Vietnam is a bit of a culture shock, even for seasoned travelers like us. Coming from Laos, where the people, if not the most forthcoming, were at least polite, and Cambodia, with its generally friendly, helpful people, Vietnam is a bit of an awakening. Reminiscent of China, for than anything else.
Norman Lewis, an American who traveled Indochina in 1950 and has written the preeminent travelogue of the area, observed that he was being utterly ignored by the Vietnamese, who he found withdrawn and totally indifferent towards the foreigner. We had a similar impression, our first few days here, a bit like as if we were not really welcome. Something like, “well, we’ll take your money, but don’t ask us to do anything extra, go out of our way to make you feel at home in our hotel, or our restaurant, or our shop”. And if the hotel is full, there is really no need for reception staff to address the potential customer anymore, because, after all, there is no potential deal, right? Or maybe this is just because all those people belong to the C&LB industry. Time – the next four weeks – will tell.
The trip to from Chau Doc to Can Tho is a story on its own. Just a 2-3 hour bus drive, right. Having booked the tickets through an agency, we were picked up at our hotel: not by the bus, but by a couple of motorbikes that brought us to the bus station, luggage in the front, passengers on the pillion seat at the back. Not very comfortable, not particularly safe, but hey, that is the only available public transport in Chau Doc (except from the cyclo driver we had earlier, but he would have taken an hour to get to the bus station). We were then barked into a minivan by the van driver, who subsequently proceeded to try to set a new world record between Chau Doc and Can Tho, a target that was somewhat contradictory to his other objective, picking up as many paying passengers on the way. He was assisted by his side kick, a man whose task it was to shout at all the motorbikes, and if necessary at other cars, anything that interfered with the record attempt. Haihaihaihaihai! Haihaihaihey! This means something like “go out of my way, and quickly”, but probably a lot ruder. He was doing this through the open window, which kind of negated the effect of the air-conditioning in the van. Of course the side kick was also responsible for spotting potential travelers, but mostly, by the time he had identified somebody the van was already hundreds of meters further, too far to stop and turn back. What else can I say about this trip? Not only we, but also numerous motorbike riders and quite a few drivers from oncoming cars must have been equally scared, or worse. This guy was a total lunatic, who started overtaking at the moment that most other drivers would decide to return to their own lane.
The record attempt came abruptly to an end when the van was stopped by two policemen, on one motorbike. Not for speeding, but for some other issue, perhaps a light malfunctioning, or another minor infringement, nothing that could not be settled amicably on the spot. But it was striking how quickly our bus bullies changed into humble road users, and how extremely nervous they were.
In Can Tho we declined the offer of the many motorbike riders to bring us to our hotel, and managed to find a taxi, instead. So much more comfortable.
A few random photos from the river, to add colour to this post. You don’t want to see motorbikes, minivans, or rude bus drivers, now, do you?
(1) Some of the back waters around Chau Doc, peaceful and tranquil, as opposed to the activity level on the main rivers.
(2) And some of the ships, whole house holds really.
(3) Activity levels as defined on board don’t differ from anywhere else in Indochina.
(4) Some of the other channels have even less water in them.
(5) This is NOT the market, this is mud crab as they come; actually they are very small, you wouldn’t want to eat this, even if cleared from mud.
(6, 7) Various storage equipment along the river, baskets, buckets.
(8) The fish market in Chau Doc.
(9) Us, in the back of what is called a cyclo here - a rickshaw in China -, with our driver an old man, who was not only carrying the two of us, but also our luggage, yet had no problem smoking like a chimney whilst cycling. Really!!