I found myself sitting on a bus at 8am chatting with two ladies from Adelaide Australia who would end up passing as my surrogate family for the next two days as we toured the Mekong Delta. The southern region is where Vietnam’s countryside comes alive. Tilling the ground with buffalo drawn ploughs, planting rice, harvesting by hand and waiting for the murky Mekong to flood and renew the soil is the wheel of life that has been rolling here for centuries. After winding its way from its source in Tibet, the Mekong River meets the sea in the southernmost Vietnam. Once part of the Khmer kingdom, the Mekong Delta was the last part of modern-day Vietnam to be annexed and settled by the Vietnamese.
We drove out of Saigon for a few hours to the small town of My Tho. Once off the bus several locals pressed us to buy their Vietnamese rice hats (those classic triangular hats made of straw and bamboo). An excellent way to get the sun out of your eyes during a hot day. I was actually amazed when I first arrived in Vietnam to notice that these classical hats are anything but a cliché. Everyone seems to wear the iconic head gear; in the market, rice fields or even floating in tiny boats along the mighty Mekong. Locals live on shanty’s propped up by stilts which sit directly over the water. People clean their dishes, clothes and naked babies in the Mekong. A multi-purpose waterway.
We hopped into a long boat and soon found ourselves puttering down the river. From My Tho tourists do a classic culinary tour of the areas famous food staples. We first stopped at a little family run factory where they make Vietnamese rice paper and coconut candy. I watched a local woman pouring a dab of rice milk on a large canvas. She then covered it with a steam lid, popping off the lid in about 10 seconds and then quickly pealing the thin fragile veil with a wooden stick. The rice paper is then hung for a few minutes on wooden rods before being transferred outside to dry in the sun on wicker mats. Coconut candy (toffee) is made by grinding the meat of coconut fruit and then incorporating it with caramel over a flame. The toffee is then poured into moulds which cool and form long strands. These long ropes of toffee are then cut into one inch sections and wrapped with thin rice paper for consumption.
We hopped back in our boat and landed at Minh Island where we walked through the jungle to a small family restaurant. We munched on fried spring rolls and slurped soup while being sure to quench our thirst with lemon iced green tea. After lunch people were given about thirty minutes to relax. Everyone ended up opting for the comfortable hammocks which swung under the shade of the palm trees. Many couples cuddled together and passed out fast asleep in seconds. We were woken up by the sound of a loud cow bell. Our guide motioned us towards the shed behind the restaurant where we were quickly paired up with rusty bicycles.
I hopped on my bike, unable to touch the ground with my feet. We drove in single file along a jungle path for about twenty minutes. I soon realized my bike did not have a functioning brake system. A wild pig ran in front of the road and I had to swerve into the grass, running into a flock of several farm hens to avoid a collision. Back on my bike I picked up the pace as I was behind the rest of the group. We reached a bridge and saw our boat on the other side of the river. I had to walk my bike up to the top of the bridge as it was only a one speed and impossible to peddle. From the top, I hopped back on the bike. As I started to accelerate down the bridge and hill towards the main road I let out a high pitched scream as I forgot that I had no brakes to stop myself once I reached the bottom. Local men and woman pointed at me and laughed, as did my group on the other end of the riverbank.
Safely back on the boat we zoomed down the river through many shanty villages on stilts until we reached the rice factory. Our guide used to be a rice farmer when he was young and therefore was very passionate about this particular grain. He excitedly rambled on about its cultivation and production. After we had seen the various stages of rice processing the guide walked us behind the factory where a small shop makes puffed rice products. Puffed rice is made by adding raw rice to a very hot iron bowl. The bowl has hot black sand in it and as soon as the rice is added the man quickly starts stirring the rice in the sand. Suddenly, like magic, the rice begins to pop and puff like popcorn. We were each given a small puffed rice square and nibbled on it happily in the shade. I made a note to myself that from this day forth I will forever give tribute to the Vietnamese, inventors of puff rice, when I enjoy a Rice Krispy Square.
We hopped back in our boat and walked onto another bus which took us to the city of Vinh Long. Our guide unexpectedly announced to us that we had to wait here for two hours for another tour group to pick us up. The town has a very small farmers market which we strolled through (eating up 10 minutes of our 120 minutes of supposed free time). It was so hot and humid in the market (and smelled of rotting meat, fish and freshly peeled fresh orange). We walked to the tourist office where we were going to be picked up and spent time in the shade complaining about the heat, our aches and pains and the disorganization of our tour company.
Our bus arrived an hour late (we therefore waited 3 hours). Our new tour guide seemed a bit frightened by us as we looked like the doom and gloom group. We made it rather clear that we were not impressed with the organization of the afternoon. On our new bus we drove approximately 90 minutes to the ferry terminal. We had heard that queuing for the ferry can take up to three hours so we were pleasantly surprised when our bus drove right onto the ferry. I couldn’t help but laugh as hundreds of motorcycles zoomed past us, eager to get a spot on the crammed bottom of the boat. We walked up to the top pedestrian level and watched the sun set over the Mekong. Our guide pointed to the left of the boat and showed us the bridge which used to connect the two cities on either side of the river before its tragic collapse a few years ago.
Once on the other side of the river our bus sped off the ferry and we soon found ourselves in our hotel in the small town of Can Tho. I quickly showered and changed into fresh cloths before meeting some friends in the lobby for dinner. We walked along the main street and found a very posh French-Vietnamese restaurant with a balcony overlooking the river and windows with huge antique shutters. Everyone commented on the fact that my mood quickly changed once I was sitting in front of my delicious food. I’ve been told my bad mood can change rather quickly as long as I have good food to calm me down! I ordered a glass of Cuvee G. Dubeouf, a fresh Lyonnaise Salad and an amazing beef steak with white wine, cream and shallot sauce. I was in heaven! After tallying up my bill I was shocked that I had enjoyed a glass of wine, huge salad and steak for the tiny sum of 9 dollars!
The following morning we woke up at the crack of dawn. I introduced myself to our new tour group. I quickly became good friends with two film makers from London and a gorgeous couple from Denmark (who could not, for the life of themselves, keep their hands off each other). We walked a few blocks to the Can Tho docks where we hopped in a boat and headed to the Mekong’s most famous (and largest) daily floating market, Cai Rang.
Our boat arrived just outside of the market action. We were then transported to small long boats where local woman rowed and weaved us in and out the chaotic market boats. Each boat is also a home where the farmers sleep at night and sell their products during the day. You can easily purchase skewers of fresh pineapple, mango, banana, dragon fruit, watermelon and lychee as vendors putter up to the side of your boat. Interestingly, market vendors advertise their agricultural products for sale by hoisting a long pole into the air which has their various fruits and vegetables sale.
After enjoying the floating market we arrived back in Can Tho where we enjoyed an hours walk through one of the wildest public markets I have ever been. Tables covered in pig’s heads, cow eyeballs, intestine filled bowls, live frogs and toads tied together by elastic bands at the waist and gutted fish. Truly wild food stalls! From the market we drove back to the city centre where we enjoyed a final meal together before hopping back on the bus for a seven hour bus back to Ho Chi Minh City.