Originally published on facebook –  December 26, 2010 at 2:46pm

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Saigon to My Tho (Mekong Delta) – Day 40

I’m public busing it again, even though all the touts have told me it’s “not possible”, c’mon, of course it is, how on earth would the Vietnamese get around otherwise? They really like to do that here, get you to buy the packaged tour. It obviously has to do with making money but I think on some level it’s about making a guest comfortable as well. Also, why would you want to take a small, ugly, smelly, cramped bus with a guy yelling out your destination every 30 seconds, that stops everywhere and anywhere people want to get on or off, when you could ride along in supreme isolated air-conditioned (read freezing) comfort? Which one sounds like fun to you? I choose the public bus, much more entertaining although also a much longer journey.

I’m headed to My Tho, known as the Gateway to the Mekong Delta. I am delivered, after using a taxi, a public bus and a minibus so far, on the side of a highway outside of My Tho, I have to take a motobike taxi into town. I find cheap lodging near the river. It’s late afternoon already so I wander round the area. It’s pretty quiet. A gentleman named Truc approaches me and asks if I want to go on a tour, I tell him yes and ask him how much and what I would see. He tells me and I let him know I will think about it but want to check on some other places/tours first. I do this but he sticks in my mind so I find him again and we make arrangements to meet the next morning. At dusk i wander through the local market, lots of food, weird smells etc, the usual scene. I stumble upon a Bahn Xeo (Vietnamese Pancake) place and (as it’s one of my favorites and they look really, really good) I order from the lady who is making them in woks, right on the street. It’s comes with a massive platter of salad (fresh herbs and lettuces), fish sauce with chili and it’s really complete when I order a bia (beer) to go with it. Amazing meal.

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My Tho – Day 41

Up early had street breakfast (love that egg baguette and iced coffee) and meet Truc by the river at 7am. I am his only guest, excellent. We cross the Mekong and head towards the Ben Tre side. We cruise up a small river, surrounded by water coconut palms on all sides. Water coconuts are about the size of a soccer ball, or a bit smaller, and are kind of spiky looking. Truc tries to find one that is good too eat, neither too young or too old, no luck though he had me drink some of the juice out of a young one and it was tasty, just like regular coconut juice but maybe a bit more bitter. We go up the small river quite a ways and then stop and get off the boat at a bridge. A short walk takes us to a small market, see fruit, fish, a pigs foot and leg, etc. Truc buys us a treat, purple sticky rice with coconut and sugar all wrapped up in a palm leaf, it’s pretty good and surprisingly filling.

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Back to the boat we head back down the river. Coming back out onto the wide open area of the Mekong we duck up different small river to a tourist stop where they feed us fruit and Vietnamese Tea which Truc makes for me in a small glass with lots of honey and some lime, it’s really sweet but nice. He also makes me hold a python and took some pictures of me doing it. I really didn’t want to and you can see that in the photos but by the end of it I’d started to feel more comfortable.Image

Back to the boat again we head back down the river and to an island that is in between My Tho and Ben Tre Province. We take a walk along the shore of it, about 1000 people live here, farming and fishing. It looks pretty prosperous, some very large, proper houses with barely a tin roofed (or sided) shack to be seen. We’re followed or “greeted” by a lot of barking dogs, it’s almost constant and while they are not vicious they aren’t friendly either, Truc carries a stick, just in case he tells me. Awesome. As we walk he tries hard to teach me some Vietnamese. He points out different fruits and trees, I remember their English names but mostly get the Vietnamese ones mixed up. but he’s very informative and I appreciate the effort. next we head on the boat to a coconut candy factory, this is a very popular sweet in Vietnam and they are good, with flavors like, durien fruit, peanut (which is good) and classic coconut (which is my favorite). I get to see how it is made from the raw coconut to the ladies individually wrapping each candy by hand, pretty cool actually. We leave just as 2 big groups are arriving, I’m so pleased I did this tour on my own as we are on different schedule then all the other boats so often have these sights just to ourselves, nice.

Next up is another island where the “Coconut Monk” used to live and had his temple, he’s dead now. He sounds like a pretty kooky guy, started as a Buddhist and then founded his own faith which was never officially recognized though he did end up with quite a few followers, including a couple of Americans. He tried to run for President of Vietnam once and claimed he would only need 7 days as President to fix all the problems that existed whereupon he would resign and come back to the island to resume his “quiet” life. Needless to say he didn’t win. His temple is almost ridiculous, reminding me of a small, somewhat seedy Disneyland. There is a big fake mountain with a shrine set up in front. In front of the mountain is a concrete courtyard with 10 pillars. Each pillar has a dragon wrapped around it. These pillars are meant to represent him and his 9 wives. His dragon is white and in the center of the 9 surrounding ones in a square formation which have yellow dragons, his wives. Nearby is a tower, looks a lot like a cellphone tower, with a very small room at the top which he apparently spent a lot of time in. About halfway up the side of the tower is a large globe and above that is an over-scale Apollo Rocket-ship. I don’t have any idea what this has to do with anything but it’s there, I promise you. We walk through the rest of the grounds and find a large concrete pen with many crocodiles in it, once again I have no idea what (if anything) this is supposed to mean, I’m just glad that the pen is 10 feet deep with concrete walls and they are below me with no obvious means of escaping, they look mean…and hungry.

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It’s time to head back to My Tho, I have a bus to catch. I pack up my bags and meet up with Truc again, he has kindly offered to take me to the bus stop outside of town. We grab a bite to eat and head out. He waits for half an hour with me at the bus stop to make sure I get the right bus, above and beyond the call of duty this guy, a lucky find. I adore him and pay him extra well for taking such good care of me.

I’m headed to Can Tho, another riverside town, bigger then My Tho. On the bus I mostly nap and listen to the guy behind me throw up in a plastic bag, I miss my ipod a lot. I arrive in Can Tho in the late afternoon and figure to go on a little walk along the riverfront. I am inundated by people who want me to buy a boat tour from them and it quickly gets me irritated, all I wanted was to have a peaceful walk and eat and an ice cream, instead I’m practically having to beat them off with a stick. The tour is to go see 2 different floating markets, a rice paper making factory, monkey bridges and a walk through the countryside. One guy in particular is quite persistent. His first offer is $15, I say I’ll think about it, all I really want to see is the floating markets and I know it is possible to do it on my own much cheaper. I keep walking through town and am being harassed so much I start to consider just skipping it all and leaving town asap. The same guy finds me again and offers me the trip for $10, I walk away from him and continue to try to find some peace. No luck, he find me again, I feel like I am being stalked, and so I decide to talk to him. I tell him I want to do it on my own, that I don’t care about any of it except the markets and I can do it on my own. He asks me how much I would pay and to get rid of him I say $5. To my surprise he agrees to it so I sign on. He makes me swear I won’t tell anyone how much I paid though.

Can Tho – Day 42

I am up too early for my liking,  5:30am. I meet my 2 tour mates, American girls Lindsey and Erin, traveling separately. Right away Lindsey is kind of annoying, she’s high maintenance kind of girl and I’m surprised to learn throughout the day that she is fairly well traveled. She seems unable to practice acceptance is full of complaints and loud in that way that people assume all American tourists are, speaking louder when they are not understood instead of trying a different way of saying something. I try and just let it slide and keep my mouth shut. It’s not too hard as it’s so early in the morning and we watch the sunrise as we travel up the river towards the first market. It’s a motorized market called Cai Rang, lots of large boats. Lindsey and Erin are chatting so much that they kind of miss it, they didn’t realize that we were in it until the driver said ok, now we go to the other one. They’re surprised but I’d been paying a bit more attention and got some pictures of the market and of early morning life along the river.

We take a detour on the way further up the river to the rice paper making factory. I snap a couple photos and we all use the wc but spend most of the time there playing with the cutest little puppy, I’m such a sucker.

Once we are back on the boat we cruise for quite a while, snapping the odd photo of life on the river, people doing the washing, brushing teeth, eating, etc. Image

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Eventually we reach the second market, Phong Dien. This one is not motorized and a little more what we were hoping for. It’s all small boats, crowded together. Everything is being sold, from fruit to meat to rice to cloth to cold drinks, and coffee. Live ducks which are sold by weight and then handed over to their new owners by the neck (dinner, yum). we love it, lots of pictures taken, surrounded on all sides by boats bumping into each other, standing up trying to get different perspectives without falling in, fun.

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And then there is this woman, in the middle of it all…

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Next we head a little ways back towards Can Tho then turn up a small river. We are dropped off so we can walk and self guide ourselves for at least an hour. Anytime we hit a crossroads our boat is waiting to tell us which way to turn and then he motors on ahead. We all realize we need to pee and ask at a small store for a toilet. We are led to a little hut that sits over a small stream. I have to walk along a log that is about 5″ wide and step over a low doorway. Once inside the log splits into a “Y” shape and I balance on this and squat to pee. Incidentally there is only about 18″ of screen for privacy, not quite enough to be able to pull ones pants down or up without flashing the countryside. Novel experience, we all have a giggle.

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We walk more and finally meet up with the driver who takes us to eat at a very touristic (therefore overpriced) place but we have no other options and are hungry so we eat. Back on the big river for the ride back our guide makes us windmills out of palm fronds. We arrive in Can Tho around 1:30pm, I pack up and check out. Motorbike to the bus station, am headed to Rach Gia.

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After a 4 hour bus ride, which I thought would take 2, I arrive in Rach Gia. As the bus pulled in I see a pack of moto drivers running after us, it’s so comical, and typical, it makes me laugh out loud. I choose a guy who speaks English passably and tell him I’m trying to get to Phu Quoc Island and need to get a ticket for first thing the next morning. He takes me to the ticket place, no luck for the early ferry but I can get on the afternoon boat, ok done. Found a place for dinner with seafood specialties and beer. An older Vietnamese guy chats me up, he’s a salesman and here with 2 of his co-workers, he’s also very drunk which is somewhat entertaining. Invites me to a “private party” I gently decline and he soon leaves with his friends who come back about 15 minutes later without him, I think they’ve dumped him somewhere to sleep it off.

Rach Gia to Phu Quoc – Day 43

In the morning while I’m hanging round waiting for the ferry I meet Marco and Gianni, brothers from Italy, they are headed to Phu Quoc as well. We catch the ferry together and when we arrive on the island there is a pack of minibuses waiting for us. I talk the price down and we hop on, they will take us to guesthouses until we find one we’re happy with so it beats hauling our packs around as we search. Once on the bus the boys are LOUD, but hilarious, full of jokes, enthusiasm and outrageous comments, the whole bus is laughing with them quickly. Quickly I learn their favorite word (bee-you-tee-fullll!) and everything is beautiful according to them. I can’t help it and take to speaking with my hands a lot and in an Italian accent. For the next few days I try to teach them other possible descriptive words, eg: amazing, gorgeous, fantastic, lovely, etc. but finally it all comes back to beautiful. They and I join forces and find bungalows side by side on Long Beach (west side of the island). First things first, we drop our bags and head to the beach for a swim before we lose the sun, it’s glorious until we notice that we are all being stung. We decide it’s invisible mini jellyfish because it keeps stinging even once you’re out of the water, bummer. This beach is deceiving, from a distance it looks stunning, golden sand beach edged by coconut trees and small houses are nestled in behind. On closer inspection there is litter everywhere and the houses are half ruins, half scrap material, pieced together. The people living in them are living a pretty rough, tough existence. There are a few touts trying to sell us fishing or diving tours etc. Losing the sun we head back to get cleaned up for dinner and what ends up being a late and fun night.

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Phu Quoc – Day 44

Beach day, reading in the sunshine, lovely. Go with the boys to the night market in Duong Dong town (about 5km up the road) for amazing bbq seafood dinner. The scallops were extra good and we ended up having 3 servings of them, just because.

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Phu Quoc – Day 45

We rent 2 motorbikes for the day to explore some of the island, Marco is my driver, Gianni is on his own. We head off to find Trahn Stream Waterfalls, after a little backtracking we do find it and have to pay for the privilege of entering the area. We walk beside the stream for about 10 minutes and find the waterfall. It’s pretty unspectacular, only about 10 feet high and the pool at the base is pretty small as well (I guess I’ve been spoiled by the fantastic waterfalls I’ve seen in Central America), however small, it is still beautiful and fresh water so we jump in and explore around. We hang out for about an hour and then get back to the bikes to try to find Sao Beach (on the lower east side of the island). It turns out to be lovely, white sand and clear water but more jellyfish, darn it! I do some yoga and the boys play, like boys do. We head back as it gets dark, bugs hitting our faces while we ride. Shower and dinner play some pool and meet a group of people who decide to join us for another bike excursion the next day.

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Phu Quoc – Day 46

I sleep in and meet up with the folks we met last night, Aaron (England), Chris (England), Claudia (Denmark) and Ashley (America). We’re all on the bikes around noon and head up towards the northern part of the island along the west coast. I’m the navigator, so no pressure. We drive through Duong Dong town (biggest town on the island) and over a bridge. After the bridge we hit the local market, full of typical food stuffs, love it even though I’ve seen so many of them. We want to take the coastal road and try it but it rained last night and is super muddy and we are in danger of getting stuck so we turn around and find an inland road instead. We go through a couple small towns and in one of them (Cua Can) we go over a river, we stop on the bridge and the boys all decide they want to jump in. It’s not very deep but they go for it anyways. Back on the bikes we keep going, we’re trying to find Dai Beach. When we do find it, it’s perfect. Still littered with junk but the sand is white, the water is crystal and best of all, no jellyfish. I’m so happy I stay in the water pretty much the whole time we are there. Marco finds tons of beautiful shells in the water and gives me a couple, I hope they make it all the way home with me.

Once again we get on the bikes, heading north, our plan is to loop round the top of the island and head back down the middle. We hit another big mud puddle and Marco (with me on the back) zooms right through it splattering us both with the red mud up to our knees. The girls don’t want to go any further so they turn back but the boys and I keep going. We’re hungry. We’re passing alongside a long stretch of beach on one side and small houses on the other. We spy a place that might have food and stop. There are 2 low tables and some hammocks strung up. They make us coffee and tea and we lounge in hammocks, play with little kids and take photos until the soup they are making us is ready. Seafood Pho for me (though I strongly suspect pork has been involved in the broth) but it’s really good.

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Aaron and Chirs need gas so they buy a liter and share it between them, I think they will need more and say so but they don’t listen. It’s time to start heading back, navigation isn’t easy because there is not much signage and the map I have is fairly crap, no details. We’re trying to get home by a different route then the one we came up on. Cutting through the jungle, forest on each side, we go at least 15kms without seeing another soul and we are not sure we’re going the right way. Aaron and Chris start getting worried about gas again (no comment from me) but finally we see a road sign and figure out we’re heading the proper direction. There are a few houses scattered around this area which is fortunate as Aaron runs out of gas. There is no actual gas station but it’s common to be able to buy gas in liter bottles, we just have to find it which we do eventually. With enough gas (we hope) and dark rapidly approaching we’re back on the road. Marco pulls out a Halloween monster mask and puts it on to stop the bugs from hitting his face, I just hide behind him so they don’t get me too bad, it stings when they do. We get a few double takes and funny responses when people pass us, fun but he finds it hard to breathe and soon takes it off. Finally we make it to the big road down the center of the island, we had hoped it would be paved but in fact it turns out to be the worst road we’ve encountered all day. It’s dark now, no street lights and this road is muddy, rutted and hugely bumpy. I have to hang onto the back of the bike pretty hard and am half standing on my foot pedals much of the time to keep my bum from becoming one big bruise and my spine uncompressed – hard work. Navigating the road is tricky, slippery and slow, Marco is a champ getting us through it safely. We do make it back eventually, covered in mud and salt water and dirt, the shower feels amazing.

We all meet up for dinner later, the girls decide to have an early night but the boys and I buy a bottle of local rum and drink it on the beach with ipod music and stars in the sky. We head to a beach bar once the bottle is done for a few more, eventually home and bed.

Phu Quoc – Day 47

Am hurting a bit today, shocking really after bottles last night. At breakfast I meet a guy named Harm (pronounced Har-um) whose friend Martin is sick. I spend the day on the beach and meet up with the Italian boys and Harm later, we go for pizza. Harm tells us about his journey through Mongolia, it’s half super cool and half stupid crazy. He bought a horse to haul his stuff and with just a map and gps he spent a month walking by himself around the country. Camping, boiling water from streams etc. He once went 6 days without even seeing another person. He said he thought he would die at one point, he was out of water and couldn’t find a stream that was supposed to be there, obviously he found it eventually but he said it scared him.

The boys are leaving the island tomorrow, I plan to stay for one more day so big hugs and goodbyes and we’ll hopefully meet up again as our plans are similar.

Phu Quoc – Day 48

I hang out with Harm and his friend Martin who is feeling better, spend the day on the beach chatting and getting to know them, nice guys. We go for dinner and a few drinks later on, mellow night, good conversations.

Phu Quoc – Day 49

Harm gets sick and is in bed all day and I don’t feel that hot either but at least I make it outside, I spend the day reading on the beach, subdued.

Phu Quoc – Day 50, 51, 52.

Day 50 & 51 – Am sick, have diarrhea and stomach pains. I spend day 50 in bed and 51 in my hammock, need to be near the toilet. I start taking Ciprofloxicin, something that my travel doctors have prescribed for just such an occasion  before all my trips so I happen to have a fair bit of it on hand, thank goodness, it works.

Day 52 – Going stir crazy, want off the island. Book my ferry ticket off for the next morning, I’m still a bit shaky but feeling so much better then before. Relax and regain strength on the beach.

Phu Quoc to Chau Doc – Day 53

Take my ferry in the early morning to Ha Tien and then a minibus to Chau Doc, this will be my last stop in Vietnam before crossing over into Cambodia. I arrive in the early afternoon and choose a hotel that Lonely Planet says is “great”, it’s not but I am to tired to argue. I can’t even talk the price or the room down, I think that is a first for me in Vietnam. My room does not have windows, just some slits high up in the concrete walls. I’m almost asleep when it starts to storm, rain is coming through the slots, onto me and my bed, I’m actually cold. I end up finding the only dry spot, head where my feet should be and curled up in a ball right at the edge away from all the walls, 3/4 of the bed is wet. I do manage to get to sleep though, that tired….

Chau Doc – Day 54 (early morning)

I am woken at 5am by a loudspeaker outside blaring out something in Vietnamese, it sounds like exhortations to exercise, chanting what I suspect is a succession of numbers, repetitions of whatever exercise has been suggested. Also music is playing in the background, from classical that I half recognize to something that sounds obviously martial and like a communist soundtrack in a spy movie. It’s comical in a way yet not because I’m up an hour earlier then I need to be and I have a long day a head of me…

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