpack on your back is not recommended. I'm just saying.

Once we make it across the deathrace, we find a woman in a pink jumpsuit sitting on a motorbike, plus another motorbike the old man is beginning to climb on to. Doing the math, we're still short a seat - until a third bike pulls up, driven by a young man. The girls are a little bewildered and digging their heels in - they want to know where we're going, what is going on. Myself, I figure "hell, it's not like we've got any better plans" and jump on the back of the new bike (6), which immediately jets off through this big archway straight out of a Tomorrowland park entrance. In big characters across the top it says something in Veitnamese, then underneath Industrial Residence Park. We zip past row after row of abandoned apartment complex ruins, like some strange sci-fi set of the near future after a worldwide disaster. Rachel and V have disappeared far behind me at this point.

After a while the ruins give way to jungle, and the occasional hut. Then we take a turn onto a little concrete sidewalk that runs parallel to a stream. As we whip past the occasional local on foot, they all raise a hand and cheerfully exclaim "Hello!" Without enough time to respond, I pass by in silence, feeling accidentally antisocial. We eventually pull up to a little compound (7), and I dismount the bike, gesturing towards the walls - "Is this it?" I get a nod before the biker pulls out and away.

Entering the building, I find three little boys playing a videogame on a laptop, while a couple adults sit further back in the garden. The adults all pointedly ignore me, but one of the three boys looks up - "Hello! What's your name?"

"Paul. What's yours?"
"How old are you?"

"27, what's your name?"

I sat down, made polite small talk with them, and eventually got their names and ages - supposedly the 8 year old was 16, which I immediately filed in the "don't trust this kid" category. The girls showed up 30 minutes later, met the kids, and we all proceeded to make small talk until one of the boys asked if we were hungry; "Do you want a little bit of food, or a lot?"

We got the spread - rice paper, rice, vegetables, tofu, beef and even a fish caught straight out of the river (which maybe should have given us pause - Rachel and I had just gone to a museum two days prior that made a point of how much Agent Orange had been dumped in the Mekong during the war). It was delicious, and afterwards some locals showed up and had some drinks with us - which the little kids would run off to fetch whenever it was requested.

We bunked down that night, safely screened off in bug nets on beds provided (though by then it was too late, I already had ten or twelve bites on each extremity). It was ridiculously hot and humid that night, and the one fan only pointed at V's bed. However, the tiny lizards were entertaining to watch as they scurried up and down the walls, edging close when they thought we weren't watching.

The next morning we were awoken bright and early at 6, and fed a traditional breakfast of egg and french bread before the old man set off with us in tow to the boat. "Boat? No, we take bus." "No, boat!" Replied the speaker of the group of three boys.

*Shrug* Well, we didn't seem to have any other options. So with the old man in front, then me, then Rachel, then V and the three boys, we set off through the village. You could tell this was making his day - we passed by houses, in front of a local gathering spot, even through someone's garden at one point, as he took the opportunity to show off his foreigners. Again, everyone greeted us with a wholehearted "Hello!" which we now had enough time to respond to.

The procession eventually led up to a small traditional boat (with eyes on the front and everything) and we boarded, found our seats, and rapidly pulled away from the harbor (8). The old man stood and smiled, the boys waving excitedly as we motored out of sight. The early morning sun warming our faces, the breeze off the water ruffling our clothes, we sat back and enjoyed a quiet, unexpectedly comfortable ride down the river, even passing under the enormous bridge we'd seen the night before. Eventually the boat pulled up to the dock, and as we exited the craft the driver tugged my shirt and held out a note:


 

Tourist wait here. Other tourist come soon. Fifteen minute maybe.

 


 

And that was it. Well, it was a small town, and there was a little pavilion just off to the right, so why not? So we gathered up in the shade of the pantheon and waited. And waited. And waited. After about 30 minutes, the group of tourists we'd boarded the bus with the day before all start to trickle past, and the tour guide shouts "Hurry! We are late! Get on!"

Unfortunately, V had wandered off to try and find some coffee, leaving her bag behind. Rachel thought for a second and then dropped her bag too - "Hold on, I'll get her." Now I have three bags and no girls - I can't take the bags and potentially leave them stranded. Nor can I leave the bags to get stolen. Meanwhile the tour guide is yelling at me to hurry and get on - I do my best to pick a spot midway between the packs and the dock, staying in sight of the tour guide should he decide to ditch me and pull away, while doing my best to reassure him that the girls will be back in just one minute. "One minute, one more!"

The girls finally come walking up, while I gesture furiously at them to run, and we all board the boat (9) and it pulls away.

The rest of the day was very similar to the previous day - if not for the homestay, the second day would have been a complete waste of time. At the end of the day we're back on the bus that ditched us by the bridge, heading back to Ho Chi Minh City.

I'm exhausted, sunburned, bug-bitten, and Rachel is fast asleep, cutting off bloodflow to my shoulder, but I couldn't be happier. I finally got out of the city and saw some "real" Vietnam. It had been a wild, sketchy, at points frightening trip, but I'd learned the backpacker matra:

"Don't worry so much, these things tend to work out."

Tags: backpacking, culture shock, sketchy, travel

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