We get to a small bus full of tourists. There are only two places left, one next to the driver, and the other one on the back. The bus jumps on the holes, rocking me to sleep. Suddenly our new guide calls me and tells me to get out. Only me and Renato. We stop by a highway, around us only cars, motorbikes and fields. The guide points to an elder man standing by his old motorbike, says “homestay” and leaves. The other people in the bus stare at us through the bus windows when the bus departs. The old man doesn’t speak or understand any English, he just points to the bike. Are we really going to ride this rickety motorbike, the three of us and our backpacks and go through some fields with a man we just met, with whom we can’t even communicate?
We were in Ho Chi Minh. Every step of the way thousands of travel agencies were offering tours on Mekong Delta. Legendary Mekong, a huge river that starts in the Tibetan Plateau and goes through five southeast Asian countries. Initially, we wanted to go there on our own, but in countries as touristy as Vietnam, it’s not easy to find information in English about local transportation. For tourists there are special tours. Also, we knew that the closest city by the river is at least 150 km from Ho Chi Minh, so renting a motorbike was not an option. After some time we gave up. We bought a two day tour for 900 000 dongs with a “homestay” night with a Vietnamese family. We opted for a two day tour because we really wanted to see one of the biggest floating markets in Vietnam (available only during a two or three day tours) and because of the opportunity to stay in an authentic Vietnamese house with the whole local family. We were totally taken in by these options.
We left at 8 in the morning. On the way there was a mandatory stop in a restaurant. Instead of 20 planned minutes, we had to wait more than half an hour for our driver. The next stop was in some temple. We parked next to a huge statue of a fat chinese Buddha, nobody even explained us where we were and why. We walked around three huge white statues in maybe 20 minutes. We passed on the ice-creams, as they cost almost three dollars.
Finally, we reached the river. We got into a big boat. Were were maybe 20 people, some Europeans, Americans, Australians and a group of Vietnamese. The boat ride was maybe 20 minutes long, we practically just crossed to the other side, to some island I think. The guide explained us where exactly we were heading, but the noise of the engine made it impossible to hear him. He was nice, but his accent was so strong, that I couldn’t even recognize when he stopped speaking Vietnamese and started speaking in English. We stopped by some rough and ready restaurant and a souvenir shop. The first mandatory “Buy something”. Then, they showed us how coconuts are used. The actually use everything, as even the fibers are used to make doormats. Next, they showed us some machine that heats and caramelizes coconut milk and a group of woman making candies with it. Quick degustation and another chance to buy something (coconut candies).
After a while it started to rain. We got to a narrow river that would take us to the big boat. As usually, as soon as it starts to rain, a dozen of people appear out of nowhere to sell plastic raincoats. We took shelter under some wooden roof, but we didn’t have time to wait until the weather got better. Everybody put the plastic bags (raincoats) on (we had our rain jackets) and sent us to the boats. They gave us Vietnamese straw hats, I don’t know if it was to protect us from the rain or to have better pictures.
The boat ride was really nice, but our pants got totally soaked. 15 minutes later we were back on our big boat. We went back to the city and waited almost 30 minutes for the bus. Here we separated, as we were the only ones from our group who were staying for the second day. We got to the bus and set off to our Vietnamese family for the night.
Fortunately it turned out that we don’t need to ride the same old motorbike all together. On the other side of the street there was a woman waiting for us with a second bike. She barely murmured “hello”. We jumped onto the bikes, I with the woman and Renato with the old guy. On the way we got separated, as Renato’s bike was slowly dying. We drove through some strange fields and abandoned construction sites for maybe 10 minutes, then turned to a narrow path along a river. I started imagining what would I do if we were separated to be kidnapped. Renato had our only phone, mine as you remember got lost in Cambodia. I didn’t have a penny, but I didn’t think anybody would believe me that I’m traveling without any money. Luckily we arrived to the house and after some minutes Renato appeared. He had to walk the last bit, as his motorbike died. The woman and the old man, most probably daughter and father, disappeared inside the house without saying a word. We stayed on some kind of a terrace not knowing what to do. They didn’t even show us where our room was.
The night was falling. We wanted to go for a walk, stroll along the village, but we didn’t know how to tell it to our family. Also, we didn’t see any street lanterns. They served us dinner: a fish and ingredients to make spring rolls. The family ate in the kitchen, we on the terrace. Fortunately, three boys, neighbors, arrived and one of them spoke some English. Thanks to him we learned how to make spring rolls and found out where is our room. He also told us that there is nothing around and that everybody will be going to sleep very soon, as the following morning we have to wake up at 5… Our room was a bamboo hut with a bathroom without door covered with a plastic foil. In the room there was a bad and a fan, nothing more. The hut was partially open, so when we turned on the light, thousands of insects flew in. I’m glad we had a mosquito net above the bed.
We went to bed at 8pm. There was no internet, we didn’t want to turn the light on not to attract more mosquitoes. We were not sleepy at all. We took our computer to find some movie, but the only ones we had were two lousy movies we started watching some time ago and stopped because they were very bad. We watched both until the end. We still couldn’t believe we had to wake up at 5 am, we were wondering if we had understood the boy well or if he was not making fun of us. We fell asleep in clothes to protect ourselves from bugs maybe around midnight, because some roosters around were confused and were crowing all night long.
The second day
It seemed like I had slept for ten minutes when I heard the only English words from our host “Wake up, wake up”. It was 5.10am. I skipped cold shower and went out. It was still dark. After a quick breakfast (omelette with dry bread) we went by motorbikes to the nearest town. We waited for the rest of the group for more than half an hour, falling asleep on some bench. Today the floating market awaited us!
Finally, we got to the boat, same as yesterday, or at least very similar. The visit of the floating market took us maybe half an hour and we didn’t leave the boat. The market did not look like the biggest in the country. A couple of dozens boats loaded with fruits and vegetables getting close to each other to sell or to buy something. No sign of the colors, crowds and commotion that we had seen on the pictures.
The rest of the day was just killing time until the departure time. A stop at some fruit plantation, the next one by a souvenir shop, a stop to eat, a stop to drink, a stop to wait.
The main attraction was looking at how rice noodles are being made…
Eventually we got to the town and went for lunch. The bus was supposed to come in two hours only and we finished eating after 20 minutes. The rest of the time we spent wandering around the restaurant area in the city.
The way back was really long, as we took a roundabout way to pick up some more tourists coming back to Ho Chi Minh.
I hope I will be able to keep traveling around Asia without having to join organized tours. It’s a waste of money and time.