MP3 track of the day: The other man's grass (is always greener) – Petula Clark
Weather: The skies were a beautiful baby blue colour with fluffy white clouds, perfect for taking photos. It was still very hot and humid.
I woke up fifteen minutes before my alarm was due to sound which, I am sure, the other members of my dorm were happy about. However this meant that I was downstairs with fifteen minutes to kill. I eat my breakfast, which consisted of the usual bread roll with butter, and after that there was nothing left to do but wait. To my left were two girls, also waiting for a tour, from the UK. Well, apparently they were from the UK, I couldn't understand a word that came out of their mouths. Both girls were from Liverpool, with a thick Liverpool accent. I thought to myself that they must have been two of the most ugliest women ever to grace the earth. Firstly they had that terrible accent, secondly there were short and round and finally they had their hair tired up with an alice band (with a huge bow) running around their forehead. I'm not sure if it was their plan to look as ugly as they possibly could have, but if it was, they had done a pretty good job. As you can tell, it was quite early in the morning at this stage.
At 7:45am a woman came into the guesthouse and asked me, plus the two ugly sisters from Liverpool, to follow her to a local tourist office. Luckily the two girls were not on the same tour as I and so we sat, within the tourist office, in different groups. Time ticked by and all I had to keep myself amused was the clock on the wall to my left, a desk with a computer screen in front of me and four members of staff running manically around taking phone calls and making arrangements. At one point one guy was on two different phones at the same time. The time passed by very slowly; it was now official that the tour was running seriously late. This being Asia, I'm used to tours not starting when they say they will. Tours usually operate half an hour later than advertised however, as I looked again at the clock to my left, we were now an hour behind schedule (which I was over-joyed to think that I had been up 2 hours and 45 minutes and only managed to travel 500 yards ). Finally a mini-van turned up and a call for all passengers going to the 'Mekong Delta' was announced.
'Mini' was certainly the correct word to use for this mini-van. It was actually bigger than the standard 'South East Asian' mini-van however this one had double the amount of seats. To make way leg room was sacrificed which meant that I had to forcefully get my legs into my allotted space. I was sat next to the window, to get a good view as we traveled south, and due to the mini-van being completely full the seat next to me was occupied; I therefore couldn't swing my legs to the left of me. My back was firmly against the back of my seat and my knees were trying to push through the seat in front of me. I tried all sorts of angles with my legs, trying to gain that all important inch, but no matter what ingenious idea I thought of, I still couldn't gain any leg room. Still the air-conditioning was on and at least we were away. The time for our 7:45am departure … 9:05am.
Our tour guide was a bloke named 'ken'. He apologized for the late departure and, for once within 'South East Asia', he gave us an honest reason. The reason we had a late departure was because someone had forgotten to tell the driver he was needed. He was enjoying a nice lie-in when, at 8am, the phone rang asking him to come and pick us up as soon as possible. The organisational skills of a biscuit comes to mind. Ken then chatted about all sorts of stuff including how many motorbikes are in Ho Chi Minh City (5 million if anyone's interested); he explained how the day was to pan out and then left us alone. I spent the whole journey looking out of the window. Someone had told me that, if you took a flight over the Vietnamese / Cambodian border you could actually make out a border line due to having lush green rice paddies on the Vietnamese side and scorched brown earth on the Cambodian side. I can honestly believe it; as I looked out of the window I saw the greenest fields of rice I have ever seen, and they kept on coming … and coming … and coming. I couldn't believe just how much rice was being grown here though, the Mekong Delta, is called 'the rice bowl of Vietnam'.
The rest of my uncomfortable mini-van ride went okay … well apart from my seating partner trying to fall asleep on my shoulder every ten minutes. We eventually arrived at 'My Tho', the boarder town to the Mekong Delta. As we drove through the streets of 'My Tho' it was easy to see that the city wasn't anything special, just a jumping off point for the islands of the delta. We stopped at the ferry terminal and, after our guide got our tickets, we went along a concrete spit and boarded our boat. I sat down, with plenty of leg room, and off we went. It has been a while since I had traveled along the 'Mekong River'. It was like meeting an old traveling friend again (though a rather wet, muddy brown coloured and busy friend) who I had first met way back at the beginning of January, up in the mountains of the Thai / Laos border. The Vietnam part of the 'Mekong River' was certainly the most affluent. Unlike in Laos the boats didn't look like they have been designed, and built, by an infant and that actual mooring sites for boats had been built.
We raced across the delta towards our first stop. Once off the boat I was hit by a pungent smell that I thought was strawberries. It was actually coconut and we had arrived at a 'coconut sweet' factory. The factory was a open-sided building consisting of a line of stores, three machines mixing the coconut (with other ingredients) and a table full of women hand-wrapping each individual sweet. Our guide talked us through the process, allowing us to sample a sweet or two; I like coconut but I didn't like these. We were then given ten minutes to purchased any wanted confectionery and take photos of the women at work. Ken then called us together and we went for a short walk.
The islands terrain reminded me of Fiji, there were many coconut trees and tropical plants. The only difference was that sand had been replaced by concrete paths and grass; the fierce heat had also moved aside for higher humidity. It was difficult to keep up with our guide and take photos. All of the group kind of leap fogged each other as we all stopped to take individual photos, and then catch the rest of the group up. I turned a corner and was confronted by a line of wooden carts each with a pony attached. Five to a cart, our guide told us. After a little 'weight balancing' our driver, and pony, were ready for the off. It was a nice way to travel however the pony did look rather thin. After a ten minute ride we then disembarked the cart and were back on foot. We completed our circular route and we were, once again, back on the boat; however we weren't on for long and soon we were moored up against another concrete spit.
We had arrived at our lunch stop around 11:45am. We had a Russian couple, on the tour, who wanted to eat as soon as possible however, being 11:45am, it was still too early. Our guide lead us past a rather complacent looking cow to a rack of bikes. He announced that we had thirty minutes to either ride, or walk, around the island we were on. Of course I went for the walking option and I was soon walking around with my camera poised for action. I'm not sure why anyone would have wanted to use a bike around this island as it wasn't that big. At lunch I sat with a young German couple (who sat in front of me on the boat and wouldn't stop kissing … well annoying) and we chatted about our individual adventures. Lunch was the usual 'cheap' organized tour affair with rice, a little cold meat and some vegetables. I wasn't particularly hungry and so I ate the bits that looked like they wouldn't give me any diseases. I washed the meal down with a can of coke. Lunch took a little longer than planned due to the Russians ordering more food. Once we were away we boarded the boat and headed to our third Island.
Unicorn island was it's name and it's here that honey's produced. We stopped outside a small restaurant where each member of our tour was given the opportunity to hold a wooden slit, full of bees, from a beehive. I of course declined the offer. We sat down within the restaurant, five to a table, where we had our own Vietnamese host. Our host had a pot of honey, a pot of tea, five cups and some lemons in front of her. She poured honey into each cup, followed by a squeeze of lemon. Finally tea was poured into the mixture and we were all given a cup to sample. There were a few 'nibbles' on the table and so, when our host disappeared, I devoured more than my fair share. The tea with lemon and honey was okay … however it wasn't my cup of tea (ha, ha … get it). Of course our host returned with her arms laden with bottles of honey, nibbles and many other things we could purchase. As I wasn't that keen on the tea I declined.
One of the girls on my table told me to look right. Just behind my right should was a Vietnamese man hanging a huge python around his neck. He was allowing guests to wear the animal as an experience. Only one guy (the German bloke I spoke to at lunch) dared to hold such a killer. As his girlfriend wanted to take a photo this gave me the perfect 'mainly' excuse to move away from the snake to make sure that I wasn't spoiling anyone's holiday snaps. Afterwards the snake was then returned to it's box. I don't really like this kind of tourist attraction; an animal like that, actually any animal come to think about it, shouldn't be caged only to be brought out for someones pleasure. I quickly got up and left, following Ken to our next destination.
I found myself in another restaurant where I was given some 'tropical fruits'. The Russian couple sat behind me; after five minutes I herd a crack. I looked behind me to see that the fat Russian woman had broken her chair. Cruel I know however it did make me smile. I ate the pineapple, and tried the dragon fruit, but I left the rest. As we ate some local Vietnamese men and women played, and sang, traditional Vietnamese music. It was nice just to relax without someone trying to get money off me in return for a product or two … and then out came the 'tips' box. As they only played for ten minutes I ignored the box and got up to move on.
For the final attraction of the day we were presented with a small boat with two Vietnamese paddlers. Five to a boat, instructed Ken, which meant that I had the last seat within my boat. We paddled off through this very small waterway. All around were tropical plans; bright green leaves were pushing in from all sides and almost blocked out the sun above our heads. Having no engines meant that the ride was the most peaceful, beautiful and my favorite part of the trip. However, every paddle boat heading in the opposite direction, reminded us to tip our driver. It was annoying however, for once, I did think that I would leave a tip as I had enjoyed this part of the trip. That was until we pulled along the side of our main vessel and a hand slapped me on my left arm. 'tip, tip' is what I herd from the paddler behind me ordering me to give him a tip. As I looked into his bowl there were two 50,000 dong notes (£2) and, considering that was the cost of a good meal, I declined the offer. I sat on our main boat awaiting to arrive back in 'My Tho' and to end my day trip of the delta.
Within my tour there were people staying one, two or three days. We were now sorted into groups and each put on a separate mini-van. I remained on the vehicle I had come to 'My Tho' on and, yet again, squeezed myself within my window seat. Were we had lost people (due to them staying two or three days) others, from other tour groups, replaced them. Soon we were bound for Ho Chi Minh City. Yet again the mini-van was full, yet again I didn't have any leg room and so I just looked out into the view. Looking around me I was the only one with my curtain open. I'm sure it annoyed a Vietnamese woman in front of me but I didn't care, I hadn't traveled all this way to, as pleasant as it was, stare at the inside of a mini-van just because the sun was slightly glaring through the windows.
Whilst I sat there I thought about my day at the delta. On the plus side I had seen a lot, tasted a lot and had a good day. The islands are very beautiful however, due to the heat, I'm not sure that I would have wanted to stay any longer. The bad side was the fact that we were an hour late at the start and, looking at my watch, it seemed we would get back ninety minutes early. I hated the constant bombardment of people trying to get more money out of me (though I am now used to it from Asian tours) and some parts felt really rushed. Also it felt as though the bike ride, pony ride and other 'attractions' were only included for selling points and didn't really add anything to the overall tour. However lets remind ourselves, the whole day only cost $8 … a bargain for that amount.
I arrived back in Ho Chi Minh around 4:30pm, exactly ninety minutes early. I was a little annoyed that more time couldn't have been spend on the islands however it did mean that I had ample time to surf the internet, get food and book my trip to the Vietnam War tunnels for tomorrow. That was until Mr Gates decided to kill my computer. It took me an hour to get this machine working to it's full potential and so any time gained from the early finish was lost. I booked myself onto the half day tunnel tour tomorrow (I can't wait for that mini-van again) and then went to sleep. After the tunnels I need to book a coach ticket to 'De Lat' for Thursday, oh and book accommodation. I've liked Ho Chi Minh City a lot, but it's time to head north.