On my last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, I visited the Mekong Delta on a daytrip. The mighty Mekong is Southeast Asia’s biggest river, running through several countries until it exits into the sea in southern Vietnam in the Mekong Delta.
The tour was cheap, less than US$20 and included transport, trips to a temple and then an island on the delta, activities on said island, and a lunch. It went rather well, and I unexpectedly ended up meeting 3 travel friends from the mainland. The last part of the tour had to be curtailed due to rough waters which I didn’t escape unscathed, as I and another guy got splashed by the brown river water on our boat on the way back.
On the morning, I went and boarded the tourbus outside the tour agency I’d booked the trip with on Pham Ngu Lao Street. The bus then went to pick up other people at their hotels, concluding with a bunch of Indian 50-,60-somethings from Malaysia. They took a while to get on, both because their party was quite numerous and some of them weren’t exactly in the best of shape. They were however in very good spirits and I couldn’t help being amused at the camaraderie and the cheerfulness of these oldsters. At one point, I talked to one of them and she joked apologetically about their health ailments regarding bad knees and backs etc. It wasn’t a big deal.
The first stop was at a temple. This complex had several large Buddhas- one sitting, one lying sideways, and one standing up, and was a refuge for locals during old times when bandits or pirates used to attack. Then we made a quick restroom stop at the fanciest highway “rest stop” I’ve ever been to. It was like a small resort with thatched roof-covered restaurant and wooden lodges, and nicely-maintained lawn and garden.
We finally reached the Mekong Delta, arriving at the city of My Tho, the largest in the Delta area. The Mekong was wide and brown with forested islands in the middle, not exactly the grand spectacle I’d expected, but still big nonetheless. On both sides, there were one-story buildings and in the horizon, a large suspension bridge spanned the river. Colorful fishing boats with pointed prows and dotted eyes were moored alongside the shore and we passed a few on the water. We got onto a boat and moved on to an island in the river.
I have to mention our guide. An articulate and confident guy who spoke good English, as did many Vietnamese guides and hotel staff, and was quick to make jokes and laugh out loud. Initially I thought he seemed a bit too laidback and wasn’t really into his job, but he turned out to be quite cool.
As we approached our destination, he told us about the importance of coconut on the place. Apparently the settlement was started by some crazy guy who worshiped coconut. On that island, “everything is coconut, eat coconut, pray to coconut, get married using coconut, hehehe!” our guide blurted out.
Once on the island, we visited a coconut candy workshop, then a honey workshop and even took a ride on carts pulled by small horses through a neighborhood. On the boat ride, I’d heard some guys speaking what sounded like Mandarin. After a while, I asked one of them if they were from China and he said yes. They were easygoing and younger guys, and just like me, they’d all quit their jobs and were taking some time to explore SE Asia, having made their way down from Hanoi too. We hung together during the trip, and though we parted when we returned to HCMC, it wasn’t the last we would meet.
At the coconut candy workshop, our guide personally demonstrated how to make the candy- first he broke a coconut on a stake, then put the broken pieces into a machine that grated it into tiny pieces, then put them into another machine that formed them into a hardened blocks, which were then boiled in a giant metal cauldron (and presumably mixed with sugar or other ingredients). Finally the hardened mixture was laid out into long slabs for workers to break into square pieces and package them. The workers did this on a big table at the side while we all milled around. Besides coconut candy, there was snake wine on sale, which consisted of wine mixed with real snakes or scorpions put inside for a certain period of time (you see this in many restaurants in China too). We got to try small shots.
We moved from place to place within the island via boat, moving through the swamp-like channels. Lunch was at a restaurant nearby, on which there was a crocodile farm on the premises. There was a stream (not over the crocodiles) traversed by a narrow bamboo bridge that was the flimsiest one I’d ever crossed on. There was also an arena for weddings which had lots of dragon-entwined pillars and an altar.
At another stop (I can’t remember which), the guide brought out an actual python and let us all take photos of it. I think it was the first time I’d held such a big snake and there were a few nervy moments when the snake kept moving its head towards my face.
Not me, but one of my new Chinese travel pals, and not his daughter either, she was with a Vietnamese family on the tour.
We ended at an open-air teahouse where we had tea and fruit, and were entertained by a troupe of female singers, including a little girl who did a cute song-and-dance, accompanied by a guy playing a Vietnamese instrument. There was supposed to be a boat ride, but by this time rain was falling and the water was getting a bit choppy so that part of the itinerary was curtailed.
On the way back, our guide gave us a little speech, where he thanked us for coming and expressed his optimistic patriotism, “In five years’ time, Vietnam will be better and we’ll be number one! Sorry, Thailand!”
The guide came and talked to us for a bit, saying he used to be an engineer and then asking me what I did. When I said I wanted to work in a newspaper, he gave a sympathetic smile and said how in Vietnam, newspapers were fading away. A sad reminder that traditional media’s decline wasn’t just happening in the West.
The trip to the Mekong Delta at My Tho was quite pleasant. For a more full-on Delta experience, you can go on further to other places like Ben Tre, where you can visit sites of Vietnam War battles and even spend a full day or two.