The day began pleasantly enough in Kampot, with coffee and fresh baguettes. The taxi we had arranged to drive us to the border showed up fifteen minutes late, but that was fine—we were in no rush. We were anticipating a 90-minute drive to the border, after which there would be the usual paperwork rigmarole and then a 10-minute motorbike ride to the Vietnamese border town of Ha Tien. From there, a five-hour express bus to our Mekong Delta destination, Can Tho. An easy enough day, all things considered.
We had already obtained our visas for Vietnam in Battambang, Cambodia, so we expected no wheeling and dealing by dishonest immigration officials. Still, we were prepared for a few challenges: there would probably be an illegitimate charge of $1 each for the health forms that are now ubiquitous at borders due to H1N1; strangely, our baggage might be x-rayed on the Vietnam side; the four of us would each have to set off on our own motorbikes, with drivers, to Ha Tien (an unfortunate risk that we could find no way around). As well, after some time spent online, I had a vague memory of a border scam being operated by what someone had described as a “thin man with a hairy neck.” The scam had something to do with sending travellers to Chau Doc by bus from Ha Tien. But we weren’t going to Chau Doc, so I hadn’t paid much attention to the details. Other than these well-documented minor hurdles, we expected smooth sailing.
Mistake number one: Never expect an Asian land border crossing to be hassle-free under any circumstances.
The problems began about 10 minutes shy of the border, when our taxi driver pulled off to the side of the remote dirt road we’d been travelling on for some time and four guys carrying bike helmets surrounded the car. “You get out now, they take you to border,” our driver said. “Border just one kilometre more.”
But I had a distant memory flash of something I’d read about a border scam related to travellers being asked to get out of their taxi ahead of the border. So we declined the moto drivers’ offers and politely insisted that our driver take us all the way there.
He got back in the car and apologized, explaining that it would be better to use these moto drivers because otherwise, we’d be swarmed by Vietnamese motos on the other side of the border and they would be grabbing for our bags in a competitive attempt to get our business. I was sceptical. We drove on.
It wasn’t just one kilometre—it was a good five-minute drive. And when we got to the first border checkpoint, guess who met us? The very same motorbike mafia. Since we had refused their services further down the road, they had driven alongside our taxi to offer them again. They struck me as a confusing combination of repugnantly pushy and potentially helpful, so that it was hard to decide whether or not they were legitimate. We try to travel with bullshit detectors activated, but sometimes in these extremely poor places, people are just so desperate for work that they’ll persist and persist, and we’ve experienced times when it has actually been helpful to take advantage of their services. We wondered if maybe now was one of them.
As we were mulling it over, another Western couple approached the passport control shack without any bags at all. “Travelling light?” I joked, and they said they’d given their bags to some motorbike guys who were taking them across the border.
It wasn't hard to spot these guys, because our family and this couple were the only people crossing the border at the time. In fact, this little-used border itself was just a dusty little outpost with a couple of wooden shacks and a handful of staff--a striking contrast to the Thai-Cambodia border at Poipet or the Thai-Laos border at Chiang Khong, which had been scenes of jam-packed chaos, with long line-ups, shops, restaurants and hawkers.
I don’t know about Mark, but for some inexplicable reason the other travellers’ decision to trust these moto drivers tipped the balance for me; I relinquished some of my misgivings and we decided to go ahead with them. We let them pile our backpacks on the fronts of their bikes. When we were through with the paperwork and absurd health form surcharge, each of the four of us got on a motorbike, bags and all, and we set off for Ha Tien.
I hated the idea of sending my kids off on motorbikes separately from us, but there didn’t seem to be any other way of going about it. (In Vietnam, there is a maximum of two people per motorbike; and there were no taxis or tuk-tuks to be had here.) I just kept figuring that as long as we all made it to the bus station alive, it would all be fine. Still, as we flew along, every minute seemed to stretch out for eons. Any time a truck flew past us or we hit a patch of sand or gravel, I thought about the tiny slip it would take to send any of the four of us skidding across the pavement, and I wondered what on earth I would do with a gravely injured child in the dusty backwaters of Vietnam.
I had memorized the name of the bus station—Ben Xe Ha Tien—and I was relieved to recognize it as we pulled to a stop ten minutes later. The kids were upbeat and unharmed. The other two travellers, an Australian couple, arrived right behind us. We had only been standing there for half a minute when a man in a blue shirt appeared carrying a glossy printed bus schedule. He was friendly, spoke good English, and asked where we were going. We said Can Tho. The Australians said Saigon. He regretfully informed all of us that there were no more buses to any of these places from Ha Tien that day.
“All buses from here leave early morning,” he said. “But you can catch bus to Can Tho and Saigon from next town, Ban Ho.”
I thought I remembered reading something online about certain buses leaving only in the morning, so this seemed like a possibility. On the other hand, the friendly guy in the blue shirt was thin and had about a dozen incredibly unsightly, sparse, kinky black hairs growing on his throat. Could this be the legendary thin man with the neck hairs? As we deliberated, Chloe said to me in a stage whisper, “MOM! This might be the man with the neck hairs!” But I shushed her. Our taxi driver had also had a slightly hairy throat. I didn’t want to be rude. Who knows, maybe half the men in this town have hairy necks!
I had read that a bus company called Mai Linh, which runs express minibuses around the Mekong Delta, had set up an office in Ha Tien last year. So I asked Hairy Throat Man where that was. He said it had closed recently due to lack of business. We asked him then where the ticket counters were. He said that the station was only served by local buses, and you buy the tickets directly from the driver on board. This last bit seemed plausible; local buses do operate that way, and Ha Tien is a remote border town with a tiny population. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that very few big, express buses arrive here.
We stood around mulling this over. There were no buses in the bus station, no ticket counters, no sign of Mai Linh. No clues. No one else who spoke any English. Just Hairy Throat Man, the moto drivers, and us. Ha Tien, which we’d had ample time to view on the moto ride in, looked like a dusty, untouristed, uninteresting place to spend the night. I didn’t relish the thought of being stranded there. Mark said, “Where is this Ban Ho? Is it in the book?”
It turns out that what he really meant was: “Is there a write-up about Ban Ho in the Lonely Planet book?” What I thought he meant was: “Where is Ban Ho, can you find it on the map?” I found it on the map. It looked about the same size as Ha Tien. It looked nearby. So I said, “Sure, here it is,” and showed him. He took this to imply my tacit approval of the plan to ride motorbikes there.
It would be $3 each to continue on to Ban Ho by moto, we were told. (We had paid $5 each to get to Ha Tien from the border, which was already highway robbery, no pun intended.)
What we should have done: Sat down, ignored Hairy Throat Man and the drivers, and left one of us in charge of the baggage while the other went off in search of ticket windows and more information.
What we actually did: Believed the buses had all gone for the day, and agreed to go to Ban Ho by moto. It was a 10-minute drive, the gang insisted. No further than coming to Ha Tien from the border.
We piled our bags back on, donned our helmets again, and set off. We had decided I would ride in front, Mark would ride in back, and the kids would ride in between. I would insist that my driver go slowly, which would force all the others to drive slowly as well.
We had only been driving about 45 seconds when my driver slowed to a stop to ask if I’d like to change money and get some Vietnam dong. We could stop at a shop he knew of, and buy it on the black market. Now, it’s common knowledge that the black market rates are never as good as the bank rates here. So I said no, I would go to a bank machine at the next town. “Oh, no bank there, no ATM, very small place,” he said.
Immediately, I started to second-guess our decision. What kind of bus station receives more buses than Ha Tien, yet is so small as not to have a bank or an ATM?
But just in case he was right, and more so because by now we were at their mercy and out of options, we decided to change $40 into dong. The shop owner gave us 16,000 dong to the dollar. (Turns out the current rate is 18,500.)
Then we were off again, with me in the lead. Every couple of minutes I would gesture to my driver to slow down, and he would, but then the speed would start to creep up again. Then I would slow him down again, and then he would speed up again. Meanwhile, all manner of traffic was blowing by us in both directions—mostly roaring delivery trucks and other motorbikes—and we ourselves were passing bicycles and ox-carts. A couple of, yes, BUSES passed us as well, coming from the opposite direction (going toward Ha Tien), cementing my feeling that something was wrong with this picture.
Ten minutes on the motorbikes turned into fifteen, and then twenty, and we were still tearing down the highway with no town in site. Every so often, Ciaran’s driver would pull up from behind alongside mine and talk to him in Vietnamese. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Then after a while, Ciaran’s driver pulled ahead of mine, contrary to the agreement we’d made to keep the kids in between us. He picked up some speed, and my driver kept up.
Now I was in a quandary: make my driver slow down again, as I’d been doing all along, or ask him to pass Ciaran’s driver, which would have the effect of causing all of us to drive even faster? I decided just to hope for the best, since (looking on the bright side) at least the drivers seemed capable and experienced, and surely, surely, I thought, we must almost be there.
About two minutes after I’d made this lame decision to leave Ciaran in the lead, I saw Mark on my left, riding along with an enraged look on his face. “You’re going to the back,” he told me, so I gestured again to my driver to slow down while Mark continued to urge his to speed up. I watched as he then tried to pass Ciaran’s driver, but now we had confused all the drivers by asking some of them to slow down and others to speed up, so it ended up being a neck-and-neck affair with Ciaran and Mark at the front.
Just as I was thinking that the moto gang might be trying to take us all the way to Can Tho like this, or down some remote lane where they would rob us blind, they turned left off the highway into what looked like a roadside snack stop with a few plastic chairs and tables.
“Bus station?” I shouted to my driver over the roar of the engine. “Bus stop!” he replied.
And yes, there is a difference. A bus station would be the sort of thing we had begun at in Ha Tien. A bus stop would be this shop in the middle of nowhere from which you could maybe, possibly flag down a local bus if you tried.
Once we were all seated and feeling lucky to be alive and with limbs intact, we ordered some drinks and it began to sink in that we had been thoroughly, dazzlingly tricked. It turned out that Hairy Throat Man was one of the moto drivers himself, and he showed up just after we did with a member of the Australian couple in tow. Mark went over and asked him where the buses here would come from (since, having gone down the highway from Ha Tien, it now seemed obvious to us that Ha Tien is exactly where they would originate). Hairy Throat Man said, somewhat sheepishly, “Oh, come from just around corner.”
Muttering and grumbling and cursing our own idiocy, we both sat in our little plastic chairs simmering with rage and resentment. The extra money for the moto drivers was one thing (and we did get royally ripped off), but what really irked us was having put the kids at considerable extra risk for no good reason. We were annoyed with ourselves and even more so at Hairy Throat.
I was just thinking that even so, the main thing was that we had survived and would soon be on our way to Can Tho, leaving all this unpleasantness behind us, when the bus pulled in. A man appeared out of the blue, presumably from the bus, to tell us how much the tickets would cost. Our guidebook had said 100,000 dong each to Can Tho. (That’s about $5.) The man said, “500,000 dong one person.”
The Australians were travelling without a guidebook, just for the fun of it. They thought that was a bit steep, but were ready to pay it. But that, for me, was the last straw. My eyes fairly bugged out of my head at the thought of giving these crooks any more undeserved cash. I’m not much of a one for making a scene, but I shouted at him, almost more in genuine shock and outrage than anger. “You have to be kidding,” I said. “That’s FIVE TIMES the regular price!”
I told Mark and the Australians what the regular price was supposed to be. Yes, it’s customary for foreigners to be over-charged on local buses; but five times the going rate is absurd. I might have considered paying it anyway if I wasn’t already so thoroughly enraged at the whole crew of rip-off artists who had just caused me to put my children on motorcycles and send them off for a 20-minute ride down an insane Vietnamese highway on their own. Under the circumstances, no way was I paying that extortionate price for the bus tickets. I told him to forget about it. I said we would sooner walk all the way to Can Tho than pay that much.
A long negotiation ensued, much of it via body language, gestures and pen & paper. At one point when it seemed the bus driver would give us no discount at all, I went over to Hairy Throat and shouted at him: “Why did you take us here?” It was a rhetorical question, of course; I was just hoping he would own up to something, or feel even a small smidge of guilt. I was fervently wishing I had enough command of Vietnamese to call him a liar, a thief and a disgrace to his country while his posse was standing there listening. I’m sure this would not have been news to him, but it certainly would have been satisfying for me.
Instead, I wrote “200,000 dong, 1” on a piece of paper and gave it back to the bus driver. Double the price, fair enough for both of us, I hoped. He agreed; we had a deal. Then, digging around in my bag, I realized that actually, we didn’t have 800,000 dong. We had only changed that small amount on the black market back in Ha Tien, and we’d bought snacks and drinks with it. I only had 540,000 left. I showed him the 500,000 and said, “500,000. No more. I have no more than that,” hoping he would understand.
More rapid-fire Vietnamese from bad guy to bad guy (and I’m including the bus driver in that category since he seemed to be part of the border mafia). Mark pointed out that Ciaran was small and could be given a discount or a free ride. When it became obvious that there was really no choice since we just plain didn’t have more than 500,000 dong, we reached a disgruntled agreement.
Still simmering with hostility, I picked up my bag, and we all headed over to the bus—a filthy, crowded, rattletrap thing. I sent the kids in to find seats. Mark was just making sure our bags made it onto the roof when I noticed the sign in the front window: Chau Doc. This bus was not going to Can Tho. It was going to Chau Doc.
Chau Doc is three hours from Ha Tien and three more from Can Tho. Not totally in the wrong direction, but certainly a detour.
Although I’d understood that we’d been scammed since halfway through the second moto ride, this is where it all came together for me—the story I’d read online, but had not paid much attention to, about travellers who got scammed by the thin man with the hairy neck and ended up in Chau Doc. I had been skimming the story and thought they wanted to go to Chau Doc. Not bloody likely, I now realized.
So we kicked up another fuss. We wanted to go to Can Tho, we insisted, getting more incensed every minute, not Chau Doc. We got the kids out of the bus. We got the bags down from the roof. Mark asked the driver for our money back. But now, suddenly, the driver was not the same guy who’d taken our money in the first place. Where was that guy? Mark demanded. Gone—vanished.
Mark started stalking around the minibus, demanding to know where the guy had gone who had taken our money, threatening to call the police. At one point, he waved our Lonely Planet guide in Hairy Throat’s face and told him that I write for the series and would be sure to make his little scheme public. Meanwhile, the kids were thoroughly confused, not understanding why they’d been asked to get back out of the minibus or where we were actually going, or perhaps whether or not we were going anywhere at all. The Australians were standing by looking bemused—their fate would be the same as ours, so it seemed they were okay with having us sort it out.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this, it was explained to us that we would be able to transfer to the Can Tho bus in Chau Doc. For free? I wondered. We had no idea who to trust at this point, but the answer seemed to be probably nobody. There were at least five people in the discussion now—me, Mark, and three men associated in one way or another with the bus or the restaurant. (It was impossible to tell which player was involved in which part of the grand swindle.) The passengers already on the bus were starting to look mildly disgruntled. You expect a local bus to stop frequently, but not for 15 minutes while a batch of foreigners yell and make unintelligible demands and get on and off and can’t seem to decide what to do about their bags.
I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to get on this bus to Chau Doc and continue on to Can Tho—after all, what other choice did we have?—but I wasn’t willing to do that without a ticket. Who knew if we could trust anyone to transfer us to the next bus without more charges? Who knew if there was even actually a bus to Can Tho? I tried to insist on tickets. “No tickets!” one of the bus attendants fairly shouted at me, exasperated. “LOCAL BUS!”
Finally, the four of us and the Australian couple got on.
It was difficult, for the first hour or two, to look at my fellow bus passengers with anything but hostility. Although they’d had nothing to do with the scam and in fact had been quite inconvenienced by it themselves, I was not feeling kindly disposed towards the Vietnamese just yet. Frosty and hostile would be better descriptors.
I thawed somewhat when Ciaran fell asleep leaning on my shoulder. I moved his head down to my lap, and the man beside me smiled and picked up Ciaran’s feet and stretched them across his own lap. He seemed to do it just as a matter of course, the sort of kind thing anyone in his place would do for a sleeping child. Then a woman holding a toddler boarded the bus and sat in front of me, and smiled repeatedly at me, nodding towards the sleeping Ciaran and her own sleeping child. Mark used the phrasebook to find the words to ask how many children she had. Looking out the window, a very scenic Mekong Delta was flying by, all brilliant green rice fields, canals, noodle stalls and water buffalo. The bus jounced and rattled all the way, windows shaking and banging, suspension sounding like it could fall apart at any moment. It stopped repeatedly and briefly as people got on and off. At one stop (after Ciaran had woken up), the man to my left jumped nimbly out the window to buy a snack. We were sitting in the very back row, so it was easier than climbing over everyone to leave by the side door.
Dusty, thirsty and still on high alert for trickery, we arrived at Chau Doc around 4 p.m., seven hours after leaving Cambodia. We were duly transferred onto a much nicer minibus (after another round of heated discussion between the drivers as to the price we’d paid), clean and newish, bound for Can Tho. It was a bus that could accommodate perhaps 15-20 people, but there were only eight of us on it. Finally, I thought—luxury. Leg room. It was going to be speedy and fabulous.
Well, wrong again, as usual. Despite its flashy outward appearance, this was nonetheless another local bus. It would leave when full, and stop about 189 times on the way to Can Tho. It finally left around 5 p.m., an hour after we’d sat down on it. It careened down the highway honking nearly continuously at everything in its path, swerving and dodging madly and passing bigger vehicles around blind corners while the man who worked the door shouted a never-ending stream of instructions to the driver. We got to Can Tho shortly before 8 p.m. after 11 hours of travelling. None of us had eaten anything since breakfast, except for the drinks we’d had at the Scam Stop and some pieces of leftover baguette with peanut butter.
Disembarking, we were immediately surrounded by a posse of moto drivers vying for our business. But we do learn; we slowly but doggedly walked through the swarm, ignoring all of them, and sat down on a bench to decide what to do, rather than letting anyone give us any more deliberate misinformation. We were a kilometre or two from the centre of town and main hotel strip. Right about then, I saw a taxi going by. Mark leapt up and flagged it down. From there, life got a little easier: it was an ordinary metered taxi. I picked a centrally located hotel from the guidebook and we were on its doorstep about five minutes later.
You’d think the story would end there, but sadly, it does not.
We were looking for a room with two double beds—oh so scarce all over Asia—and I’d picked this hotel because it was reported to have such rooms. The front desk clerk had confirmed that it did. Mark went upstairs to view the available room while we waited in the lobby. He came down and said it wasn’t perfect, but it would do. While we were signing in, the clerk, a pudgy middle-aged man, started trying to make conversation, asking where we were from, how long we were staying and so on.
Happy to meet someone who was more interested in chatting with me than in cheating me, I told him we’d come all the way from Cambodia today and were exhausted after 12 hours of buses. I said we’d be heading out for dinner shortly because it was 9 p.m. and the children still had not had their dinner.
He said, in response, “So you want to see floating markets tomorrow? Must get up early to see, leave by 7 a.m. You want to go, I can sell tickets now for $30.”
I looked at him incredulously.
But I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. And it’s so hard to kick this unfailingly Canadian habit I have of always being so bloody polite. I said, most sweetly, “No thank you, no tickets, we are all very tired. We’ll talk later about what we want to do, and we’ll let you know.”
“Yes, but you should buy now. Tomorrow market very busy, very interesting for you. Next day not so busy, not so good.”
It was Wednesday. How different could Thursday and Friday possibly be from each other?
I said again, more curtly this time, “We are not going to decide on anything tonight. We’ll get some sleep and then we’ll talk to you about it.” I turned and went upstairs without waiting for a reply.
I thought I was home free, but I had just enough time to put my backpack down and dream of washing my hands before he reappeared at our door and actually walked right into our room, closing the door behind him.
“So tomorrow you booking trip to floating market?” he persisted. “Just $15 for all, see Cai Rang market. You want see canals, Phon Dien market, take five hours, $30 for all. Leave early. You booking tonight.”
That was when Mark drew on a well of patience that I had heretofore not known existed. He actually engaged this cretin in a five-minute conversation about the joys and possibilities of the nearby floating markets, then graciously showed him the door, promising that we’d get back to him later if we needed his services.
I finally took a good look around me and saw….not a room with two double beds, as expected, but one double and one single. Mark was so rattled and tired from the day’s events when he viewed the room that he hadn’t noticed it was one bed short of adequate. At least it was clean, if basic, except for an unpleasant odour and some stuffiness. It did have air-conditioning, and we figured turning that on would take care of the smell and the temperature. I would share the single bed with Ciaran.
Although the kids were exhausted, all of us were also starving, and after putting our bags down, we marched them back downstairs to find some food. We had just passed the reception desk again and were nearly on the sidewalk when the irritating floating-market man slipped out from behind the desk to give it yet another try. This time I didn’t even try to disguise the irritation in my voice. I told him in a tone ranging somewhere between barely controlled and outraged that we were going out now to feed our family and we were not planning to talk anymore about floating markets.
As I stomped away shaking my head, Mark reminded me that the hotel had actually taken possession of all four of our passports at check-in, so perhaps we should try a little harder not to antagonize the man. I had to concede he had a point there.
After we’d walked maybe six blocks and found the perfect place for a late-night dinner, we realized we were fresh out of dong, and would not be able to eat until we could also find a bank machine. So we set off again, with Chloe complaining that her head was hurting and both kids grumbling (rightfully) about being too tired to walk any further. We came upon a bank machine after about 10 minutes of walking, and I sat down across the street on a bench with the kids to wait while Mark went in to withdraw some money.
He came back five minutes later. “More bad news,” he said. “Communication error. We need to find another ATM.”
More loud groaning from everybody. Sagging spirits. Ten more minutes of walking, then success at the next ATM: And there we were, finally in Can Tho, with our bags safely secured in a hotel room, with local currency in hand, alive and on our way to dinner.
It would have ended well right there except that when we returned to our hotel room, we noticed that not only was the unpleasant odour still there, but it was worse. It had taken on a somewhat fishy aspect. We blamed it on the room—what else can you expect when you get a double room for $16?—and cranked up the air-conditioning and went to bed.
And I slept very well until I was awoken four hours later, around two in the morning, by what sounded like a chainsaw cutting through metal. The noise would swell and fade and almost disappear, then start up again. I kept my eyes closed and ascribed it to street noise—even in this mid-size city, the streets are teeming with activity at all hours. It gradually went away, confirming my initial diagnosis. I went back to sleep. But then it came back, pushing insistently through the fog in my head. I was determinedly trying to ignore it when I felt something wet splash one of my legs. There was no ignoring that—wide awake now, I bolted out of bed to find out what was wrong.
That was when I noticed the temperature in the room. It was probably at least 30 degrees, there was no breeze from the air-con unit at all, and it was clear that the unpleasant fishy smell had made some advances on the room while we’d been sleeping. It turned out that the loud grinding sound was coming from the air conditioner, which had ceased functioning at some point in the night. After it conked out, it began to drip all over the bed. Closer inspection revealed that the splash I had felt on my leg was really just the proverbial drop in the bucket. The bedding and half the mattress were soaked. Ciaran was still snoring away on top of the sodden mess. I dragged the bed across the floor, away from the dripping unit, and changed the bedding out from under him. Mark got out of bed and tried to fiddle with the air-con remote to keep some vestige of it working, but to no avail. We both went back to bed and lay there sweating in the airless, fishy-smelling room. There was no fan, and no screen on the window, so opening it wasn’t an option either. I was wide awake until morning.
We were up, packed and ready to move on by 7 a.m.; we were in a newer, marginally nicer place within the hour. The air-con here seems feeble to the point of uselessness, but at least it emits a gentle breeze and isn’t dumping a cascade of water on anyone (yet). The city seems friendlier by day—a few meals and large Tiger beers didn’t hurt either—and today we arranged a homestay in the delta that begins tomorrow. Then straight on to Saigon and, hopefully, easier times.
I guess the moral of this story is that when you knowingly set out to do something the hard way….you often end up doing it the hard way. That was the final land border crossing of this trip—we fly to India from Vietnam—and I think I’ve finally had my fill of them.
The story will live on for a while, though, in the fishy smell. Turns out it wasn’t coming from our first hotel room, but from Mark’s backpack, which must have accidentally come in contact with some of the delta’s famous fermented fish sauce somewhere during one of yesterday’s bus rides. Or maybe it was just the revenge of the bus driver…
It can only get better from here, right? We’ve resolved to take as many trains as we can from here on, avoiding buses as much as possible and motorbikes at all costs. As Mark put it, “We drew pretty heavily on our travel karma yesterday."