Posted by: kim | July 30, 2007

Of mice and middlemen

In theory, if you calculate the distance from Saigon to the Mekong Delta it should only take a couple of hours by road. The real story? It’ll probably take up most of your day and age you ten years. Forget the swerving Honda scooters and the meandering waterways that force your bus to take indirect routes. Your biggest problem will be dealing with tour companies that stretch the truth about what services they can offer you, all in the name of making a quick buck.
Take Delta Adventure Tours. We wanted to buy a simple, one-way air-conditioned bus ticket to the town of Can Tho.
“It take four hours,” the agent at the office said. “You leave 7.30am.”
“Is the bus air conditioned? Can we put our bags under the bus, rather than stack them on the roof ? Will we have to share with fifty-six reeking gap year students with posh voices and fungal toenails? Will we get there by lunchtime?”
Yes, yes, no and yes, apparently. We paid our seven dollars apiece, assuming we’d have a busload full of people bound for Can Tho, possibly picked up from some of the many agencies operating in the area.
We got there early, missing the hotel breakfast. Gradually, the group of people in front of the tour office swelled to zoo-like proportions. Seemed like every tour on the planet departed from here. There were people on three-day Mekong Delta tours, armed with backpacks that resembled inefficient Swiss Army knives; their cups, inflatable mattresses and shoes tied desperately onto them. Other French people on a day trip, tentatively clutching Routard guides. Australian girls on overnight trips with festering mosquito bites on their arms and ankles.
“ONE DAY TOUR HERE,” a woman shrieked, as we all crossed the small road and waited for a slick of snail-paced buses to creep their way up the road. “THREE DAY THAT BUS!” Tourists scurried this way and that, huffing and puffing. Where the hell was our bus, then?
Turned out we had to share ours with the one-day Delta Adventure tour group. The thirty-year-old tour guide immediately let everyone know she was single and giggled coquettishly when she discovered that there was one single guy on the bus, then launched into some vaguely interesting facts about Vietnam life. Soon after, she told people what they were going to expect on their tour today. But what about us? We just bought a one way ticket to Can Tho and were along for the ride. We didn’t want a three hour boat trip or a stop at the local village to try fruit. We wanted to go direct to Can Tho. We paid seven dollars apiece for an air conditioned, safe bus without hanging around for any tour group.
“When does this arrive at Can Tho?” we asked the tour guide.
“Maybe you wait for tour group to finish boat trip at Cai Be. You walk around village. Maybe 1pm we leave and take you Can Tho.”
Excuse me? The tour group was due to arrive at Cai Be at 10am. We’d have to walk around the village for three hours?
“But your office said we’d go straight to Can Tho by 1pm. No waiting. Cai Be is still a couple of hours from Can Tho.”
“If you no wait, then maybe you take local bus from Vinh Long. It easy to get ticket.”
Local bus? We didn’t pay an agency for any dilapidated local bus. We could have done that ourselves. We decided to play it by ear. After a short time, the bus pulled over at a rest stop where people could go to the toilet (the tour guide said it was where you could “go sing a song to the river”), use hammocks and buy drinks.
“You all change bus now,” the guide told the group. We all had to switch buses and go to a slightly smaller one. “I sorry. My boss say we all change bus now.”
She giggled at the confused passengers, including a couple like us who were only going halfway, to Vinh Long. They were also screwed around. “We didn’t want to join some tour group,” the male half of the couple grumbled. “It’s so hard to travel independently here.”

Snakes and dragons

The guide then resumed her commentary. “You know, I used to have boyfriend. But I born in 1977. I’m a snake according to Chinese horoscope. Very strong. Also, seven lucky number so I double lucky. If you born in 1976, you a dragon, very good.”
I mentioned that I was also born in the ‘lucky’ year 1977. But I wasn’t bothered to explain that I was also a dragon rather than a snake, because I was born before the start of the Chinese New Year.
The guide continued. “I was compatible with boyfriend, but his mother was a Tiger. Snake no get along with Tiger. When I want to marry boyfriend, I have to live with mother too because he only son. So I no marry boyfriend. He upset, he follow me. But by then I with another boyfriend.” She giggled again.
We then had to sit through more of this sob story and a few more questionable facts such as how superstitious and pure the Buddhists were compared to Catholics, of which she was one.
Eventually, the bus pulled up at Cai Be and the tour group tumbled out of the bus. The guide told us and the other couple to wait; Vinh Long was half an hour away.
Rob went out of the bus and followed the Snake to the tour group. The driver of our bus was about to pull away but we explained we still had to wait for Rob to clarify matters. I could see Rob and the Snake arguing as he tried to explain that we bought a ticket to get us to Can Tho, not to go on some local bus we could have organised ourselves.
We all looked out of the window as Rob argued fervently with the woman who appeared to be standing her ground. (“I want a refund,” Rob told the woman. “What, we take you all the way here for nothing?” the Snake protested. “Yes. What a waste of time it was.”) After about five minutes Rob came in and proclaimed victory, and that the driver would take us to the ferry crossing near Can Tho. But we didn’t see him answer the phone or speak to anyone so how would he know what to do?
Eventually, we got to Vinh Long. The other couple wished us luck and the driver motioned for us to get out. Hang on, we wanted to go to Can Tho. It was just 40 minutes away. He couldn’t speak English so I minded the bags while Rob and the driver went across the road to an unaffiliated tour desk. Luckily Rob had the business card of Delta Adventure tours and managed to call the head office. After speaking to three people, a manager finally relented and the driver was given instructions to take the two of us to Can Tho.

Once there, we had to take a ferry (free) the ten minutes or so across the river to Can Tho itself, as the bus was unable to cross it. We were accosted by various ‘guides’ and many motorcycle drivers who wanted to take us to Can Tho, but we were going to go on the ferry on foot. The frenzy of motorcycles that were crammed into the ferry was entertaining to behold.
Can Tho itself was a small town by Western standards. Once we got to the hotel, a man who’d been talking to the receptionist explained how he could organise an eight hour tour of the Mekong Delta. We talked him down from $30 to $24 for two people. It would involve seeing two floating markets, a rice noodle factory and lunch at an “orchard” (extra cost for food). It sounded OK, so we paid and got a receipt. Later we decided it might be a good idea to get a mini bus to Chau Doc, the main Vietnamese border town that receives travellers going to and from Cambodia. We said we wanted to leave at 3.30pm and he made a phone call and told us to be in front of the hotel then. We paid $5 apiece and got a receipt.
The Mekong tour was great; we had to be ready by 5.30am but we were able to see the authentic market sellers with their rambutan, soursop, carrot, bananas, pineapples, taro… even slabs of ice. Travelling along the river you see the tin shacks and people washing clothes (and themselves) in the muddy water — even brushing their teeth. The river was their lifeline. The mother and teenage son on our small motorised rowboat stopped in the canals to cut fruit from trees including water coconut and some mystery fruit. But we will talk more about that in a later post. We got back by lunchtime and after that, we waited for our mini bus. A small taxi seating about 6 other people pulled up. We tried to clarify if this was going to Chau Doc. Turns out that the taxi was only going to Can Tho bus depot. The hotel staff couldn’t really understand us when we explained that we paid for a mini bus to Chau Doc. Our ‘agent’ proved elusive. Eventually the hotel said that the taxi would take us to the depot and the agent would meet us there, and from then we could go to Chau Doc. It was then that we realised he was only ever going to book us a seat on local mini bus – again, we could have done that ourselves. Oh well.
When we got there, the agent was nowhere to be seen. We had about ten people offer to take us to Chau Doc but then they wanted us to pay. We tried to explain that we had paid and it was all very frustrating. Eventually we told a girl about what had happened and I think she just let us on the mini bus because she felt sorry for us. If we’d gone to the depot ourselves we would have paid $2.50 each, not $5, we discovered. The cowardly agent was nowhere to be found but luckily we didn’t have to pay any extra.

The moral of all this palaver is that if you want to travel independently, don’t do it through a middleman or make sure you aren’t going with some tour group.
And now? Well, we’re trying to get to Cambodia and unfortunately we had little choice but to go with the Delta crowd again. We were told we aren’t going to be with a tour group that does some three hour detour but I’ll believe it when I see it!



  1. You made it! But what a nightmare!

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