After our previous journey in a mini-van, we were not looking forward to the bus ride from Kampot to our next destination, the Vietnamese city of Can Tho, deep in the Mekong Delta and famed for its floating markets. We had read so many horror stories about getting from Kampot to Can Tho, from people waiting hours to get across the border, to companies who would take you to the border town of Ha Tien then dump you (not honouring the ticket from Ha Tien to Can Tho) to tourists forced to sit on stools in the aisles of a local's bus for 5hrs.
With all that in mind we waited nervously for the pickup outside our hotel in Kampot. The mini-van that would take us on the first leg to Ha Tien, at the border, arrived a little late, but it didn't look too full yet. However, as soon as I got in the van, I sat down to discover the back of my seat was completley broken. Great, 2hrs without any back support...Nevertheless, I told the driver and he said 'no problem', as it turned out that no more passengers were getting on, so I could change seat. I did, and it was a pretty comfy, pleasant ride from Kampot to Ha Tien via the seaside town of Kep. We had left Kampot at maybe 10:45am, and we reached Ha Tien around 12noon. The air was cool as it rained outside, and as far as mini-van rides go, I had no complaints.
After going through the border (and paying the rather ridiculous $1 'Health Check' fee for a temperature reading), we sat and waited in a cafe as the rained poured down in buckets. We waited and waited, until it was nearly 1pm. At this point we were having some worries about being dumped here with no recourse, however the pickup eventually came, and we went onward into the main centre of Ha Tien (another 10mins perhaps).
At Ha Tien, we sat in a cafe, owned by a rather crazy, although strangely charming Vietnamese lady. She changed our old Khmer currency (by which I mean US dollars mostly) at a rate of $1: 20,000VND. It was a bit less than the going rate, but not too terrible, so we just went with it, as we didn't have too much money left at that stage anyway. I sat and eat a 'Croque Monsier' and then went down to the nearby Viettel store a few stores down the road to get a Vietnamese SIM card and 3gb data plan (250,000VND for these). The bus for those going to HCMC pulled in sometime after 1:30pm. It was glorious; a big modern AC bus with reclining seats...wow, what are people complaining about? That was until at 2pm , the rickety tin can bound for Can Tho, which would be our home for 6hrs, pulled in. Ughhh...
The bus wasn't luxury, but we had seats, the air was cool at this time of year, we weren't sitting on stools in the aisle and didn't have live chickens on our cramped legs; this journey could be a lot worse. The main issues were the suspension, perhaps it was because we ended up sitting directly above the wheel, but damn this bus bounced. I felt every bump in the road all the way to Can Tho; iPhone earplugs were pulled out, bags slid around, drinks lept from their containers. I felt like I was sitting on top of a giant washing machine. I'm glad I do not have any fillings our they likely would have come loose too. Oh, and you reallywant to make sure you don't need the toilet on this trip; the driver stopped once after about 4-5hrs and even then there were no toilet facilities --- the men just went by the side of a fence, whilst the driver decided it was time for his daily shower in a conveniently placed blue bucket of water by the roadside.
At 7:50pm we arrived and after we stopped vibrating, we took motorbikes (xo oms) to our hotel for $2. They give you crash helmets here, which is something at least, but this was quite a hair rising ride by this stage, with the drivers seemingly racing each other along the streets. Nevertheless after a final 10minutes, we were there at the hotel! Time to reward ourselves by our first (of many!) pho:
Can Tho was a bigger town than I had expected, more neon, lots of restaurants and even a nightclub or two. I was expecting some sleepy backwater town in the Mekong delta to be honest. It certainly wasn't that.
We booked our tickets through an agent hanging around the hotel lobby. Not usually agood practice, and initially we shunned him away, but on further research (wikitravel) his deal actually seemed pretty good. He promised us a full 7 hour tour, firstly visiting the closest market, Cai Rang, followed by the further market, Phon Dien, then a tour down to through the smaller canals and some small attractions, such as the making of rice noodles. He promised us a small boat, just us and another couple, and a boat with a canopy to take out the sting of the sun (or rather the pumelling rain at this time of year). We managed to haggle him down to $10 pp, so we figured it was a decent deal.
We set the alarm clocks for 5am, and dragged our aching bodies out of bed and down to the river side (why are there so many sunrises and major early morning activities in SE Asia???). Luckily we had some super sweet, condensed milk Vietnamese coffee to perk us up. We took the boat and were joined by a French couple as we cruised up the river toward Cai Rang, it took about 45mins.
Little boats come by offering to sell you coffee and fruits, but most of the market seems to be wholesale retail. Lots of boats are jammed to bursting point with pineapples or bananas. I was expecting something a little more “touristy” if I'm honest. Boats selling local food items or artisan craft items. I don't know what I was thinking, but I was obviously way off the mark. It was interesting, but quite honestly, I enjoyed more just cruising up and down the Mekong, and the side canals, seeing the houses and way of life, than I did the actual market in itself.
We continued cruising up the river and stopped off down one of the side canals where we went to see the production of rice noodles. It was actually really interesting to see this process. The dry husks of the rice are burnt to kindle the fire. Broken rice is diluted with water into a thick starchy paste, this in then spread over a hot plate heated by the burning husks. This forms rice gallettes or pancakes, which are then finally fed into another machine that carves out the noodles. I thought it was pretty interesting anyway!
I grabbed a crispy banana pancake for breakfast, now realising I wasn't going to be getting it from the market, and off we went back into the boat, and back toward the river.
We carried on for quite a while (I can't remember how long, maybe an hour?), then arrived at the further market of Phong Dien. By the time we arrived, the heavens had opened. It absolutely poured down, and we were very happy to have the canopy on the boat. We didn't see that much of the market, and it seemed like only a handful of boats where left there now, but it was funny to watch the locals sitting in their boats, covered in transparent plastic sheets, counting their money or eating fruit whilst the rain beat down.
Finally, we headed back and stopped for a light meal in one of the side canals of the mekong. It was pretty, cruising through the canals, seeing the local little houses...