After spending almost a month in the Mekong Delta, much longer than we intended, it was time to head north for the remaining two months of our visa. But how to get there?
The straightforward route goes through Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and everyone will tell you that is the only way you can go. But, if you remember our exodus from HCMC, you’ll know why that was less than appealing.
Lacking any paper map, we consulted Google Maps for options (pro tip: bring a decent paper map before coming to Vietnam, as there are no good maps here, and Google doesn’t have the whole picture, especially when it comes to the minor roads).
While all roads north unfortunately lead through HCMC, Google shows several dotted lines snaking through water on the map – ferries! This was the perfect solution: avoid driving through the morass of HCMC, shave off a day or two of travel time, and get truly local.
The problem is, these ferries are so off the beaten path, no one knows anything about them. Beyond the dotted lines, Google has nothing to say about the ferries or even the “towns” from which they originate. We later found out why: many of these ferries don’t originate in towns at all – they are in the middle of nowhere.
We sought advice from folks in Cần Thơ and Bến Tre, but no one could tell us anything. This wasn’t completely surprising, as most of the Vietnamese we’ve met haven’t traveled far outside of their hometowns.
We came for adventure, and here it was, staring us in the face. We decided to go for it, lack of information be damned. After departing our hotel near Bến Tre, we set out for a dot on the map called Vàm Láng in hopes of finding the indicated ferry to Vũng Tàu, about 22 miles east across the South China Sea.
We rolled into Vàm Láng (and chaos) around 9:30 a.m. – the day’s catch had just come in, and there were easily 500+ people crowding the docks. We weaved through the bustling crowd, looking for any indication of a ferry. Nothing. Even if there was a sign, the odds of us figuring that out was slim to none anyway.
We finally found a helpful passerby, and after five minutes of wild gesticulating back-and-forth, learned that the ferry to Vũng Tàu leaves at 8:00 am. Of course.
On to plan B: take a ferry to the peninsula of Cần Giờ, then take a second ferry from there to Vũng Tàu. We set off in search of the ferry to Cần Giờ and promptly missed the turn off. After 25 minutes of backtracking, we bumped down a desolate dirt road toward a point on the map about eight miles away.
To my great disbelief, we ran headlong into a ferry about 20 minutes later, right as it was preparing to depart. This was some very serious luck. If the ferry hadn’t been there, fully loaded with bikes, stuff, and people, we would have assumed we made a wrong turn – i
t was truly the middle of nowhere.
Money changed hands ($1 each, including the bikes), the bikes got loaded, and we were slowly sputtering away from the dock just a few minutes after our arrival. Very impressive, and a bit surreal, as I was mentally preparing for plan C five minutes ago.
A word on the “ferry”: it was actually nothing of the sort and made the hydrofoil we took to Phú Quốc Island look like a cruise ship. This ferry was in fact a fishing boat by design – wooden and about 40 feet long – but a ferry in practice. With one bilge completely inoperable and the other working overtime to keep us from sinking, I hoped the trip would be a short one.
Mercifully, we crossed without incident, dropping off some foot passengers in the middle of a mangrove forest along the way. I may or may not have had a moment of sheer panic thinking we were to be offloaded at this spot as well and left to find our own way out. I was relieved when we continued on our way, watching these men disappear into the jungle armed only with buckets. As to their plans, your guess is as good as mine.
A few minutes before arriving at the dock, we were ordered below deck as the captain donned a life jacket, which he left unclipped. Apparently, this passes for safety with the government “inspectors.”
Back on the bikes, we sped down the peninsula to find ferry #2. We looked all over hell and creation on this peninsula, following every road that looked like it lead to a dock, and turned up nothing. With the afternoon
waning away, we had no choice but to find a hotel for the night and hope the staff there could provide guidance.
We settled on the Cần Giờ Resort, an easy choice since it is the only hotel in the area. It’s a massive resort on the ocean with a big restaurant, pool, spa, tennis court (used to hang laundry), and gym (a nook with exactly one exercise bike and one treadmill, both easily 20 years old). The only thing it lacked was guests. We only saw one other party while we were there.
this “ghost resort” gave us everything we needed: a place to sleep, confirmation that a ferry to Vũng Tàu exists , and the ferry’s departure time and place.
Early the next morning, we arrived at the appointed location, only to discover that the ferry in fact departed from a different location. Yet another helpful bystander informed us we were in the wrong place and offered to lead us to the right dock. Have I mentioned before that the Vietnamese are the friendliest, most helpful people on the planet? If so, it’s worth repeating again.
At this point, we had less than 10 minutes until departure. Not wanting to be stuck for another full day, we accepted the stranger’s offer, and after a French Connection-esque run around the peninsula, arrived without a minute to spare – that is, if the ferry had actually left on time.
After some confusing back-and-forth on the price, we handed over the dough (around $7 each, including the bikes), nervously watched our bikes get maneuvered down a steep and narrow plank, and hopped aboard. I am fairly certain we were massively overcharged, as I saw our “Good Samaritan” take a cut of the cash I forked over. So it goes.
This “ferry” was also a fishing boat, though larger than the one from the previous day. All passengers were required to ride underneath, most of which was so compact H couldn’t sit straight up. Luckily, we found a little standing space at the back … near the toilet, which was nothing more than a bucket with a view off the back. We roll in style.
We were soon chugging along at a decent clip through swirling brown waters, getting rocked occasionally by massive container ships, and exchanging smiles with some shy Vietnamese girls and their grandmothers. After about an hour and several seasick little girls later, we reached dry land and set off up the coast for La Gi, our stopping point for the day.
20 minutes later, my throttle cable snapped. No gas getting to the engine. In the middle of a massive and busy traffic circle. Yay.
In the process of getting that fixed (thankfully, there was a mechanic right on the other side of the circle), we discovered my right turn signal had been snapped when being offloaded from the ferry. Nothing a little electrical tape can’t fix. Total detour time: one hour.
Fast forward another hour, when the next catastrophe hit: H ran out of gas, 9km from the nearest town. There was no choice but for me to go on alone, buy a plastic water bottle, dump it out, and get it filled with gas to bring back to him, praying I wouldn’t run out of gas either and leave us stranded separately with no way to communicate. I should note that at this point, we had only enabled H’s phone to make local calls – this has since been rectified for obvious reasons.
I actually managed to accomplish most of this and was having a man help me tie down the gas canister to my bike when my supposedly stranded hubby rolled into the station. He had managed to get his bike started, and coasted most of the way into town. I was so disappointed to be robbed of my gallant hero moment.
So that, my friends, is how you get from the Mekong Delta north of Ho Chi Minh City without having to actually go through it. Told you so! I guess you could take a plane too, but where’s the fun in that?
Peace, love, and happiness -
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