Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mekong River Delta - The yin and the yang

Today was an exercise in appreciating the principle that there must be opposition in all things.  And by "appreciating", I mean "feeling really annoyed by" (for the most part, anyway; by the end of the day things sort of balanced out). 

Having seen the major sights in Saigon yesterday, we set aside today for a day trip to the Mekong River Delta.  It's a vast region in southern Vietnam laced with myriad waterways and mangrove forests.  We wanted to see the famous floating markets and whatever else there was to see. 

We booked a trip with a travel agency called "Viet Fun" and were picked up this morning by a guy wearing a t-shirt with the words "peace and happiness."  Turns out the agency should have been called Viet Incompetence, with the words "irritation and annoyance" on the shirts.  Seriously, people, it cannot be that hard to run a decent tour.  If the Guatemalans can do it, there's no excuse for the Vietnamese. 

Based on the description on the website, we thought we'd have a two-hour drive to the delta, followed by a visit to the floating markets, a fruit-tasting at an orchard, a guided bike tour of some islands, visits to a local honey farm and candy-making shops.  There also would be lunch; we purchased the "deluxe" option.  Bucolic bliss, right?

Wrong.  What actually happened, was this:  Mr. Peace & Happiness picked us up late from our hotel and then shoved us into a crappy bus with about 25 other tourists and told us that we'd arrive in the delta in three hours (not the predicted two).  We drove for only an hour and then stopped at a tourist trap with specific instructions to be back on the bus in 15 minutes.  MORE THAN AN HOUR LATER, we're still sitting in the sweltering heat and humidity wondering why the hell we aren't leaving.  Meanwhile the bus driver and tour guide are sitting at a restaurant eating a full-on lunch.  When we finally asked them what was going on, the first story was that the bus had a flat tire.  The second story was that they had overbooked the tour, and so they had more people (32) than the bus could actually hold (28).  Neither of these stories was plausible, though, because our bus was sitting in the driveway right in front of us (no flat tire) and when the driver finally finished his lunch, we climbed back in that same bus (without leaving anyone behind) to continue our trip. 

By the time we got to the delta (four hours after leaving Saigon!), we had completely missed the floating market, so the guide just kind of waved generally in the direction of where it normally stood.  Then we went to another outrageously priced tourist trap where a couple of people in back rooms demonstrated how to make what essentially amounted to Rice Krispy treats.  Which would have been about as interesting as watching somebody make Rice Krispy treats at home if I could have seen the people.  Instead, there were so many other tourists in the room that I could barely see anything at all.

Then, THEN, the guide rounded us up and told us we were going to a honey farm.  Guess what a Vietnamese honey farm is, people.  Just take a wild guess.  Give up?  It's called bees.  Bees make honey.  JUST LIKE THEY DO EVERYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD.  And a single beehive sitting behind an algae-filled tub of water does not a "honey farm" make. 

Me and the beehive honey farm
And that was it.  No orchards, no fruit, no wandering through rural villages.  Nada. 

Fortunately, they did have the presence of mind to feed us.  Lunch involved our getting back in the big boat and driving for about 30 minutes, then getting into small rowboats and rowing for another hour, and then getting out on land and walking for another twenty minutes on a muddy track through the jungle until we got to Cambodia a seedy-looking pavillion with tables. 

There's Vanessa in the front, in the blue shirt.
Lunch was quickly served (keep in mind that it was now past 2pm, and we had left the hotel at 7:30am) and we discovered, to our horror, that "deluxe" apparently meant "Jurassic". 

I think it's an ancestor of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
To be fair, the monster piranha was better than nothing.  And it was fun to get to know the Chilean couple that sat with us -- they had great things to say about Malaysia.

After lunch was time for the "bike ride."  That consisted of the guide's pointing to a pile of mangled old bikes and saying, "Pick out whatever bike you want.  You have ten minutes to ride around and get back here so we can go back to the boat."  That's it.  Ten minutes of unsupervised biking in the middle of nowhere in southern Vietnam.  Which might have been more interesting if there had been more than one road on the island.  But there wasn't.  So I picked out a rusty Huffy dirtbike from 1988 and instantly caught tetanus and lead poisoning, and then headed out with Vanessa to ride our alloted five minutes out and five minutes back.  Woo.


You'd think that would be the end of the woes, right?  Nope.  I'll skip the part about the high-maintenance Russians freaking out about having to ride bikes and ditching the group to call a private car to get them back to Saigon (from an island where I'm pretty sure no private car has ever been), and the high-maintenance Asians who pretended that bikes that were too small for them were too large, so that they could get a ride on a motorbike back to the boat.  And I'll also fast forward over the afternoon rainstorm and the fact that we had to stop AGAIN at the freaking tourist trap on the way back into town, where we got the same "15 minutes" instructions but predictably ddn't leave for about 30 minutes (this time there was no pretense about any flat tires -- the driver and guide just wanted their supper). 

The real kicker on the return trip was this:  After the dinner stop, when we all just wanted to be put out of our misery, the guide came to the back of the bus and got everyone's attention:  "Excuse me.  From here we have another hour and forty-five minutes back to Saigon.  We'll be traveling on back roads that are crowded with motorcycles and other local traffic.  Or we can take the freeway that will have us back to Saigon in a little under an hour."  The entire bus voted instantly for the freeway.  "Okay," said the guide, "but there's a toll, so everyone is going to have to chip in a few cents to pay for it."  Really?  REALLY?  You've got 30 people on a bus, each of whom paid at least $25 or $30 dollars to be here, and you can't pay a sixty-cent toll?  Good grief. 

At this point, I was ready to just pay the toll myself -- but some blessed soul in the front of the bus beat me to it.  So we got the fast(er) trip home.

That was the yin. 

As we climbed out of the bus and stretched our aching legs, Vanessa and I looked at each other and agreed that we couldn't let our final day in Vietnam be marred by a day like this.  We've had such a wonderful time in this country, with so many good memories (honestly, this trip ranks as one of my best trips ever), and we really wanted to leave on a positive note.  A really positive note.  In other words, we needed dinner.

Enter the yang.

When Neville Dean, the Aussie who ran the food tour in Hoi An, heard that we would be visiting Siagon, he recommended a restaurant named May and gave us a business card with the address.  By a stroke of pure luck (or was it karma?), Vanessa just happened to have that card in her pocket at the very moment when dinner had become an imperative.  We didn't even go back to the hotel -- we simply hailed a cab and went directly there. 

It wasn't easy to find; the cabbie had to hunt for quite a while through the small side streets before he found it.  But as we pulled up, we knew we were in for something special.


The restaurant is housed in a huge, beautifully maintained colonial mansion in one of the tonier parts of town, near the river.  We walked in and were greeted warmly.  We dropped Neville's name and were greeted even more warmly -- the Maitre d' came out and greeted us personally and oversaw our seating and ordering.  And it was the best kind of ordering:

Maitre d':  Here's the menu.

Us:  [after flipping quickly through the pages]  It all looks great.  We're putting you in charge.  We're tired of prawns and squid, but we're open to anything and everything else.  Surprise us and make us happy!

Maitre d':  Okay!

Then followed one of the best meals I've had in a very long time. 

Heart of palm salad with pork
Vegan fried spring rolls (with mushrooms)
Fresh spring rolls with shredded pork
Seabass filet with passionfruit sauce
Pork in clay pot with eggs
Stir-fried zucchini flowers with garlic
Wraps filled with exotic fruits and fruit salsa with mint
The food was FANTASTIC.  So many flavors!  Such fresh ingredients!  Such subtlety in the pairing of sauces and dishes!  Between the quality of the food and the excellent treatment from the Maitre d' and the wait staff, this experience compared nicely to my experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and New York.  (For those of you reading who are familiar with "wow" moments while eating, there were two in this meal: the vegan springrolls and their accompanying dipping sauce, and the seabass with passionfruit sauce.)

This meal was exactly what we needed.  The perfect way to end our stay in Vietnam.  Once we'd polished off the last drop of passionfruit ice cream, we made our way home to the hotel to pack our bags and arrange for airport transport in the morning.  At 6:55am we fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to begin the next adventure.  See you on the other side!


Anonymous said...

I have been deeply impressed at how well everything has gone for you two thus far. I was wondering if it was too good to be true or if it really was going to end up a "happily ever after" trip. Well, sorry this outing was such crap-ola! But, dinner does look just fabulous! Wishing you all ther best as you carry on. Lady

The Atomic Mom said...

Ok, not to engage in schadenfreude...but holy cow, that was sadly funny. I'm sorry!

But hey, good dinner!

Anonymous said...

I just re-read this post, a couple of times. This outing was awful, but holy cow, I laugh more every time I read it. It is tragically funny and I can hear your tone of voice. :) Lady

chitarita said...

A) As is so often the case when everything goes wrong, I think you found your best story of the trip!


2) Yay! The beard is back!