Friday, 16 March 2012

Mekong Delta Madness

We woke up at the crack of dawn to travel from Phu Quoc Island to Can Tho, a town in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Our transfer bus arrived a little late, but we figured Vietnamese time, like most Southeast Asian time, might run a bit different. Little did we know, we were about to get a full day's lesson on what Vietnamese time really was.

Our bus meandered around the island as the sun rose, probably slowed by numerous potholes in the dirt road, before arriving at the ferry pier. The ferry ride went smooth enough, and when we disembarked we found the minibus that we had booked sitting waiting for us, or so we thought. "No no," said the guide, "we wait for next ferry, then we go."
You mean I could have slept in?! So we waited, sitting in very small plastic chairs, reading to pass the time. We met a cluey Canadian, Jason from Kingston, who was waiting like us, and we all curiously observed several rounds of blind chinese chess that similarly idle Vietnamese xe om (motorcycle taxi) drivers play with intensity.

Three hours later, the next two ferries arrived and the minibus was ready to go. Unfortunately a fatal transmission problem was discovered. We thought briefly on the vehicle repairing benefits of, say three hours waiting time, as our guide pulled a favour and squeezed us onto another company's ride. Was that some national anthem I hear? Oh, its just the personalised reversing beeper tone of a third minibus towing away the broken one. Another Vietnamese curiosity.

I still cannot believe that we survived the next two minibus and xe om rides. The minibus drivers were especially frightening. First they pack 21 people into a 16 seater vehicle, with additional goods crammed into every other available space (some passengers had the privilege of babysitting large bags of cigarettes during the trip, while other boxes were stuffed into the side panels of doors and inside speakers). Then they drive 80 to 100 kilometres per hour straight down the central line of a well-worn single lane highway packed up to 5 rows deep either side with bicycles and motorcycles, as well as cars, trucks and other buses, overtaking them all. Added to the hair-raising games of chicken played with oncoming traffic bearing down the same middle 'lane', is the habit of Mekong Delta rice farmers to spread out their recently harvested grains to dry, neatly occupying an entire lane of road! Horns blared continuously all around, but none so shrill as our maniacal minibus; even the locals on the minibus tsk-tsked when we narrowly missed taking out a motorcyclist.

We walked the rest of the way from the bus station to our hotel, avoiding another truck reversing, this time to the tune of the happy birthday song. Walking was a relieving pace after the long, mind-numbing delays interspersed with dangerously unnecessary haste that was Vietnamese time. It took us 13 hours all up to travel 300 kilometres and we arrived at our guesthouse exhausted, but glad to be alive.

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