To explore the Delta, we signed up for the dreaded Bus Tour. It was certainly inexpensive and seemed to address all of the logistical issues we had- rather than return with the group, we would just get dropped at our next port of call- Phu Quok Island. And while it wasn't a terrible experience, it did serve as a very effective reminder as to why we don't do bus tours (is it just me or are there just too many people on bus tours who look like they are soon to be heading out on an African safari, albeit one that approves of black knee high socks and sandals)
. We showed up at the appointed hour and were introduced to 44 new friends (despite assurances that the maximum group size would be 30) and we also met the guide who gave herself the name Tom Cat (long, not very interesting story)- she would have been challenged with a much smaller group. Our first stop was one of those strange events that seem more of a disguised rest stop and/or bathroom break for travelers with undersized bladders- once we had all stumbled off the bus, we were serenaded by a local group playing ancient Vietnamese instruments (that were once exclusively played for Vietnamese royalty). I suspect that playing for endless busloads of tourists wearing plastic Vietnamese sampan hats can take a real toll on your enthusiasm and these guys couldn't have looked more bored and uninterested. With the 'concert' finished we piled into a series of vintage paddle boats and floated downstream for a couple hundred metres (in took more time to get in and out of the boat than it took to complete the journey) in order to visit a coconut candy 'factory'. This less-than-global conglomerate consisted of three employees- one, presumably the CEO, who stirred and chopped the candy, and two in the packaging division who hand wrapped every individual candy. The taste tester was a small puppy who seemed to enjoy his work.
We did a number of these stops during the course of our two day tour- a rice paper manufacturing entity, a rice husking factory (that looked to have been abandoned some years ago), a noodle making enterprise, lacquer-ware, etc
. The common elements included the opportunity to buy something, and functioning toilets, but I'm not sure it created a deeper understanding of Vietnamese culture. The one big exception to this were the floating markets at Cai Be near Can Tho. Farmers from all over the region bring their products to this floating wholesale supermarket daily- dealers buy the product in bulk in order to resell in towns all through Vietnam. The farmers distinguish themselves by hanging the fruits or vegetables they are selling from a pole that stands high above their boat. Since this is not a consumer market, you see almost comical boat-to-boat product transfers- watermelons flying through the air at a remarkable speed. There are hundreds of boats with a number of floating restaurants, gas stations, and bars (and tourist boats?) adding to the commotion. Since no one was really interested in selling anything to us, it was a great way to pass some time.
Outside of that, our bus tour experience seemed more hassle than convenience. While the majority of the bus stayed in a zero star hotel as an overnight option, we selected to do a home-stay which turned out to be a family-run collection of straw huts in a small village outside of town- the nicer huts were along the river and we settled into one but a very angry Russian couple dug in and insisted on staying in a riverside hut and since we weren't 100% certain of what we had booked (and we are Canadian) we moved to a room in the main complex (we found out later that we had in fact booked a riverside hut...we also discovered that all Russian couples are angry most of the time). When it was time for us to leave our bus safari, our diminutive tour guide, Tom Cat, had booked bus tickets to Rach Gia on the wrong day and she had to scramble to get us on another bus (all the while promising that it was a big comfortable bus which, of course, it turned out to be a mini van packed to overflowing with locals).
I'm not sure we'll be rushing to sign up for another bus tour but we did see some interesting things and it would have been hard to beat the price for just the transportation alone. And DH wants to get one of those plastic sampan hats.
For the devoted followers of the Wandering Wows (both of you), you might recall that we had spent a couple of days floating along the Upper Mekong River (Thailand & Laos) and now we were going to spend a couple of days exploring the Mekong Delta- the point at which this mighty river meets the sea. The Delta is the proverbial food basket of Vietnam, and the dams the Chinese are proposing to build further upstream has the country very worried for the future of this natural heritage.