At 3am I’m woken up by the announcement of our arrival. I look out the window to the bus station and can see the address printed on a sign. We are indeed in Can Tho. Who could have suspected we would ever arrive an hour early?! Not I. Now we’ve got more waiting to do before the market opens. Fortunately, the bus station is playing Chernobyl (a crappy teen horror flick) on a little tv in the corner of the room, so that keeps us entertained for a bit.
Asking the station staff where the market is does not go well. I’ve forgotten we’re off the mainstream tourist trail now, and it’s far less likely to find anyone who will speak English. The internet is a magical thing, and by using the wifi we manage to translate a couple quick phrases in order to communicate where we need to go, and to arrange for our next ticket. Everyone at the bus station is really patient and helpful, which is such nice change from the shooing we’ve become quite accustomed to in these situations. I’m so happy we arrived early to allow for all extra translation time!
Our next step is to grab a motorbike from the bus station to the Mekong. This is another hurdle. Do you know how hard it is to bargain with a language barrier? They want to charge us 40,000 dong each to drive to the river. I have no concept of how far away it is, it could be around the corner! I’m not even sure they’ll take us to the right place yet. What am certain of, is that they’re taking the opportunity to rip off two overtly lost foreigners, so I feel that I have to at least make an attempt at bargaining. I can’t blame them, it’s just a struggle to barter back. Somehow they agree to drive us there for 30,000 each, which isn’t much of an improvement but it’s 4am and they’re our only way there so what can we do but agree? We grab a helmet and set off speeding through the empty dark roads of Can Tho. I really hope this works out for us, I’m feeling kind of worried about it.
We arrive at the river 10 minutes later, where we pay our motorbike guides, who even help by asking what time we can take a boat and informing us that we’ll have to wait until 5am. That’s alright, what’s another 45 minutes at this point? A small land market is slowly opening up just beside the boat boarding area, so we stop to buy a mango for breakfast. The knife we purchased in Hoi An has really come in handy over the past week with the amount of mangoes we’ve eaten!
The positive aspects to us being so early, are that we will probably get to catch the sunrise, and that we’ll get first pick of seats for the boat tour. I expect tour groups to start arriving shortly, but at least we’re here at the front of the line.
We communicate with a boat driver who writes a departure time on his hand so that we’ll understand. 5:15, he says. Sounds good to us. Trying to figure out how long the tour will take is another thing, and never really works out in my favour. I don’t get an answer, just a departure time. We need to be back at the bus station by 8:30am, but I really can’t imagine a market tour taking 4 hours in any case. We roll with it.
At 5:15 the sky begins to lighten as we board our boat. We are still the only people at the dock, and get an entire boat to ourselves as a result. Amazing!! The sky turns a beautiful vibrant shade of orange and the market comes alive as we slowly maneuver our way between the boats. A woman selling coffee pulls up beside our boat and exuberantly offers us each a large cup for 10,000 dong. I don’t drink coffee, but seeing as I’ve had a long night and it’s being served to me from another boat, I buy one. Tam does too, and concludes that it tastes a “little weasley”.
We watch as merchants pass large quantities of fruits, vegetables and seafood to one another, while others wait patiently for the crowds to arrive. We are still the only tourists on the river. It’s a calm and beautiful morning. I’m not usually up early enough to experience the sunset, let alone from a small boat along the Mekong Delta.
Our boat tour only lasts half an hour, which gives us time to walk around the small land market too. We buy two carrots from a friendly vendor who speaks no English and holds up example bills to signify how much we have to pay. It only costs us 5,000 dong ($0.25) for two carrots. I don’t try to bargain. She even washes them for us! I say “Cam Un”, which is how one says Thank You, in Vietnamese, and she looks thrilled and repeats it back to me. Everyone is so kind this morning!! We do a little walk around the rest of the market, watching women stack piles of colourful fruits, vegetables, and spices, butchers chop up various meats, and live fish flop about in shallow pools of water before being sold off.
Somehow the atmosphere of the market makes this beautiful. Usually I wouldn’t like seeing raw pig tongues lined up on a tray to be sold, but somehow here it just intrigues me. It’s their craft, this is their job. Real people come here to buy their groceries and restaurant supplies. I think it’s awesome.
No one pressures us to buy things like the other markets we’ve visited, but everyone always smiles. It’s an absolutely wonderful experience. We stop at another stall just before leaving in order to pick up a cucumber. We’ve been starved for fresh vegetables lately, so today we plan to eat as many as we can.
We walk the 6 kilometres back to the bus station, because we’ve got loads of time before our bus leaves at 9am, and because we won’t be stretching our legs for much more of the day. We’ve got another bus and boat journey ahead of us before we get to Phu Quoc.
We plan to wait at the bus station for the next three hours, but I can tell the staff are flustered. They keep asking to check our tickets. I think they’re worried we’ll miss our bus because they know we can’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. I’m not sure how this works exactly, but they take some white out, cover up 9:00 and replace it with 8:00. All of a sudden we’re on the next bus to Rach Gia. From here we can catch a boat to Phu Quoc; our final destination in Vietnam.
Our bus to Rach Gia is plagued by a constant stream of music videos from the same cheesy artist. It’s hilarious at first, him wandering all over America in cities like New York and LA, singing slow love songs to different girls in every city. It’s pretty entertaining, but after half an hour of the same guy singing the same thing I just want it to go away. It’s like when I marathon Cake Boss and start to hate Buddy. I end up putting in my headphones, cranking them up so they drown out the sappy love songs, and manage to drift into some semblance of sleep. Waking up and seeing rows upon rows of bamboo stilt houses along the Mekong is kinda cool too. I read some silly review online about the drive from Ho Chi Minh to Phu Quoc and how it “isn’t very scenic”. Whoever wrote this, clearly didn’t take the same bus as I did.
Three and a half hours later we arrive in the coastal town of Rach Gia. It’s a miracle that our ticket was changed from 9 to 8am. We would never have made it in time for the 1:00 boat, which is the last to leave for Phu Quoc!
We buy our tickets and board the boat right away…no more time spent waiting! Well not exactly. We still have to sit and “wait” on the boat for the next two and a half hours. We’re almost there though!! There are more sappy love songs accompanied by long and really sad music videos. Someone always dies. I try to sleep, but the woman behind my seat on the boat keeps putting her foot up on my arm rest, and occasionally touches me with her cracked yellow nasty toe nail. It’s traumatizing and not a fun way to be woken up. Especially more than once.
The multitude of crying babies on board don’t help, either.
The sad love songs have changed, and now they’re airing an epic Japanese fighting movie. It’s more entertaining and all the dubbing is done by a female Vietnamese voice. It’s funny to see men yelling at and kicking each other, but with only one woman’s voice to accompany it. Strange.
We finally arrive in Phu Quoc at 4pm. Tamara has googled cheap hostels and saved the address for a place called Mushrooms. This will be interesting. We find a man with a van who offers to drive us to this Mushrooms place for 100,000 dong for the both of us. We easily talk him down to 80,000. He makes the assumption that we know the only other pair of foreigners on the boat, which we don’t, but we invite them to come check out this hostel with us anyway. The four of us pile into a van with a group of 10 Vietnamese men and are driven a long ways from the docks. At least we’re getting our 80,000 dongs worth. We learn that the other two travellers are from Germany and have just come up to Asia after working and traveling around New Zealand in a van, which is cool!
We arrive at Mushrooms, where an old British man with a huge white beard greets us and shows us to the $6/night dorm rooms. He seems like the kinda guy who would name a hostel “Mushrooms”. I try to bargain on behalf of everyone and negotiate paying an even $20 per night for all four of us, but he won’t budge and says $6 is the cheapest we’ll find on the whole island. I believe him, because we’re on an island and things do tend to be more expensive. We accept the price and settle in. The first thing I do is take a shower.
Tamara and I take a walk down to the beach, which is completely empty. I’ve made the mistake of leaving my iPhone in the hostel to charge. The sun is about to set and I am without a camera! We make our way over to a group of tall rocks that we can climb, and from where we can sit and admire the setting sun over the wavy ocean. I take the camera-less mistake and try to turn it into an opportunity to take in the sunset with my own eyes, instead of behind the lens of my phone. It actually makes a difference and I feel like I enjoy this sunset more than any other. We sit in silence for most of the time, and just watch the sun slowly fall to the sea-line.
We’ve had a long day. From sunrise in Can Tho to sunset in Phu Quoc, every moment of tedious travel by van, bus, boat, motorbike, and walking we did was worth it. Arriving in Phu Quoc feels like such an accomplishment and we are well rewarded by such a beautiful, calm, empty beach. Once the sun has dropped below the horizon we walk back up to our hostel.
I think we’ve come across a pretty great place, this Mushroom hostel. It’s far from full, but there are a few other backpackers around and everyone we meet seems super cool! An Italian guy makes a huge serving of pasta for everyone for dinner and we BBQ fresh fish. Everything tastes so great and is such a treat from our usual ritual of going in search of a cheap restaurant. It’s nice to sit around and chat with our hostel mates over a “home” cooked meal.
Eventually, a group of us move down the street to a place called The Pirate Cave. We are the only customers on this fine Monday evening, but we dance the night away anyway.