7th February 2012 – Saigon to Vinh Long
After painstaking research about where to start our Mekong Delta adventure we grabbed a local bus to the bus station and after the usual hounding by ticket touts we ended up buying a bus ticket to Vinh Long. We hoped that as usual there would be a free seat so that we wouldn’t have to sit with Mateo on our laps all the way, but when we spread ourselves out, we were quickly told off by the “crew” and settled down to an uncomfortable ride.
The bus itself was old and decrepit, and even though the a/c worked after a fashion, there was a need to open the windows as for the first time we were on a smoking bus. It is not unusual for the driver to sneak a crafty fag, but normally the passengers don’t – we were not so lucky this time.
We exited the bus station and lumbered up the road for a few hundred metres before we stopped outside a cafe cum bakery selling baguettes with questionable paté fillings. Having only had a small breakfast we bought some sticks without the fillings to tide us over until we arrived.
The journey passed relatively uneventfully. The locals were fascinated with us and turned to look at us from time to time as we were sandwiched all together on the back row. The man next to Mateo and me kindly offered us one of his filled baguettes which we duly munched our way through.
We arrived in Vinh Long, well when I say in, I mean that the bus stopped on a corner some 2km out of town and we were ejected with all speed onto the pavement and into the arms of the waiting moto drivers. We got our bearings whilst telling them we were going to walk into town. They shook their heads and said it was too far to walk – but we were not in the mood for paying 100,000 Dong for the privilege of a few thousand metres on the back of a moto, after all we only had the one rucksack with us.
We walked on, they followed on their bikes negotiating all the time. Eventually they came down to a reasonable price and we bagged two bikes into town for 20,000 Dong – still twice what it should have been according to Lonely Planet. We were dropped off by the river and set off to find somewhere to call home.
Vinh Long is possibly the most un-touristy place we have been in on our travels. There were hardly any restaurants or cafés and supermarkets were nonexistent. After several false starts we found a hotel with a huge room and en suite with a bath in it (but no plug) as large as a swimming pool.
The town has large indoor and outdoor markets full of wonderful sights and smells. There were home stays across the river that sounded tempting, especially when pitched by the owners. When factoring in ferry crossings there and back every day the price was a bit more that we could afford.
We rapidly came to the conclusion that as a base of operations, Vinh Long was not ideal. It seems it is a place to pass through rather than stay and so after some deliberation we decided we would move to Can Tho in the morning. Dinner was in a restaurant not far from the hotel, but it was my turn to feel unwell, and although I wasn’t sick like the boys, I was feeling very queazy. It was a shame as the food was good.
8th February 2012
We walked the few hundred metres into town to find breakfast and a cup of coffee. Then headed to the bus station to get our tickets to Can Tho, a town about 40km from Vinh Long. Buses leave every 30 mins (allegedly) but our bus was a minivan that had seen better days, however it was leaving shortly and 40km should take less than an hour, shouldn’t it?
Ordinarily one would say yes, an hour tops. But we stopped what seemed like every 200m and when we were going we didn’t get above 15kph. After 2½ hours we finally arrived having stopped for 20 mins to wait for some other backpackers to arrive. We said our au revoirs to them and establishing our bearings we set off for the hotels on the top of our list. We found a suitable one on the fourth attempt – passing our fellow travellers as they came out of the side street where the hotel is, settled ourselves in and went for our customary stroll around town.
We ate a rather so-so burger, quite disappointing, and as the sun sank low on the horizon strolled along the river front and felt more comfortable here than in Vinh Long.
We’d asked the man at the front desk about renting scooters and a friend of his arrived to discuss our needs. Or so it seemed. It wasn’t long before he was trying to sell us a guided river tour of the Mekong taking in some floating markets and then some of the network of canals. Since that was one of the things were had come to do this was ok by us. The price was a little steep – we probably could have negotiated harder – but we were fixed for a trip starting the next day, the motos would be ours for exploring the day after that.
9th February 2012 – Messing about on the Water
The day started early with Mateo and I making the bakery and coffee run to get our breakfast. Then it was downstairs to meet our guide and the short walk to the river to our waiting boat and boat lady. The boats are like the long tails we have seen all over in our travels with the exceptions that there were two oars at the back, and that they are almost exclusively manned by women.
The river is bustling with small boats criss-crossing between the banks and large boats pulling heavily laden barges. We make a petrol stop…
and then carry on to the first floating market of the day.
Here there are many big boats, each with a pole adorned with the goods that they are selling in order to show the people in the little boats like ours who is selling what. Locals row from big boat to big boat to get their supplies, and when we get in amongst them, its not long before we are rammed by a man selling cold drinks.
Our boat lady buys some fruit and then as we come through the other side of the market she impresses us with her ability to drive the boat whilst preparing a pineapple for us to eat, and then starts to make some bamboo leaf models of roses and grasshoppers.
We arrive at the second, smaller floating market. The process is as before but the boats are smaller.
We leave the market behind and then cruise further along the river and duck into a side stream to explore the waterways that wind in and out of the islands in the river.
Lin, our guide gets the lady to bring the boat to shore so that we can have a walk around, There are fruit trees everywhere, bananas, papaya, apples, jack-fruit and then suddenly we arrive in front of a restaurant where we are invited to sit – funny that! We are actually hungry and so we order Pho Bo and chicken rice which we eat at a table right by the river. In the restaurant is a tank containing 3 water snakes which the staff fish out and the boys proceed to handle, some with more confidence than others I have to say. I was so upset not to have had a chance to hold them, but someone had to take the photos!! ;o)
Leaving the snakes behind, no doubt destined to be someone’s main course in the near future, we got back on the boat and headed back from whence we had come.
And before long we were back at Can Tho and bidding our hosts farewell and thank you for a really enjoyable day on the river. Dinner was much nicer tonight and full and rather tired from a day on the water, we fell asleep quite quickly.
10th February 2012 – Easy Riders
Eschewing the organised whistle-stop tours of the Mekong Delta we took delivery of two scooters for a DIY effort. The idea to tour around the Can Tho area in search of rustic charm and maybe a rice field where we could get our feet wet and help out the farmers. Getting away from the bus tours was the main aim, but first we would have to take the main highway as far as Long Xuyen and then down to the ancient city of Oc-Eo.
We loaded up and set off along the semi-crazy streets of Can Tho to escape the city. We scootered for many a kilometre in the hot sun and it was not long before disaster struck and I was once again the victim of a puncture. Stopping at a bicycle repair shop the man kindly tried to fix it, but when he pulled out a 4in nail and a shredded inner tube he shook his head apologetically and signalled that there was a proper puncture place a few hundred metres up the road.
That sort of distance is normally no problem to us, but pushing a wounded moto and in the burning sun it was a very long trek indeed! Eventually arriving at the place by the side of the road, we waited patiently whilst it was repaired; this required removing the exhaust pipe and mountings in order to be able to slip the old tube off and slip the new one on. All done, for the princely sum of 150,000 Dong – and it turns out we were certainly done, it should have been 80,000 Dong!
We were off again, having lost the best part of an hour and continued our cruise up the highway. It was, in the end, a very long way when the state of the road is taken into account and it was a few hours before we arrived just before Long Xuyen. Looking for the turning to Oc-Eo we set off down the left fork and after crossing a few bridges, we pulled up to consult the map, and to find something to eat. The place we rolled up to was in fact a café, but the lady owner sweetly dashed off on her moto to fetch some take-away food for us.
We spent a nice hour in their company, eating so-so food but with bon homie. Oskar even joined in building a wall in front of the café.
After we said goodbye we doubled back to the main road, and entering Long Xuyen we weaved our way through a mass of traffic and pushed our way to the front of the queue for the ferry across to the north side of the river.
Then it was a trip through small winding concrete roads passing cottage industries producing straw mats. Leafy avenues lining the small waterways, crossing small bridges and passing “monkey” bridges – pieces of bamboo lashed across the river just wide enough to resemble a gymnastic beam linking the two sides together.
The guide said that getting lost in the back roads was part of the fun… and so we duly did get lost. After a few wrong turns and sign-language exchanges with locals for directions, we were back on a main road heading towards the main bridge back across to Can Tho. As we drove along, disaster struck again, this time Tania’s back tyre punctured. Another 20 mins lost as her inner tube was patched. Mine was slowly going down too, so it didn’t bode well! Along the road we saw rice being harvested and so we stopped to watch and the boys ran into a field to help the farmers scatter the straw left over after harvesting back onto the field.
Time was getting on and we were in danger of arriving back in Can Tho after dark. Reaching the end of the road we got directions to Can Tho which resulted in us arriving at a ferry rather than the big bridge. And so we boarded along with all the locals. The only foreigners there we were somewhat the focus of their attention!!
We got off the ferry in the vanishing light and as we exited the small alleyway onto the main road, the back tyre on my bike was flat as a pancake. Searching around for air we eventually found someone and with two working wheels again we set off, but not for long, the tyre rapidly went down again. Tania loaded the 3 boys onto her bike and I rode gingerly back to the hotel, Tania having taken the money with her I couldn’t even pay for more air let alone a repair, and so it took me some time to get back!
Dinner and then bed, a very nice day indeed.
11th February 2012 – So long Can Tho
Journey back to Saigon with Mai Linh, repack bags ready for Mui Ne next day.
The day was sunny and bright as we packed up our clothes and gathered our things together ready for our trip back to Saigon. But first there was the moto to settle. The man who had organised them had sent his daughter to collect them and the money. There was then a rather heated exchange in which I protested the amount of money to pay given that we had run out of petrol shortly after getting the bikes, had had a puncture due to a huge nail which was in the tyre when we got the bikes. Eventually she capitulated and charged us half price for one bike – score one for the tourists :o)
Then we walked the mile or so to the bus station, ran the gauntlet of ticket touts and headed straight to the Mai Linh office in the far corner. Sure it may be more expensive, but we were in the mood for some luxury in our transportation back to Saigon. And so we travelled in style, arriving back to bus station outside town and then jumped on the local bus back to the hotel.
We were warmly welcomed back by the owner, and recovering our bags we set about repacking all of our things into their proper rucksacks. Then it was off to Sinh Tourist to book our tickets to Mui Ne, leaving the next day for a dose of sun, sea and sand dunes.
Dinner was at the rib place round the corner, and then we retired back to the hotel for an early night.