Before heading back to Saigon, we decided that we would stop off in the city of Cần Thơ for 2 nights so that we would be able to see their morning floating markets. My stomach was already feeling strange, but I managed to keep any urges to go to the toilet at bay (thanks to a handful of Imodiums). Anya on the other hand, felt absolutely fine.
We hoped on a ferry and were quickly back on the mainland. From there, we needed to get a bus, so we got onto the bus that we were directed to and boarded with our bags. This bus however was not a coach, but an old local bus that surprisingly still functioned. It was hot, cramped and disgusting, but at least we had some seats to sit on, as our journey was going to be about 5 or 6 hours long. We were the only westerners on this bus, with the rest of the passengers consisting of Vietnamese locals. The bus began to depart when one of the old women began shouting at the driver at the top of her lungs, while consistently shooting glances back at us during her intervals. We had no idea what she was saying, but it clearly involved us.
The bus driver ignored her, but she became even more insistent, forcing him to stop. She began pointing at us, but we did not know what to do. We did not understand a word of what she said, and she did not understand a word of what we said. Eventually, she took matters into her own hands and walked up to our bags and tried to drag them off the bus. Tensions were rising quickly. This woman had some kind of problem with us but we didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t long before someone ran off the bus to fetch someone who could translate, and it was only then that we found that this woman did not have an issue with us at all. In fact, she was trying to help us.
It turned out that we were put onto the wrong bus with neither of us had the faintest idea that this was the case. To this day we have no idea where that bus was destined to go, but when that old woman saw two westerners on the bus, she just knew that the destination of that bus is not where we wanted to go. If she hadn’t intervened, who knows where we would have ended up? We owe a debt to this mysterious old Vietnamese woman.
Madman on wheels
We were then taken to the correct bus, but alas, it was still a dingy and small local bus. However this time, as we were one of the later people to board, the bus was already full. But if there is one thing we have learnt from our journeys in Asia, it is that you can always make more room. A kind man let Anya take his seat on the bus while I was told to sit on the step at the back of the bus and lean back on the legs of the man sitting behind me. Tiny sitting stools were then pulled out so that the people who got onto the bus after us could sit in the aisle between the rows of seats. When this option was exhausted, more locals tried to board, so they were told to either stand where they could fit, or sit on the interior engine bay cover at the front of the bus next to the driver. The bus was now truly full.
The journey was sweltering and confined, my knees were in agony, and our driver was a mad man. Speed was his priority, and his sudden jerky movements would throw the people on the bus from one side to another. There was a mother with her baby in her arms standing near the front, but the driver paid no heed to this. Eventually, the recklessness of his driving culminated in a moment when he suddenly performed an emergency stop. The mother and her baby flew forward into the group of people sitting on the engine bay. The baby began to wail and everyone around them quickly checked to see if they were okay. Luckily, neither the mother nor the youngling were harmed so everyone began to look out of the window to see why the bus driver had stopped so suddenly. A man lay on the road next to his moped beside the bus. People from the nearby petrol station were running over to see if the man was okay. Our bus driver had not stopped fast enough and had collided with this man on his bike. The man was conscious, so the bus driver took this as enough and drove off. His priority was still making it to the destination as hastily as possible.
Next stop, the bathroom
During the journey, I could feel my stomach still churning away. I was beginning to fear that the Imodiums that I was taking would fail me soon enough, but fortune was on my side, for once, and I managed to make it to Cần Thơ with no undesired events transpiring. We checked in to a hotel as there were very little hostel options available in the city and I quickly occupied the bathroom in our room so that I was finally able to relieve myself. Following this, I was in and out of the bathroom thoughout the entire evening while Anya still felt completely normal. We only had two nights booked in Cần Thơ however, meaning that we need to check out the morning floating market the following day. I reluctantly booked a tour with Anya down at reception and just hoped that I would feel better by the next day. With that, we decided to have an early night, as we would have to be up before 5am to see the markets. However, neither of us got a lot of sleep that night.
I myself was not up too often throughout the night, but whatever we had eaten back in Phú Quốc had finally struck Anya down. She was in and out of the bathroom every 15 minutes to vomit, and the time for us to be getting up was quickly dawning upon us. There was no way that we could be able to bounce back fast enough before the tour was due to start, so I went downstairs to reception to see if it was possible to reschedule for the next day. The only person I was able to find was a sleeping security guard who had been awoken as I entered the lobby. I tried to explain the situation to him but he did not seem to understand me, so he called a number on the phone and handed it to me. It was the receptionist that we had booked the tour with earlier, and it was quite clear that she had just been awoken. I felt so guilty for waking her up and bothering her while she was at home, so while I explained the situation to her, I apologised repeatedly. She told us it would not be a problem to delay our tour by a day, so I returned to bed for some much needed sleep.
We were extremely glad that we had been in a hotel when this happened, and not in a dorm of a hostel where everyone would have to constantly be awoken with our trips to the bathroom. Therefore, upon waking again in the late morning, we extended our stay by another night and decided to devote the day to recovery. Neither of us were running in or out of the bathroom much anymore, but we were both exhausted. Anya was more so than I, so spent the entire day in bed, but as I was starting to feel better, I quickly became bored so decided to use the opportunity to explore the city and find myself a new laptop.
As I explored the streets, I began to feel somewhat like a celebrity. Any person that I passed would stare at me with either amazement or shock. At first I did not understand why, but eventually people began coming up to me just to shake my hand or to take a picture with me and it became increasingly obvious that were astounded to see a white man. I was flabbergasted at this, because with Cần Thơ being a city, I imagined white tourists were nothing new to them. But as I paid more attention, I began to realise that were no other white tourists around in the city that I could see. Regardless of this, I was still astonished, and when I finally found an electronics store with the laptop that I wanted, the staff treated me like a first class customer. They tried to make me feel as comfortable as possible, and every time I finished a glass of water, it was instantly and automatically replaced with another. They provided me with a series of free gifts to compliment the laptop, and when the transaction was completed and the new laptop was set up, they asked if I could take a group photo with the all of the staff that were in the store at the time. I was happy to oblige, I just wish that I had asked for a copy of that photo for myself.
After returning to the hotel with my laptop (which cost millions of Vietnamese Dong thanks to their extremely inflated currency), I told my tale to Anya and she began to tell me of similar experiences that she had when she left the hotel in search of food. She too could not help but notice all of the people who were surprised by her presence. She went on to say that the cashier who served her at the supermarket physically gasped and was taken back by her pale white skin.
On the mend
The next morning, we were up before the sunrise to meet our tour guide. He led us to the docks where we met our boat driver. We quickly boarded the boat and were on our way down river to see the floating river market. The markets began at the crack of dawn and were already dying down by 7 or 8 a.m. We eventually reached the market to see exactly what I had envisioned: a huge conglomeration of large boats overloaded with locally produced supplies. Smaller boats full of buyers moved amongst the larger ones in search of the best deals.
Our boat docked with another boat that was serving phở as breakfast to all of the locals, and it turned out that we would be getting some as part of our tour. As delicious as it was, our fragile stomachs were not ready for the onslaught of Vietnamese food, so we hardly were able to make a dent into our bowlfuls of phở. After breakfast, we continued on with our tour of the markets. It was incredible to see that people lived their lives this way, spending most of their lives on or around this river. Many of these people’s homes were their boats, and if it wasn’t the boat that they slept in, they had rudimentary shacks built on the edges of the river, leaning over the water.
After seeing the market, we were taken to a place where rice noodles were made, and after being shown the process involved in making them, we were allowed to have a go ourselves. We then were taken to a fruit farm where we were allowed to relax with a cup of tea as we learnt about the farm and the worker’s way of life. We then, very randomly, watched a female entertainer sing for a Vietnamese family that were on holiday from the North.
When we arrived back at the boat, so that we could head back to our hotel, our boat driver gave us gifts that she had weaved for us out of reed while we were gone:
I had been wondering on what she was working on, because for the majority of that morning our boat driver had been multitasking between driving our boat and working on some form of handicraft. I had assumed that the handicrafts were some sort of second job she had that she would later sell at a market, but I never considered that they were for us. I was so amazed by them, that I had them sent home in the leftovers of my laptop box for safe keeping.
Backtracking & surprise
We used the rest of the day to sleep and recuperate further before heading back to Saigon the following day. We would end up spending a whole another week there, waiting for Anya’s replacement travel card to arrive after she lost hers in Bali. We had no idea what day it would arrive, so we would have to extend our stay day-by-day while also finding ways to entertain ourselves. This mainly compromised of going out in the evenings and dealing with a hangover the following morning, but we did also treat ourselves with a trip to the cinema to see Dr. Strange.
One evening however, after joining the hostel’s bar crawl yet again, Anya and I were outside of the first bar on the crawl enjoying ourselves when Anya suddenly turned around and noticed someone standing only a few feet away from us. It was the Columbian who we had met in our very first hostel in Indonesia. The same Columbian who then appeared in our dorm room again 2 weeks later in Kuta through no planning whatsoever. Needless to say, we were stunned. We kept crossing paths with this man through nothing more than chance. We were thrilled, and spent the rest of the evening with him and his friends.
After nearly a week had passed, finally, the replacement card arrived. We would only need to spend one last night in Saigon, but we had to move to another hostel due to a lack of beds available. At our new hostel, we met an English fellow who had gone to the same university as us but had been in the year above. It had also turned out that he was heading to Mũi Né the next day just as we were, and even staying at the same place as us there. At this point we had no idea that we would travel with this man all the way up to the north of Vietnam…