We had not intended to visit the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. We wanted to fly from Saigon to Phu Quoc island which cost around US$60. Then we saw a trip which took two nights, traveling through the Mekong Delta before catching a boat at the end to the island, the cost was $59. As it included transport, two nights accommodation and a few meals plus the sight seeing it was a no-brainer and we elected to take the trip instead of the flights. We were really happy we did this as it ended up being a great experience with a good group of people, and it felt like a free trip for us as we would have spent that on flights anyway.
The Mekong region is the rice bowl of Vietnam, where lush green paddy fields expand as far the eye can see. The fertile soil in the mangroves along the Mekong are perfect for growing a variety of tropical fruits, which are in abundance in the area. The locals traverse the many rivers, selling, buying, living their lives against a backdrop of picturesque scenery. This is the Vietnam of post cards, fishermen and farmers living simple lives. Recently new highways have opened connecting the area with HCMC and a new university in Can Tho is bringing new opportunities to the people. It is an area where the past and the future are fighting to survive. Where west is over taking east at a rapid pace and the tourist trail, which brings much needed money is in danger of taking over traditional job roles.
Our trip included a visit to a fruit farm, where we tasted all of the tropical fruits and watched a traditional music performance. Next we walked through grasses and palm trees to a small back water where we boarded traditional rowing boats for a leisurely trip along the waterways. We were glad of the conical hats to protect us from the hot sun. Following this we visited an area which specialised in making coconut candy and honey products. We saw the bees used to produce the honey and watched the traditional processes used to make the sweets. We took a larger boat to Turtle Island and had lunch in a beautiful fruit garden before visiting a pagoda with a giant happy Buddha. We spent the evening staying in Can Tho town, we visited a night market and tried some local barbequed food.
The following day we had an early start visiting a floating market. Although tourists boats visited the market, it was very much a local affair, where fruits and vegetables were sold wholesale from boat to boat. It was interesting to observe the traders, bargaining, selling and buying, throwing fruit from boat to boat. Some ate breakfast crouched on deck, others dozed in hamocks or carried out ablushions at the back of the boat. As we travelled the river we saw many houses on stilts, our guide informed us that local people keep fishing nets under their homes which they swim under to check. The morning boat trip was a great way to see a variety of local life being played out along the banks of the mighty Mekong, which had sustained generations of Vietnamese in this area. We moored the boat at a local stilt house and watched our guide pay the lady for the privillage of using her home as a cut through. Next we visited a home factory making rice paper and noodles and learnt about the processes involved. Whilst the factories we visited had clearly been set up for tourists, it was a good way to see the traditional methods of making things. It was also a business for the locals, they all incorporated a rest stop with drinks to purchase and snacks. Some trips feel very touristy and set up, but this trip felt very natural and welcoming. We finished our tour at a beautiful garden were we could take in the scenary and wander around. There was also a variety of local delicacies to try including snake, frog and rat. Looking on the barbeque, the most tasty looking option was the rat, which we decided to try. As with most unusual meats, it tasted like chicken and was full of bones, but quite nice.
We headed back to Can Tho town before leaving our group for a bus to Rach Gia. Most of the places we have visited so far in Vietnam have been on the tourist trail and English is spoken and understood to a good level. Rach Gia is a port but a little off the tourist trail and it was the first time we encountered a language barrier. When we got off the bus, we had a hotel reservation but no map and no idea of where to go. Several motorbike taxis tried to pick us up but it didn’t seem right. We showed our hotel reservation to a man from the bus company who pointed at us to join a group of waiting locals. We were then herded into a minivan and had a tour of Rach Gia as our fellow passengers were dropped off. We were the last people in the van and eventually the driver pulled up at a hotel with a corresponding name to the one we had written down. We were not charged so we think our bus ticket included a free taxi drop off. Our hotelier was a very enthusiastic, effeminate young man who could also speak no English. With the help of Google Translate and a few smiles and nods we arranged a taxi to the harbour the following morning. Dinner that night was quite fun, we ate a recommendation by the only English speaking young waiter in Rach Gia, who could tell us it was very good and how much it cost, but not what it was. Having eaten rat the previous day, we put our fears aside and tucked in, we are still none the wiser but it was a lovely meal.
Our time in the Mekong Delta was a great experience and we feel like we saw a lot more of the real Vietnam than if we had just flown to Phu Quoc. Sometimes the journey is the best part of the trip, in the words of Frank Turner “If you’re all about the destination, then take a fucking flight!”