SEA: Big Cities and Border Towns

Any traveller knows that there are two places where your road experience is likely to be fraught with ‘undesired outcomes’…be they rip offs, not getting what you ask for (the old shell-game), being railroaded into a crowd, or just getting jerked around.

The two places are border towns and big cities, and the logistics of our trip (starting in the far south and working north) meant we were headed right into the gravity well of both of those. Certainly a great deal of responsibility to not get burnt lies with the traveller having some ‘street smarts’: trust your gut and senses when dealing with people; if something seems too good to be true, it is; know your facts and information; have reasonable expectations. But being tired, dehydrated, hungry and also coming off a series of wonderful experiences with great people can conspire to let you put your guard down. And that’s what happened to us. No major ripoff…just a series of disappointing experiences that eroded a very nice two weeks on the MeKong, and culminated with a real jerk masquerading as a guide in Chau Doc.

We left Can To on a bus. We really wanted to take a boat since the waterways of the MeKong are a fantastic labyrinth of local life, but the roads around Ho Chi Minh City are so well developed that the ubiquitous bus services have driven the speedboat operators out of business. And we did not have the ability (or time) to try to find some local with a reliable boat to hire privately, so we got a 7am cab to the bus station, then climbed aboard a minibus for the 3 hour ride to Ben Tre. image

In order to get away from the urban experience, we had booked a night at the highly recommended ‘Mango Homestay’ along the banks of the river, about 10 miles out of Ben Tre. I was looking forward to a rustic rural experience, possibly sleeping on a floor mat, meeting a local family, learning to cook some Vietnamese food, and learning more about how the Vietnamese live. To my great disappointment, when we arrived it turned out to be a resort. A very scenic and serene resort with gentle and welcoming people, but as it was so different from my expectations, it took me several hours to stop feeling a bit sour and frustrated by the on-line literature I had read.

The rooms were immaculate, and the food was very nicely done, but they charged for every single thing, and in US dollars (which is a Red Flag since the exchange rate is so high: the usual price of a beer…25,000 Dong, is actually far less than their cheaper-sounding price of $1.75). We enjoyed our stay, but there was this pallor of distrust already over us. So the next day, we didn’t truly appreciate the kindness of the resort in giving us a free boat ride across the river to a local factory where they make coconut candy (and do a relatively hard sell on the many tour boats that stop by). Then they helped us get a cab to the neighboring town of My Tho, where we could get a ‘Private bus’ to the border town of Chau Doc…because, once again, there were no ferries there. The resort offered to let us rent their cruise boat to go to Chau Doc for $1800, so that was not a real option.

The taxi ride was supposed to be about 15 km, and my estimate was that it should have cost us about 200,000 Dong, but of course it was closer to 400,000 by the time we got to the snake farm we wanted to visit along the way. The snake farm was fantastic, with some displays that had so many vipers that even I was creeped out.

Then we were driven to and delivered at the promised bus station, a hot little cement building on the side of a very noisy, dusty and busy road. Our tickets were for the noon bus, but it was closer to 1:15 before the next bus to Chau Doc arrived.

IMG_8377When we got in, we were astounded to see that it was a sleeper bus! Instead of seats. There were 30 beds arranged in two layers, with seats that fully reclined but did not raise up, so you were sitting in a perpetual semi-horizontal position, holding your head up. Worse yet, the bus was full, so Hollie and I had to squeeze our way to the very back where five particularly narrow seats were jammed up higher than the rest, very close to the ceiling. It was impossible to sit upright, and these seats had only a tiny little window that was too low to see out of, so we passed the next 4 hours in an isolated little tomb, until someone got off and we could snag some more comfortable seats.

The guesthouse we found was actually very nice, and for $30 a night, it was a real bargain. The receptionist was a very nice and trustworthy guy, so we were instantly feeling pretty good about Chau Doc. So the next morning, on our way to breakfast, when we meet another employee who said he could make our daily arrangements for us and serve as a guide, we felt like it would be OK.

But not so….we got seriously suckered by this guy.

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