Mekong Delta, Vietnam
We had planned to travel around the Mekong delta but plans changed as they do and instead of wandering around on our own we booked a three day two night tour of the region instead. With a population of about twenty million the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam is known for its rice paddies, floating markets, pagodas and villages and comprises a maze of rivers, running around islands and through marshes taking the Mekong after its long journey from China through Laos and Cambodia to the sea.
Our hotel in Ho Chi Minh was near the departure point and we’d planned a relaxed start of the day until Yen, our lovely guide, arrived early breakfast sandwiches hastily wrapped we were soon racing after him through our narrow lane and along crowded streets to the tour bus a few minutes away. J realised the hotel had not given him back his passport as soon as he sat down and so ran back to collect it returning out of breath and none too impressed a few minutes later, so much for a relaxing start. It’s our first proper tour with other people, we’re unsociable sods really and I had a feeling this one with forty four people was going to be something of a shock to the system but how wrong I was, yes some of the other people were doorknobs, but when aren’t they! The majority were great fun.
The bus journey to our first stop in Ben Tre took about two hours, there are ten million mopeds in Ho Chi Minh, you couldn’t pay me to drive here it is so chaotic and over the last two weeks 300 people died in road traffic accidents in Vietnam, by the end of the three days I am surprised it’s not more. The driver of our second bus spent more time in the oncoming traffics lane than he did in his own and seemed to be honking non stop at whoever dared be driving along in front of him.
The first stop was a complete waste of time, we walked a short distance from the road to an area with several covered huts where we sat at tables laid with teapots and small glasses and were each poured a tiny amount of tea with local honey and given a plate of fresh fruits and told about the benefits of honey and royal jelly, which they happened to sell should we wish to buy any. We’ve heard about but not done any tours where they take you from set up shopping to set up shopping and were now hoping this wasn’t going to be turn out to be one. After the honey spiel some Southern Vietnamese folk music was performed on fabulous looking instruments that was definitely an acquired taste and a bit too twangy for any of us, I’m sure it was beautiful but we managed to resist buying the accompanying CD.
After our brief musical interlude we walked a few minutes on concrete patio slabs which killed any in nature vibe we might have been feeling, through lush coconut and banana trees to a small treelined tributary where a handful of sampans were waiting to take us to our next stop. Things started to look up when we boarded the boats in groups of four, sitting single file and I’m not sure why but they were there, so we all put on traditional bamboo conical hats for the short journey and proceeded to snap a multitude of shots as we were rowed by a very cheerful Vietnamese woman along the incredibly peaceful waterway, water coconut trees lining the way.
After five minutes we arrived at our next stop, my favourite of the day and maybe the entire trip, a coconut candy workshop, run by a local family in the middle of the coconut and banana trees on an island off Ben Tre. Before we got down to seeing how the candy is made a huge python was brought out, alrighty then, I love a snake so couldn’t resist giving this seven foot beauty a cuddle. Snake cuddled it was time for candy making, they use old coconuts which are first dehusked, the husks go to make eco friendly coconut fibre mattresses, the nut inside is then shelled, the coconut water is kept, the shell is used in the furnace to heat the caramel and the flesh of the coconut is ground and pressed into round bricks to make coconut milk. How’s that for using everything! Once the coconut milk is cooked into a caramel it is removed from the heat and kneaded in great mounds before being cut into long strips and pushed into a mould and left to cool. After it has cooled sufficiently it is removed from the mould and sliced into bite sized pieces. While they were making the candy there was a bowl of off cuts on the work table which one of our group started taking from soon followed by several others, despite it being clear they had several bowls they were preparing for us to try. When they’d shown us how the candy was made they offered us about sixty pieces and one girl ate about thirty, every time I turned around she was pushing past someone to take another few. J who’d had one piece went to get another but the same girl was walking away with a full mouth and none were left, ha! This is one reason we try to avoid tour groups, it never ceases to amaze me what selfish dicks people can be, I am certainly nowhere near perfect but at least I have some manners *takes a deep breath* Anyway the pieces we tried were downright delicious so we bought two packs, one chocolate and one ginger. They also had snake wine which having just handled a very lovely snake felt totally inappropriate so we skipped trying that.
Once we’d all bought our fill of candy we boarded a larger boat and crossed the river to the furthest of the islets, Tortoise islet, not a tortoise in sight but we did walk through a beautiful pomelo orchard. Just as we were heading to where everyone else was sitting down J and I were told we had to eat in a different part of the restaurant at a table with four Canadian Vietnamese expats. Really bizarrely it turned out we’d unknowingly paid for a better quality lunch than the others. Whatever they had, our lunch was a feast! We started with two huge fish, prawns, salad, rice noodles that we made into spring rolls with translucent rice paper wrappers, then followed a pork and vegetable soup, vegetable fried rice and fried spring rolls, to finish it off we had pineapple and pomelo, blimey it was lovely. It was also pretty cool sitting with Mary and her husband and friends because we picked their brains about Vietnam non stop.
After lunch we waddled back to the boat, making our way to the bus on the mainland before driving to My Tho to visit the Vinh Trang pagoda and the hugest happiest smiling Buddha we’ve had the pleasure of seeing. It was at this point that anyone doing the three day tour broke away from people who were only doing a day trip and we boarded a much smaller bus for the two and a half hour drive to Can Tho, luggage piled around us we all squeezed in. J waited until the last moment to board hoping to see a couple we’d been chatting to all day, Dima and Julie to say goodbye but never saw them, if by any chance Dima or Julie ever read this it was a real pleasure meeting you and we wish you so many more wonderful adventures! Julie told us how she’d been scared of flying her whole life but a few years ago fed up of not being able to visit the wonderful places her friends talked about screwed up the courage and flew to Thailand, not bad for a first flight!
When we arrived in Can Tho it transpired that the lunch wasn’t the only thing we’d paid differently for and the six of us who’d eaten together were in different hotels to everyone else, bit of a bummer really as our hotel was miles away from the central location of the others. Anyway it was clean and fine and we wandered around until we found somewhere selling pork and had a nice dinner with cooked lotus seeds as a table snack like you’d have peanuts at home.
The next morning was a stupid o’clock start, I know I know I said I wouldn’t do anymore and believe me if we had a choice we wouldn’t be, Note to self – check start times before signing up on any more tours dumbo. We went for breakfast at 6am only to find the room in darkness, when staff did arrive it turned out that the only options were noodles and rice which is perfectly fine at 8am but at 6am our stomachs said hell no, so we left and got a cab to the others. It wasn’t long before we were on a boat to the Cai Rang floating market where we picked up pomelo, mango and a lovely sticky rice and banana treat. The market is a working local market where produce and vegetables are sold from boats large and small, each boat displaying what they sell atop a tall bamboo pole. The best time to go is apparently four am but well, no hope in hell of that happening, it’s a market not a…nope… can’t think of anything worth getting out of bed at four am for and having lived on Portobello Road for the last trillion years I’m pretty familiar with markets so six forty five was plenty early enough. After we’d stocked up on fruit and nibbles from a variety of boats pulling alongside ours we headed to a Vietnamese vermicelli noodle factory where we saw how the rice powder is cooked into large disks above a furnace fueled by rice husks that when burnt are used as fertilizer. The cooked disks are left to dry on bamboo racks in the sun before being fed through a cutter turning it into fine noodles which we later saw being deep fried turning them into crispy deliciousness.
The next stop was a bit of a nonstarter, a café of sorts in an orchard garden where we could buy fruit, juices, coffee or barbecued rat, frog or snake, bearing in mind this was still only about 10am we skipped the BBQ and sat around chatting, there had been an option to cycle to the local village but people were returning even sweatier than we were saying they’re really wasn’t a village just a few houses before heading back to the very cramped small bus and on to Can Tho. After a quick lunch and another few hours drive in our cramped bus on to visit the incredibly beautiful and peaceful Tra Su wild bird sanctuary where we were motored first in boats of 10 and then rowed in boats of three through the protected wetlands seeing flocks of lovely exotic birds.
Several hours later we arrived in Chau Doc we were again in a different hotel but at least this time it was just down the road from the others so we met up with Kevin and Sabine, a lovely dutch couple for dinner at a little street side restaurant, just as a flying ant population was born, so not for the first time while travelling we enjoyed a delicious dinner while being bombarded with ants.
The next morning we went down for breakfast to not only find the room in darkness but the night watchman half naked and asleep on a day bed in the middle of the room, ha! We quietly sat down and waited for him to wake up and clear the room of beds and mopeds by which time we had to go anyway, we’re not doing so well with the ‘included’ breakfast part of the tour!
After a far too brief walk through the Chau Doc Market which looked really interesting, we boarded little boats and headed past floating houses to a floating fish farm, each house is constructed with a large cage under its entire footprint in which they raise up to 70,000 fish. We arrived as huge chunks of what looked like mud but were in fact ground bran, fish and crab were being fed through an incredibly noisy mincer into the seething mass of hungry fish below. The ones we saw had another eight months to go before they would be big enough to sell. Here, as in most of the places we have stopped we were a captive audience, for the sarongs, jewellery and gifts we were encouraged to buy but as before there was no hard sell.
Our final visit of the tour was to a Cham Minority Village a bit farther on from the fish house, our little boats pulled up at a narrow rickety dock and walked along a two foot wide plank bridge for a few hundred feet, beautiful lotus filled water either side to the village. It was a bit of a non visit really, a shop set up selling goods again but no explanation of the weaving the itinerary had said we were coming to see. We could walk to the mosque a few hundred metres away but having seen many stunning mosques in Malaysia we didn’t feel the need. A wonderfully smiling woman was making the most delicious coconut waffles over a tiny coal fire and a multitude of beautiful roosters wandering around, as well as the quite beautiful walk along the bridge made it worthwhile.
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh we stopped for lunch in Can Tho to break up the seven hour drive and bought delicious freshly made coconut cake and played with a tiny chihuahua chained to a tree who we named Paco and talked of dognapping before swapping back to a bigger bus (woohoo) and arriving back in Ho Chi Minh in time to freshen up for dinner, apart from we didn’t make it to dinner, instead we collapsed on the bed and that was that for the day.
Yen was a fantastic guide, by turns taciturn and chatty, he was always willing to answer our questions no matter how silly they might have been and gave pronunciation help while keeping us to schedule with a ready smile. He did a great job with what he was given, despite a few pointless stops which seemed purely sales driven, the deduction of those and the addition of wandering around the Chau Doc market on the third morning even if only for a half hour or so would have been lovely. That said overall it was a really interesting trip and despite the sometimes annoying other tourists I loved it. Stopping at rest stops and having Mary and her friends to ask what certain fruits were and generously sharing things they had bought was one of the highlights. You certainly get to experience and try more things with a larger group. I’m not saying I’ll ever like a big tour group but it was also nice to share our experiences of things with other travellers.
We booked our tour through Vietnam Impressive and it was run by TNK Travel. Our three day itinerary covered almost seven hundred kilometres and went something like this:
Day 1 Ho Chi Minh to Ben Tre to My Tho to Can Tho
• Leave Ho Chi Minh visit Ben Tre for seasonal fruit & honey tea to the sound of “Southern Vietnamese folk music”.
• Visit a candy work shop
• Tortoise islet for lunch in a pomelo orchard
• Visit Vinh Trang pagoda and the huge smiling Buddha in My Tho,
• Can Tho for the night
Day 2: From Can Tho to the Tra Su Sanctuary then to Chau Doc
• Boat to Cai Rang floating market with a stop at a Vietnamese vermicelli noodle factory.
• Visit the orchard garden.
• Back to Can Tho for a quick lunch.
• Visit Tra Su wild bird sanctuary.
• Proceed to Chau Doc. Dinner and Bed.
Day 3: Chau Doc to Ho Chi Minh
• Boat trip through the floating village to visit a fish farm.
• Visit the Cham minority.
• Back to Ho Chi Minh with Lunch in Can Tho on the way arriving about 5pm.