Left Behind at the Border

“Hurry up,” the bus driver who would later claim not to speak English yelled at us from behind the wheel of the Sepon Travel “tourist” bus we were taking from Dong Ha, Vietnam to Savannahket, Laos. The six of us Westerners, the only actual tourists on the bus, turned toward the bus, gave the driver a long look, and told him that we were doing the best we could.

Jeff and I, along with four British tourists, were standing at the visa window at the Laos customs and immigrations station at the Lao Bao border. Everyone else was back on the bus and ready to go. As locals, all they had to do was get a quick stamp. They didn’t need to fill out four different forms, submit photos, obtain a visa, and then get the required stamp. But hey, we thought, they’d just have to wait. This was after all the “tourist” bus, the one every agency and guesthouse in Vietnam sold tickets for with promises that the bus would take us to the border, wait while we got our visas, and then carry us on to our destination in Laos. It was easy as cake we were told.

Except that it wasn’t. All six of us were being stonewalled by the one and only visa officer. He was pissed that we had simply asked why the visa fee was $10 more than the $30 we had been told it would be. We had confirmed the price with the Sepon Travel ticket agent just the day before. And we’d confirmed it with a French woman right there at the office who had passed through and paid $30 just two days prior. But at the window, we were told that no, it wasn’t $30 but was instead 350,000 kip for Americans and Brits, and 310,000 kip for Swedes. A very homemade sheet listing these prices was shown to us as proof. Wanting to pay in dollars, we asked what the exchange rate was, and we were told 8.600. None of us had an actual idea what it was but that seemed low. It also seemed extremely suspicious when a group of French people were charged $30 each when the rate sheet he showed us gave their visa fee as 300,000 kip. Wouldn’t that mean the exchange rate was 10,000 kip to $1 or that maybe the fee shit was just plain BS and the fee was a flat $30?

Frustrated but knowing that he held all the power, we very calmly asked him to explain how the fee structure worked. I don’t think he could, so he just didn’t. Instead he closed the window, walked to a desk further back in the room, and left us standing there. The bus driver, who hadn’t yet yelled at us, came over to see what was going on. We asked him to help or to translate or whatever, but he refused. Instead he began rounding up all the other passengers and getting them onboard, despite obviously knowing that we weren’t ready to go anywhere.

The “hurry up” call came just as the officer got up from the desk and reapproached the window. But he again refused to serve us or even speak to us. Instead he took all of our forms, crumbled them up, and threw them in the trash. He then sat and stared at us. Let’s just say that at this point, all six of us were reconsidering why we wanted to enter Laos at all. They weren’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat.

But we remained at the window, waiting for the officer’s power play to come to an end. Alice, one of the British girls, went to the bus to explain things to the driver, who by now was honking at us and slowly rolling the bus forward. It was obnoxious, but we figured he wasn’t actually going anywhere. We certainly weren’t, because now the visa officer had found a tour group that he’d decided to wait on instead. He had 10 visas to issue, and we could do nothing but stand there and curse him under our breath.

And then, as the visa officer moved on to about the 6 out of the 10, our bus pulled off. The young British couple got quite upset (all of our luggage was still on the bus after all), while us and the older British couple figured he was just pulling up near the gate or at most going to the town 1 km down the road to get the other passengers started on lunch. And anyhow, what was I going to do? Without a visa I couldn’t enter Lao.

Oddly enough, as soon as our bus pulled off, the visa officer decided we could after all have visas. Well, we could have them after first listening to a lecture from him about how difficult our countries make it for people like him to visit. What was this? Was our being stonewalled retribution for him not being able to get an American or British or Swedish visa? Anyhow, we listened, and nodded, and smiled, and then grabbed our passports with visas, got our stamps, and headed off to find our bus.

It wasn’t at the gate, but the official there said it had just gone into the town, so we began to walk there. We could see a number of buses pulled over on the side of the road, and we figured one must be ours. Wrong again. It was nowhere to be found in the one-horse border town. Well, we rationalized, it must be coming back for us. Strike three. The bus was gone, with our stuff, and with no intention of coming back. This we learned after phone call after phone call to the bus office, where we got run around after run around about what exactly was going on. Two hours after the bus left, we were finally told that we were on our own as far as getting to Savannahket, where we would be reunited with our luggage.

It was too late in the afternoon to catch another bus, so in the end, the six of us hired a sawngthaew (a converted pickup with two wooden benches down the sides of the truck bed) to take us the rest of the way. It cost us $40. Exhausted and angry, we finally arrived in Savannahket at 7 p.m. ready to let someone have it. But wouldn’t you know, the office was closed. Luckily they had left our luggage with a hotel clerk, and it was all there. We’d have to wait until tomorrow to have it out with Sepon Travel. There was no point in railing on a hapless hotel clerk the company had thoughtlessly left to deal with the mess, and we all just wanted a hot meal, a hot shower, and a bed.

The next morning, not willing to let a company get away with that, Jeff and I returned to the office to try to get compensated for our trouble. It wasn’t going to be easy. The office in Laos was just a ticketing agent. Sepon Travel is a Vietnamese company, and we weren’t in Vietnam. But we got the guy at the Laos office to call up the boss in Vietnam, and Jeff (quite calmly and rationally I must say) began to tell the guy what he owed us. Unfortunately, the guy didn’t think he owed us anything. Getting left at the border was, according to him, our fault. First he claimed that the bus driver didn’t speak English and had no idea what was happening. (Not true, but even if so, still their fault.) He then claimed that we had told the bus driver that we weren’t going to get visas, and so he left. (Oh yeah, we just thought we’d take a trip to the Laos border and live in no-man’s land for a while after stamping out of Vietnam). Then he said we had exceeded the time limit for the bus to wait. (We were not given a time limit. Giving a time limit would make no sense as we aren’t allowed to give ourselves a visa and stamp and thus must wait as long as it takes. And finally, advertising themselves as a tourist bus that helps tourists through the border process, they were, by us paying them, contracted to wait however long it took and then carry us on to Savannahket.)

Unfortunately, our being rational and demanding reasoning from them got us nowhere. Customer service does not exist in Asia, as far as we can tell. And getting anyone to take responsibility or tell the truth (instead of just telling you what they think you want to hear whether it’s true or not) is practically impossible. In the end, the guy offered us $20 total for the six of us. We told him he owed us at minimum $48 or half the price of the bus ticket each. We asked why $20, what reasoning there could be for this, but of course he offered none. And then he hung up on us. And when we called back, he disconnected his phone. Very professional, I tell you. Frustrated but tired, and determined not to let this incident set the tone for our time in Laos, we decided to just take the $20 and go. We’d fought the fight, and we’d lost.

But we’re going to do our best to make sure no one else ends up in the same losing battle. Word of mouth is king in the world of travel, and this is a story we just love to tell. Sepon Travel, you should have just been a responsible company and A) not left every single one of your tourists (the people you claim to cater to) at the border and B) ‘fessed up to your mistake and made it right.

*If you are trying to cross the border from Vietnam to Laos at Lao Bao, I highly suggest that you not take the Sepon Travel bus. They are obviously a recklessly irresponsible company. A Laos company called VIP bus also makes the trip, and I’d recommend trying to get a ticket with them. Or go ahead and just do it yourself. Local buses run to and from the border (though be aware that the last one leaves the immigration office for destinations in Laos in early afternoon).

**Also, just FYI, the exchange rate is, in fact, right around 8,600 kip to $1. What the visa actually costs, I don’t know, but at the Lao Bao border you’ll do no better than whatever rate is listed for your country on the very non-official paper the officer shows you.

Historical Hue

Hue really reminds me of Luxor in Egypt, only not as magnificent (not to mention 3000 years late). As the former imperial capital of Vietnam, a whole succession of kings ruled from and died here, leaving behind a whole lot of beautiful ruins. To see as much as we could in one day (really, one afternoon after we had to spend the morning getting the computer’s power cord repaired), we hired two moto drivers and set off.

Our first moto stop: The Citadel, the former central city. It’s an enormous walled compound, stretching for miles on all sides and guarded by enormous gates. Through these impressive fortifications exists an entire city of temples and royal palaces. The buildings were beautifully ornate and adorned with gold. The grounds were vast and beautiful, with ponds filled with lotus flowers and koi accompanying vast tree lined avenues and the aformentioned buildings.

Our time here, unfortunately, was cut short by a wicked thunderstorm that kept us captive in the main gate’s tower for a good half hour before we braved it and moved on (with the help of ponchos from our moto guides).

Second stop, Thien Mu Pagoda. Apparently a very famous Vietnamese landmark, it’s a rather basic stupa and pagoda if you ask me. But the grounds are quite lovely, it does offer some beautiful scenery overlooking the Perfume River, and the studying monks behind the pagoda were fascinating to watch.

We then meandered down to two separate royal tombs, those of Tu Duc and Minh Mang, rulers during the 19th century. Reportedly the two most beautiful, I found them remarkably similar. They were both laid out over a large tract of naturally landscaped grounds, creating in effect a beautiful park. Tu Duc’s was apparently his retreat for reflection during his life, while Minh Mang’s was built solely after his death. They then had large carved stones detailing the activities of their lives written in Mandarin, accompanied by a courtyard of stone servants. Behind this was a temple for those wishing to worship these rules. There was then a landscaped pond followed by a burial chamber — the only particularly noticible difference between the two. Minh Mang was buried solely underground, after his body was brought to the site completely underground (16 kilometers) via a now collapsed tunnel (crazy what these rulers get their subjects to do!). On the other hand, Tu Duc was in somewhat of an altar inside a series of decorated walls. Both were really beautiful parks, but dropped the ball a little bit on awe-inspiring impressiveness.

At that, our one day tour of Hue was over, and we prepared to head on into Laos.

Hoi An: Made to Fit (Sort of)

Since we’ve entered Southeast Asia, I’ve been excited about our stop in Hoi An, a town in central Asia known among travelers for one thing: it’s abundance of tailor shops. Somewhat of a legend among travelers sick of their stinky zip-off pants and dingy tank tops, Hoi An is rumored to be the place to go to have clothes made. Anything you want, it’s yours. Fancy a new suit? An evening dress? A copy of your favorite designer jeans? A replica of a dress right off the runway? All you have to do is show one of the million or so tailors in Hoi An a photo or sample of what you want, and ta da, 24 hours later it’s yours. And even better, rumor has it that you can have it all and not even make a serious dent in your wallet.

I had visions of getting a dress made for a friend’s wedding we are attending just one week after we return to the States (and prior to our return to my parents’ home in Kentucky where all of our clothes are located). Jeff wanted a new suit. We thought maybe we’d get some jeans, some work trousers, and who knows what else. We had big plans.

And then we arrived. Yes, there were tailor shops everywhere. But other than that, it wasn’t quite what I expected. A lot of the sample items honestly looked pretty shoddy. A few people we ran into had stories of fitting after fitting without improvements until they were finally just forced to take a piece of clothing they were never going to wear. Many of the dresses looked like something I could get at H & M for $9.99 (and with the chance to try it on before I committed to it it, thus knowing whether it was a good look for me or not). And when I showed some of the more reputable tailors a print-out of the dress I wanted made and then picked out the fabric I liked, the price they quoted me was more than I would spend at home. Sure it would supposedly be made to fit me exactly, but again I wouldn’t be trying it on until after I’d already committed to buying it. What if the dress I liked on paper looked like crap on me?

So after one day in Hoi An, I’d ordered absolutely nothing. Instead of being the fantasyland I’d imagined, I found it to be a frustrating place. I’d also forgotten that really I’m not much of a shopper, and I’m certainly not a fashionista. Perhaps Hoi An is a great place if you typically buy high-end clothes and can get replicas of them made for significantly less (though not cheap), but it wasn’t really for me. so in the afternoon as I walked through the Old Town, I quit looking at all the sample clothes in the storefronts and appreciated the buildings themselves, beautiful examples of French colonial style. I took a stroll along the waterfront and watched as a local fisherman cast his net and brought it in over and over, and I admired the reflections of passing bicycle riders and the old houses in the river as the sunset. when I spent my money it was on some of the beautiful silk lanterns that were made as we watched. I liked this Hoi An better. It didn’t stress me out.

But we didn’t actually walk away without any new clothes. We’re not that immune to temptation or that easily put off by an overabundance of options. Jeff got the suit he wanted, and I have to say it looks pretty damn good. It’s really nice fabric and a great fit. It wasn’t dirt cheap but it was much less expensive than such a suit (or really even a low-quality suit) would be at home. To go with the suit, Jeff also had two dress shirts made. And I, well, I didn’t get the dress I wanted or any dress for that matter, but I did get a coat. It’s cute, doesn’t fit like a box (like most coats I find at home), and the price was right.

Unfortunately, the wedding we’re attending requires that I probably wear a bit more than a coat, so it looks like one of my first destinations at home will be the mall. Or maybe I’ll just have my mom mail a dress I already own to Seattle. Shopping and I just really don’t get along.

Halong Bay is Beautiful

There’s a good reason Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s greatest tourist attractions. The natural scenic beauty makes you feel like you’ve jumped into Lord of the Rings or King Kong. A tour takes you to various places (we went with Kangaroo Cafe, who did a nice job), like a cave and a beach, but the real experience is simply sitting on a boat passing through the myriad of islands, taking in each new kaleidoscopic view. So with that, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Into the Hills of Sa Pa

When our overnight train from Hanoi pulled into the station in Lau Cai, we rolled from our hardsleeper berths* and out into northwestern Vietnam. China was a mere 3 kilometers away, though it wouldn’t get any closer on this trip as we boarded a minibus at the train station and wove our way through the mountains to the town of Sa Pa. The buzz of motorbikes, a constant companion in the bustle of Saigon and Hanoi, became fainter with every twist and turn. Even more welcome was the decrease in humidity as we climbed to an elevation of about 1,600 meters.

Built by the French in the early 1900s as a hill station, Sa Pa is now the jumping off point for travelers wishing to visit some of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, hill tribe groups such as the H’mong, Dao, and Tay. Surrounded by stunning mountains often shrouded in fog, Sa Pa feels a bit as if you’re in a Swiss mountain town…at least until you put in your contacts and notice that each of the mountains is beautifully terraced with rice paddies and worked by water buffalo and women in traditional conical hats.

While picturesque, the town itself is not quite relaxing as local children and women accompany you everywhere, offering to sell you their handicrafts (which, at least, are actually things they made and not things you’ve seen in every other market in Asia). And unlike many of the street vendors of Asia who simply yell “Buy something” at you as you pass, the Sa Pa sellers are often quite cute and seem to have some genuine interest in talking to you, finding out about where you are from, and showing off their English skills (which are incredibly impressive, especially considering that all of their English has been learned from interacting with visitors).

Wanting to see firsthand how some of the local people live (when in their villages and not on the streets of Sa Pa), we ventured on our first afternoon to Cat Cat, a H’mong village just an easy 3 kilometer walk from the center of Sa Pa. And as people like to say, you get what you paid for. Being so close to Sa Pa and so accessible, Cat Cat was a bit too touristy for our tastes. While we got a few glimpses of local life, such as a boy riding his water buffalo between the rice paddies and lots of cute little kids playing, we mainly saw stand after stand selling weavings and other local handicrafts. It wasn’t all that different from town.

So the next morning we went in whole hog. We shunned the hotels and tourist agencies offering to organize for us a trip to local villages a bit further afield, and hired one of the H’mong girls we found in town to show us around. Sun, who was 18 years old and carrying her 7 month son Binh on her back, took us first to the market to buy supplies for a lunch she planned to cook us when we arrived in her village of Lao Chai.

And then we set off out of town on foot, stopping frequently to snap photos of the bright green terraces and cloudy mountain tops.

As we walked Sun told us about her life. We learned that she was married at 15 and like all female H’mong left her village at that point to live in her husband’s village. She noted that fortunately her home village is only a 1.5 hour walk away, and she goes there often. Her sister, who was to be married soon, wasn’t as lucky as she would be moving to a village farther up the mountain. She pointed out the various crops growing in the fields, explaining that she and her husband grow corn and rice, all for sustenance not sale. She also showed us the indigo that the H’mong grow to dye their clothes the deep dark blue that so easily identifies them. We talked about school, learning English, having kids, what a local wedding is like, the feast she cooks every year for New Year, and more. With each step, we got a little glimpse into her world.

And then we arrived at her house, a simple three-room bamboo structure with a view to die for.

She offered us a seat on the tiny stools that made up the house’s only furniture and then set to work making us lunch. She fed long sticks of bamboo into a fire over which she cooked rice, pork and onions, and morning glory (a Vietnam favorite served like spinach). All the while, as she chopped, got water, cooked, and served, she carried Binh on her back. While people in the Western World talk about being tied to their children, she literally was. She didn’t do anything or go anywhere without him on her back. Luckily he was a happy little guy who seemed to enjoy the ride.

After what turned out to be a delicious lunch and a chat with her 21-year old husband (of three years) Jinh, who arrived home right as we finished up, we descended through the terraces to explore the rest of her village and then entered the neighboring village of Ta Van.

By mid-afternoon, we were all hot and tired but at the same time happy. We felt as if we had actually gotten to see authentic life in the highlands of northeastern Vietnam. We felt as if we had spent a day with a friend. It was exactly what we had hoped for when we boarded the train in Hanoi, the mountains of Sa Pa still a 10 hour ride away.

*The preferred method of travel on Vietnam trains is soft-sleeper, but it’s pretty hard to secure your own soft-sleeper berth for the trip to Sa Pa as all the travel agents snatch them up. We found that for the trip to Sa Pa hard-sleeper is plenty nice as you are literally just travelling overnight. It’s a bit cozy, but the AC works well and the bed isn’t as hard as the name makes it sound. For longer trips, ones in which you would be awake for a significant part of the journey, such as the trip we later took to Danang. I’d go for soft-sleeper as you have more space.

History is Written by the Victors

As I’m pretty sure everyone is familiar with, the US has a fairly sordid history in Vietnam that we as Americans don’t particularly enjoy talking about. There is no doubt about the fact that the US did some pretty evil things in Vietnam – for example, napalm and agent orange were used to defoliate the thick vegetation where there just so happened to be people living. Not to mention the basic act of the US imposing its will unilaterally. Guess we’re still making that mistake. But let there be no mistake here – in my opinion, the US certainly weren’t the “good guys” in this war.

But, well, we lost the war. And the North Vietnamese won. Communist/socialist regimes (though I’ve actually found myself delighting in the fact that they are more capitalist than America these days) are no stranger to presenting one sided stories, and the Vietnamese are no different. The Vietnamese government thoroughly presents its view on the war at three sites we visited – the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Hoa Lu Prison Museum in Hanoi.

Reunification Palace began life as Norodam Palace, for use of the French Governor of Indochina. Then it became Independence Palace in 1945, I’m sure you can guess why. It was bombed by a North Vietnamese secret agent and destroyed, then rebuilt in 1963. And since 1975, its been called the equally obvious Reunification Palace. There is allegedly Chinese character symbolism in the design of the central column of the building, forming characters for good fortune, etc. It’s really not very clear if you ask us.

Out front, the tanks that crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975 permanently rest. They and the crew that guided them are commemorated for their role in the “liberation” of the south. The inside of the Palace is beautiful, as I suppose most palaces are. But the most fascinating area I saw was the basement bunker, where war operations were conducted. All of the old radio equipment remained untouched, the maps presumably the same ones. It was eerie but captivating. We then arose into a room on the history of the Palace and further down, a video room. It was here we got our first view of the Vietnamese perspective.According to the Vietnamese government, the war was fought between all Vietnamese people and the Americans. It was a war of “Imperialist Aggression” against the Vietnamese people. No South Vietnamese people fought against the North, and the reason it took them another two years to capture Saigon after the Americans ostensibly left was not really discussed. Furthermore, and I find this odd for a socialist regime, the Vietnamese people are not glorified. Instead, the US is denigrated. The video and history display repeatedly talk about the tactical mistakes Americans made, their failed bombing runs, their failed war policies. Rarely did they mention how valiently their own soldiers fought, how they exploited weakness and kept the tactical upper hand, or anything or the sort. It was quite the opposite of what I expected.

Leaving the Palace, we headed to the nearby War Remnants Museum. The first exhibit was a haunting display of the photographs of the photojournalists killed during the war, often including their last frames from just minutes (or less) before their death (oddly, this exhibit was almost fully sponsored by Louisville based companies … the Courier-Journal, UPS, KFC, the Bingham family, LG&E, etc … can anyone explain this?). It was an amazing exhibit. But after that, the museum focused on detailing fully the atrocities of the Americans. This consisted of five separate exhibits. Now, make no mistake, the Americans did many horrible things worthy of these exhibits. There’s what Agent Orange has done to thousands of children, just tragic. There’s the endless and quite indiscriminate bombing campaigns. The torture and deadly beatings of prisoners at Phu Quoc island. The infantry attacks that left villages empty. And so on. Feel pretty lousy yet? But the activities of the North Vietnamese soldiers during this whole sordid “war” business is strangely absent. There certainly is no mention of the horrible things their soldiers inevitably did.

Now, I’m willing to concede that on a tally of war crimes and failed war policies, the US won handily. So these first two museum, while one sided, were not on the wrong side of truth. But Hoa Lu Prison, perhaps more familiarly known as the Hanoi Hilton, definitely crossed that line. Since the prison was built by the French, it was first used to house Vietnamese criminals and dissidents. The first half of the museum glorified the communist party members who suffered there under the “horrible atrocities” of those evil French imperialists, which included the worst cuts of beef and pork at mealtimes and a nine hour workday. Theresa and I both looked at each other and said “sounds better than a lot of free people’s lives.” Course, a fair number of prisoners were executed, so I suppose that’s not so great. The two best rooms in the museum, however, dealt with the treatment of American POWs. One room focused on the northern bombing campaign and how evil it was, complete with John McCain’s flight suit!

John McCain's flight suit!

The other room dealt with how wonderfully the Vietnamese treated the American POWs. There were photos of them celebrating Christmas, a curio case with the guitar they were allowed to keep, the Americans playing basketball, and finally, the Americans being released. All the while declaring how the gracious Vietnamese government, despite the horrible things the Americans had done, treated these prisoners so well and gave them a “home away from home.” Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American POW tell a story that would corroborate that tall tale. We had a good long laugh at that. But as they say, history is written by the victors, so I guess there must be some other reason John McCain can’t use his right arm.

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.