Mekong the Wrong Way

Every few months, it seems we need a reminder about why we do not like tours. Our latest lesson came as we made our way from Phnom Penh to Saigon via the Mekong Delta. Thinking it was the most efficient way to get ourselves between the two while seeing the Mekong, we signed up for a tour through Capital Guesthouse in Phnom Penh, ostensibly run by Delta Adventures. Let’s just suffice it to say we do not recommend them.

We started by taking the fast boat down the Mekong from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc, undeterred from our Battambang boat experience. This boat was better, faster, and actually took the advertised five hours. No complaints yet. It was a bit odd when we arrived in Chau Doc and our “guide” mentioned getting up at 6 am to go somewhere for sunrise and a free rest of the day, then promptly disappeared. We never saw him again (It seems pretty common in Asia to get shuttled between guides). With our free time, we asked the hotel to take us across the river into Chau Doc in a boat (which they did provide free of charge at least) and walked around and found the town quite lovely and authentic. There wasn’t a whole lot to do there per se, but the ambiance was nice and the people very authentically friendly. We found a Vietnamese hat for Theresa for ~50 cents and some dinner and watched the sunset in a pleasant riverside park full of great people watching.

Then we headed back to the hotel.

Now, we did realize we would not have A/C at the hotel, but we did not realize just how hot the Mekong is, and just how stifling the room could be with only a tiny wall mounted fan and no other air moving anywhere. So we won’t belabor the point, but we didn’t sleep much. Annoying, but not the worst thing that can happen.

I think day 2 was the real kicker for the silliness of the tour. We woke up, as our previous day’s guide had mentioned, at 6 am ready to go out for sunrise from Sam mountain. These were the activities outlined for Chau Doc on our tour itinerary pamphlet:

-hike up Sam mountain (don’t worry, its not very big) for views over Cambodia and Vietnam and
visit it’s pagoda and cave

-a rowboat trip through a floating village

-visit to an incense making village

-visit to a weaving village

-fresh fruit snacks

Here’s what we got:

-a motorboat trip with 25 of our closest friends along the other side of the river from Chau Doc

-a stop at a “fish farm,” a hole in a floating house where they kept fish and let you throw food pellets at them. In reality, quite disgusting.

-a second stop at the “weaving village,” where one lady sat at a loom and they sold the same fabrics we’ve seen since Bangkok.

-a walk through Chau Doc, which we had already done since we throught our tour consisted of other things.

The no trip to Sam mountain was a big disappointment, as the views were supposedly beautiful.

So then we headed to Can Tho, a city three hours downstream by boat. We reached it around lunchtime (which gives you an idea of how quickly we hurried through all the crap in Chau Doc). The guide had us carry all of our bags with us down to the restaurant, then pestered us the entire time we at lunch about whether we were ready to go to the hotel yet, annoying us to no end (we later learned this was because he had people to pick up he was taking back upstream, not that that justifies anything). He then hired motos to take us and our bags essentially a block away from we got off the boat. I mean, I know they get a commission for bringing us to this crappy restaurant, but just maybe it would’ve been smarter to have us drop our things at the hotel, then make us go down to the restaurant for lunch? And, in the best part of the ordeal, my moto driver got lost. I didn’t know the hotel, he didn’t know where the hotel was, so we drove around town for a while. Eventually, he went back to the restaurant where they helped the poor idiot out. Upon arriving at the hotel, I witnessed a Theresa nearly in tears screaming at our guide. Aparently his response to losing me was to shrug his shoulders and try to get his other group together and go. Theresa was having none of that.

We had another free afternoon, which we spent doing logistics, as Can Tho itself really seemed like a pretty industrial, soulless place. But again, our free time was much more enjoyable than our tour time.

Our final day was definitely our best, as we were paired up with a group out of Saigon (we were passed along to different tour groups every day). The guide was the first one who shared his name, who seemed to care what he was doing, who took some time to explain what we were going to do and what we were looking at. We went downriver to the floating market, which was definitely more cool than touristy. Vietnamese farmers bring their produce downriver and camp out on their boats and sell it. Kind of like a market. On a river.

We also visited a more forgettable rice factory and rice paper factory. After a four hour bus ride to Saigon with the necessary useless tourist trap half hour restroom stop, our tour was finally over.

So the lesson here is: go to the Mekong. The scenery is beautiful (though there are definitely factory heavy stretches these days), the people are authentically warm and friendly and there are some nice things to do and see. But don’t do the tour. Hop a bus, or a boat. Then do what you want or hire who you want once you get there. You’ll be in control of what you see and do and where you stay. We had to learn this lesson again the hard way.

2 Replies to “Mekong the Wrong Way”

  1. Thanks for this info, we were considering a tour from Saigon to Phnom Penh, but this definitely doesn’t sound enjoyable. Do you recommend taking a fast boat from Saigon to Phnom Penh as a way of seeing the Mekong without getting caught up in the tourist trap?

  2. If I were to do it again, I’d take a bus from Saigon to Can Tho to see the floating markets. I may then take another bus or boat down to Chau DOc because I did find it to be a pleasant town. From there, I’d get a bus on to Phnom Penh. Or you could skip Chau Doc and get the boat straight from Can Tho. We found that in both towns there were plenty of boat and bus operators running these routes making it easy enough to travel independently. If you ask in either Saigon or Phnom Penh the hotels and agencies make it sound like it is quite difficult but they just want you to book their tours. We had one couple on our boat between Phnom Penh and Chau Doc who then did things on their own. We kept running into them at different points, so bviously they were making it just as easily between sights as we were and without the “help” of a tour. I would recommend getting out on the Mekong at some point as it is interesting to see life on the river.

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