After new year we carried on exploring Ho Chi Minh – but just as the , most things are closed at new year. So sadly, for 2 days most of the shops were closed and the typically buzzing atmosphere wasn’t here. We did manage to have some nice long walks through dark alleys and along the river in relative calm though! And fortunately there were open restaurants near us where we did have a couple of superb meals. We managed to buy some stuff from the markets and negotiated hard for a change! For us, HCMC didn’t really have as much to do or see as Hanoi and seemed to lack a bit of the rough character that made Hanoi unique.
From Ho Chi Minh you really need to go on a trip to the Mekong Delta, and considering our next stop is Cambodia, it is possible to get up the Mekong direct to Phnom Penh in about 3 days or so, slightly less if you get a bus and cut some out. “REAL” backpackers will tell you how it can be done in a DIY style, getting public busses, negotiating direct with a boatsman, then finding places to stay if/when you get to your hotel. Sounds exciting, but so does an organised trip where all the links are managed for you – so similar without the stress. Yes we’ll be herded like animals, and we’ll be taken to tourist tacky shops where we’ll be encouraged to by tat, but also we’ll be seeing and being taken to places we’d never find. After googling, reading poor reviews of everyone, we settled for the 3 day Mekong tour with exit in Phnom Penh with SinhTourist. Not the cheapest option at $84 each, but hardly expensive and they do have a reasonable reputation.
So with low expectations, we get packed, get a goodie-bag of sweets and keep our fingers crossed…
We arrived at the SinhTourist office in HCMC at about 7:15 to find chaos with hundreds of people milling around, but somehow we got herded onto the right bus, and to be fair it was AC and fairly comfortable. For the next few days we’d resigned ourselves to just do as we’re told and see what happens, so were fairly relaxed about the itinerary.
After a bus stint, then boat we went to our first stop – a bee (honey) farm where we had honey tea which was lovely even though I hate both honey and tea! Some locals then entertained with some very relaxing Mekong style music which may be touristy, but then some people on the trip who were local started to sing as well – made it really quite good and validated the authenticity. After another little boat ride we visited a coconut candy workshop where the locals made some lovely sweets which we bought (of course!) and at reasonable prices. Then on to an excellent included lunch which far exceeded expectations with fair priced drinks. So far, no hassle, no encouraged tips, and no forced sales. Wow!
The hotel for the night in Can Tho was, it has to be said, pretty naff. List price was $13 a night and no doubt the tour company pay less, but it was a clean bed and working AC, and a hot shower – though the shower was shared with a cockroach. As “backpackers” we found it acceptable for one night, but can imagine why travellers used to better hotels may moan. Our quick tour for an evening meal didn’t excite us to Can Tho – looked like it may be okay but not a destination for fun.
After an early start and another bus/boat we headed towards Cai Rang Floating Market which was very quiet due to Tet, enough to give you an idea, but not as chaotic and exciting as it otherwise would have been. Further up a feeder river by rowing boat we visited a fruit garden where all the tropical fruit is grown, and thereafter a taste of the produce which introduced some new fruits to us. Again, surprisingly, no sales pitches and a very chilled insight into local sustenance. A visit to Vinh Long market showed all the produce for sale (along with some living and not-so-living food!) – but sadly not in a position to buy the lovely looking fresh stuff.
We then realised only the 2 of us from our group were heading to Cambodia, so we got dumped off and told someone else will pick us up! Which they did! So another bus to Chau Doc for the night, this time in a budget but better hotel, and including a nice local meal in town. Chau Doc looked and felt a lot more exciting than Can Tho, with a lively local scene.
In the morning, we then had a lovely rowing boat trip along the Mekong at Chau Doc, to see some floating villages, fish farms and a Cham village. Only the latter was rushed and the old lady rowers were the first to wave money for tips – a shame as we had a tip ready to give – and its nicer to give than be demanded. Funny their only English is “Hello” and “I’m tired” and “This is hard work”. Bless.
We then found out only 4 people from that group were going to Cambodia, so we got passed off again via a rowing boat to a motorboat to take us the 3 hours to the Cambodia border. We were very surprised indeed to find our rucksacks were on the motorboat along with some other people – so regardless of how chaotic it looked, there clearly is method in the chaos! The lady on the motorboat looks and acts very similar to one of our UK Vietnamese friends which was sweet, and she took care of all the passports and visa forms leaving us to enjoy the views. Though she did vanish mid way with everyones passports and visa money!
Just before the Cambodia border there seems to be a floating border post (Vietnam exit?) – but apart from getting our passports returned and a drink not much happened, though we did change boats and headed further up the river to the Cambodian immigration where our Visa ($22) was validated and we were allowed in.
After another hour or two we swapped to a bus for the last leg to Phnom Penh. I say bus, it was more like a 10 seater minibus with 17 people and baggage…. The view out of the winder was incredibly interesting, and eventually we made it to Phnom Penh – but not where we were supposed to be… Thus a load of tuk-tuks were ready to take us on, and one wanted $4 each – but we gave him jip and paid the correct rate of $2 total to our guest house. Good to know the expected rate before you arrive!
So our view of this trip to Cambodia up the Mekong is 100% positive – and can’t think of a nicer way to get to and cross a border. Really very chilled, and yes some minor agro (and I mean minor) and whist there is some dull bus links, the majority of the sites are interesting and beautiful. We wondered if 3 days was too many, but in hindsight 4 or 5 days would probably be okay. Yes some things are budget, but the rest of the trip makes up for it. We reckon you could DIY getting from HCMC to Phnom Penh, but with the extra interesting and hassle free excursions, the bus/boat/rowing boat links that just work, then I think the tour is by far the best option.
So on a hugely positive note, we end our eventful and interesting trip to Vietnam – and the Mekong is the icing on the rather tasty cake.
See HERE for summary, costs and review of Vietnam
See HERE for next installment for Phnom Penh, Cambodia