Exploring the Mekong Delta

Trip Start May 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, January 6, 2008

As we've explained in previous entries, everything we'd done up to this point in Vietnam had been through booking agencies and tourist buses - mainly because it is by far the easiest way to get around and usually the cheapest (because of the level of overcharging of tourists by public transport). It has rubbed us wrong the whole time, but fighting the system in place was very tiring, so we succumbed to the flow and swallowed our pride. As the last of our days in Vietnam - and for our travels for that matter - were winding down, we wanted to give it one last go at some independent travel as we headed into the Mekong Delta, the low-lying flatlands to the west of Saigon.

Along with Mark and Natalie, we left Saigon and headed for the bus station. We found a bus to take us to Ben Tre, a small river town just a couple hours out of the capital. We finally found a little distance from other travelers as there was only a handful here. Just to price it out, we went to a tour agency and asked how much a boat would cost to take us to Vinh Long. There are a couple ways to get there, the more common one (as it is much shorter) being a bus and ferry, but we wanted to do it completely by boat. For the seven hour ride they quoted us 950,000 dong ($60). We read that it was possible to hire private boats, but since it is not a legal practice we had to go on a bit of a stealth mission. That night we asked around near the river and were told to return early the next morning. We did just that and met a very nice and good English-speaking boatman who went by the name of Liam. He agreed to take us for 650,000 dong ($40). After gathering our bags from our hotel and returning to the river to meet Liam, he told us that we would be joined by two other tourists, but that he would give us a discount. In the end, the four of us ended up paying 500,000 dong ($31) altogether, and the other two paid 950,000 dong! Happy with our deal we headed off to his boat.

It was quite a bit of a shock when we got there. This thing was tiny! And I mean TI-NY. There were six of us travelers, plus Liam, his wife and their dog. The boat was long and very narrow, maybe five to six meters long and no more than one and a half meters at its widest in the middle. Liam plopped down six folding chairs for our comfort, staggered and balanced on the sides so we wouldn't tip. At first we were pretty scared of rolling over since any sudden movement caused the boat to sway heavily to one side. We eventually got used to it and just made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed the ride. The boat was very slow, powered by a little propeller, but Liam was an expert with it and turned out to be an excellent guide. After a few hours in he took us down a narrow canal into dense jungle and parked for a few minutes so we could get out and stretch our legs and just wander around a bit on our own. It was proper jungle here, with huts spaced sparsely throughout the thick foliage. The inhabitants on this tiny island were very friendly, waving at us as we passed by. One was just returning from a fishing trip of sorts, except his catch was more of the four-legged variety. Dangling from a rope he held in his hands were a bunch of frogs. He smiled at us as we stared and let us take some pictures of him.

A few hours later, after more slow boating, we stopped one more time on another island for a toilet break and a coffee. We had a chat with our man Liam and after some digging by us found out that he has been taking tourists out since 1995. In 1989 when things were very bad in Vietnam, he fled the country in search of a better life, but was captured in Cambodia and held in a detention camp for a month before escaping back into Vietnam. We were surprised at how good his English was; he explained he has learned mainly through tourists and reading. He said at the moment he was reading Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time". Not the easiest subject matter, even for English speakers!

It was great to finally make it to Vinh Long after so long sitting in the tiny boat. We had sea legs for a bit after getting off but solid ground was very welcome. Since we arrived a bit late, we didn't have much time to search ourselves for a place to stay, and we wanted to head straight off to another island to sleep a night in a homestay. The area here is popular for this - the homestays supposedly a way to experience typical life in the Mekong Delta. We found the only open booking agency in town and ended up taking a package that included a boat to the homestay and the accommodations with dinner and breakfast included. We were very disappointed when we reached the place. It was not at all what we expected (a quaint, cozy home shared with a local family) but instead was pretty much a hotel in the jungle. In the rooms it was like being in a cage, since there was no privacy except for vertical bamboo poles that felt a little too much like prison bars. We tried to make the best of it anyway and in the morning we were off again after negotiating a private boat through the owner to take us for a tour of the area for a few hours around the little canals that split up the islands. Because the Mekong River has tides we had to wait a while before we could leave, and even then we passed through some canals where the water level was so low we were constantly scraping the bottom. At one point we had to just stop and wait a bit for the water to rise.

Since the one time on this Mekong Delta trip that we went with a booking agency turned out to be a dud, we were even more determined to make the rest of the trip on our own. After our boat tour of the canals we were dropped off again in Vinh Long. We made our way to the bus station to find a ride to Binh Minh, where we were to take a ferry across the river to Can Tho. We found our bus and asked the driver how much. Wouldn't you know it, but the relatively short ride was going to cost us 30,000 dong each. With our experience traveling around Vietnam we knew we were being taken advantage of, and after a little digging, we found a price list on a wall in the office. Our destination was listed at 6,000 dong, one-fifth the asking price! We argued and argued with them, refusing to back down, and got them down to 10,000 dong each. They insisted that we had to pay more because of our big backpacks. Of course this was all bullshit since locals didn't pay anything extra to bring their boxes full of clucking chickens and god knows what else, but we had no choice so we finally succumbed and climbed aboard. The rest of the journey to Can Tho was thankfully uneventful.

In Can Tho we found a nice, cheap little guesthouse with a helpful and friendly owner. This town is popular with tourists for the nearby floating markets - sections of the river taken over by small boats hawking all sorts of things - meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, you name it. The neighbour to our guesthouse owned a boat and we arranged to hire it and the driver to take us to two floating markets the next morning. Once again, when we went to the boat at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM the next morning, we were a little surprised at the size of it. This one was even smaller than the one that took us from Ben Tre to Vinh Long. There were two small wooden benches stretching from side to side, one behind the other. Yvonne and I took the front one while Mark and Natalie sat behind us. The driver stood at the back controlling the propeller and expertly guided us along the river, at times having to point the craft into the wake of larger and speedier boats so we wouldn't end up in the river. At the first floating market we were greeted by a boat that sold the Vietnamese coffee that we've all grown to love (and become almost dependent on). After our caffeine and sugar fix we stared in amazement at the goings-on around us. The boats crammed themselves together in pockets while tourists whizzed through and around them. Trading happened back and forth between boats, money passing one way while pineapples, bananas, melons and all sorts of things passed back in return. The second one we went to was much smaller with hardly any other tourist boats and definitely no coffee boat, which was very disappointing for us since we were more than ready for another shot of caffeine. On the way back our driver took us down a canal where we spotted a bunch of Vietnamese men and boys neck deep in the river, surrounded by a net. Some of the boys were sitting above them on tree branches like monkeys. We navigated the boat in their direction and close up we could see what they were doing. The net was a trap for fish and these guys in the river were catching the big ones with their bare hands. Sometimes they would disappear under the water and come up with one to put in a bucket. Many times they would catch them too small and return them to the river. The fish were jumping, trying to escape, but the net was too high and they only succeeded in getting themselves tangled up in it. The Vietnamese had to shake the net to get them to fall back into the water. They didn't seem too bothered by us tourists watching them; our driver even got in there a bit and lent them a hand.

All together, the tour on this tiny boat with cushion-less benches was seven hours. By the end of it we'd had quite enough of boats and rivers and were more than ready to move on. After returning to Can Tho we caught our pre-arranged bus to Rach Gia on the west coast of the Mekong Delta. This town is the gateway to Phu Quoc island, where we would spend the last few days of our trip, basking in the sun on the white sandy beaches and whiling away the time.
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