Monsters, Snakes And Conmen

Our last evening in Kep turned out to be quite an eventful one – we went for dinner at a restaurant down the road run by a Hungarian man with a vast beard and no top.

We chatted to him for an hour or two (well, he talked at us really!) which was fascinating – he’d come to Kep five years previously to start a new life with his wife and he’d built the restaurant himself – but his wife had died and he can’t go home to Hungary, for the cold weather will make his joint problems worse so he stays in Kep, talking to tourists and guarding his property by sleeping outside in a hammock with only a guard dog for company. He says that he has been burgled several times and that he will kill anyone else that tries, telling us that if you kill someone in this area, a $1000 bribe to the local police will magic the problem away.

Just as we were thinking about leaving, the dog barked and the waiting staff made a fuss and we saw what was apparently a poisonous snake on the ground near the kitchen. A few minutes with the implement he uses to shove pizzas into the oven though and our host had flung it into a nearby tree where it lay in wait for us as we edged past it to get home.

During the night, we both heard the usual set of animal noises outside our wooden hut but at one point my shower gel dropped onto the bathroom floor. In the morning, I picked it up to use it and found that it had a 2 inch hole in the side which had been clearly chewed into existence by “something”, which Annika is convinced was a monster. Probably a lizard or a rat, it damn well ruined my shower!

Our journey from Kep to Can Tho the next morning didn’t start in the most promising style.

Our “minibus” failed to turn up at the time we’d been told to be ready for – 7.30am and so we waited outside the hotel for a good 45 minutes, wondering why we didn’t get to sleep just a little bit more. Eventually a car turned up, we got in and, bizarrely, it drove us all the way to the border with no minibus in sight and no explanation. Very odd. Still, the journey was quite pleasant, through small villages and past rice paddies and salt marshes to Hat Tien. Then the pain began.

This border has only been open for around 2 years so there was very little information available on how to continue our journey on the Vietnam side. We were taken to, and over, the border by two enthusiastic motorbike riders, happy to earn $5 each for the trip. An easy crossing was then followed by a 10km ride to the town of Hat Tien where we were told that the buses don’t go from here but go from another town further on which would cost another $4 each to get to. It was early and we were tired and we fell for it. And so began the worst journey of the trip so far, being led from place to place by friendly “guides”, waiting at roadside cafes for the bus and so on and so on. By this time we kind of knew it was a scam but once they’ve got you, they’ve got you. When the bus turned up, a very obnoxious young tout led the bargaining and conned us into paying an exorbitant (for this country) amount of money to get to our destination, Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta. We reluctantly climbed aboard the decrepit minibus, ruing the moment we ever got into this.

If it hadn’t been for the scam, the bus journey might have been quite amusing, if a little (a lot!) uncomfortable – the bus frequently stopped to pick up passengers and cargo, including around 10 massive bags of rice, several enormous boxes of stuff and, staggeringly, a caterpillar track from a bulldozer (this was a 15 seater minibus remember!). But we were just fuming for being ripped off and the discovery that our bus only went as far as Long Xuyen, 60km from Can Tho only compounded matters. Luckily, a very kind man understood our plight and convinced the bus driver to pay for our onward tickets. Another 3 hours on a similarly cramped bus followed, and we arrived at our hotel, exhausted and fed up at around 5pm that night after a journey of more than 9 hours which couldn’t have been much more than 250 miles.

Can Tho is in the heart of the Mekong Delta, the area that provides most of Vietnam’s rice. The city itself is unremarkable but the fascinating rivers and rice paddies that surround it are well worth a visit. The standard tourist thing to do here was to visit the local floating market which we did the next morning. The market itself was slightly disappointing as it wasn’t as busy as I’d imagined but it was interesting seeing the locals going about their daily business. Our guide then took us down a few of the more narrow parts of the river and we ended up going to his family’s house by the river. We were given fruit, shown around their land and introduced to the family, including his mother chopping wood and his daughters playing games and being generally young and excitable. The two girls, accompanied by one of their friends tagged along for the ride back to town, continuing to play the kind of games that little girls seem to play the world over in the boat – paper/scissors/stone and various pattacake type things, you know the type of things.

We then took another very cramped bus journey up to Saigon, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the government in honour of the former leader of the North of the country.

Saigon is quite, quite mental. There are apparently 3 million motorbikes in this city and, if anything, that feels like a bit of an underestimate! Everywhere you look, there are seas of heads waiting at junctions to try and squeeze through gaps in the traffic to get to where they’re headed. As far as traffic rules go, there are none – the idea is, as long as you don’t actually kill anyone, you can do what you want. Crossing the road is like trying to walk across the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street on a Saturday at Christmas wearing a blindfold. No-one cares about traffic lights and certainly not about the pointlessly painted pedestrian crossings, the idea being that you just walk into the mass of vehicles and weave in between them all. It’s quite fun at first, if a little unnerving, but it gets really tiring after a day or two, especially if you’re tired as it takes quite a lot of mental energy to avoid getting run over.

Last night, in the rush hour, we took around 5 minutes to cross a tiny crossroads which was gridlocked only to find, when we reached the other side, motorbikes 3 abreast driving towards us on the pavement! As I write this, we are on a coach on our way to see the famous tunnels that the Viet Cong used in the war but we have been sitting on the same piece of road for the last 90 minutes without a single move in any direction, as there are some roadworks and the whole area has ground to a halt, with no-one stopping anyone from desperately squeezing through any gap they can find, resulting in cars, buses and mainly motorbikes pointing in all directions on both sides of the road trying to force their way through.

Despite all this I do really love the place – it’s got a very friendly feel and there is quite a lot to do whatever your preferences. We’ve done the usual tourist things like the museums and the shops and bars and markets but we also went to a cinema on the 13th floor of an upmarket shopping mall and saw Sherlock Holmes (pretty good) on one night.

We are not sure what our plans are next but we will probably be leaving for Dalat in the Central Highlands tomorrow and then on to Nha Trang.

Just one sentence to mention the fact that the marvellous gooners are now top of the league so I will take all the credit for that as my leaving has obviously spurred the boys on! Long may it continue. On you reds!