We haven’t posted for many days because we’ve been cruising the Mekong River and racing through Cambodia to get to Siem Reap in time to meet up with our guide from 2003. We’ve had many adventures along the way, most of them stemming from our 3-day tour of the Mekong Delta, Tom suggested I write a novella about our experience, but I think that would be a bit excessive. Instead I’ve put together an account that even for me is a bit long (blame Tom). So if you’ve got a moment, grab a tasty beverage, kick back, and travel with us up the Mekong…
One of the great benefits of extended travel is wisdom: the longer you spend in a place, the wiser you become to its ways. After almost a month in Vietnam, we learned that there is a great disparity between what people promise and what they deliver, especially when dealing with tourists. Rather than letting this upset us any longer, we decided to embrace the craziness and give the country one last chance to surprise us. Tom was ready to catch a “direct” bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a sure way to drop a quick 5 pounds and arrive aching and exhausted, but I was more inclined to throw all caution to the wind and pursue a far more interesting option: a three-day tour of the Mekong Delta, a cobbling together of random boat rides interspersed with the occasional visit to a candy factory or floating market. No one was thrilled by the prospect, but after a restful, scam-free week in Saigon, we figured we were up for an adventure.
I chose a tour company based on a recommendation by the Rough Guide and some quick internet research. Given the feedback of previous customers, I felt confident that once we turned over our money, Delta Adventure Tours would actually get us to Phnom Penh on the promised day in roughly the promised manner. They did, but what happened on the way is yet another chapter in the ever expanding volume of “The Great Deception.”
Upon booking the tour, I laid out all my concerns and recounted all our previous mishaps to the booking agent. The manager, an “American Vietnamese,” assured me that she understood Western expectations of service and ran a top notch operation. Everything would go according to plan: the busses, boats, and hotels would have room for all six of us; we would be able to choose our own restaurants; and above all we would have a wonderful time. Sensing my well-founded skepticism, she gave me her business card and told me to call should we have any problems along the way. Big mistake on her part.
The first bus was only 20 minutes late to pick us up from the hotel, a decent start to the trip. Since the boat was only a few kilometers away, the quick ride to the dock was uneventful. The boat was lovely, but already populated with tourists. There were, of course, not enough seats for us, but this was only a temporary problem. The crew told us that we could move to the top deck as soon as the vessel passed the police checkpoint. Tourists are officially forbidden from riding there, but as with many other rules, this one only applies when the police are actually looking. Our first real disappointment came when the tour guide began circulating the boat collecting money for breakfast. While there were options of dishes, two to be exact, this was not the freedom from tour food we had been promised. As the cruise was three or more hours, we forked over the dough and made peace with the first deception.
Once the boat got going and half the passengers moved above, we settled into a comfortable repose. Well, four of us were a little more comfortable than the other two.
At 8:00 am, the day was already hot, but the breeze was refreshing and the sites along the riverbanks engaging. The breakfast–spring rolls, mixed vegetables, and a pineapple filled with fried rice–was tasty. So far things looked promising.
At the conclusion of the first cruise, we split into three different groups based on the tour we had booked–1 day, 2 day, or 3 day. We boarded smaller boats which took us through a floating market on the way to Turtle Island, the home of honey farms, coconut candy factories, and countless souvenir stalls. After learning how the candy is made, feasting on a variety of local fruits, and holding a python, we were put on even smaller boats reminiscent of a cross between a canoe and a rowboat for a 15-minute cruise down a 10-foot wide channel of muddy water. Any time big Tom sets foot in a leaky little craft we worry about sinking and this time was no exception. If he breathed too deeply the boat rocked. If he had sneezed, it likely would have capsized. Since we were carrying a lot of high tech gear and two small humans, he held his breath for the duration of the ride.
Miraculously our previous boat was waiting for us at the location where the channel spilled into the river. We hopped back on and were whisked away to yet another island for a generous 45-minute respite of cycling or swinging in a hammock. The interlude might have been relaxing after the rigors of our factory tours, but for the curious behavior of our guide. “John Wayne,” as he told us to call him, was a friendly fellow who obviously relished his position. As the small boat puttered toward the island, he explained that this area of the delta had been hit by the typhoon the previous week and some 100+ people had died. He went on to mention Typhoon Utor, which was currently brewing in the South China Sea, and expressed his sincere desire that it would not hit our current location. Had he ended here, we would have been fine. Instead, he made the bizarre decision to continue in an attempt to alarm us. It went something like this: “There is very bad weather in Saigon now. The place we left with the boat this morning has had very high winds and much rain. It is very dangerous. I talked to my friend in Saigon, and he say that his company told him to go home from work. All the people are going home because of the weather. No electricity.” What? We knew when we had checked the typhoon at 2:00 that morning, it had been days away and was expected to hit Danang hundreds of kilometers to the north. Business closures in Saigon must have meant something serious had happened since then.
John Wayne pointed out the clouds in the distance behind us. Though we were under sunny skies, they were black. At home we would think tornado, but here we thought typhoon. After sounding the alarm, he tried to allay our fears: “It’s still very far away. Last week the typhoon came here, but this one, I hope, does not come here. At least I hope it does not come here.” By the time we reached the island, the black clouds were directly overhead. We wandered through the debris left by Durian–the gazebo where we would have relaxed but which was now a pile of sticks in the corner, the fences ripped from the ground, the palm fronds scattered here and there. We couldn’t help but wonder: “What would it be like to weather a typhoon in this place, with no building to shelter us, no electricity (it still hadn’t been restored since the previous storm), and no easy way back to the mainland?” At least it would be safer than a rickety little motorboat in the middle of a tempest-tossed river.
We played cards and swung in hammocks for the designated 45-minutes, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the clouds, which did nothing more than deliver an ominous wind. The motorboat delivered us safely to another dock where a bus was waiting to take us to our hotel for the night. John Wayne promised that he would continue to track the storm for us, since we didn’t speak Vietnamese and therefore couldn’t understand the radio. He seemed to relish this monopoly on information.
Our bags stashed safely in the belly of the bus, we set off for what was supposed to have been a 2-hour trip. It turned out to be more like 4. We stopped briefly to pick up a Swiss couple, whose tour company had left them stranded and pawned them off on our company. With no choice in the matter, they were diverted from a three-day tour that included free breakfasts and a visit to a crocodile farm to our food exclusive, more sedate version. The Swiss, who turned out to be fun companions, were not the cause of our delay, rather it was the rain, or so John Wayne claimed. We had a ferry crossing late in the journey for which we had expected to wait no more than 30 minutes. It took closer to an hour, but this still did not account for our 8:45 pm arrival. Perhaps, like most of the other busses we’ve been on, they paint a rosier picture at the outset in an attempt to please us, figuring we’ll be understanding when it takes longer.
Our hotel was down a long and interesting alley lined by people’s living rooms and inhabited by a few elusive rats. The receptionist handed out keys and explained that our room contained four beds and was on the fifth floor. Ugh. The staircases in Vietnam are tall and steep and our packs were heavy at the end of a hot day. We made the long haul up and quickly returned to the lobby to join the group on a walk to waterfront to find a late dinner. John Wayne led us to a restaurant of his choice. We looked at a few others, but elected to stay with the group (the boys always enjoy the opportunity to visit with fellow travelers). The food was adequate, the company entertaining, and before we knew it, we were back in the room for a brief 6 hour sleep on a foam mattress under a ceiling fan. We were grateful for the roof that held the ceiling fan since our new British friends had been offered a specially air conditioned room on the top floor. The air in this not so deluxe room was supplied by a large gap between the wall and ceiling. Needless to say they asked for a different room.
At 7:00 the next morning, we congregated in the lobby ( a generous word) for breakfast–the usual lackluster offering at the usual mediocre price. While perhaps we could have forayed out into the city for different fare, the tour company left us little time to do so, a calculated move on their part to be sure. By 7:40 we were on another boat headed to a vast floating market. We jumped on the roof of the boat and bought entire pineapples for 25 cents and small watermelons for 75. (We posed for a pyramid shot on top of the boat, but our photographer opted for a portrait orientation, capturing us but leaving out the market behind. Oh well.)
Ever onward, our itinerary for the day included a tour of a rice noodle/paper factory, of which the highlight was the neighboring pigs; a visit to a land-based market, which involved encounters with new animal body parts and a trauma involving a mud fish; and a tour of a rice factory. With all of this accomplished by noon, we were back to the hotel to grab our bags and find lunch. John Wayne took everybody to a nearby restaurant, but since the dining area was up a tall, cramped flight of stairs that might not accommodate our backpacks and we had been hankering for freedom, we busted out along with a few others from the tour and headed around the corner to a different cafe. We returned at the time John Wayne had specified, but the bus was nowhere in sight. We gawked at the turtles, snakes, fish, and frogs that awaited boiling and frying, until John Wayne notified us that the bus would be at least another 40 minutes. Should we be surprised? What a silly question.
At this point, most people took off to wander the town. McKane joined a trio of single women, Dax skateboarded in an alley, Tom took the little two to search for ice cream, and I watched the bags on the sidewalk. While I was waiting, a sport utility vehicle drove up with a few tourists, probably on a private tour. After a hushed conversation with the other guide in the corner, John Wayne approached me. “Would you and your family like to travel to the next boat in this car? It would be much more comfortable for you and you could get on the boat before everybody else.” Immediately my radar went off. While certainly a tempting prospect, this could only mean one thing: they’d overbooked the bus. I asked, “But where will our luggage go?” A gargantuan duffle bag filled the front passenger seat and our bodies would fill the remaining space. “I will take care of your luggage. Don’t worry. I will put it on the bus and it will be waiting for you at the next hotel.” By now Tom had returned, and we shared a roll of the eyes at this new development. The Swiss who had been bumped from their tour promised to keep an eye on our bags, so we piled into the car and listened while John Wayne feverishly gestured and explained where the driver should take us. Were we concerned that he spoke not a word of English? Mildly. Nervous that we would now be separated from our few meager but necessary possessions? Moderately. Worried that we might end up in the wrong place? Majorly. But we went anyway. This, after all, was our great and final experiment with Vietnamese tourism.
Two hours later we were ejected from the car without a word on a rural roadside. Fortunately, a tidy, wooden boat with welcoming red paper lanterns sat only 20 feet away. The crew hopped to attention when we looked their way and acted as though they had been expecting us, so we figured we were in the right place. More than an hour and a half later, after the sun had already set, the bus arrived jam packed with people, luggage filling the first two rows of seats. Sure enough, there would not have been room for us, so the ride in the car was not just a kind gesture but a necessary one.
The bus had been delayed once again by the ferry as it traveled to pick up our group at the hotel. A new group of 2-day tour participants had been on board for over 4 hours while our 3-day group had been waiting and riding for the same period. Everyone had been promised a beautiful sunset cruise on the Mekong, but the fact that the sun had already set proved a problem. Before anyone else boarded, our Swiss friend came and explained that many of the people on the bus were tired and didn’t feel up to a 3-hour cruise. They preferred to stay on the bus and drive the additional 30 minutes to the hotel. She asked if we wanted to join them. Tom said absolutely. We had already been on the boat for a few hours and we were tired and hungry. I wasn’t sure, but when I realized yet another meal was being prepared to be sold to us on the rear deck, I agreed leaving was the best option. We went back to the bus only to discover John Wayne yelling at our lovely Swiss friend. It turns out the idea to abandon the boat was not his, as we had thought, but hers. She was joined by many others, but John Wayne singled her out as the criminal mastermind.
About 20 people remained on the bus. John Wayne stood at the front and first asked, then begged, all to return to the boat. Had he been his usual kind and charming self, we might have obliged, but instead he turned hostile, leading us to believe there was some ulterior motive for keeping us on the boat. He lectured us that we had a contract with the company. We had signed up for a boat ride and therefore were obligated to take it. We reminded him that we had signed on for a sunset cruise, and that the company could not deliver it. It had broken its end of the deal, so therefore we were not breaking ours. He then screamed that the other passengers did not trust us, and should we steal anything from their bags, they would sue his company. This was just absurd.
John Wayne refused to budge. The boat sat at the dock. We sat on the bus. After a few more tense moments and heated words, a group of Danish senior citizens returned to the boat. They had been irate at the delay earlier in the day, but were not prepared for another conflict now. Those who were supposed to return to Saigon discussed booking alternate transportation and leaving the tour altogether. As we talked with the other mutineers, we realized that they had been sold the same bill of goods by the manager in Saigon. She had made similar blanket assurances of meeting their every need and encouraged them to call in case of trouble. With great amusement and curiosity, we dug out her card and dialed her number.
For the next five minutes Tom explained the situation and debated potential outcomes. Kim, the manager, repeated John Wayne’s argument that we were obligated to take the boat. Tom reminded her that she had fallen through on her end of the deal, so the businesslike decision would be to accommodate the shortchanged customers by granting their simple request–to accompany the luggage on the 30-minute drive to the hotel. Why was this a problem? Kim grew increasingly belligerent and came up with a litany of excuses to deter us: the ride was really 2 hours; the road to the hotel was in very bad condition; the other tourists were concerned about theft. Then, with Tom in midsentence, she hung up. End of discussion. We could hear John Wayne talking to her on his cell phone outside the bus. We’re not sure what they resolved, because what happened next was bizarre. He angrily climbed the stairs and announced that another bus was coming for the luggage. We would be left behind. He did not care what happened to us from that point on. We were on our own. Good bye.
We looked at each other in mild amazement wondering what had really been at stake here. Why would 13 people staying on the bus make John Wayne and Kim so angry? We came to the conclusion that they must have lost some revenue on the “optional” meal they were serving on the boat. Remember, this is the tour where all decisions regarding food are supposed to be at our discretion. “It’s better for you that way,” they had said in Saigon. Sounds like a subtle form of culinary coercion to me.
The boat finally pulled away from the dock and we knew our lot had been cast. We discussed bribing the driver to take us on, if in fact, the other bus arrived. Our discussion ended abruptly, however, when he hopped on, started the engine, and drove away with all of us still seated. A quick 30 minutes later, we had traveled a well-paved road straight to our intended destination. The bags were unloaded, and we all checked in. We decided to walk as a group to the town in search of a restaurant of our own choosing. We had a great time and stayed far too late for our own good, since we had to leave at 6:30 the next morning.
After another night under the fans, we staggered to our last forced breakfast. I passed John Wayne in the hallway, but he refused to look at me. I was relieved we were getting a new guide for the final day of the trip. We had enjoyed our time with him prior to the mutiny and were sorry for his frustration, but a third day under his direction might have been too stressful to bear. Our new guide, Viet, was much younger and seemingly more easygoing. He herded us into the bus for a final trip to the dock. Once again our luggage was loaded on the seats, leading us to wonder what mysterious cargo was filling the space below. Viet explained that the bus had to return to Saigon, so we would be dropping our bags off for temporary storage along the way. In typical fashion, this meant that minutes later our backpacks were sitting unattended on the sidewalk outside a random building on a random street. As we sped away, Tom snapped a few pictures from the back of the bus just in case we needed proof they once existed.
Another ten minutes and we were on the sixth boat of our tour, another small rowboat that would take us to the Cham minority village. Dax and McKane shared a boat with a Chinese-Canadian woman while Tom, Kieran, Asher, and I were joined by Viet in another. As we plied the waters surrounding yet another floating village, we asked about his life and how he had decided to become a tour guide. Sweet and soft-spoken, he quietly explained that his parents had made great sacrifices for him to attend college. Upon completion he had wanted to become a teacher, but the government would not give him a position since his revolutionary pedigree was deficient. His father had been a captain in the South Vietnamese army during the American War, an ignoble past for which his descendants were penalized. He had spent two years in a reeducation camp following the war performing hard labor, but this was not enough to clear his record and win his children places in universities, jobs, or even passports. Viet would not be able to accompany us across the border into Cambodia because the government repeatedly denied his application for a passport.
It was ok he assured us. He had changed his career path and hoped to save enough money serving as a tour guide to one day start his own tour company. I explained that if he could just be honest with visitors and provide them with reliable, straightforward service, he would be an overnight success, putting his less scrupulous competitors out of business. He agreed, emphasizing that he was more sensitive than most. After all, had any of our other guides wished us a Merry Christmas as he had?
I thought Viet and I had an understanding, that he appreciated our frustration as customers in the wild world of Vietnamese tourism. I thought wrong. When the time came to fill out Cambodian visa forms, I asked for 6. Visas are readily available at the border and I was willing to pay the tour company a $2 markup for processing them while we sat on the boat and chatted with new friends. I was relieved when Viet told me that the fee for children was only $7 instead of the $22 for adults. I assumed that meant with the $2 premium, the real price was $5. VIet took our passports, $87 US, and promised to return. As we disembarked at the border crossing, he handed me the passports with the visas already stamped inside, wished us luck, and ran off. We passed through Vietnamese immigration and walked through the border zone to Cambodian immigration. There a sign proclaimed that visas for children under 12 were free. Duped again! I had just put $21 unnecessary dollars in the pocket of the tour company. In fitting fashion, I had been deceived all the way up to my very last moment in Vietnam.
My anger abated after a few minutes on the Cambodian boat. Though it was uncomfortable and fume filled on the inside, most people jumped on the roof, a tricky feat, to enjoy the sunshine, fresh air, and beautiful views. We had almost three hours on uninterrupted relaxation, with nothing being sold to us and nobody lecturing us.
Our docking point was an anonymous location some 45 kilometers outside Phnom Penh. We walked a crumbling single board gangplank to the shore and passed under some forbidding barbed wire into a quiet courtyard. Here we waited for the bus that would take us on the final leg of our long journey into the city. After about 20 minutes it arrived–a small, run down minibus with a hotel logo on the side. I knew we would be dropped at a hotel where the tour company wanted us to stay, but I had expected a real bus to take us there. We nervously counted seats as once again the bags were stowed on seats. There were exactly enough for all the passengers, two large bags of bananas, the driver, and his friend.
As we drove, it began to grow dark. Though we had been promised a 4:00 pm arrival in the city, it was clear the company had never intended to let us arrive in the light of day. We were running late, so we would arrive after sunset when it would be more difficult to venture out on our own to find alternate hotels. If this bus was anything like the “scam busses” that run from Bangkok to Siem Reap, the guesthouse put a bounty on our heads payable directly to the Vietnamese tour company. Each person they delivered, whether they stayed or not, was worth a fixed price to Saigon. Dropping passengers off in a remote location, wearing them out on a bumpy 2 hour bus ride, and delivering them in the dark of night greatly increased the chances they would stay at the appointed location.
Our Swiss friends wanted to stay on the river as we did, so we agreed to travel together after arriving in the city. The hotel was eager to drive us for a nominal fee, promoting its own suggested hotels along the way. We had the van drop us at a centrally location and began our search from there. The Swiss ended up down the street at a hotel that had only one remaining room and a steep staircase, while we opted to stay at the place we had been dropped. When the proprietor of the hotel tried to convince Tom he could provide better service down the road in Siem Reap than could our friend and former guide, Pon Heary Ly, he turned to him and said, “Don’t even go there. I have been lied to over and over again for the past month and I don’t want you to lie to me now. I have a guide. I have a driver. I have a hotel. So leave me alone.”
So at the end of the day, Vietnam had had her way with us once again. Good sports, we acknowledged she had taken advantage of us, but agreed the opportunity to explore her cities and meet her people had been well worth the abuse. Perhaps by staging our little mutiny, we left a legacy of our own. In the future, the tour company might think twice before forcing its clients into unfavorable situations or attacking them for wanting better service. But if that were to happen, Vietnam might become just another predictable country and in the process lose her charm. Given that alternative, I’ll take her just the way she is.