I checked out of my hotel in Saigon, caught a bus to the bus station and got on a minibus to Chau Doc, a town close to the Cambodian border from where I intended to catch a boat to Phnom Penh the following day.
I’ve travelled a few times by minibus in Vietnam. They’re always crowded, with just enough legroom for someone a foot shorter than me, and no space to store luggage. The driver will play a DVD or music at such a loud volume that it’s impossible to listen to an MP3 player over the din. Vietnam has a kind of comedy similar to Chinese crosstalk that I’ve seen played on most minibuses I’ve been on. Perhaps it’s funny, but to someone who doesn’t speak Vietnamese, it’s just a couple of men (and sometimes women) shouting at each other in very shrill voices. For hours and hours on end.
Sometimes the buses stop for 10 or 15 minutes for no reason that I can ascertain. I’m not talking about toilet stops – they have those too (and I took the picture above at one of them) – just stops for no apparent reason. Anyway, when the bus stops, hawkers will often open the door and try to sell drinks, snacks and French bread.
At one stop, a man with a plastic tray of pirate DVDs hanging from his neck opened the door. He tried to sell me a Christina Aguilera DVD but I wasn’t interested, so he turned his attentions to the Vietnamese man in front of me. This man, about my age, had a withered hand and looked like he might not be quite right in the brain. He spent a long time looking through the DVDs, selected one and paid for it.
I looked over his shoulder to see what he’d chosen. Child pornography. On the cover were three naked white girls with pigtails – I’d guess they were 13 or 14. The elderly woman sitting next to him asked to see what he’d bought. He handed her the DVD and she didn’t appear to be shocked. I wish I’d understood what she said. Another man saw me looking and rolled his eyes as if to say ‘boys will be boys’.
The six hour bus journey became a seven and a half hour bus journey after we got a flat tire. We arrived in Chau Doc at about 5pm and I walked a couple of kilometres (passing the temple above) to the town centre. I was just about to check into a hotel when I realised that I’d made a very stupid mistake. When you check in to a hotel in Vietnam, you give them your passport and they give you the key. When you check out, you give them the key and they give you your passport. But that morning, they hadn’t given it back to me. I’d left my passport in Saigon.
I thought I could return to Saigon the following day to collect it, but the hotels refused to allow me to stay without a passport. So I walked back to the bus station and, at 7pm, caught the bus back to Saigon. We arrived at about 2am, long after the city buses had stopped running, so I got a taxi to the hotel, woke up the hotel staff to get the passport, took a taxi straight back to the bus station, and then, at 4am took the first minibus of the day back to Chau Doc. Though it was early in the morning, and every passenger on the bus was trying to sleep, the driver played a DVD of a five-hour-long awards ceremony at ear-splitting volume.
I arrived in Chau Doc, found a hotel and fell asleep – glad to finally get some rest after 20+ hours on minibuses. By the time I woke up and went to book my boat ticket to Phnom Penh, the tickets had sold out. So, on top of wasting a lot of money and time, I had to spend an extra day here and delay my arrival in Cambodia.
Everything I’ve read on the internet about Chau Doc uses the same adjective – ‘friendly’. I can only assume that the people of Chau Doc have taken a personal disliking to me, because I’ve found them to be fucking horrible. I’ve been followed relentlessly by ‘motorbike men’ and ticket touts, and had some of the worst restaurant service I’ve ever experienced. Whereas in other parts of Vietnam people might shout ‘hello’ or wave at a foreigner, here they laugh, point and sneer.
I hope I won’t make the same mistake again – I already have ‘passport’ written on the back of my hand so I remember it when I check out in the morning.