The Mekong delta is, as the name suggests a delta in southern Vietnam. A rich land of farming and teeming with life, the delta is the workforce of the nation and one of the most intensely farmed regions anywhere in SE Asia, half of all the rice produced in Vietnam, and almost 60% of the fish caught, is done so in the Mekong. From the air it appears to be a large carpeted portion of land shaded with every green imaginable and struck with vast river systems. For the tourist, guide books will tell you that the Mekong is a fantastic opportunity to see the Vietnamese at work, in their element and to visit the wonderful floating markets dotted throughout the province. An absolute must see region and one which will deliver on promises of an amazing look at Vietnamese life.
The reality is somewhat different.
Having flown into Phu Quoc on the super-dodgy 25 minute hop from Saigon, the journey back was to take a little, well, longer, on the Superdong hydrofoil. You can either sail to Hat Tien (perfect if heading to Cambodia) or Rach Gia (perfect if heading to HCM). Current times and prices are published here: http://www.phuquocislandguide.com/phu-quoc-island-ferry-schedules-fares/
We were headed to Rach Gia and the bumpy, boring crossing took 2hrs 30 minutes, to the minute. Off the ferry it was a short walk to the central bus station since there is no real need to hang around in the port city. Coming from relatively traffic free Phu Quoc it was a awakening to be back amongst the madness of chaotic traffic and the orchestra of horns. Constantly. A reality that many people don’t realise is that the only people in Vietnam that speak English are either hoteliers or hustlers. I know,youre reading this thinking ‘my taxi driver speaks English’ – Please refer to hustler. We found central bus station within a 10 minute mooch and instantly attracted the usual scruffy looking, shirt half buttoned up scamster that loiters around every single bus station in SE Asia. First up he asked where we were going and I gave him the benefit of the doubt; “Can Tho”. Then the oldest transport scam ever invented began. Seriously, it was invented before transport was; “No, no, no, wrong station”. But guess what, he just happened to be able to take us to the correct one for $20. Now, you have to actually give him some credit, it was very possible (and actually turned out to be true) that the bus to Can Tho left from another station. But in SE Asia generally, and in Vietnam specifically, if you are travelling by coach a fair distance, the bus company either calls at all bus stations, or will connect you via mini bus laid on for free. As I was trying to figure out whether he was being genuine, he would quickly run ahead to where we were going and say something in Vietnamese meaning literally every single door was closed for us. He was constantly telling me I was wrong, I had no respect, and it was starting to get aggressive, others were now involved. I walked to the bus station exit and sat down, knowing that eventually the bus would have to pass by, I was surrounded by about 15 guys all literally stood laughing at me and trying to goad me.
Eventually, after about 30 minutes the guy gave in, he swore at me, mumbled something and wondered off. The crowd dispersed and some woman gestured me to follow her. Within minutes I had a ticket and by 6.30pm was en route to Can Tho after a connection to a station just outside of town. But generally, in the Mekong it got to the point where if we stopped for even a second, someone would approach us trying to hustle us.
The bus pulled into Can Tho at 9.30pm after an awful, mosquito riddled journey through thunderstorms. Seriously, the roads are just ridiculous, passengers were pretty much thrown around for 3 hours combined with being eaten alive by king size, man eating mosquitoes. Which, by the way carry malaria meaning I was dosed up on Malarone.
Once at the bus station, I knew it was about 2 miles to the hotel. Basically, in Vietnam taxis charge around 17,000VND per km. Which is about a dollar a mile. I was being quoted $10 and no one would budge, to the point when I offered $5 I was laughed at. Which actually seems to be a recurring theme in the Mekong, people just stand and laugh at you whilst mocking you in Vietnamese. In any case, I decided to walk.
The following morning it was time for some cruising through the Delta and genuinely this was the only thing that actually was easy in our entire time in the south. I was looking out over the river and an old woman approached me, she was straight to the point 100,000VND ($5) for an hours boat tour, 200,000VND ($10) for 3 hours. I mean how can you morally even try and bargain that? $5 for an hours work, I took her up on her offer and like a ninja, her husband appeared out of nowhere with a shady looking wooden boat. We boarded and were off for a wonderful mini tour of the Mekong. No scams, no boat breakdowns outside a floating restaurant, no hard sell, nothing at all. Just a silent water tour of the jungled clad islands around Can Tho, the sound broken only by the rickety sounding engine as it struggled in the water. It was a fantastic respite and window into the hardworking lives of some of the most purposeful individuals in the region.
From Can Tho we slowly made our way to Vinh Long which is a basically Can Tho with a bit more character, but ultimately not much different. Another boat ride and I started to fall in love with the beauty, Vinh Long is far more natural, the concrete exchanged for wood, the scams more obvious, the roads worse. I was actually supposed to stop in My Tho an hour up the road as part of the trail through the Mekong, but again it rained, the hassle was intense and the mosquitoes ripping my ankles and elbows to shreds despite wearing trousers and socks. I had just had enough.
The bus to Saigon took about 5 hours but was supposed to take 3 due to the terrible road conditions. Still, I didn’t care much. I thought I was free of the hassle of the Mekong as we pulled up in Ho Chi Minh. The bus station is about 9km out of town, everyone was boarding a mini bus that was supposed to take every one into the centre (Benh Thanh), I swear this is true, we stepped up to the door and it was slammed in our face, everyone on the mini bus was laughing, had I not moved out of the way we would have got run over as it sped away. I was stood for a few seconds wondering what had just happened and guy grabs my arm: “Mister, taxi, where you go”, I replied “Benh Thanh”, “ok $30, come with me…” So, I began the 9km walk into town in thirty degree heat with just one thing on my mind – It would’ve cost me $30 to fly direct out of Phu Quoc, but instead I travelled on land, got eaten by mosquitoes, ripped off and spent much more on land moneywise, what an absolutely stupid thing to do. I am supposed to write about how green, amazing and beautiful the Mekong is, but honestly, stick to day trips. Travelling through that delta is just not worth the hassle. At all. In fact, I will go one step further, if you go to Phu Quoc, avoid the whole of the south of Vietnam. Head no further south than Nha Trang, or continue on to Cambodia. South Vietnam is just not worth the hassle or involuntary blood donations to Mosquitoes inc.