Sunday, 29 December 2013

Miss Saigon?


Yesterday, in between long bouts of being asleep, I managed to pop into a few of the many, many travel agents along the backpacker strip in Saigon and ask about Mekong Delta tours. I picked up half a dozen leaflets, all for three-day trips, most visiting the same towns, and all costing about the same price - $95 for the three days. It's something I want to see, it's within my budget, and while I asked about local bus services (I wanted to keep my options open for Phu Quoc island or more time in some places), I was in no fit state yesterday to contemplate them.
The plan, then, was to rest up for another day in Saigon, book a tour starting Saturday, and cross into Cambodia on Monday evening at the end of the tour.

That was yesterday.

This morning, I woke up feeling much better, balked at the idea of spending a further day in Saigon, packed up my stuff and – after a number of false starts not dissimilar to those experienced at rush hour on Princes Street, when the bus you want decides you can get the next one, it'll be along in a minute – hopped a number 2 bus to the Mien Tay bus station: gateway to the Delta.

Well, I did once I got to an interchange and got a number 2 bus in the correct direction.

I stark contrast to the prices quoted by the travel agencies of $15 to the bus station and $20 to Ben Tre (which I hadn't believed even in my poisoned stupor), the bus to the station was 5,000d (25c) and once there, I had the choice of My Tho at 35,000d ($1.75) or Ben Tre at 50,000d (go on, do your own maths on that one). I opted for My Tho, figuring I could move on if I got there and didn't like it.

Buying my ticket at 13:50, I was told the bus was at 14.30, and the bus number – printed on the ticket – was pointed out to me (this made me happy – see my previous interactions with buses). A uniformed attendant of some sort located the driver for me, and my bag was stowed and I was on the bus 2 minutes later. Just as well, as it filled quickly, and departed at 14:10 since there were no more seats anyway.

Local bus to My Tho

The man next to me struck up a conversation and asked where I was going. He was on his way to Ben Tre for his brother's wedding. When I mentioned I would probably head there the next day, he offered me his phone number so I could call him when I got to town and he would help me find my way around. Through a 90 minute bus journey, this progressed to his uncle showing me around the canals on his boat, me staying with Tin and his family tomorrow night, and his assisting me to find a hotel in My Tho this evening.
My only regret with the journey is how far behind I am with my Japanese, as Tin has better Japanese than English, and it would have amused me greatly to sit on a local Vietnamese bus having a conversation in Japanese with Tin. That will teach me to apply myself more consistently to maintaining my skills in things. I used to not be too bad at all at Nihongo.

Tin san

So tonight finds me in my first private room of my trip (lonely but relaxing), with an appointment for 10am tomorrow for a lift to Ben Tre and a day and night with Tin's family (he has at least two brothers and a sister – there may be more...).
Yet another unintentional homestay. It's becoming a habit, but I find I really don't mind it when it's kindly offered and honestly meant. I'll accept it gratefully and enjoy the company of friendly, welcoming people while I'm far from home.

From Ben Tre, I have a rough idea where I'll head. Tin has suggested Ha Thien, and I'd like to go to Cantho for a look at the Cai Rang floating market. So probably those, in reverse order. There's a border crossing to Cambodia at Ha Thien, or I can get a ferry to Phu Quoc if I really feel the need – although it will be pushing New Year by then, and I don't know how busy everywhere will be.
I'll have to have a look at some point when I have some sort of internet connection (which is not as I am writing this).

Christmas Eve notwithstanding, I'm glad I left Saigon today.
I think if I had not been ill, and if I'd tried to get around the city by bus rather than walking (it's a very thankless city to wander), it may have had a chance of leaving a better impression. In all honesty, though, I'm not one for a metropolis, and Saigon seemed to have little to recommend or distinguish it among large international cities.

The delta, for now, holds more promise.


So, predictably, understandably, but mildly disappointingly, wedding parties are apt to continue for more than one evening, and this proved to be the case for my potential hosts in Ben Tre.
Checked out and ready to go at 10, Tin text to let me know. 

My Tho is already pretty off-track, and I thought Ben Tre might be putting myself in a bit of expensive back-tracking territory, so I opted instead to head for Can Tho or Vinh Luong instead, which at least are then on the road to Ha Tien and the Cambodian border.
The hotel got me a taxi to My Tho bus station, where I was then informed that no buses ran from there to - well, anywhere other than Ben Tre or Saigon. Everything else just stays on the highway. 
So I hopped on a moto-taxi (yes, they all have spare helmets for passengers, and everyone wears them), and my friendly moto-driver stood with me by the side of the highway, waving at every passing bus from Saigon that was headed in the right direction. 

200,000d (ouch! about 8 times the price it would be for a ticket bought in Saigon) got me bundled onto a minibus with a lot of waving and shouting, and we sped off along the highway with me trusting I'd end up in Vinh Luong at the end of it. An hour later, at a seemingly popular rest-stop along the Hwy 1A, I was called from the bus, and placed on another with no driver, and where the existing passengers shook their heads when asked if it was going to Vinh Luong. As my previous ride headed off in a cloud of dust, however, I just had to trust to the general experience that Vietnamese will get you where you're going one way or another. To be fair, all the assistance justifies the extra pennies in my book!

Sure enough, a few minutes later the driver turned up, I was waved into the front seat with shouts of 'Vinh Luong, Vinh Luong' and a lot of nodding and repeating, and away we went. I was dropped at a random street in VL, and prodded at the address of a tour company-come-hotel in my guidebook for a ride on another motorbike. I'm getting good at balancing on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam's interesting and rather unique traffic system (there is a system, and it works very well - keep going in the direction you want, as long as nothing bigger than you is in your way) with a 70l rucksack on my back! It's good to learn new skills...
My stay in VL lasted about 40 minutes, as the travel desk would give me no information unless I bought a map (100,000d), and then (as is usual, here, it seems) exaggerated the distance to everything to make it seem I couldn't possibly get anywhere by myself (no guys, even if you draw your map on a *really big* scale, I can estimate distance for the journey I just did and whether I can walk it or not). Lonely Planet suggests VL for homestays only, and it seemed to make good on that dubious promise by not having much to recommend it in terms of the town itself. I asked at one hotel for a room, but they were full, before making a bee-line to the bus station which was happily interrupted by a bus to Can Tho onto which I was speedily corralled. 

At the next stop, a French-Argentinian couple boarded, and at Can Tho I grabbed a taxi with them to the hotel district, where they grabbed the last room at a lovely looking and way out of my budget hotel (out of which I got a free taxi - thanks guys! - a glass of pineapple juice, and a map), and I headed in the direction of the budget guesthouse in my guidebook.

Can Tho should probably get it's own post, with pretty pictures, as this one is becoming unwieldy.
Also, my laptop may not make it much further. Aah. The failings of modern technology... (I jest. I just don't charge it enough. Because it does 6 hours of heavy internet use at a time, and gives me false confidence.) (See.)

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