SEA: The Sting

So we got stung by some slacker at our guesthouse.

We should have seen it coming in the morning when we got on the elevator to go to the top floor for breakfast. We had gotten a wake-up call (not asked for) at 8am telling us that breakfast was only served until 9am. When we got on the elevator, there was a guy with the hotel uniform on, waiting for us. He introduced himself as ‘an employee for the hotel’ and asked if we wanted a guide for the day.

We had not even had our coffee yet, but doing a day tour of Chau Doc was on our agenda and the hotel desk clerk had been absolutely friendly and helpful the night before. So we told him; yeah, we wanted to do some things, rent a scooter for the day, visit a local monastery that was in a cave, and maybe spend some time on the water. All these things were listed in the guidebook as something to do, and we had the day to kill. He was on it. All during breakfast, he was like our shadow, nagging us with questions (Where you from? How much you want to pay for boat? What time you want to go to mountain?) that felt just a little intrusive. We just wanted a little elbow room while we ate breakfast and decided our game plan, but eventually his nagging wore us down and we started to make a plan.

Hollie really wanted to spend some time on the water, maybe even do a small cruise out of Chau Doc on the MeKong, so we asked about that. He said “we can visit a local fish farm, and a local cultural village”, so that sounded nice and we agreed. The price…$15 each. That seemed sort of reasonable for a long day on the water, and we might even hook up with some other travelers for ideas of more things to do, so we agreed. Then he said “You want scooter? I get you scooter. $5 each, with driver”.

No, I insisted…I want to drive my own scooter.

“You drive up mountain? Very steep! You must use second gear! Very steep…maybe I have driver follow you in another scooter! $10”

No, I insisted…I know how to drive a damn scooter. We just want one at $5 for the day!

Eventually, his nagging ended up with us agreeing to rent two scooters…Hollie would ride with him driving ($5), I would drive my own ($5) and an extra $5 for insurance if I wanted to drive it to the top of the mountain. Something seemed a little awry about that, but we didn’t fight it as a nice day of adventures was starting to take shape.

Then he asked “What you do tomorrow?”

We told him we were going to catch the ferry to Phnom Penh….the boat ride from Chau Doc to PP was a major reason I had come to the MeKong delta area, and I was looking forward to this greatly. The original plan was to take the boat from Chau Doc to PP, then another boat from PP to Siem Reap, but the Tonle Sap river between PP and Seam Reap was too low and they had just cancelled that ferry a few days earlier for the rest of the season. So the ride from Chau Doc to PP was even more important to us.

“I used to work for ferry company!” he declared. “I get you tickets…good price”.

We knew there were two primary ferry companies that ran pretty much identical boats and identical itineraries, however one was sponsored by a local 5-star hotel and charged $65 per person, while the other was a public ferry and charged only about $25 per person. We insisted that he not get us the more expensive ticket, and he said “Oh no….I get you ticket on MeKong Delta. Good company…only $25 each!”. That sounded about right, so we agreed to have him secure our tickets (which is what the guidebooks say to do…let your hotel make the arrangements).

The next stop…at his insistence….the ATM to pay him. The total was a bit sobering: $15 each for the boat ride, $15 for two scooters and one driver for Hollie, and $25 each for the ferry tickets…$95 for the two of us. We were a bit quirked about this…we had been traveling for only about $40 a day each, and this was a pretty expensive package, but it included everything we wanted to do, as well as our ferry tickets for the next day, so we handed over the money and headed off for the boat to the fish farm.

When we got to the dock, there was already a tourist boat there with lots of people on board, and I was already a bit curious how much they had paid for their tickets. But he shepherded us to an empty boat with an old man at the motor, and speaking in Vietnamese, made an agreement with him.

“You get private boat!” he said. “Special deal!”

IMG_8417So we pushed off, motored out in to the current, and Hollie and I settled down for a nice little river cruise. “Little” is the operative phrase, because within about 30 seconds, we pulled in to a floating house and he announced that this was the fish farm!

It turned out to be a small store in front, and a hatch in the floor in back where you could see fish swimming around. He threw some dog food in the hole, and the fish attacked the little nuggets. Hollie asked him some questions about the politics and economics of fish farming, but all in all….the fish farm stop was a bust. Not really interesting, nothing to see.

Maybe the cultural village would be better.

IMG_8428Back in the boat, back into the current, and about 30 seconds later, we pull in to a small decrepit raised walkway and make our way ashore. There, we see a small market place erected under some stilt houses with a handful of bored old women selling bracelets and water. In one spot, a woman was working a shuttle loom, which was kind of interesting because I had always wanted to see how they worked, but after a few minutes of me watching, she stopped working and left.

We walked around this ‘cultural village’ for a few minutes and eventually got so bored at being stared at by the locals and hawked at by the sellers that we just left. Back to the boat, and then back to Chau Doc. Hollie tried to insist that we go downstream a bit more, maybe take a small tour up a smaller channel for the fun of it, but suddenly the guide and the driver could not understand a word of English and we were deposited back at the Chau Doc shore.

Feeling a bit disgruntled, we headed back to the hotel for a brief siesta and then off to the mountain and an afternoon on scooters. We told our guide we wanted a brief lunch stop (after shaking off his offers to secure lunch for us), and had some local food. Then to the hotel.

A few hours later, we met the guide at the front door. He told us he had secured our ferry tickets and we had to meet the bus at our hotel at exactly 7am. He also had one scooter there, and was busy negotiating with another man for another scooter. I came out and he said “OK, she will ride with me on this scooter and you will ride with him on his scooter’

No, I insisted…I want to rent my own!

“Oh but the mountain is steep! You must use second gear! Very dangerous…the scooter can flip over” This whole second gear thing was getting on my nerves, and I snapped at him.

“Look, I know how to ride a damn scooter! I own my own bike, and I can shift to second gear without help. I want to rent my own scooter…I don’t want a driver! Can you arrange that or can’t you??”

By now, a small crowd had gathered, including the receptionist from the guest house who had been so helpful the night before. As our guide kept negotiating with the driver of the scooter, the driver threw up his arms and sulked off to sit on a bench. I asked the receptionist what was going on.

“The driver does not want to let you take his scooter, as he uses it make money. But the other guy is being very insistent.”

I asked “Can YOU arrange a rental scooter for me? I don’t want to take this guys bike if its not really a rental!”

“Sure. Its $5 a day, and I can have it delivered here in 5 minutes. Very common!”

I told our guide to just forget it….use the $5 I had paid him to rent me my own scooter through the hotel. But he was having none of that…he insisted that we had these two scooters…we had already paid him $10 for them (it was actually $15) and we can go now. Feeling bad for the scooter owner, at the last moment I acquiesced and told him to drive and I’d just ride on the back. Quickly, he was on his bike and Hollie and I were suddenly just getting a little scooter taxi ride to the mountain instead of doing a full-day self-drive around town as planned.

To be fair, the mountain was kind of interesting, but after the driver drove me to the top on the scary steep road I was ballistic. The road was just a normal hill…nothing terrifying or ‘You must use second gear!!” about it. All the hoopla was because this part of Vietnam is so damn flat that any uphill stretch is like the Himalayas to these folks. I could have ridden up that hill with about as much problem as walking up a stairway, and the fuss and trouble caused by their nannying really pissed me off.

IMG_8463So after a short visit to the mountain (and a cool walk through the monastery in a cave), we got a ride back to the hotel. Along the way, Hollie and I decided that we’d demand that we get to use the scooter for the rest of the afternoon, as we had paid for a full-day rental, however the moment we arrived at the hotel and she got off the guides’ scooter, he was off like a rocket, leaving us behind. He must have heard us talking, and was unwilling to give us his bike and unable to give us the bike of the driver.

I went up to the nice receptionist and asked if this ‘guide’ guy we were using really worked for the hotel. Yes, he said…he worked in the restaurant as a waiter. I told him that everything had seemed a little weird to us, and asked how much the visit to the fish farm and cultural village should cost.

He said it’s about $12-15 per couple, and included a ride along the river. Now that pissed us off…our guy had charged us $15 EACH, and there was no ride along the river. And we could have gotten a scooter for the full day ourselves for $5, yet he charged us $15 for just a brief ride to the mountain and back (something we could have done for $1). So he had ripped us off for more than twice the going rate for EVERYTHING so far.

We were suddenly very suspect about our ferry tickets. The receptionist said that $25 each for the ferry ticket was fine, and yes…Mekong Delta Tours picks up the clients at the desk at 7AM and takes them to the boat. So everything seemed OK with our boat tickets. We had no tickets in hand, so the last ‘loose thread’ was that maybe he never bought our tickets? We had to wait to the morning to find out.

The next morning, there he was in the restaurant, bright and chirpy. We told him we were pissed off at the price he charged us for the fishing village/cultural village tour.

“Oh no! $15 per couple is for the tourist boat! You had a ride on a PRIVATE boat, so it cost more!” In reality, I knew it cost substantially less. It was a regular old ferry boat..he probably paid the motorman about $2 to take us around, but there was no fighting it now. I didn’t even get into the scooter issue.

“So what about our ferry…it’s all arranged right? Chau Doc to Phnom Penh? $25 each…the whole way?”

Yes, yes! He assured us…they have your name and ticket at the boat dock. They will come pick you up at 7am.

So I went down to pack, get our passports, check out and be ready. Hollie lagged behind to pay for the extra OJ we had at breakfast, and later she informed me that he had tried to charge her double for it.

IMG_8477At 7AM, the shuttle picked us up and took us to the boat terminal, and just as he said..they had our names in the book and shuffled us on to the ferry boat. All seemed pretty good, as planned, and soon we relaxed into it and were perched on the deck, grinning and looking forward to our 5 hour boat ride along the Mekong, across the border, and on up through Cambodia into Phnom Penh. The boat set out, made a stop at another dock to pick up a half dozen other travelers, and headed out. They all seemed a bit bored and nonplussed, and most fell asleep instantly.

The most interesting thing happened about 20 minutes into the ride, when the boat pulled over at a police station and delivered a case of Heineken in exchange for a piece of paper. Bribery in action.

IMG_8479

Another 15 minutes up the river and we arrived at the border. Climbing out with our day packs and passports, there was a representative from Mekong Delta Tours waiting there collecting passports to carry them through customs. I knew that this was a common scam; do the legwork and charge about double for the visa, so I insisted that we could do our own. He insisted that this was a service that the tour company provided, and although the scam was well-known, he was not charging us anything more than the actual visa fee. I checked the listed visa fees and saw that he was, indeed, not making a cut from this, so we agreed.

Then he told us that we’d be at the border crossing for about 15 minutes, and the bus would be here in 10 minutes more to collect us for the 2 hour ride to Phnom Penh.

The BUS??? What the hell..?!?

He informed us that, in this late season, although the other ferry services do go the full distance, MeKong Delta Tours only take people by ferry to the border then we take the bus to Phnom Penh. This was written clearly on our tickets. We told him that we were never given tickets…the ‘guide’ said that it was all arranged at the ferry terminal for us. Oh, he said, right. I was told that you guys were joining this tour group. I am supposed to refund you $10 each for the ferry ride since its not going all the way to Phnom Penh.

“Joining this tour group’??

We took the $10 each, sulked back to the waiting room and I started talking to the other riders. Turns out, they were a commercial group that had paid $65 each for an entire 3-day tour…bus ride from Siagon to Can To, visit the floating market, overnight in a crappy hotel, then a bus ride to Chau Doc, another overnight in a crappy hotel, then the ferry ride to the fish farm, the cultural village, the border and finally a bus ride to Phnom Penh. Their overall evaluation was that Mekong Delta Tours was a really bad tour company and not worth what they had paid.

Hollie and I had gotten totally scammed. We could have gone to the fish farm/cultural village for free that morning on the ferry instead of paying $30 for it the day before, we paid $15 for the scooter ride to the mountain instead of just $1-2 that it would have cost, and now the damn guide put us on a boat that only went to the border instead of all the way to PP. So we got had, and spent $95 where we could have spent just $32. It really pissed me off, as I was looking forward to the long ferry ride for weeks, and the mood it put me in soured my trip for several days. While he had made some extra money off of us for scamming us for the fish farm and scooter, he had nothing whatsoever to gain from ruining our planned trip up the MeKong to Phnom Penh.

So there you have it: it happens to the best of us…but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. I wrote the guide a scathing email to the address he gave us, but of course that bounced back. And the sour mood was exacerbated the next day when we got lied to again.

Border town and big cities. I hate them.

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