The copycat nature of Vietnamese businesses which I touched on previously is not limited to just tangible goods such as clothing and food, as even travel agents follow suit. Even to the point where popular travel websites have topics to help travelers navigate through the scammers and copycats to find, for example, “The REAL Easyriders”. My first experience with this was during our 2D/1N Mekong Delta trip. Within the main accommodation block in District 1 is a vast number travel agents and hotels, all offering Mekong Delta trips of varying length. The trips are mostly identical with only a slight variance in price, in the unlikely event that one was displayed. We chose to go with one of the more reputable companies and at 7.45am our tour bus full of Korean and Vietnamese tourists departed. This was my first experience on the trip with a package tour of this nature and I came away from it feeling that they (package tours) may never be for me.
As we got onto the highway heading south the guide stood up with his microphone and began to run us through the itinerary for the day. In three languages. We would drive for 2.5hrs to a branch of the Mekong where we would hop on a boat that would take us through some smaller channels, stopping at a local house for morning tea, then on to visit a candy making family before stopping for lunch. After lunch we would then spend a few more hours in a boat and visiting a fruit farm before getting back on the bus and driving to our accommodation.
I’d already been on the Mekong in Laos, yet I found the thriving coconut fiber industry that had set up countless warehouses along the river quite interesting. In Laos, the Mekong was all but deserted besides the occasional village or boat. I was also expecting to see a lot more of the pollution than was evident in the parts we visited which was a nice surprise. The morning tea stop at a local house, and a later visit to a candy making house is where my enthusiasm began to fade. Morning tea was already set out when we arrived, as well as a collection of souvenirs to buy. During morning tea a few songs were played by a disadvantaged local band with a collection plate in front. It didn’t feel any more of an authentic local experience than I’d imagine seeing a lion in a zoo and then witnessing one in the wild would be. Aiding to the feeling was that just as the last song was winding up, the next group of tourists from a different company showed up on their boat, indicating that our time was up and that the experience had to be re-set.
The remaining activities on the tour were much the same. We were either being followed close behind by another group, or as was the case at a fruit farm, about 5 or so groups from different companies were all walking around together. Even at the floating market there were almost as many tourist boats than locals’. Dinner (thankfully) wasn’t included on the trip so after we arrived at the hotel we were able to wander around the town and esplanade freely. It was this free time to explore interesting things with my parents such as the menu at a market restaurant that included delicacies such as fried mouse that I found most enjoyable. That’s not to say I hated the trip, the Mekong is still the Mekong after all.
I think it is just the lack of freedom to explore and be open to the endless wonderful possibilities that can happen when you travel freely that I dislike about the concept of package tours. Being told when (and what) to eat, sleep, wake up and pee while you ride a metaphorical conveyor-belt through exhibitions just feels too controlled and fake. I can understand the appeal of not having to scout around to find accommodation or understand local transport, especially after long journeys. Yet I think that even those tiresome walks through the seedy part of town, trying to find somewhere decent to sleep can be a great adventure and story which you wouldn’t have experienced on a tour. Then there is the countless other experiences with locals and foreigners alike, some of which I’ve written about on here that I don’t think are possible on tour.
Then again, Contiki tours are popular world-wide and must be for a reason which perhaps is alluding me. And if you’ve been on one and loved it, I’d be interested in hearing what made it so wonderful. At this point in life and travel however, I think I’m happy to keep on wingin’ it.