Turns out, arranging out tour was too easy, as we ended up getting ripped off. For some reason, that became the theme of the day, and by the end of it we were completely fed up with people's dishonesty here. It started off fine, as a boat captain showed up at 7am as promised and led us down to a narrow longtail boat with just enough room for the four of us, as promised. This is supposed to be the best place in the delta to see the floating markets, where each day people crowd the river in their little wooden boats to buy and sell fresh fruits and veggies. It ends around noon, so we were glad to be heading there early enough to catch the action as the sun came up. Also part of the tour was a float down some smaller, winding channels past fruit plantations, mangrove forests, and rural countryside. The main river channel was several hundred metres wide, and the banks were lined with everything from dumpy houses on stilts to hotels, restaurants, and ship building yards. It was late and we were tired last night when we signed up for this tour, so none of us could really remember the places we were supposed to be going to or how far it was between them. We started to wonder what was up when we turned around in the main channel after only passing one boat full of pineapples and another one full of watermelons... but we then turned off into a smaller channel so maybe the market was over in another part of the river. We puttered for over two hours through twisting channels bordered by banana palms and semi-rural houses built out of sticks and scrap metal before we finally decided to consult the trusty Lonely Planet. Sure enough, it said that the main floating market, which we were certain is the one we were supposed to see, was only a one hour boat ride from Can Tho. But we stayed optimistic and thought that maybe there was either another market or a scenic way to get there. Well, turns out the answers to that are no and no. We had tried to ask the driver several times, several ways, if the market was ahead - and he kept saying yes. We have learned that they always say yes and they always nod whether they know what you're asking or not. When the driver eventually came into a wider channel and turned around, we suspected that we had been screwed. A boat like ours carrying a couple Americans passed us going the other way, so we asked them if they had seen a market that way. Nope, there was no market today. It's closed for New Years. Yes, we had been screwed. The dink that sold us the tour was quick to take our money before we figured it out, and he conveniently forgot to mention that the floating market tour would be just a six hour semi-boring trip through a maze of river channels. Needless to say, we were not impressed.
It was interesting, at least, to get a feel for the delta and what people's lives on it are like. More than anything, we were pretty disgusted at the filthy state the river had degraded to. People were washing dishes in the same filthy water that is clogged with garbage and sewage - we saw floating dirty diapers, industrial waste, and a dead dog just in a span of a few minutes. To top it all off, each house has a little outhouse built on stilts over the water with a hole in the floor. How all these people aren't sick from disease is beyond me!
One thing that had us totally disoriented too was the fact that we seemed to always be moving downstream - never up. Even when we turned around and were eventually passing spots we recognized from the way down, we were still going with the current! So we figure that even this far from the ocean, the delta must be tidally influenced such that rivers flow south during an outgoing tide and north during an incoming tide. Bizarre but makes sense I guess? Anyway, we made it back to town after six hours of seeing everything but the only reason we stopped in Can Tho in the first place.
We wanted to continue to Ho Chi Minh City today, so we asked the hotel receptionist about taking a bus this afternoon. She called the station and confirmed that busses were running, and the price was 80,000 dong (about $5) but it might be 90 or 100,000 since the prices go up a bit during the holidays. She also was very clear that a 'bus taxi' would come get us, like yesterday, and that it was included in the price. Well, a regular private car taxi showed up, and it was obvious that it wasn't affiliated with the bus company. There was a metre on the dash though, so no need to negotiate a price beforehand. Or, they could tell us when we get out at the bus station that they don't use the metre (which read 18,000 dong for our trip) and that the price was 80,000 dong. What a crook - if I were the one paying I would've thrown 18,000 at him and walked away. (I'm not counting, but that must be at least scam #3 for the day?) The bus depot was crammed full of busses and minibusses headed to various places, but when we asked, we were told that no regular busses were going to Ho Chi Minh today. When we asked how much the minibus was, the girl wrote down 140,000 dong. Ken pointed at the sign on the wall behind her that said the price was 105,000. Nice try. Still, that was almost double the price of the regular bus, but we were told by a staff member who spoke good english that it was an express bus (meaning it doesn't stop to pick up passengers) and that the four of us would have the two empty bench seats (for three people each) to ourselves. It was leaving right away, so we decided to go for it. Big mistake...
The driver turned out to have a death wish. He basically laid on the horn the whole way, pulled out into oncoming traffic to pass cars already going over 100km an hour on a city street, pulling back over into a field of motorbikes going half his speed, swerving, slamming on his brakes, talking on his cell phone, and even slipping in behind an ambulance that was racing for a hospital to ride in its car-free wake behind it. He almost slammed into it twice. We rode white-knuckled the whole way, praying we would make it there alive and swearing off minibusses for the rest of our trip. We passed three recent accidents on the three hour death trip, and all of them involved minibusses and crumpled motorbikes. Even with car parts and helmets scattered across the road, he just laid on his horn and swerved around it.
To make matters worse, it became obvious pretty fast that we were definitely not going to have as much room as they had promised. The first time he pulled over to the side of the highway, three people and a baby climbed in and squished into the back row with our bags. A while later, he let three girls on, then two more, then three guys (all with bags of course). Our semi-comfortable three person seats were each crammed with four people, and at last count there were 21 people riding in this 15 passenger van. As if the drive wasn't bad enough, one girl was puking the whole way since she had to ride in the sliding door well. And then a squawking chicken fell out of someone's purse.
Somehow, we made it to Ho Chi Minh City alive, and we couldn't decide whether to kiss the ground or kick the bus driver in the nuts on our way out. We haggled once again with a cab driver to take us downtown, and he only managed to hit one motorbiker during the drive. Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as the locals still call it, looked very much like Singapore in the modern downtown district, with big malls and glitzy lights - only with way more motorbikes. We bee lined it to the backpacker area called Pham Ngu Lao, where little hotels, cafes, and bars are crammed into narrow streets. There were more travellers out and about here than we'd seen on our whole trip! A lot of the hotels were still full in the wake of the New Year holidays, so it took four tries to find a room that wouldn't break our budget. Our first order of business was dinner, as we hadn't eaten since breakfast. The Quebec couple had eyed an Italian restaurant on the way in, so we joined them and sat down for a nice dinner of homemade pasta. Except that they didn't have any pasta, so everyone ordered something else from the 14 page menu. Turned out that the pizza and burgers were great, but the risotto turned out to be a dry chunk of chicken with terryaki sauce on a pile of dry white rice. Blech. So much for going Italian! It was a fitting end to a crappy day. Rant over.