Holiday in Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta
Today, on my day off, at 96 degrees (80% humidity), I’ve decided I want nothing more than to stay plopped on my bed, for most of the day. I have big plans to catch up on good TV, watch a movie, make a dent in my book (Game of Thrones!), make food, nap etc. This also seems an ideal time to share about my recent trip to Southern Vietnam’s river paradise–the Mekong Delta.
With a Vietnamese holiday pending, a few of my flatmates and I decide to take advantage of a few consecutive days off and plan a little getaway. After much consideration (sea or the delta?), we come to the conclusion that now would be a good time to see one of Vietnam’s most famous regions. At only 3 hours away, it’s an easy choice for a 3D/2N holiday. I had spent a fair amount of time researching the Mekong Delta and decided I did not want to visit on a tour from the city, as most visitors do.
The majority of these tourists experience the area via a day tour booked from Ho Chi Minh. Though relatively inexpensive, most tours in Vietnam are basically the same. You’ll begin by boarding a bus, which stops along the way for a break at a rest stop featuring handicap people making crafts. Here you may buy said crafts, use the bathroom or buy an overpriced snack. When arriving at the desired destination, you are herded around like sheep from one stop to the next–each featuring another product or food item you are prompted to buy. All along the way you pass other herds of sweaty tourists. You board the bus and head for home, having never really seen the true charm of the place, feeling tired and inexplicably unsatisfied.
We all agreed we did not want to merely book a day tour; but, instead, stay a few nights in the heart of the delta. So, we found a guest house on Trip Advisor and contacted the manager directly. He provided us with information and transit instructions. We woke early, following his directions, and taxi’d to district 5, where we attempted to buy tickets on the public bus. It being a public holiday in Vietnam, we should have known better.
Naturally, our desired bus was full, and we’d have to wait 2.5 hours until the next bus. Not feeling it was worth the ride back to district 1, we wander around district 5, or Cholon (china town), until we find a coffee shop with lounge chairs. Here we order smoothies and cold coconuts and settle in for a game of Clue on a miniature portable game board. It was our holiday after all and we weren’t about to let a minor mishap get us down. As foreigners in a part of town where foreigners are rare, we’re treated like royalty.
We arrive back at the station with plenty of time to ensure our spots on the next bus. It’s a cramped and bumpy ride with at least one road-sick, local person vomiting into a bag. And, in typical Vietnamese fashion, we are never totally sure where we are or where we need to get off. After a few hours, the roads become more rough and the buildings smaller and more quant, and soon we are the only ones left on the bus–with the exception of 4 wicker bags containing live roosters. Finally, we’re dropped at the side of the dusty red dirt road, near a rickety roadside convenience store.
Before we can grow too concerned, owner Vinh pulls up on his motorbike to show us the way to our home for the next two nights. We are escorted down a small road running along the river, past adorable houses, friendly people, dogs, and lovely tropical flora, until we reach a tranquil spot, lush and bursting with plant life; fitting of it’s name–Jardin du Mekong Homestay. We drop off our bags in our perfectly rustic, and completely cozy, jungle bungalows and attempt to get food. We are quite hungry, having missed lunch and we attempt to communicate this fact, though something is lost in translation and we end up on a delightful bike ride following the river, down the nearby country roads. Though we must wait several more hours until dinner.
Luckily, dinner is worth the wait. We are given a cooking demonstration, where we learn the process of making banh xeo–Vietnamese pancakes made from rice flower and saffron filled with pork, prawns and bean sprouts. Banh xeo is only the beginning. We are treated with a multi-course meal featuring candied eggplant, steamed mushrooms and water-spinach, sweet tomato tofu, and what is probably the best fish I’ve ever had, smoked and grilled in banana leaf. For dessert, fried bananas with chocolate and a hot lemongrass bath for our feet. Add a few glasses of wine and we nearly melted into a pile of happiness.
Early the next morning, after a delightful breakfast of banana pancakes, fresh fruit and jam, and fresh squeezed orange juice, we leave on a half day boat tour. Though this tour is undoubtably similar to the “sheep herding” style tour described above, we enjoy much of our morning. We have an entire shaded river boat to ourselves. Quite possibly the best part of our tour is the 3 hours spent cruising to and from our final destination. Some of us take in the lovely scenery and fascinating river life, while others let the hypnotizing sounds of the motor and refreshing breeze lull them to sleep.
At one point, we are stopped and ushered onto small wooden boats, given our own conical hat, and from here rowed down smaller, more peaceful tributaries. This provides a more intimate look into Mekong life. Though this is undoubtably a common stop on any Mekong Tour, it’s early enough in the day that we only pass one other tourist boat.
After reboarding our river boat, we are taken to a spot where we are promised snack of fresh fruit and tea, and traditional Mekong music. We devour the fruit, however, undoubtably due to the absence of other tourists, we never hear any music. Next stop is the coconut candy factory, where we can see, of course, the production of coconut candy. For a little more than a dollar, we are happy to buy a bag of the chewy, coconuty treat. We are then given the opportunity to try a variety of homemade rice wines and liquors, all of which were pretty terrible. The finale was when we were given shots of liquor that had been soaking in a jar of dead snakes. This was equally as disgusting but with the added earthy yet fishy aftertaste of snake.
Our driver tells us it’s time to head back. This time, having missed lunch again, we decide to try to avoid a similar situation as the day before and request to stop for a bite to eat. Our driver drops us off, in the heat of midday, at a large market. We wander, dripping in sweat, struggling to find food, until we settle on a standard banh mi op la (Vietnamese sandwich with egg). Then it’s back on the boat. Most of the group falls instantly asleep–except for those of us who can never sleep as long as there is beautiful scenery…
We have the rest of the afternoon to read in hammocks, take leisurely walks or lazily snooze, before another multi-course, exceptionally delicious dinner.
The following morning, I wake shortly after sunrise, and take a long solitary bike ride through the extensive network of small (motorbike/foot path sized) roads. This time is easily my favorite of the trip. Each person I pass, greets me. I see so many types of fruit trees, I lose count–papaya, mangosteen, jackfruits bigger than basketballs, durian, mandarins, passion fruit, bananas, mangos, starfruit, and much more. I see puppies and happy children playing in calm tributaries and old women on bicycles wearing conical hats. I see 2 men climbing tall palms, plucking coconuts from the highest branches. I see perfect little houses and cute general stores. I don’t see a single other foreigner. I smell flowers and fruit and feel the hot tropical breeze. I hear cicadas.
We must catch a bus home before midday in order to beat the holiday crowds and get home for lesson planning and evening classes. Nobody really wants to return to the city.
I’m sad to leave, though I’m happy to have found yet another special place–again, 3 hours by bus from the city, but a world away.