Jacada Travel Journal: Mekong Delta, Vietnam
After spending a few days in bustling Ho Chi Minh City on a whirlwind trip to Vietnam, I found myself wanting to head for the countryside and discover the rural lands, people and cultures of Vietnam. Given our time constraints, friends recommended that we visit the Mekong Delta, with it being both easily accessible from the city and providing genuine insight into Vietnamese life…
Following a two hour drive to get to the Ben Tre province, nicknamed the “The Land of the Coconut”, we caught a ferry that took us over Tien River, to Phoenix Island. Here, we walked through apple-green scenery to be warmly welcomed and showered with fresh fruit, such as exotic jackfruit, sapodilla fruit and dragon fruit. As we were sipping refreshing jasmine tea we watched Vietnamese musicians play their beautiful traditional songs.
Coconut Candy Workshop
Next stop was the Coconut Candy workshop: a real feast for the senses. Thick, creamy coconut paste was brewing and we were lavished with all kinds of coconut candy to try. We were also lucky enough to taste rice paper which they produce in abundance in this region. It was absolutely delicious and we even made our own spring rolls with it. The workshop was full of busy bodies, and interestingly the majority of which were women, which our tour guide pointed out was a new phenomenon for Vietnam, as women have only recently been widely accepted into the workforce.
River Boat Trip
This was definitely one of the highlights of a jam-packed trip. We were determined to get that cheesy, cliché shot, wearing a conical asian hat (typically known as “nón lá” or “leaf hat” – which I foolishly managed to leave at Abu Dhabi airport – the last leg of the journey back home after the two-week trip) riding on the murky waters with overarching bamboos as the backdrop. FYI, mission accomplished. It has to be said though, that the canals and rivulets of the Mekong Delta offer so much more than just a great photo op’. You become easily seduced by the stillness of the milk-coffee waters and feel enveloped in the greenery as you are slowly rowed along. The light brown waters act as a striking contrast to the lush, bright green water palms. As we travelled around the peaceful canals, ducking rickety bridges and passing giant coconut trees, we began to get a taste for the pastoral life in the countryside.
Our travel guide was explaining that the Vietnamese travel the Mekong Delta and the various distributaries daily to get around and we even spotted a few locals rowing along. In fact, the Mekong Delta becomes the focal point, the core for those who live around the river. Boating is the main form of transportation here as villages are accessible mainly by boat.
Reaching the home stay in Vinh Long, (which we were really excited about), required a drive through the countryside and more boat hopping, which gave us extra time to interact with the locals. Two captains even urged that we share a shot with them – an entertaining sight for all on board. Discovering Vietnam by boat was an incredibly interesting experience, particularly when you consider that half of Vietnam’s agricultural produce comes from this region.
Upon arrival at the home stay, we were kindly greeted by the hosts and welcomed into their home, right after they gestured and waved to our feet which we found out meant “shoes off”. As soon as our feet hit the cool marbled terrace, we knew we were in for a treat. It was everything we wanted it to be – quaint, just about as authentic as you can get, small, and in the heart of a local village. Our tour guide suggested that we go for an evening stroll before dinner so I grabbed the camera and we set off. Pink and orange light flooded over the road and surrounding fields as the sun was setting.
Houses were dotted on either side of the road, brightly coloured laundry was draped around, there were pop-up convenient store sheds and families pouring out onto the street. The children were playing and the elders were napping, chatting or eating (all street-oriented activities, which made for a rather large audience). We were met with a chorus of “heeeelllloooooooo!” and giggling faces. Seeing babies and families of five all bundled onto motorbikes never ceased to amaze us as they zoomed past.
Stomachs growling, we headed back to the home stay for our cooking class. Our maternal host (with a constant smile stretching from ear to ear) was so generous and piled on the food. The menu, fit for a king: home-made fried spring rolls, a typical fried fish from the region with tomato sauce (Ca Chien Sot Ca), steamed rice, and the very popular sautéed garlic water spinach. Delicious.
Following an early morning wake up call, we got on the boat (not another tourist in sight) and embarked for a popular and working floating market. The river had a golden, misty shimmer as the sun was rising and the air warming. The few other boats we saw were locals, making their way to buy and sell fresh food. The market was already in full swing, as boats circulated around each other interested in what the other had to offer.
Plenty of trade was happening here, some boats would even be stocked/piled high with produce, some with enough bananas to feed the 5,000! The majority of the boats were family homes, with dogs perched on deck and often, the boat would hang what they sell at the front of the boat to let incoming customers know.
Food Glorious Food
The floating market definitely built up an appetite so we travelled to the market town in the Mang Thit District for breakfast. As we were making our way to the market, we passed by our home stay hosts who were enjoying their morning coffee in the square (Vietnamese coffee is a serious indulgence).
The market was a tangible, overwhelming experience in every sense of the word. Fruits and vegetables of every colour under the sun, bikes dashing past (as per usual), squirming eels, snakes and fish, entrails stocked high in buckets, baby chicks in boxes and hundreds of dried goods and spices. It was difficult to know where to look.
Ah, and once again, we were the only Westerners in sight, which made it all the more intimate and foreign. We could not have been happier to sit face to face with a generous portion of ‘pho’ beef noodle soup, accompanied by all the fresh garnishes, including hot chilli peppers, thai basil, bean sprouts and coriander leaves to name a few. An amazing, crazy morning.
Biking & Hammocks
After picking up rental bikes from a local store, we set off on our tour. Quick adaptation to the weird and wacky ways of the Vietnamese roads was key, and once we kept up with their pace, we could enjoy the stunning scenery. We rode past local homes, through the heart of the countryside and verdant landscapes. We even visited a traditional pagoda, completely unspoilt, where we saw monks carrying out their morning rituals. Biking is another major form of transportation in Vietnam, and going on this tour helped us once again get a feel for life here.
Before heading back to manic Ho Chi Minh, the tour guide insisted that we take a nap in hammocks back at the home stay terrace. Hammocks are practically a Vietnamese symbol. You are bound to see them all over the place and they are reserved for your afternoon siestas. Post-hammock nap, we reluctantly left the Mekong Delta: a remarkable place for Vietnamese authenticity and beauty.