By boat? I have boat – floating on Mekong Delta

We were sleeping tightly in our little bus beds when somebody started shaking our legs. “Wake up! Can Tho!” I opened one eye. It was 5 am and my body cried for more sleep. When I closed eyes again the driver was back at my leg, poking my calf. We got off the bus half-conscious and were driven to the centre. Can Tho was the capital of Mekong Delta and despite it had 1.1 million inhabitants and a vast riverbank, it didn’t have much to offer. We went there just to see floating markets on the Mekong and it seemed it was the only reason any foreigner would ever go there. There was little choice of accommodation, the prices were high and there wasn’t much to do. Most people in fact came to Mekong Delta on organised tours from Saigon, but we wanted to do it our way. And so there we were at 5am in the morning knocking on hotel doors to wake up receptionists and ask for a room. It took us a good hour and a half to find a place. Most places were either booked out, small and damp or over our budget. What’s more we had a persistent little old woman following us as soon as we stepped out of the mini-van. While we were desperately looking for a bed to sleep, she was desperately trying to sell us boat trip to floating markets and kept following us from one hotel to another. “By boat? By boat? I have boat. Cheap, cheap.” At first we kindly refused, then just stopped paying attention and in the end we had to run away from her. We finally found a suitable room and went back to sleep. We came back down at noon and, unbelievable, that woman was at the reception of our hotel waiting for us! We just told her to leave us alone. If we even considered going on a boat trip with her, her spying was too much to tolerate.

Since floating markets were the only attraction there we were offered a boat trip on every step. In the end we were convinced by a man called Mr Dung. He told us the trip would take us to two markets, we’d leave at 6am to beat the crowds and spend as much time as we wanted on each market. The boat was to our disposal. We liked the offer, but needed some time to do better research. We took his phone number to call him back later. After further half an hour of research his offer seemed pretty standard, but we liked him and decided to go with him. When we went back to our hotel to call him, a girl was waiting there for us offering a boat trip. When we said we want to book it with Mr Dung, she exclaimed “Ah! But it’s my father! He asked me to come here to talk to you.” What? How did he know what hotel did we stay in? What was she doing there? The whole boat trip thing was becoming suffocating. Were people spying on us? What were we, tasty foreign meat with dongs in their pockets? We weren’t sure if she was telling us the truth or whether she was just playing with us, but since her offer was the same as Mr Dung we bought the trip from her and didn’t want to think about it any more.

Can Tho was hot like a frying pan and it was impossible to stay outside before 5pm. It was Saturday night and we enjoyed that warm evening with a glass of wine, watching thousands of motorbikes coming and going along the riverbank, Vietnamese people parading on promenade in their best cloths, kids playing, teenagers collectively staring at small screens of their smart-phones. For us the highlight of the night was Cobra that Ale ordered for dinner. There was a restaurant specialising in snakes, rats and even crocodiles and we gave it a shot.

The following morning alarm clock rung at 4.30am. We got dressed, packed our luggage, checked out and at 5.30 were picked up by a little chubby lady who giggled constantly. She was a sweet heart and did her best to keep us entertained during the trip. The boat was painfully slow, so to keep us awake she showed off her bamboo-origami skills. We went to two markets, a bigger and a smaller one. By the time we got to the one further away, the little woman made us bamboo birds, flowers, bracelets, rings and crowns. The smaller market was so small in fact that there were more boats with tourists than vendours. It was hard to take a photo without framing another white face with a photo camera glued to their nose. The trip was not what we expected. Our main purpose of doing it was to take photos. Floating market? Are you kidding me? It must be photographers’ paradise. But what we got instead were a few boats selling fruit, heaps of tourists (most of them wearing silly bamboo crowns) and little time to take any photos. It was not what we were promised. We were just one of a few boats in a group on a pre-arranged tour that took us to two markets, designated places to eat and drink, a fruit garden which we were completely not interested in and a canal. The canal was actually cool, but hey, we just wanted to go to the two markets and stay there until we were satisfied with our photos, then simply go back to Can Tho. Simple, but not doable. Every time we tried to negotiate with our little lady boat-rider that we want to go here and there, that we need more time or less time, she just said we have to follow the schedule. Eh… Disappointing. As for the markets, maybe they were big, lively and noisy in the past, but now they made an impression of being there just to draw tourists. Mekong Delta was one of the places I looked forward to seeing the most in Vietnam and I was left bitterly disappointed. When we got back to Can Tho, we picked up our bags and took a local bus to a smaller town on the delta called Ben Tre. It was known for coconut candy, which we needed for lifting our spirits.

In Ben Tre we rented a motorbike and, speeding across a bridge on Mekong River, we escaped into a forest of coconuts. It was an island. An island covered by a jungle of tall coconut trees, banana plants and palms. It felt like riding through a botanic garden with the difference that people lived there, kids rode bicycles to school and ladies in straw hats strolled the many narrow lanes chatting and laughing. The island was a labyrinth of roads, bridges and paths. By the end of the day we were glad it was an island, because only by riding around its edge we were able to find the bridge that we crossed from Ben Tre. Back in town we bought coconut candy and not waiting even for a second we opened it right in front of the shop and devoured it like spoiled kids.

The day after our marvelous trip among coconut trees, there wasn’t much for us to do, so we hopped on a local bus and headed to Saigon, our last stop in Vietnam. In Poland we say “What a Saigon” when we want to describe something extreme and that city did indeed welcome us that way. The bus dropped us off in the middle of a street somewhere far from the city centre and we had to get a taxi. Straight away a motorbike pulled over and offered to take us to Pham Ngu Lao St – the hotel hub of Saigon. What we didn’t know was that he wanted to take us both plus our big bags on one motorbike. We were doubtful but he laughed and gesticulated energetically to show us that everything will be fine. We gave it a go. Ale sat in the middle and I was hanging on the back holding the motorbike as hard as I could afraid that the weight of my backpack might outbalance me on a curve. I had a metal bar right across my bum, 15 kilograms in the backpack and two smaller bags resting on my knees. The weight of all that was pressing my bum so hard against the metal rail that by the end of the trip I was close to tears. The driver stopped right when I was on the edge of resistance.

Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City) was hot above our limits. The best place to be between 10am and 5pm was our air-conditioned room. We stayed in during the day and out at night. Instead of a sightseeing tour we had a nightlife tour. Over the two nights that we stayed there we started at live music venues (Acoustic Bar and Yoko), then had a beer together with thousands of people sitting on plastic chairs along the road and finished at night clubs. Night clubs were particularly interesting as we seemed to be the only couple that came in and came out together. We went to Lush first, but it was middle of the week and there were more body guards than people in the place, including one body guard that had hots for Ale. He was over-eager to show Ale the bathroom and stayed dangerously close to him when explaining directions to another club. So there were a total of 2 barmaids, 3 businessmen, 6 prostitutes and that body guard who was hitting on my boyfriend. It was best to go. We went to Apocalypse Now, the most (in)famous nightclub of Saigon. It was definitely more lively and full, but the prostitutes still outnumbered ordinary people. They were pretty and classy, affordable only for more affluent men. It was bizarre to be in a club where prostitution was so openly manifested. Majority of guests were men in their 40s, 50s having a good time with “ladies”. We heard an Italian, someone from Arabic countries, Germans and Vietnamese. There was an odd young foreigner, a couple of girl friends, a group of boys traveling together, but we were the only couple there. We left after a few tracks and a drink which we didn’t finish afraid it was spiked (well, what do you do if somebody moves your glass without any reason, spreading his hand above the drink?).

Over our two and a half days in Saigon we sweated out 5 liters of water each, went to 4 clubs, 0 museums, had 8 fruit shakes and took 1 flight to Bangkok.

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