. The road south was one lane, and surrounded on both sides by grass shacks on stilts, and beyond that, water. (The Mekong Delta is almost completely flooded in the wet season.) We were constantly having to dodge entire herds of cows, herds of schoolchildren on bicycles, children and their pets (as they had no real yard to play in, everyone seemed to hang out in the street), and other drivers on motorbikes and regular bikes, who seem to drive out of nowhere without looking to see who's coming.
After Chau Doc we left for Rach Gia, a town at the very bottom of the Delta, which was our jumping point to the island of Phu Quoc. Our animosity towards the Vietnamese increased tenfold by the time we arrived in Rach Gia. For one thing, having to say hello about 200 times a day may not seem all that annoying, but it truly is. In Rach Gia we couldn't sit down on a bench without being surrounded by kids and adults who proceeded to stare, laugh, point, clap in our faces and so on, until they got bored. We felt like freaks that just escaped from the circus. Beyond the constant attention, there is the very real issue of being overcharged or ripped off as a foreigner. Being as industrious as they are, the Vietnamese have found a good opportunity to make money from all of the tourists that visit. For almost every product, ticket, or service, we are charged about 4-6 times what a local would be
. Anyway, we were glad to leave Rach Gia. The 3-hour ferry to Phu Quoc was no better, we almost jumped overboard in fact, but we finally made it. We spent almost a week on Phu Quoc. The first few days in Phu Quoc we spent hanging around our bungalow waiting for the weather to improve, and watching it get worse. Finally we decided to leave, but our ferry was cancelled the morning of departure. We were told there was a typhoon around central Vietnam and we were feeling the effects. We ended up having to fly out. Although we went to a tropical island and didn't see any sun or go swimming, it was a week well spent. We had a luxurious bungalow and spent most of our time having meaningful conversations.
We flew to Rach Gia and took the first bus to Cantho, the largest city in the Delta. Up to this point we had been taking local buses and were excited to do it again this time, as we were able, amazingly, to get the local price on our tickets. The local buses, as opposed to tourist buses, are extremely cheap, but that is the only good thing about them. Everytime the bus reaches a town, the drivers slows down to an idling pace, creeping along while the ticket taker yells out the side door at every pedestrian trying to get more passengers, even though the bus may be full! It also stops a lot in these towns, whereupon all sorts of vendors, some with loudspeakers, get on the bus and crawl up and down the aisle selling everything from bird eggs to Buddha necklaces
. When they get to us they rest for a while on the seat in front of us and just stare, stare, stare, often touching my beard or Lauren's tattoos. As soon as the bus hits the end of town, the driver speeds way up and all of a sudden we are hurtling down the road at breakneck speed as the ticket taker yells at pedestrians to get out of the way. The bus to Cantho was totally packed and uncomfortable as usual. We got out of buying extra tickets for our bags, but ended up with someone perched on top of them. Later Lauren noticed the guy across the aisle trying to pry the locked zippers on my bag apart. I freaked out, knocked the guy off my bag, and discovered that they had cut a 4-inch gash into the side of the bag. The first guy jumped off the bus but the second guy needed a little shove. Luckily they didn't get anything and today, Lauren finally repaired the gash without having to replace the zipper! But needless to say, that might be the last local bus that we take in this country.
We spent one day in Cantho on a ten-hour boat ride, exploring the floating markets and backwaters. It was very nice and relaxing, we had a narrow wooden boat for just the 2 of us and our driver, Phoung. Everything in the Delta centers around the water, from the markets to the rice fields, and Cantho was the perfect place to discover this. The backwaters reminded me of the bayou back home
. From Cantho we headed for Saigon.
We didn't do much sightseeing in Saigon as there really isn't much to see. But it is a lovely city with tree-lined boulevards; the economic vitality and energy of this city can make you forget you're in a Communist nation. We also met tons of people from all around the world; Vietnam is an enormously popular tourist destination. We visited the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Musuem, which gave us a new viewpoint on a war that we didn't know much about. It documents not only the Vietnam War, but also many of the horrors commited by the French during their colonial occupation. There was also a very interesting photographic exhibition on all of the journalists that were killed during the war. The most emotionally difficult section of the museum was the exhibit displaying the effects of Agent Orange through pictures of mutated children and jars of deformed fetuses.
From Saigon we took the tourist bus, which also turned out to be a piece of crap, to the city of Da Lat, "le petit Paris de Vietnam," which even has its own version of the Eiffel Tower. In Saigon our feelings of animosity toward Vietnam had begun to wane, and after arriving in Da Lat we actually found ourselves liking it
! This city is a great break from the tropics. It is located in the Central Highlands at an elevation of 1475 meters. It reminds us of an Oregon summer. Sunny and in the low 70s during the day, and cool and crisp at night. The people here look like they think they're in Aspen, bundled up in winter jackets and woolen hats. In Da Lat there is a group of tour guides that call themselves Easy Riders; one night at a café near our guesthouse, we met one of these Easy Riders who goes by "Lucky." Very charming and informative guy. After a few days of negotiating, we decided to hire him to take us to our next destination, the city of Hoi An. But instead of sitting on a crappy bus for 900 kilometers, we will be riding a motorbike through the mountains of the Central Highlands, seeing the countryside and hopefully visiting some of the minority tribal villages found throughout the area. Lauren and I will take one bike, and Lucky will take our packs on his bike. The roads should be relatively empty, as it is not a very populous area. We are really excited - we leave in 12 hours and it should take us 6 days to get to Hoi An. Of course, we will be doing as much sightseeing as driving. Wish us luck!
Traveling in Vietnam, at first, we can only describe as humiliating. We never felt further from home - the Vietnamese really have a knack for making one feel like a foreigner. Initially, in Chau Doc, our first destination in the Mekong Delta, we were totally amused by the stares, smiles, hellos, and the fact that we were the constant subject of everyone's attention. Most of our time in Chau Doc we spent relaxing and recovering from Cambodia at our wonderful guesthouse, which we had all to ourselves. They had tons of American movies on DVD. One day in Chau Doc we rented a motorbike and drove south of town to Tuc Dup Hill, the infamous Viet Cong base which the Americans unsuccessfully spent millions trying to overpower, where 2 little girls sweetly led us through the best caves and tunnels. We also visited Ba Chuc, a Vietnamese village that was invaded by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge in 1978. They killed every villager except for two people, both of whom are still living. We discovered on this little day trip what absolutely horrible drivers and pedestrians the Vietnamese can be