One for the Grandchildren

Chau Doc Travel Blog

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Vietnam border
Crossing into Cambodia wasn't particularly difficult, it was time consuming and tedious.  So much so that I was confident it'd be the worst of my travels.  Oh contraire.  Vietnam is bordered by a little country called China.  A mere millennia or so ago, it was ruled by China.  The Vietnamese most closely resemble the Chinese in everything: looks, perspective, mindset, politics, food, culture, religion, atrocious driving, affinity for air horns, snot rockets, and so on.  More than any other country in the region.  I knew this.  I knew this.  And yet I somehow thought the Cambodia border was as bad as it could get.  What the hell was I thinking?

Friday morning I was picked up by a minibus that I was told would take me to Ha Tien, the nearest city on the Vietnamese side of the border.
Hot rickety public bus to Chau Doc
  Was told.  That's what we call foreshadowing.

The ride wasn't the worst I've had, although it was far from great.  The first two hours were relatively smooth and enjoyable; I chatted with three Irish girls and swapped travel tips and itineraries before they got off at Kampot, where they were spending a couple nights.  From Kampot the smooth road disappeared, and it was rough riding all the way to Kep, where we dropped off another dude.  From Kep to the border it was the same horrible dirt road, my wits being jolted out of me as my body whipped back and forth over the violent lurches.

At the border Nati (from Argentina, and the only other passenger remaining beside me) and I were accosted by motorbike taxi drivers, whom we promptly ignored and walked straight up to immigration.
Cramped "clown car" minibus
  We paid for tickets straight through to Ha Tien; we don't need your overpriced motorbikes.

Yeah, well, it turns out we did need them.  By the time immigration was done mauling our passports and checking out the stamps and generally wasting as much time as possible we turned around to find our bags perched on motorbikes.  And the minivan gone.  Well isn't that swell.

So we stand there, arguing with them over their ridiculously high prices, Nati not yet realizing or accepting that we've been taken advantage of and insisting that the motorbikes take us for free because we've already paid.  She swears the motorbikes work with the minivan and that they're being deceitful and trying to con more money out of us.  Con money out of us, yes absolutely.  Have anything to do with the minivan, not whatsoever.  

She's pissed off and indignant, I'm pissed off but about to hand over the cash.  It's something like a thousand degrees outside, we're sweating our asses off in the blazing sun, and it's ten kilometers down a dirt road carrying an overfed hippopotamus.  I shake the guy's hand, having brought him down a mere 30%, figuring this is one of those times you have to suck it up and eat shit because there really is nothing else you can do.  Then I turn around and see a Vietnamese flag on a massive white building not too far down the road.  Ten kilometers, did you say?  Fuck you.  What's that right there?  At which point he's holding onto my backpack like it's his life, trapping it to his motorbike, and I'm all yelling at him and struggling to wrench it from him.  I finally yell enough and wrench enough and finally yank it free, we stomp down the road (one kilometer is my guess), covered in sweat and dirt and pissed-offed-ness.

And the fucking Vietnamese were out to lunch.  Literally.

There weren't many people there; border crossing in and out of these countries is notoriously corrupt, lengthy, and supremely unenjoyable, hence most people save their time and sanity and fly.  There were probably ten of us in all, sitting around waiting at an empty immigration office.  Doors flung open, thieving motorbike taxis licking their chops waiting for the kill, not a single person manning the desk.  So we sat.  And waited.  And waited.  A dude finally walks up, no explanation, no greeting, no nothing, just walks around the desk.  One dude.  One dude who's life mission was to out fondle the passports by any immigration officer before or after him.  Who copied down every single word from both the identification page and the visa page -- EVERY SINGLE WORD -- without so much as a smile or a nod or a grunt or a hello.  And thus an hour of my life was very slowly wasted.

By this time we've chatted up everyone.  The older European couple biking through southeast Asia, the plump sweating tattooed dudes who huffed in and collapsed onto the plastic chairs, the Spanish couple we saw before us at the Cambodian side, an impeccably dressed South African family who I thought surely must be lost; who wears white driving loafers while crossing overland between Vietnam and Cambodia?  

We made friends with Esther and Guillem, the couple from Barcelona, and planned to travel together for a couple days.  Esther and Guillem needed to be in Ho Chi Minh in two days for a rendezvous with family; my plan was to try to make it all the way to Can Tho for the night, knock out the floating markets in the morning, and head onward to Ho Chi Minh from there.  Sounded good to them, so off we went.

As soon as we cross out of the immigration complex we're assaulted by motorbike taxis again.  Only this time, the going rate starts at the 30% less that I had previously negotiated.  The most aggressive of the drivers was he of the backpack assault, at which point I point at him and say fine, but we're not going anywhere with him.  To my supreme satisfaction, Esther subscribes to the same school of finances as I do: don't try to take advantage of me and take me for a ride, motherfucker.  So when the prices come out, she not having been involved in the first go round, she's incredulous and loud and angry.  At'a girl.  So we get them down.  And then we get them down again.  And then we agree on the price it's supposed to be in the first place.

So what do the motorbike taxis do?  Take us to the wrong bus station.  How sweet of them.

So finally, after much confusion and more pissed-offed-ness and indignant accusations (Esther really lets them have it, I tell you what), we finally make it to the correct bus station.  (Nearly an entire hour later, mind you.)  And by "bus station" I mean shack on the side of the road.  Literally.  At which point Esther's sure we're being taken for a ride.

So the bus pulls up, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.  And then we realize it's a local bus.  And by "local" I mean the school buses they used to pile us into for fieldtrips would be newer and in better shape, if somehow reincarnated today.  Old doesn't come close to describing this thing.  Some windows wide open, some shut, all loudly rattling and slamming and threatening to break.  The luggage rack above my head was actually broken, causing me to look up some six hundred times fearing I was about to be rendered unconscious by the massive iron rods crushing my skull.  And it was full.  And loud.  And horrible.  And then they charged us something akin to an airplane ticket for the ride.  AN AIRPLANE TICKET.  The word "fuck" came out of Esther's mouth more times than I could count.  And at an angry volume, shouted into the driver's face.  We finally got him down to half what he asked, but that will be the most expensive bus ride I've taken in Asia.  On a rundown, old, hot, smelly, rickety bus.  Dude robbed us blind.  It was either that or stand on the side of the road until 8am the following morning.  There was nothing we could do.  I'm STILL pissed off about it.

So we're on this thing forever.  FOREVER.  Air horn honking, bus lurching, necks snapping, windows clattering, old Vietnamese ladies shouting and slapping our legs and having a merry old time pointing and laughing at the funny-looking foreigners.  Remember how I said the minibus was horrible but not the worst I'd had?  This bus is the worst I've had.  It was HORRIBLE.  Excruciating.  We HATED it.  Three and a half hours later we pull off to the side of the road and are told to get out.  What?  Isn't it six hours to Can Tho?  We can't be in Can Tho.  Get out?  But we PAID YOU AIRFARE to take us to Can Tho.  TAKE US TO CAN THO.  Nope.  Get out.

Turns out we were in Chau Doc, the other border town with Cambodia.  In other words NOWHERE NEAR Can Tho.  We had simply driven north along the border, as opposed to east, toward Can Tho.  Thankfully, and this was the only thing to go right that day, the motorbikes that were assigned to us knew we were to go to Can Tho and dutifully took us to a waiting bus, free of charge.  The bus driver robbed us blind, but he kept his word and got us to Can Tho.  So we get to the bus and are told we have an hour and a half until departure.  What?  It was nearly 6pm.  And we had to hang out and kill ninety minutes and then had a solid THREE MORE HOURS on the road before Can Tho?  Bloody hell.

So we scrounge up some food, one woman greedily tried to make me pay her for using the bathroom, without mentioning that tidbit beforehand and after I had paid her for an overpriced meal, stand around, watch the sun go down over an ugly too-busy road, and generally fester impatiently waiting until it's time to get on the bus.  And then we finally do.  And it's packed tight.  Real tight.  And we stop several times and cram yet another person on top of someone else as we go.  And it's hot and bumpy and loud and I'm doing everything I can to mellow out to the ipod but it's just not cutting it.

And then we break down.

So we sit there for thirty minutes, while the driver and some other dude bang away at the engine with sledge hammers.  I don't know much about car engines, but I do know that banging one with a sledge hammer is unlikely to fix it.  Then we were told to get out.  So we stand around in the dark on the side of the road next to some rice paddy in the middle of nowhere for another twenty minutes, this time one of the dudes is under the bus working a wrench trying to take off one of the hubcaps.  Yes, I said that correctly: laying under the bus while trying to take off the hubcap.  Why he didn't kneel in front of it, I have no idea.  We finally spot a bench down the road and walk over there and commiserate for a lifetime or two.  Then finally backup pulls up.

Only problem is, backup is a minibus.  And we were in a bus bus.  A CRAMMED-TO-THE-GILLS bus.  And with the exception of four people who gave up waiting and walked away before the minibus arrived, every single person crammed into it.  I shit you not.

Having been sitting a few paces down the road, we were the last ones to walk up.  Hesitantly at best.  There was no way we were fitting in there.  But our luggage was strapped to the roof and we were pointed (and then prodded) into the minivan.  I sat in a row with five Vietnamese dudes.  Five full grown men.  And me.  In one row of a minivan.  That ride redefined the term "clown car" for the rest of my life.  And it lasted THREE MORE HOURS.  It was HORRIBLE.

And then someone slammed the door shut on a little girl's hand.  

I'm sorry, did you think this story had a happy ending?  Did you miss the part at the top about Vietnam being China's illegitimate cousin?  There are no happy endings here.

Me and Guillem, we saw it happening as if in slow motion.  We both winced and turned our heads and covered our faces and ears, waiting for the wailing to kick in.  I'd like to attest to the strength of that poor girl's lungs, but she was shut up instantly by her mother.  Apparently crying isn't tolerated here.  Even when you're six and sleeping in someone's arms and have your hand slammed shut in a door.  Because who would sympathize with that?

Sometime after midnight we were forced to fork over the cash for yet another motorbike taxi before finally stumbling into a guesthouse.  Hot, smelly, and beyond tired.

All of us decided Vietnam was going to be a hard place to enjoy.
dothoin says:
Don't think you've sold Vietnam to me
Posted on: Feb 01, 2010
sylviandavid says:
Oh my goodess..... what a terrible, terrible travel day.... Each section was worse .... Then the little girl.... yikes.... But you finally arrived... thankfully....
Posted on: Feb 01, 2010
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Vietnam border
Vietnam border
Hot rickety public bus to Chau Doc
Hot rickety public bus to Chau Doc
Cramped clown car minibus
Cramped "clown car" minibus
Chau Doc
photo by: worldcitizen