Sunday, 22 March 2009

Vietnam, first impressions

Other backpackers have been telling me that Vietnam is a beautiful country, but were tired of getting hassled and ripped off by the locals. Well it didn't take me long to confirm that, I got scammed before I'd even gotten through the Vietnamese checkpoint at the border.

I was going from Kampot on the south coast of Cambodia into Vietnam via a recently-opened and very out of the way crossing near Ha Tien. I organised a minibus to the border, but after being told that Ha Tien city was a few miles past that, I agreed on an extra couple of dollars to get all the way to town. After we dropped off two Canadian Matts at Kep, I continued on by myself. They were actually the last foreigners I'd see for the next 24 hours.

About 15km before the border, they transferred me onto a motorbike taxi because the rest of the way was a rough dirt road. Amazing scenery though, with big salt fields (looks just like rice paddies with no rice), but I was too busy hanging on to take photos.

I passed through the basic tin-shed Cambodian checkpoint with no problems, and crossed the few hundred metres to the Vietnamese side. In comparison, this one was a nice shiny modern building. Before I went in, the bike guy points at the sign over the checkpoint says "OK, this Ha Tien, I leave you here". Err, what? I paid to get to town, not to a building in the middle of nowhere that happens to say Ha Tien. He said he'd take me for just a few more dollars, which I had already paid to his friend with the minibus.

After arguing for a few minutes, saying that the minibus guy was keeping his money and ripping us both off, I told him to call his friend and sort it out. He pretended to dial and held it up so I could hear a supposed busy message, but who knows what it was saying. He repeated this charade a few minutes later but eventually I gave up and went through immigration. On the other side he told me he couldn't cross into Vietnam (even though he already had, and had already offered to take me further), but had organised with his friend to take me for just one extra dollar. Since this was apparently the only place in Asia not swarming with motorbike taxis, I didn't have much choice.

This next motorbike guy didn't speak any English, but I'd made sure he knew I wanted to go to the bus terminal in town. We crossed through the city and over a large bridge, but I started to get suspect after we turned off that down a dirt road. Surely just a shortcut? My suspicions were confirmed when we stopped at the oddest bus terminal I'd seen - there were no hawkers, food stands, ticket booths, or... buses. In fact it was a vacant lot.

Then another friend comes over and tries to explain to me that the bus station moved last year from here to a place half an hour from the city (what the hell did you bring me here for then?!). However this new guy would take me there, for a small fee of course. I was sick of getting scammed by now but was stranded in an empty part of some town that wasn't even in the guide book. I talked the guy down to five bucks (it's a lot here!) and we got going again. On the way we passed a few groups of camouflaged soldiers with assault rifles and rocket launchers on exercises just by the road, that was pretty cool.

We ended up in the next town, Kien Luong, where he took me not to a bus station, but to a small place that had one minibus that was doing the 8-hour trip to Saigon at 6pm. I was too tired to argue at this point. After a very negative impression of Vietnam so far, it was redeemed by a really nice girl called Hom who lived at the minibus place (it was a family-run thing) and who wanted to make sure I was comfortable. She spoke no English but showed me where I could wash up and got me a cold drink. Later she noticed me falling asleep, and took me out the back of the workshop where they had a bamboo mat I could crash on, and she'd even made up a pile of delicious rice paper rolls which she insisted I keep eating every time I looked like stopping for breath. They have this really potent fish sauce they use for dipping here too, not the sissy stuff we get at home.

Anyway we tried to have a conversation from the basic Vietnamese in the back of the guide book, which was fairly successful, considering. Mostly it was just her cracking up at my terrible pronunciation. Apparently one short word in Vietnamese can have up to half a dozen different meanings just based on the tonal inflection.

Once the bus finally got going, I was almost hopeful of having the whole thing to myself, but that was short-lived as it was soon packed with picked-up locals. One woman got very irate when her bag was dropped which contained a bottle of the aforementioned toxic fish sauce, which ended up all over the floor of the bus. The rest of the trip, and now my backpack which was sitting in it, smelled like an Asian fish market.

I met another nice local girl on the bus who spoke a tiny bit of English, but the bus was dark and I couldn't even use the Lonely Planet to translate this time. She gave me a few of her tamarinds and even bought me a bottle of green tea when we stopped, and was disappointed I didn't have a Vietnamese number yet. Though I'm not sure what she expected to do with it, since we could barely converse in person, let alone on the phone.

Anyway after far too long I was unceremoniously dumped near the backpacker area of Saigon at 2am with nowhere to stay. A cyclo driver offered to find me somewhere cheap, and drove me 100m up the road to a place that was shut, and then back again to where we started. Eventually I got a room and he wanted his money. I didn't have change, but he assured me he would get some as he ran off with twice what I owed him.

He never came back. I think I would have been more surprised if he did.

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