Are you sure it didn’t say “Army endurance course on the front of that bus?” asked my bewildered friend Jo in a weak, slightly quivering voice on our return from the Mekong Delta.
I had the idea of doing a trip through the Mekong Delta on a motorbike but I had only been in Vietnam for about a month so I was still a little unsure of my motorbike abilities. This element of self-doubt is what led to my moment of weakness (some may say madness) and caused me to say “Yes” when a Vietnamese friend suggested it would be much easier, and cheaper, to do a two-day organised tour. Now I’ve managed to avoid organised (and disorganised for that matter) tours since I was ten years old and my primary school went on a tour to Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. For the record, the zoo was a much more enjoyable experience than the Delta turned out to be.
I’m sure being part of a large, strange group of people, being ordered on and off boats, buses and canoes under a blazing sun by a twenty year old, communist army sergeant reincarnate for 14 hours is some people’s idea of a nice day out but it’s not mine.
In keeping with the idea of army style deprivation, nutrition for the day consisted of some pieces of coconut candy( from the coconut candy factory we visited), some rice paper (from the rice paper factory we visited) and this feast washed down with that well-known thirst quencher , snake wine, (from the snake wine factory). I guess with that kind of daily intake it’s little wonder the nerves became a bit frayed.
Now the Mekong Delta is, funnily enough, a delta thus there are many rivers to cross, and not many bridges. Ferries are therefore required and a ferry crossing with a lot of traffic invariably equals a major traffic jam. Unfortunately our accommodation for the night, the thought of which had sustained me throughout the day, was on the other side of the river. We were at least 3km from the crossing in bumper to bumper traffic and it was already 7pm. It was then the sergeant had an idea “ok, we walk!” “walk?!!” came the stunned reply in a multi-lingual chorus, “yes, much quicker!” Ok so he did have a point, walking is quicker than sitting in a stationary bus, or anything else stationary I guess, so we picked up our bags and climbed out into the humid night air.
Now Vietnamese highways are not the smoothest of surfaces around and the side of a Vietnamese highway is practically a cross-country course of broken concrete, cracked tarmac, potholes, rubbish and the random angry dog. The ubiquitous “You buy something?” (refer other story) is never far away either. Had someone been selling a helicopter I may have been interested.
Dripping like an 80-year-old crossing the finish line of the City to Surf we finally made it to the ferry with heads spinning from the heat and the diesel fumes. “How far from the river to the hotel?” we asked the sergeant, “only two or three kilometres” he replied. At that moment my heart sank for he had used the word every foreigner dreads when they ask a Vietnamese a question and that word is “OR”. When a Vietnamese uses the word “or” the whole phrase should be translated into “I have absolutely no idea!” and a 6km walk through the downtown night-life of My Tho in 30 degree heat proved this once again.
Finally we reached the hotel at about 10pm, at this point Jo and I decided we might forego the extra cost we paid for the home-stay and simply stay at the hotel with the others. Just desperate for a beer, a shower and a bed.(in that order)
“NO!” the sergeant told us, “no room here, you will go to home-stay”. “Oh god” we thought “it’s never ending”. “How long to the home-stay?” I foolishly enquired, and you guessed it, “ten OR fifteen minutes” came the reply.
A five-minute walk followed by a FORTY FIVE minute boat trip in pitch black darkness escorted by squadrons of Stuka-like mozzies saw us finally make it to our accommodation at about 11pm. The meal on arrival was great and the definite highlight of the trip but it didn’t exactly have tough competition. We were offered the chance of an early rise to see the local village but we were like the living dead by this stage. We declined the offer. “The boat will be here to pick you up at 7am” “ok we will see you at 6.59am” were our final words uttered just moments before we crawled into bed and some long-awaited sleep.
Day two was another endurance test, hotter than the previous day, but at least punctuated by small moments of interest. These came and went all too quickly however as the sergeant had us on a tight schedule.
We finally made it back to HCMC about 10pm, after a shower we sat down for some dinner and a beer and apart from Jo’s original question, we just sat in silence. Both of us could hardly muster up the energy to speak. We both realised that experiences like this are all part of travelling. We were tired but kind of elated as well. To look at in a positive way, it is not often that you get the chance to pay $10 to use a machine that slows down time but this was one of those occasions as I can honestly say those were two of the longest days of my life.