Travelling isn’t always filled with precious unforgettable experiences. There are some shit bits too. Sadly these tend to be the tours that are readily available all over Vietnam but particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The network of travel agencies here is incredible and everyone seems to be in cahoots with each other leading to some very interesting trip organisation as well as a multitude of opportunities to feel like you’re getting mugged off or shoved into your tour guide’s mate’s shop to buy something, because that’s what we westerners do right?
Staying in HCMC I had some time to kill in the south of the country waiting for my visa to be renewed before travelling back up north to Hanoi, so I decided to sign up for a Mekong Delta tour with a local travel agency in the Pham Ngu Lao (backpacker district). These tours seemed popular enough and they were dirt cheap ($32) for a tour of the famous river, its surrounding areas and a one night stay in a “home stay”. Two meals were included as well as all transport so it seemed like a fairly cheap and easy way to travel in that area.
In fairness I hadn’t looked into the tour in a lot of detail. It was more a case of “oh sod it that’ll do” than meticulously comparing the options. On reflection maybe I should have done a bit more research as I don’t think I’ve ever been on such a restricted tourist conveyor belt of transportation and shopping for tat. Here’s a rough itinerary of what we experienced…
Bus – 1.5 hours
Rest stop to see some random giant buddha statues and a temple
Bus – 1.5 hours
Boat – 25 mins
Unicorn island (not as exciting as it sounds) – shown how coconut candy is made. Want to buy coconut candy? Not really. Random horse cart ride up and down a dirt track.
Boat – 10 mins
Phoenix island – crap lunch, bizarre crocodiles, cycling round fake tourist village, hammocks, “coconut monk” temple (not as interesting as described in the guide book)
Boat – 10 mins
Random island – bee keeping and honey tea (a highlight), sketchy rowing boat ride, more tea, fresh fruit and bloody awful Vietnamese traditional music including a rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it” with zero audience participation – awkward.
Boat – 30 mins
Bus – 3 hours
Rest stop – weird mystery Vietnamese food and GIANT live fish
“Home stay” – This was optional as a lot of people chose to stay in a hotel (boring). Just four of us from the group were dropped off at the side of a motorway and abandoned by our guide in the dark. We eventually found our way to the riverbank where our host showed us into a boat before a moonlit ride down to our accommodation for the evening. I use the phrase home stay very lightly. The term here does not necessarily mean you will be greeted warmly by the family and have dinner with them. This was more a case of here’s your room, sit down and eat some food and then go to bed. The saving grace of this was dinner; the mum actually gave us some bloody great fresh spring rolls with crunchy prawn pancakes for the filling followed by some amazing fish curry. Great food aside, I think the defining feature of this being an inauthentic home stay had to be the wifi – the two terms don’t usually go together in my head! Luckily it was still a fun but bizarre experience – especially with karaoke blaring out from the other side of the river late into the night.
5.45am get up and breakfast
Boat ride to floating market to rejoin the group
Tourist boat to see a wholesale floating market of fruit and vegetables (not quite what I was expecting)
Another shopping stop – showed how rice noodles are produced, rice noodle pizza??!!, and…BBQ RAT (tasted like bony pork)
Boat – 3o mins
Fruit plantation then fruit shop (another 20 minute stop of nothing)
Boat – 45 mins back to mainland
Overpriced tourist restaurant for lunch – by this point I’d had enough so I took myself off down the local market to find some random street food – shrimp, rice and water = $1 bargain!
Fortunately for me I didn’t have to travel back to HCMC with the rest of the tour group as I was heading to Rach Gia harbour to catch a boat to Phu Quoc island. Lesson learned, you get what you pay for. These tours are mega convenient if you are short on time and cash or if you’re new to organising transport and the details for yourself, but be warned you will feel like imprisoned cattle who are being milked for their money. I think if I wanted to see more of the Mekong Delta I would plan the route myself, book a guesthouse somewhere and use a bicycle to tour the local areas. It takes a bit more time and effort, but at the end of the day you will get a better flavour of the area without being treated like a walking wad of cash.