The Cambodian coastline flashes by at nearly 30 knots from the port side of the Superdong I, a high-speed morning ferry from Phu Quoc to Ha Tien, Vietnam. After an hour and a quarter, the engines pull back and the ferry is docked at Ha Tien.
The Adventure Getting from Ha Tien to Chau Doc
Ha Tien is a coastal town that does not see many tourists, and thus, the hotels are typically catering to Vietnamese who come to holiday. From a foreigner’s perspective, it is usually used as a transit point from/to Phu Quoc, or to/from Cambodia. From Ha Tien, it is a straight shot to Cambodia’s coastal towns of Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville.
The passengers all try to squeeze through the narrow ferry exit at once. Eventually, your feet clamber up the steps and into the open-air ferry terminal, which lays to the west of the Giang Thanh River. Nearly instantaneously, taxi and motorbike drivers kick into action—but you walk on by.
As most of town, including the bus station, is located on the east side of the Giang Thanh River, you walk towards the dirt path that runs south to the To Chau Bridge.
“Excuse me, where you go,” yells out a round-faced Vietnamese kid, perhaps 18-years old. You inform him you are thinking of heading up to Chau Doc; he notes that there is a private car headed in that direction, and leaving from the waterfront in a little over an hour. He wants 250K VND and notes the car is air-conditioned. Still getting comfortable with the surroundings, you politely decline, and he scampers off towards the ferry terminal.
“Where you go?!” another asks as his motorbikes comes to a halt. You tell him you need to go to the bus station. He wants 60K VND and you tell him that is far too expensive, and that you will continue to walk. He counters that it is too far to walk, which makes you smile. You start to continue on and he asks how much you want it for, but declines your 30K VND offer. He races off.
“Moto! Moto!” another one quickly exclaims. You explain you need to go the bus station and want to pay 30K VND. He seems compliant to this price, but as he is giving you the helmet, the previous driver comes roaring into the scene. After engaging in, what assuredly is a turf claim on me, the cheaper driver shrugs and drives off.
“I take you, I take you,” the 60K driver says. Nearby is a woman spreading shrimp out on the sidewalk so that they can dry in the mid-day sun. You explain you need it for cheaper. He demurs and refuses. Kindly, however, he tells you that the direction you are walking is the wrong way, and that the way to the bridge is the other way.
Of course, his kind help is really just an effort to make you walk an extra-long route, perhaps in hopes that you may require his services. You start walking his way, tell him thank you, and he speeds off ahead. You then turn back around and head the correct way, as before, down a dirt path that cuts straight to the bridge you need to get to the other side.
Another motorbike driver appears. Amenable to 30K, but you doubt his understanding of English. “Bus station, do you understand,” you ask in several iterations. He keeps nodding his head yes while smiling, all performed in a mechanical way. He hands you a helmet, but you continue to try to ensure he knows where he needs to go. You grab a rock and start drawing a bus in the dirt, but the hardened ground makes it difficult to draw in good enough detail to see anything more than a mess. You gesture with your hands, no good. Just then, you see a bus drive behind him on a road in the distance. You point at it, but it is too late by the time he turns around.
Just then, the motorbike driver who was called off earlier shows up. He appears to know what the bus station is, and is amenable to 30K for the ride. The non-English speaking driver makes a last ditch effort but without knowing if he knows where to go, you can’t make that move.
Rolling along through the mid-morning air on the back of the motorbike, you explain you want to get to Chau Doc. He tells you the bus is leaving very soon. You ask how much if he takes you by xe-om there, which is a approximately a 90 minute ride, but he wants a hefty 400K.
Coming down off the bridge, you expect him to head north, in the general direction of the bus station, but he continues west. You figure he will take a right hand turn shortly—perhaps he is avoiding traffic as you are paying a fixed rate.
You come upon an abandoned gas station, with a gaggle of backpackers and a bunch of locals outside of a beat-up mini-bus. Your driver turns into the lot and exclaims,”Bus to Chau Doc!” You inform him that this is not the bus station, and you need to go to the bus station. The ringleader of the bus operation comes over and gives you a business card, pointing to the price of 120K VND. You immediately respond in Vietnamese, “very expensive!!” They start smiling and looking sheepishly at each other.
“Let’s go,” you remind your driver and pat him on the shoulder. “We go to the bus station, let’s go, bus station!” The gaggle of backpackers are watching in amazement, half-confused as to what is occurring (given that you interacted in Vietnamese with the bus lady). The driver tries one last effort for you to take the bus, but you won’t dismount the bike. You continue telling him you need to go to the bus station.
Back on the road, you are racing further westward, which makes little sense. In less than a minute, the driver pulls out his phone, puts it to his ear, waits about 10 seconds, and puts it in his pocket. The acting so poor that it doesn’t even register that a phone call could have even been made. He excitedly tells you that the bus has a new price of 80K VND. You chuckle.
You realize that you are totally flying blind. You don’t know how often buses leave from the Ha Tien bus station for Chau Doc. You don’t know how much they cost, although you have seen the price of 60K bandied about online. This might be the best option at hand, but caution is of course warranted. You tell the driver that he can bring you back to the gas station, and you might take that bus. If negotiations do not work out, he will need to bring you to the bus station.
And thus, moments later, you are pulling back into the gas station and the backpacking spectators. “Air-Con?” you ask the bus lady, using terminology you have heard previous in Vietnam. “No”. Then you require a window seat with a window that opens. You also require a seat with legroom. Do you drive direct with no stops to Chau Doc? “Of course” they respond but you hardly believe that one. The bus will leave at 1030 and will arrive by 1300, further providing fodder that stops are part of the itinerary, but you aren’t in any rush and given the immediate convenience, you agree. (It seemed that locals were paying 30K for the trip, although a day later, you were told it should be 60K, so 80K all in all was probably fine)
“Well my man, you only took me half-way to the bus station so you only get half,” you inform the shifty moto-driver. He understands enough of the sentence to understand his worst nightmare. “Bus, bus,” he says pointing at bus, trying to win the argument that he completed his mission. “No, no, no, we say 30K to go to Bus Station, you do not go to bus station, you go half, you get half,” you tell him. He is not happy, but you won’t back down. You give him 20K and shrug. He realizes perhaps that this isn’t a battle worth winning, and you board the bus (the front pictured below, half empty).
Sitting in a seat with no seat ahead of it, you can stretch out completely. The bus is quite worn, and the backpackers are jammed into the back like sardines in a can. One is quite tall and has his legs stuffed to his right, as the distance from seat to seat is minuscule. The bus kicks into gear, and lurches out onto the street.
In about a minute, the direct, non-stop bus is making its first stop in town, as the bus lady yells out the opened doorway if anyone needs a ride to Chau Doc. Of course, at this point, pretty much all the seats have been filled, or so it seems.
After many more rolling stops through Ha Tien, a handful more people have climbed aboard. People are being crammed further into the bus, with children now sitting on laps. Just outside of town, another stop is made and two giant sacks of what must be rice come aboard. They are loaded between your seat and the bench seat across the aisle. The passengers re-arrange yet again and now the sacks of rice are verified seats. The bus continues on.
After several stops to pickup and deliver mail, stops to pick up more passengers and rolling stops so that the bus lady can pick up a fresh juice, the bus is halfway to Chau Doc. As this is happening, she is speaking to you in Vietnamese, convinced you can understand. This is most likely because you negotiated with her in Vietnamese, and, you are tipped off each time you hear her say “very expensive” when telling a story to the driver, her assistant or other passengers. When this occurs, you crack a laugh as if you know exactly what she is saying (because you vaguely do).
The bus passes through a couple towns south of Chau Doc, and you continually are tempted to get off at one and figure out a lodging solution, knowing this would be quite the experience. But given that English penetration is somewhat low, and that you don’t even know the word for guesthouse—having forgotten it—you take the safer route and continue north.
Chau Doc, Vietnam
Eventually, somewhat on time, the bus pulls into a dirt lot southwest of downtown Chau Doc. As this is happening, the bus lady, who seems to admire that you weren’t a chump in Ha Tien, starts talking hurriedly to you in Vietnamese. You nod along, as if you understand. She pulls out a 10K bill from her stack and waves it around. It seems through deducement that it is time for you to get off the bus, and that it will cost 10K for a moto to get you into town. So you hop off the bus and start the moto negotiation routine again, this time going from 20K to 10K after just a quick walk away from the first driver.
Even though you have shown him where you intend to be dropped off (having no hotel set up), he pulls over to the side of the road and a kid comes out. “Where you stay? Where you stay?”. You pull out your phone, clenching it firmly and show him the map with an address starred. “Ahh, you are stay at XYZ Hotel, XYZ Hotel” he says.
Not knowing that you are not booked at any hotel, and that you have starred an address of a tourist agency (and not a hotel) that is connected to a homestay, you know this is foolishness, but you let them play their trick. The motorbike pulls back into traffic. One block too soon, he turns right. Now exactly one block from the address you had asked for, he pulls in front of, lo and behold, the XYZ Hotel. You give him the 10K VND, and start walking back the way you came so that you can round the block to where you wanted to go. He shouts at you that “this, here XYZ Hotel” is your hotel and asks where you are going. “To my hotel, thank you,” you respond without turning around.
Now you are sitting in the travel agency (41 Quang Trung) inquiring about the Chau Doc Homestay. You came across it online, but it seemed the addresses you found might not be correct, and given that it is quite far from downtown Chau Doc, you thought it wise not to go in search of it. Rather, you found that this place had some connection to it and hence, here you are.
The girl behind the desk gives you a price, but you tell her you can get it cheaper online. She then drops the price a little and says she was was giving you a price that included dinner (which of course you probably wouldn’t have gotten if you just took it without ensuring it included dinner). You realize quite well by now that virtually all prices float around with little grounding in most of Southeast Asia. You tell her it is still more than you think it should be, and she tells you that you have two free motorbike taxis now included in the price. You ask if the Chau Doc Homestay has WiFi and she tells you they do not. That is the end of that idea.
You inquire about other suggestions she may have for a good value, and she tells you that there are available units upstairs for $8/night. AC? Yes. Strong WiFi? Yes. Hot Water? Yes. You ask to see the room and she gives you the key. You head upstairs and find a room is reasonable condition for what you would expect. You pull out your phone and check the WiFi signal. It is almost non-existent. You head back down and inform her that the WiFi is too weak. She says you can of course connect in the lobby if need WiFi. You continue on.
You head northwest from the travel agency office a couple of blocks and arrive at Trung Nguyen Hotel (86 Bach Dang) which you had noted as a good fallback option if the need arose. You pull at the large glass doors. The lobby is clean and well put together. After checking out the potential room, noting WiFi, AC and shower pressure to be adequate, you settle on a fair price by excluding breakfast, which you will not be eating anyways.
So you have made it from Phu Quoc to Chau Doc in a half day, with hardly a plan and just a couple well-averted pitfalls.
Tra Su Bird Sanctuary / Tra Su Forest
You exit the air-conditioned Trung Nguyen Hotel, pushing the glass doors open, and hit the now familiar wall of warm ambient air. A young kid instantly asks, “Where you go? Where you go?”. For some reason, you say you are contemplating heading to the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary in Tra Su Cajuput Forest, which is located 45-minutes south of downtown Chau Doc.
His eye contact is very firm, focus unwavering, steely-eyed. “Okay, Okay,” he peppers back with a quick quarter-nod, “we do, we do.”
You give a weak, half-exasperated laugh. “No, no, too expensive,” you counter. You know this has been done before at around 150,000VND, although the price surely has risen a little bit. He asks how much, and after some non-productive back and forth, he wisely suggests exiting the sun-filled street, and you sit down in a nearby cafe to discuss.
What you want to do is go to Tra Su for sunrise or sunset. Some have told you it is best in the early morning because more birds are there. Some have told you it is best in the late afternoon because more birds are there. What difference I guess does it make? It is a fifty-fifty gamble.
“When is Tra Su better?”
“Morning,” he responds.
He finds some used paper, flips it over and starts writing as he explains why he is the best choice.
“I speak English, you speak me and understand and I show and tell you,” he notes as his first selling point. His stamina, however, is unwavering and even though the point has defeated the point, you admire the tenacity.
“I know good photo, we go Mekong River for photo,” he musters forth.
There is a curious balance between swimming with what might be sharks and getting killed and swimming with what might be sharks and having an exhilarating time. Touts and hawkers are usually best-avoided, as they have cut their teeth into sharp razor blades and can run circles around you and your budget. But this kid is different. His sales pitch and concentration is unrivaled by any 22-year old you know of back home, but even more amazing is that it appears he is working outside of his forte as a student and cyclo-driver. You get the sense he doesn’t ever offers day tours or motorbike rides, but that he merely has the entrepreneurial wherewithal to pursue a great opportunity as best he can. And because of this, you trust him a little more than otherwise—at least enough to hear him out.
The sun is not yet visible but the sky is illuminating as you sit on the steps of the hotel. A minute advances, and another as you stare at a cyclo-driver asleep on the side of the street. Five minutes past 0600, and then seven as you look left and right for the Cambodian kid with whom you verbally hashed out the agreement yesterday.
“Hey, how are you?”
“Where is your motorbike?”
Even though you have trusted him enough to make an agreement, no money was exchanged and things are still fluid enough that you can eject from the situation. You can still rent a motorbike from the hotel for $6 for a half-day and see Tra Su on your own. Your street senses are still in a heightened-state, as you continually are aware of the potential for a developing scam. It would be typical for one to build trust and then use that trust for gain.
He walks you to the other side of the street and points at “his” motorbike, a highly-worn Jupiter and not the good-conditioned Honda that he had told you about yesterday when you inquired what bike he had. A helmeted older gentleman is perched on the battle-tested seat and nods as the kid passes you the helmet which sits on the back of the seat.
“No, no, we made deal that you drive. You said you know English and that is why I should hire you. This isn’t what we agreed to yesterday.”
Some discussion quickly takes places in Vietnamese or Khmer, and the older gentleman reluctantly dismounts and reaches up to unbuckle his helmet.
“Okay, okay not problem, not problem,” the kid remarks. He appears to be projecting a heightened-level of confidence to overcome what you observe to be some nervousness. Your mind races through yesterday. The kid drives a cyclo for a job, not a motorbike. He doesn’t appear to give tours (which you had thought of only as an advantage).
He gets on the bike and takes the helmet from the older gentlemen who peppers off some sentences, which sound like stern instructions.
The fork in the road has arrived. You can walk away from it all, but that would mean walking away from your honor. You had agreed that he would drive you from here to there and to the bus. You had agreed he would arrive at 0600, which he roughly has. You agreed he would drive and be with you for the events, which is now appearing to be the case. But regardless, this is your last chance to eject.
You climb behind him, affixing your helmet. The older gentleman takes off his road glasses and hands them to the kid, but the kid responds and waves them off. The gentleman increases the tenacity, most likely trying to explain why glasses are so important. Your senses explode. If he was experienced with driving a motorbike, of course he would take the glasses. Who would want rocks and debris hitting them in the eyes? Has he driven a bike much?
“Do you know how to ride a bike?” you sternly ask as he fiddles about to start the bike after having waved off the recommendation for eye protection.
“Yes. Yes. I know”
Too much throttle, the bike lurches, a hard clench on the brake, the bike comes to an immediate bucking halt. You now realize that you have just waved off the experienced, perhaps meticulous, perhaps careful motorbike driver for a far less-experienced 22-year old who wouldn’t say no to anything.
The bike roars, or clatters, as it approaches the first intersection with increasing speed. A crossing motorbike—coming from left to right—appears, and the two are perfectly timed to intersect. The kid continues to accelerate and then just at the last moment, hits the brakes with force as the bike comes to a sudden halt. The other motorbike, and its older driver, swerves slightly to their left. Both bikes continue forward after the near miss.
“People are pointing at your bike and saying something, is there something wrong with the bike?” you yell to him. The question is almost meaningless given that it seems the bike is about to disintegrate at any moment. A far better question might be to ask what is not wrong with the bike.
“No problem, no problem!”
So you are flying down a variety of streets—narrow alleys, rocky dirt roads, over sand, multi-laned roads—with a young driver on a well-worn piece of equipment that is drawing a lot of attention. Your only protection is an under-sized, under-engineered helmet with a strap that would probably do more harm than good in any incident.
The bike climbs a steep bridge and somehow makes it to the apex. He cuts the engine to give you time to take in the scene. You tell him it is okay, but you just want to get to Tra Su, as the light is rapidly increasing. He agrees instantly. He kick-starts the bike, but nothing happens. He tries again. Nothing. He releases the brake and you start rolling down the steep bridge, now wondering if the brakes will work. The bike is gaining more and more gravity-powered speed but the bike isn’t starting. He applies the brakes which screech loudly but seem to have little impact to the speed, he lets off. Off the bridge, slicing successfully through passing traffic and out the other side and it finally coughs into action.
More pointing, more oncoming drivers yelling something. At this point, there is no more confidence to lose and you decide to just enjoy the rice paddies being illuminated by the morning sun.
“This is short cut,” he notes and we pull off onto a narrow dirt road heading east. By this point you realize that he does know how to drive a motorbike (even if its in a youthful, aggressive manner), that the motorbike is probably going to survive another day in its storied career and that this is just life playing out before you. If you were absolutely adverse to risks, you could have sat at home and watched television or just peered out a window. At some point, you have to trust—the random stranger that is offering a service, the old beat-up motorbike that is relied upon, the under-sized helmet that looks like a set prop. At some point, you have to trust your gut.
When you are roaring down a dirt path, with large rocks jutting out, sand patches lurking around each turn and rogue roosters suddenly racing across, you have the tendency to second-guess the decision-making of the driver. But you do not live here, you do not drive here and you do not really know how any of this works. Perhaps he has been down this path thousands of times before. Perhaps he knows how to rumble over a rooster with no ill-effect to the passengers. Who knows. The only thing that makes this feel unsafe is feeling that it is unsafe, so you decide to just enjoy the ride.
The bike starts riding over a bridge and he jolts it to a sudden halt. “Look!”
Beneath you, is a moving white cloud, an army marching; it must be thousands of ducks. They are all in such an ordered pattern, with such straight sides, and such uniform speed. In the distance is a Vietnamese man, a shepherd of sorts it seems. The ducks in their orderly procession walk along the dirt path and then swim into a river. It is hard to explain and harder to process the scene.
You realize immediately that the decision-making, the negotiating, the risks and the faith necessary for this somewhat unorthodox day trip were all worth it. If you had selected any other guide, or if you had gone in the afternoon, or if you had done the typical group tour, you would be missing this spectacular spectacle. Tra Su Bird Sanctuary was the goal on the treasure map but this is the treasure. The birds keep on coming.
You come to a halt at Tra Su. Water levels are one notch below maximum, as it is November, the end of the rainy season. The best time to visit is typically said to be somewhere towards the end of the rainy season, when water levels are highest.
You buy a ticket for 130K VND, which includes the boats and the drivers. You walk to the first boat and set off. The driver turns on the motor and you head down various canals. While some places promise a lot of wildlife and greet you with none, there is a considerable amount of birdlife in Tra Su. The trees are pretty well appointed with birds, which take to the air at the sound of the approaching watercraft.
Eventually the motored-boat comes to a bank with several beached boats. You transfer from one boat the next, changing drivers, and set off now in a quiet boat that is purely human-powered. It seems you head around in a circle for a bit and return. You then go by motored-boat to another area where there is a watch tower and some unnecessarily and poorly-caged animals (which acts as some sort of ridiculous de facto zoo).
The Tra Su forest area was completely bombed out during the war in the 1970’s, and was replanted and rebuilt shortly thereafter. (More about Tra Su here)
While there are various datapoints that suggest half-day and full-day tours of the forest and such, it seems that the default option is an hour or so boat tour. I am not sure what the value is of (or the procedure for) extending that further, unless searching for specific species.
Tra Su Bird Sanctuary is a nice activity but not something I’d recommend unless you are in the area for other reasons (or if you are a bird watcher and can figure out how to get a better in-depth tour which probably just takes asking alongside some money).
Life in Chau Doc
You are racing back, as the kid is attempting to call the Phuong Trang bus company to get you a reservation. You of course would much prefer he pull to the side to attempt this, but that is a wild thing to dream at this point. Before you know it, you have come across yet another Vietnamese highway infrastructure project. A large highway-like expanse it before you, with loose gravel and dirt. The road is still being prepped for final paving. Without flinching, the kid races onto this treacherous substrate.
Rocks are flying from motorbikes ahead. To counteract this, he gives the bike more throttle and passes more and more bikes. One bad angle, one bad turn, one bad patch of material or one area with debris and it will surely be a problem. You have made it this far, and now as you roar through the homestretch, the risks are highly escalated.
He continues to wince, his left hand fruitlessly attempting to block debris from his face. Finally it is just too much to accept, and you ask him to slow down just as he appears to be thinking of an alternative. He cuts the speed, turns through a cut-through between lanes and enacts a U-Turn on the highway-in-process. He heads over to large-jagged rocks on the shoulder and aims to drive over them.
“Should I get off before you…”
The tires are already gripping the rocks before it, the throttle being increased. Shifting rocks, the bike climbs little by little, before reaching the top and driving down the side, over bright yellow detour tape and soon you are on the rough, but safer pre-highway local roads.
She removes the fish from the hot oil, steam rising from its exterior. You point at it, and tell the kid you will have that, with rice. He doesn’t want any food so you sit down and start to eat. The skin is extra-crispy and seasoned perfectly. The white meat succulent, moist and tender. Perhaps one of the best fried fish you’ve ever had.
You jump back on the motorbike and head to the bus terminal. He runs inside and comes back out to tell you that you missed the bus by about a minute. But rather than leave you there to wait, he asks if you want coffee and you jump back on the bike for a mini-adventure.
After a couple turns, you are motoring down what appears to be a residential area, with dilapidated shacks, corrugated roofs, penned in roosters and trash littered in catch basins.
“This my house,” he notes as he opens the lock on the front door. As you have seen many times while looking at houses in Vietnam, there is no furniture inside. In the corner is a blanket on the floor with some netting around it. He hurriedly pulls out some school certificates to show you.
“Do you see upstairs? Go,” he mentions and you start climbing a rudimentary wood ladder. Your head poking above the thin boards that act as both ceiling and floor. Two empty rooms, one with a television in it, and nothing else. A reminder with how little one needs in order to live. You climb back down to the sight of him in clean clothes and watching the clothes he wore to Tra Su by hand.
“Where is your kitchen,” you ask, “for food? Where do you make food?”
It seems they either go to someone else’s house, or that they cook it in a setup outside or that they eat at a restaurant, but whatever the actual answer, they do not cook in the house.
You leave and walk towards a busier street, round the corner and sit at a cafe across the street. As you drink coffee, you watch a handful of motorbikes go screaming by dangerously at high rates of speed and through the busy intersection. Perched on their laps are large piles of cargo as they deftly maneuver through uniformed schoolchildren on bicycles and the other general traffic.
The kid looks at you once your eye loses sight of the motorbikes and you return your stare to the kid. “Cigarette smugglers with Cambodian cigarettes,” he explains, as he lights up a cigarette. You take another sip of the iced coffee, and gently place it back down.
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