Our worst trip experience thus far: Mekong Delta tour with one aggressive and crazy tour guide!

Our RTW trip thus far has consisted of mostly “do it yourself” planning and travel, but when arriving in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) in the south of Vietnam, we decided to let a tour company take us for a whirl around the Mekong Delta and over the border to Cambodia. And—YIKES—what a WHIRL it was!

Let this be a lesson to you for any future travel planning you may do: ALWAYS, repeat ALWAYS research online when selecting a tour company in another country, especially if you plan to spend any time overnight. Normally, we research EVERYTHING, which has kind of been the bain of our existence lately on this trip (we keep saying, “Why can’t this be easier and less time consuming!?”), but by the time we reached southern Vietnam—and close to the 5 month mark of traveling–we were becoming utterly exhausted of planning and traveling.

So after booking—and really enjoying—a half day tour of the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon with a local travel agency, we figured this travel agent would also be reliable for booking a tour of the Mekong Delta. Upon comparing our options, we heard about the cheap and easy tours of the Mekong Delta that would not only offer an “exciting” experience around the waterways in the delta, but would ALSO get us onward transportation to Cambodia, which was our next stop. Easy, done, SIGN US UP!  We were ready for a fun and exciting 3 day, 2 night tour of the Mekong Delta (starting June 21st) which would take us across the Vietnam/Cambodia border and drop us in Phnom Penh.

The first day events were OK, and actually mildly enjoyable, even though most activities revolved around trying to get us tourists to buy “participating products” and have us engage in activities where tips were expected (which was unexpected for us since the tour was supposed to be all inclusive and tips are not common practice in Vietnam). First, we visited a honey farm and got to see thousands of bees and honeycombs, followed by a short sit-down to a small amount of honey tea and some honey products while bees swarmed all around our heads. Fun. Next, we took a short boat ride down some narrow, jungle-like waterways, as two women vigorously paddled, paddled, paddled us like crazy through the area. Their strength and energy was surprising and impressive, and the experience was fun,

Filling lunch… NOT!

but the enjoyment died out when the women hassled us for tips at the end of the 10-minute session. [See a video of our paddle boat ride here.] Next, we visited a coconut candy factory and learned how the candy was made from start to finish. After a pretty pathetic lunch (you should look at the photos we posted from our tour to see the ridiculously small size of the pork that was given in our meal), where the tour guide tried to upsell everybody for a very expensive fish plate, we stopped at another location for some fruit tasting and local music. Once again, tips were expected.

This next part is where the tour group became a bit divided:  James and I signed up for an “authentic homestay” with a family that lives along the Delta and we actually paid a bit extra to do so, while others on the trip were being bussed off to a hotel for the night. We had been told that we would actually stay in the house of a Vietnamese family and cook dinner with them for the night. We were excited about this experience, but slightly nervous as what to expect, as we thought it would be just the two of us—or at most the two of us with another couple—staying as a guest at a family’s house.  We loaded into a tiny boat with all our luggage and two other American guys (a slightly unnerving experience, as the boat was pretty small for the amount of weight we piled in), and after put-putting down waterways past many houses on stilts, we soon arrived at our accommodations for the night: A whole separate buildingwith a row of rooms somewhere NEXT to the family’s house.  Hmmm… OK.  We quickly realized this was NOT going to really be an authentic “homestay” like we were promised, and our suspicions were definitely realized once we sat down for dinner with 12+ OTHER TOURISTS, as random women came and served us food. Not really the staying-with-a-Vietnamese-family-in-their-home-and-cooking-dinner-with-them” experience that we had been told we would receive. On the upside, the food was really delicious and we had fun chatting with the two American

Our “authentic” Vietnamese homestay, eating with two American guys 🙂

guys over beers and cheap Vietnamese rice wine shots, but when you PAY MORE to have a supposed HOMESTAY and are told you are staying IN a Vietnamese family’s home with them, you feel pretty ripped off to discover that’s not the case. Especially when the man who runs the household and owns the place barely even interacted with us and we pretty much felt like we were staying at a hotel and being served at a restaurant.

[To see a daily video summary of our tour from DAY ONE, click here.]

The second day of the tour was a total joke. We visited a “floating village” where loads and loads of fruit vendor boats kept hassling our group to buy many different items from them.  Then we visited a rice noodle factory and another rice— something?—factory (I still don’t know what it was or why we were there) and spent a lot of time sitting around, bored.  At one point, we were dropped off in one town and told we had two hours to get lunch and wander around (in the rain), but at the arranged meeting time the guide was NOWHERE to be found and showed up 45 minutes later, as we all sat around and waited. At this point, the two American guys asked to end their tour early and be taken back to Saigon, as it was a waste of their time to stay any longer (even though they had paid in advance for a three day tour).  For us, though, our plans were to continue to Cambodia, so we were “stuck” at that point. Oh well . . . it wasn’t HORRIBLE at this point, so we continued on.

The guide was WAY more interested in conversing with the driver than paying us ANY attention at all!

Next, we loaded into a private van and were surprised to find we were actually the only ones continuing on! However, the new “tour guide” in this van never introduced himself, nor told us what the plans were for the rest of the afternoon. And when we kept trying to ask questions about where we were going or if he could give us any information about the cities we were passing through, we were either flat-out ignored (literally as if he didn’t even hear us) or were given short answers. The man was definitely more interested in conversation with the van driver than having to even acknowledge we were there. Shortly thereafter, the van stopped at one place and we were told this was a crocodile farm, and we should go wander around. Um… OK… alone?  Fortunately, some girl that supposedly worked there came and walked along with us, but she barely spoke English and couldn’t really tell us much or answer any of our questions. So we basically walked and looked at a bunch of sleeping crocodiles, and then were hussled afterwards into a shop that sold crocodile handbags, shoes, belts, and more… and kind of felt pressured to buy something!  We didn’t give in, though, and just went back to the van afterwards.

[To see a daily video summary of our tour from DAY TWO, click here.]

We finally arrived at our hotel for our last night, which was listed as a “floating hotel.”  Basically, the concept seems pretty nice: it’s a hotel that sits right on the water, with a lovely patio out front to sit and watch the boats go by.  But when you’ve booked a place with a lousy tour company, and you’re in a lower class part of Vietnam, it’s highly likely you’re going to be put up in a crappy “floating hotel.”

After months of lower-cost hotels that often had ants and/or the occasional cockroach, we weren’t expecting much at this point in our travels, and with the added fact of the tour being such a joke, we were expecting the worst. And THE WORST it was!  As we huddled under the mosquito netting that night in a gross bed, we soon discovered we were not the ONLY creatures inhabiting our room that night: there was a rat rummaging

The lovely “rat hole” in our hotel room, covered up by wooden planks!

around in our trash!! James got up and scared the little fellow away and followed him to a hole in the floorboards. We discovered that river rats had previously chewed through the floorboards in the corner of the room, and the hotel “fixed” this problem by simply putting a couple wooden planks over the hole and pushing the bed on top. Nice. After securing the boards and bed on top of the hole, we finally drifted off to sleep hours later, hoping the next day would be better than the two days prior.

Ugh… it was exactly THE OPPOSITE!

When we were having breakfast that morning, our NEW “tour guide” for the day—let’s just call him WORTHLESS IDIOT for comedic relief—came up to us to give us information about when the boat was leaving. Today was the day we would cross the Vietnam border into Cambodia. We inquired, for probably the fourth time, about the online Cambodian e-visas we had already purchased. See, for once we were WAY ahead of the game and had purchased our Cambodian visas online a week prior so that we didn’t have to deal with getting them at the border . . . but then we read online afterwards that this COULD potentially be a problem if we were crossing the border by boat. However, the travel agent and every other guide on our tour said it would be just fine, so we went ahead and booked the whole tour anyway. But now our new tour guide, WORTHLESS IDIOT, was telling us that e-visas were NOT accepted at the border we were crossing. At this point, with the crappy tour overall, the rats that kept us up half of the night, and now a guy telling us our Cambodian visas we already paid for were NO GOOD— ugh, we were just OVER it all! We just wanted to get across the damn border to Phnom Penh and kiss this tour GOODBYE!

But we still had half a day of tour and traveling to go . . .

James and I were now joined by another couple on yet another boat, along with ALL our luggage, and we were off onto the delta again. We were first taken to a local fish farm, which was somewhat interesting, but WORTHLESS IDIOT really didn’t say much or tell us anything, and we had to ask a lot of questions to even get ANY information out of him. Next, we were taken to a “minority village” and were pretty much left on our own and told we could “just go walk around” the town for the next hour! Huh!?? We didn’t know where we were, it was raining, and now were told to just wander around a town that was basically residential houses and such. We reluctantly walked around a bit with the other couple, and soon we had some villager woman who began tagging along with us. We were confused what she was doing, as she walked along with us for awhile,

Wandering around aimlessly in a tiny village, with a native woman following us…

was smiling a lot, and pinching James’ arm. After getting a bit lost and finally returning to the dock (in the rain), the woman started yelling at our tour guide in Vietnamese, which we later found out she was ANGRY that they were just dropping off tourists in their town to wander aimlessly. LOVELY.  WORTHLESS IDIOT totally waved her off in a disrespectful manner, and we walked down to the dock.

Back on the boat and we had an hour until we got to the Cambodian border. Soon, we docked at this tiny building, which we didn’t realize yet was the Cambodian border patrol house. We were instructed to get our luggage, and we all really struggled to get everything from the boat to the dock (without falling into the water), and then UP A LADDER (think about trying to lug a heavy suitcase up a ladder by yourself!) while the stupid WORTHLESS IDIOT just stood up on top, watching this all go down. I felt bad for the older woman with us, who almost fell trying to get her stuff up. It was just plain ridiculous that the guy just stood there, and he was even CHUCKLING at us!

Anyway, so we get inside and WORTHLESS IDIOT gets irritated and angry because he needs some kind of receipt from us and the couple from the beginning of our tour 3 days ago “to make sure he gets paid” as he says, but none of the four of us could seem to find it. After a bunch of ruffling around while the guy got aggressive and crazy, we finally scrounge up some random paper with a handwritten number on it, and WORTHLESS IDIOT is finally content with that. At this point, we once again talk to him about using our e-visas (that we had ordered online last week and paid $50 already) to get into Cambodia, to which he replied that we now needed to pay him ANOTHER $50, because the e-visas were “no good.” We start arguing about how HORRIBLE this tour company is and how we were told by THREE other tour employees that we COULD use the e-visas, and of course WORTHLESS IDIOT starts getting worked up and says it’s absolutely NOT his problem and if we want to cross the border, we have to pay more money. Meanwhile, I

Yo, I’m a PSYCHO tour guide!

captured some of this insanity on my camera in video and picture form… but then it’s like something snapped with the guy:  he started berating us for being American, talking about how his grandfather killed our grandfathers in the war, was getting up in our FACES, angrily yelling and said he “knows people” and can “throw us in jail FOREVER!” (haha, what a stupid remark to make!)  He said he has the authority to NOT let us cross the border and would just abandon us there. It was utter ridiculousness!!

At some point, WORTHLESS IDIOT calmed down a little and said that if we want to cross the border we would have to pay the extra visa money AND delete the photos I took of him.  He took a moment to walk away to cool off and we were all just sitting there in disbelief.  I mean, this guy is SUPPOSED to be a “tour guide” that is paid and hired by a tour company to escort tourists over the border, that’s it!!!  The unprofessionalism was beyond words, and both James and I were shaken up by the whole situation… but we DID know we weren’t in any GREAT harm, as there were plenty of other people around in the building, so if he had taken any physical action upon us there were plenty of witnesses around. We also knew there was no way he could put us in jail… that was just an ignorant and strictly emotionally-driven comment to even make. But we WERE worried he would say something to somebody at the office there and not allow us to cross the border.

When the guy returned, I showed him my camera and deleted the photos I took, and we reluctantly handed over another damn fifty bucks for our second Cambodian visas. After waiting a half hour to an hour in the waiting room with the other couple, the guy returned with all our passports with our new Cambodian visas, and we all walked together down a few streets and across the Vietnam/Cambodia border.

As we parted ways with WORTHLESS IDIOT, he “apologized” and said everything is fine now and, “Forget about it, my friend!” with a smile. We said the same back to him (which was obviously a lie), but here’s the BEST PART of the story: WE got the last laugh, as I actually still had a VIDEO of him I secretly transferred to my laptop!!  Not only does the video show the guy yelling and being aggressive, but we were also able to pull photo stills from the video of the man in action.

Once we exited Cambodia and felt at a safe and untraceable distance from Vietnam and away from WORTHLESS IDIOT, we sent the photos and a HUGE written complaint to the tour company.

Action or retribution from the company is yet to be determined, but somehow the satisfaction of capturing and keeping the video and photos (and at some point posting them all over the internet with bad reviews) is justice enough for us.

Bye bye, Vietnam!  It’s really too bad our travels in Vietnam had to end this way, but at least our other amazing experiences in the country were memorable enough to outweigh these few days of tour craziness!

Again, lesson to be learned: do your online research before booking any international tour. We’ll remember that next time we think about booking a tour… if there IS a next time! 🙂

 

To see photos from our Mekong Delta to Cambodia experience, click here.

 

One month…

As of yesterday, I will be on a plane to Spain in EXACTLY ONE MONTH!!

I really can’t believe it’s sneaking up so fast. I’m starting to panick about getting everything packed, stored, sold, etc, in time!  I’ve been doing pretty good, though, with prepping for the big move… every day I’m organizing something, packing something, selling something on ebay.  I can just trust that it will all work out in the end and it will be wonderful once I step foot on that plane and close my eyes….

Good news updates:
—My VISA was processed and I picked it up last week, whoo hoo!!  Everything is completely set now,,, with me being able to enter the country, etc.
—My work has finalized my approval to KEEP MY JOB WHILE I AM IN SPAIN and just telecommute!!!!!!  Yep, that’s right… I’m THAT good (haha j/k)!   I will continue my full time position while I’m in Spain and just attend our normal online meetings, and keep in full contact with my boss and our marketing team in Boston.  It is fortunate that the type of work I do only requires a computer, telephone, and internet connection!
—In addition, I still can do my freelance work for Deborah, the woman I work for on the weekends.  Money money money,,,, money!

Bad news update:  The guy in San Sebastian who has been such a wonderful contact and connection, Txema, got a fantastic job offer in Barcelona and is moving away!!!  He had offered for me to stay with him when I arrive in San Sebastian until I find an apartment,,, but now he will be gone by the time I get there!!  dammit!!!  I realized through apartment hunting that I would rather wait until I get there, so that I can look at the apartments in person before agreeing to rent…  so I’m just going to have to find other options.  We’ll see . . .

Meanwhile, just trying to pack things up, sort things out, send stuff to goodwill, sell stuff on ebay (man, have I banked a LOT of money selling shit on that site!!), and figure out what I’m storing and what I’m bringing along.  Also, dealing with health insurance, dog stuff, TONS of technical issues (I bought a new laptop and need to set it up with all the software I need… plus I have to consolidate all my billions of files from my three computers down to one, and figure out what files I’ll need to bring with me to Spain.)  I’m getting nervous about selling all my stuff in time… especially my car!  I had to get a ton of updates, etc, and fixing it up in the past month and thats been stressful as well.

SIGH!

But at least I’m actually not “freaking out” as much as anybody would think!  I’m just taking it one day at a time, knowing that I’ll get it all done eventually.

For now… I’m just taking in every moment I spend with friends, taking “mental snapshots” of times together, and keeping them stored in my mind for the year ahead while I am away.

Moving to Spain checklists

Moving, in general, is a big task. There are things to sort through, things to throw out or sell, things to pack up and move, utilities to set up, etc., the list is endless.

Now, try moving to a foreign country.

First, you have to obtain a Visa to be able to stay in a European country for more than 3 months.  I wanted to get a work Visa so I can make money while I am there, but this proved to be almost impossible… the Spanish government really doesn’t want Americans working in their country, so pretty much the ONLY way you can work there is if you are working at a U.S. company that transfers you to a branch in Spain.  Or, you can marry a Spaniard. Hmm, NOT SO FAST!! 🙂

Next, I looked into if it was possible to work freelance graphic design and photography as “my own company” but to get an “independent work visa” the Spanish government requires you to prove you have over $100,000.00 in savings. Um, nope, don’t have that! So my last route was to just sign up for some type of schooling and get over to Spain on a student Visa.

When looking for schooling, I chose the program that had the least amount of classes (all spanish language classes), and meantime I plan to do freelance work for people in the U.S. while I’m in Spain. Nice to have a job you can do from anywhere in the world with just a laptop and a phone, hey?

So now comes the process of getting a student Visa.

I guess I never realized just how many hoops you have to jump through — and that a foreign consulate makes you jump through — to get a Visa until I started this process. It’s kind of crazy what they request, and it makes you wonder, “Does the US make people go through this process to come to our country?” You would think so, but with the criminals and terrorists that leak their way into our system, you have to wonder exactly what process they go through to get here…

Here is what I need to do to get a student visa for Spain (for a stay of 6 months or more):
1. Fill out their Visa application (basic info, but a bit lengthy)
2. Two passport-type photos
3. Passport (you have to turn it in to the consulate office for the month or so when they are processing your visa)
4. Acceptance letter from the Spanish School you are attending, along with a ton of other information about the school and proof of payment, etc.
5. Proof that you have at least $2,257.00 for every month you plan to be living in Spain. Wow!
6. Evidence of health insurance during your entire stay in Spain.
7. Medical certificate from a doctor in the US indicating you have been examined and found in good physical and mental health to travel and study abroad, and free of contagious diseases. Must be in English, as well as translated into Spanish.
8. A certificate of good conduct from the LA police department stating an absence of police records… and after obtaining this letter, you have to take it somewhere else to get legalized with “Apostille of The Hague” Also must be in English and also translated into Spanish.
9. Proof of airline reservation to Spain
10. Visa Fee of $100

Once you have gathered all these materials, you have to make an appointment with the Spanish Consulate and hope that everything you have is legit and to their standards! Then you have to surrender your passport for the one-to-two months or so that it takes to process your visa! Phew!

And then, once I get to Spain, I will have to make an appointment with the Spanish Police to get a student ID card.

In addition, in order for me to bring Sonny to Spain, I have to take him to the vet for the following:
1. Dog needs to be microchipped with a Europe ISO compatible microchip ($75 for the chip, plus vet fees, etc), and then needs to be registered with the Spanish government.
2. One official certificate signed and stamped by a vet declaring the animal has been vaccinated against rabies. (in English, and also translated into Spanish)
3. One official certificate signed and stamped by a vet stating the animal has been under his supervision for three months previous to import into Spain. (in English, also translated into Spanish)
4. If you choose to do so, you should also get your pet vaccinated against leptospirosis, parvovirus, hepatitis, distemper, and kennel cough.
5. Obtain health and travel insurance for your pet.

Once you arrive in Spain, you dog should also be examined by a Spanish vet, and you should go through the process of obtaining a “pet passport” if you plan to travel throughout Europe with your pet.

And this is only the START of it all!

The BIG things on my to-do list in regards to moving from LA and moving to Spain include:
1. Surrendering my apartment
2. Sorting through ALL of my belongings and figuring out what I can box up, what I’m taking with, what I have to pay to store, what I can sell, etc.  I’m hoping to leave a lot of the furniture, etc, that I want to keep with friends who can use these items while I’m away and be able to return them to me when I come back!  This includes an entire bedroom set, kitchen table & chairs, TV, computer, dishes and pots&pans, etc. ahhh!
3. Sell my car! And PREPARE my car to be sold! (new brakes, tire rotation, fix the side mirror, get the car cleaned, etc)
4. Quit my job (giving them a little under 2 months notice.)  Pray that I might be able to keep working for the company, doing freelance work from afar.
5. Cancel all my utilities, magazine subscriptions, bills, etc, and forward my mail to my mom or somebody who can take care of my extra mail/bills while I’m away.
6. Find somebody to take over my gym membership so I can have the same great deal when I return to the U.S. in a year 🙂
7. Open a new bank account in Wisconsin so my family can help me take care of the $$ coming in from freelance jobs in the U.S., as well as to help pay bills, etc, that I’ll have to pay in the U.S.

8. Find an apartment in Spain that allows pets (going to be HARD!) and hopefully find a furnished apartment, or I’ll have to buy furniture.
9. Figure out how to get a “world phone” cellphone or some kind of phone that won’t be expensive to call overseas. Not sure if I should obtain this in the U.S. before I leave, or look into it in Spain.
10. Open a Spanish bank account, or obtain a spanish credit card. (or open a debit account at a U.S. credit union) — I basically need to find an account where I wont get charged international fees every time I try to withdraw money or charge something on a card.

And of course, I can’t forget about all the friends and family members that I need/want to spend time with before I go, the extra jobs I need to work to make extra $$ so I can afford this all, the extra time I need to plan everything and make all these different appointments with doctors, vets, government agencies, etc. Yikes!

But of course, in the end, we all know that it will be well worth it for the experience I will receive in the end!   🙂

Right . . . ?