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To Saigon And Beyond

We're moving right through Vietnam, and it hasn't failed to fascinate us. Unbelievably, we are almost finished here in Vietnam, as we are getting ready to cross the border into Cambodia in two days. We've been here longer than other countries in SE Asia, but that hasn't made it seem like it's been a longer time.

Saigon was a very interesting city, I think we might have liked it more than even Hanoi. I think that in Hanoi, there was more to do, more museums and such, and the city itself was more beautiful, with lakes and tree-lined streets, but there was more of a vibe in Saigon. It was more welcoming for backpackers, I thought, with a whole neighborhood that felt like a haven from the hordes of motorbikes that filled all of the streets outside its three streets. Getting into the center was much easier than in Hanoi as well. In Hanoi, to reach the airport, we had to find the minibus stop on Google maps, then walk the half-hour trek with our packs to catch the hourlong minibus ride. It went quite smoothly, despite briefly getting lost trying to find the right street, and the flight itself was great as well. The best part, though, was getting on an air-conditioned bus at the Saigon airport, and being able to follow our route as we moved through the crowded streets of Saigon, using the map provided by our LP guide (the first time it has been useful in SE Asia). Of course, once we jumped off the bus, we were surrounded by pushy ladies trying to get us into their guesthouses. We resisted them, though we looked at a few of their selections; invariably, they always made us walk to the top of their five story building to discourage us from continuing our search for a good guesthouse.

We were briefly considering taking a tour into the Mekong Delta, which is an area southwest of Saigon known as the "rice-basket" of Vietnam, as well as a beautiful area to see the famous ricefields and lush, tropical landscape of a massive river delta. Of course, you can take a fairly cheap, convenient tour out, but I drove Jess nuts going from one tour agency to the next, looking at what they offered, and they all had days filled with visiting the tourist traps like the coconut candy factory and the rice-paper coop, the Carpet Shop Schemes of Vietnam. In between being pressured to buy crap, we'd be stuffed into minibuses and boats filled with other tourists; it just didn't seem like much fun. So, we decided to go out into the Delta by ourselves, and to take the local transportation, to book the boat rides in the rivers and canals ourselves from the docks.

First, though, we needed to get our Cambodian visas at the consulate in Saigon, which we hoped would prevent the kind of nightmare situations like we had getting into Laos. So, we split our last day into our two objectives for Saigon, getting the visas, and going to the War Remnants Museum there in Saigon. The museum and the Cambodian consulate weren't far apart, so we set off, though we didn't start until about 10:30, which was a big mistake. Everything in Saigon such as museums and government building close for at least two hours, so I was worried we would miss the cutoff. Sure enough, we arrived at the consulate at about 11:40, ten minutes after they closed, and they wouldn't reopen until 2 pm. So, we went off to find a little lunch, and we were outside the museum when it opened back up at 1:30. I'm going to post a full entry about the museum, by itself.

After we visited the museum, we headed back to the consulate. This time they were open, though we arrived as a couple of guys on a motorbike arrived to change out the gate-guard's AK-47 while holding a bundle of the guns, being rather carefree where the barrels would drift off to point at (as I ducked). Again, we had hoped to avoid any issues with the visa, that was the purpose of coming to the consulate rather than waiting to get one at the border. That wasn't to be the case, as it immediately became apparent. The agent inside handed us an application and pointed at a sign that stated that only Vietnam dong would be accepted. Fair enough, as we were in Vietnam. He then told us that the price was 500,000 dong (about $28). We asked him why the price was so high, and he replied that it was because we'd come in the afternoon, so we had to pay for the express cost. We pointed out that it was a simple sticker he needed to put in the passports, that it had taken 10 minutes for our Vietnam visas, and there were no other customers in line. Besides, every website (including Cambodia's) we'd seen had stated the price would be $20, with no fees mentioned, which we pointed out, and our guide booke even noted that these guys like to invent fees and charges to put into their pockets. I kept my cool very nicely, unlike at the border of Laos, but I politely pointed out that it was obvious that he was cheating us, and that I'd like to see his manager. At this point, he began to lose his English skills, until by the time that I was asking for his name to report him, he couldn't understand a word of English, despite his skill at the beginning of the conversation. He even went back to his desk to nervously straighten out the paper in the printer, by that point unable to even hear us. Needless to say, we didn't pay his cost for the visa.

The rest of our time in Saigon was really nice, as long as we were able to dodge the motorbikes. Jess developed a method of getting rid of the touts trying to sell junk in the streets, by starting her bargaining at "free" or "zero" and refusing to go up. This worked until some lady trying to sell a book of old currency bills thought she said "three" (as in $3), and then it was twice as hard to get her to leave us alone. We spent the entire day walking through Saigon, and although we didn't come even close to seeing much of it, it felt like we did. The next morning we checked out and jumped on a city bus that took us out to the bus station, where we were the only foreigners around. The Vietnamese found this a little shocking, and officials at the station took the initiative to help us buy our tickets. All I said was Can Tho, and they snatched the money from my hand, guided us to a booth, and got us onto a VIP bus with AC. That sounds great, and it was, but it still only cost 70,000 dong ($4) for the 4hr trip. The bus company even gave us a lift to the only hotel under $40 in our LP guide (a mixed bag of usefulness; most people using a LP guide want a budget place, which is badly lacking in the guide, but at least they threw in one that we could refer to). Before we knew it, we were settled into the city of Can Tho, and taken under the wing of the hotel's owner, a bossy but helpful lady who would have had our itinerary set (so long as we used her various services) if we'd so wanted.

One of the highlights of coming to the Mekong Delta, and Can Tho in particular, is taking a boat out to the floating markets. We looked on the dock for someone to take us, but being too late in the evening for that, we reluctantly used our hotel lady, and paid a bit more than needed. Still, the trip was a full day of fun. Starting at 5:30 in the morning (they provided coffee), we headed up in a little two-seater motor boat along the river. After about an hour, we reached the first market, Cai Rang, which was really nice in the morning sun. Even better, we'd left early enough to miss the multitude of boats full of tourists (the kind we avoided taking from Saigon) and saw only a few other boats with independent travelers there. We continued on, marveling at the locals going about their business on the riverfront. It is a different existence there, one of boats and fish and homes built on stilts over the water, likely both peaceful and difficult. We came to another, smaller market, this one with less motorized boats. Here we just sat for awhile in the middle, watching the river commerce going on around us, as vegetables, fruits, animals, chickens, and all sorts of other produce exchanged hands, or rather changed boats. We bought a grapefruit to eat, and then we headed back down the river, heading off on a long route through the many canals of the surrounding area. Here we passed even more peaceful villages and homes, a quiet, simple existence, far removed and away from the hectic streets of even a small city like Can Tho. Our driver stopped at a lousy, expensive cafe for tourists, but we forgave him, since he did take us on a seven hour trip.

Today, we had even more adventure and excitement, by renting a moped to check out the surrounding areas. Turns out it's more scary than fun, so we have mostly stuck around the city and its sidestreets to avoid the trucks and buses haunting the roads out of the city. We definitely feel like we are getting a Vietnamese experience, making our way through the streets on a moped, though not nearly as fast as the locals. I even found a sidestreet, and Jess tried out driving it around, though she wasn't comfortable with me on the back. It's all about the experience.

Until next time, be safe.


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