Round the Mekong Delta

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October 26th 2010
Published: October 26th 2010
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Welcome to part 14 of the blog.

We left Saigon around 06:30 on a bus headed to the Mekong Delta for a 3 day trip. First stop after about 1 hour on the bus was a Buddhist temple with 2 gigantic statues of Buddha, we walked around and had a look for about 25 mins before catching the bus for another hour or so to the market town of My Tho where we boarded a narrow boat, along with 15 or so other people on the tour and our guide, the unfortunately named Mr K.Y(who looked like Kim Jong Il in Team America). We started off by cruising down the Giang channel whilst the very knowledgeable Mr KY pointed out various highlights of life on the delta, though it was tough to understand him over the noise from the boats' engine. After a while we stopped on one of 4 islands close together in the channel, they are called unicorn, phoenix, dragon and turtle islands although I am not sure which one we stopped on. Here we walked through an orchard before stopping for lunch underneath wooden shelter. As part of the tour we all got free soup and noodles, nevertheless the owners tried to get us to pay for a 'local delicacy', the elephant ear fish, one of the ugliest, least appetising things i have ever seen! No one tried any and we all stuck to the perfectly good free food.

After lunch we all got back on the boat for the short trip across to Ben Tre on the southern bank of the channel. We left the boat and took a short walk down narrow paths through orchards and coconut groves until we came to a place where they make coconut candy, it wasn't exactly a factory, more like 3 desks covered with a tarpaulin roof. Mr KY explained how they made the candy, step by step, then we were invited to try some freshly made sweets, still warm and very tasty. After a few people had purchased some of the candy we moved next door to a thatched roofed building where we were given sweet lemon and honey tea, just in time too, as soon as we were under the cover the heavens opened and we had half an hour of the heaviest rain we've seen so far in Asia. Luckily the rain stopped just before we were due to move again and we were able to board small 3 man canoes which were punted down narrow waterways by old Vietnamese women. Wearing conical hats, surrounded by looming bamboo and tall grasses it really felt like part of a war film, i kept expecting GI's to pop up and open fire on us! We stopped at a small jetty where we got off for another short walk to a small village, where we were shown to seats and given a selection of tropical fruits to enjoy with green tea, whilst 3 men from the village played traditional Vietnamese instruments. Once they were done it was another short walk to the other side of the village where our bus was waiting to take us to Can Tho.

It took about 3 hours to reach Can Tho where the bus stopped outside a hotel and we all got off. The rest of the group were staying here for the night, Reuben and I had instead opted to spend the night at a local homestay, this meant that whilst everyone else got to go straight into the nice dry hotel, we had to get on the back of 2 mopeds for a terrifying 45 trip down dark, flooded motorways, then over rough mud and stone paths along the side of the river, all the time with our drivers either laughing manically or chatting on their mobile phones, they don't tell you about that bit when you book the trip! We made it though, and it was worth it, we both had beautiful bamboo bungalows right on the rivers edge to sleep in and after dropping our bags in these we headed over to the main house for dinner. Here we found out Reuben's driver was in fact also our host, called Hue (im guessing the spelling). Hue ushered us through his home, past 4 or more generations of his family and into the kitchen/dining area where his sister was laying out our dinner, and what a spread! We had a fresh steamed fish from the river, noodles, salad and rice paper which you use to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, as well as this we had tofu in a tasty sauce, green beans, sticky rice and fried spring rolls. There was so much even me and Reuben couldn't finish it. After dinner we had a few beers and chatted to Hue before calling it a night.

We woke at 6 am the night day and walked with Hue, through his village to drop his son/brother/cousin (im not sure which) off at school. It was a small 3 room building with maybe 100 kids and our arrival caused a mini riot and a chorus of 'hellos' directed at us. After breakfast back at the house, washed down with some Vietnamese coffee we climbed back onto our mopeds for a slightly less scary ride to the village of Cai Rang. Here we wandered round a bustling, colourful, crazy food market and took in sights such as crabs making a bid for freedom scuttling down the road and old women gutting live frogs with kitchen scissors. After a while Hue walked us to a jetty and we waited for a boat to appear with Mr KY and the rest of the group on board. We said goodbye to Hue, got on the boat and headed for a nearby floating market, said to be one of the main attractions of the Mekong Delta. The market itself was a bit of a letdown for me, large wooden barges selling mainly fruit and veg float in the middle of the river whilst smaller boats row up and buy goods by the kilo to transport further along the river, it is admittedly a different experience but lacked the charm, colour or quirks of the market on land at Cai Rang. After this our tour took us by foot to a rice noodle making factory on the rivers edge and then onto a large fruit orchard where we took turns climbing over a traditional 'monkey' bridge, constructed out of thin pieces of wood they are used to cross rice paddies and streams in the delta. We stopped and sampled some more fruit before walking out of the village and catching our bus back to Can Tho where we stopped for lunch.

Afterwards most of the group headed back to Saigon whilst the people staying on for the 3rd day got into a small minibus headed for Chau Doc where we would spend the night. We dubbed our new bus "the torture bus", small, overcrowded and with sweaty, uncomfortable faux leather seats it wasn't fun to be on for any length of time. We were all very happy when Mr KY announced we would be breaking up the journey by stopping off at a crocodile farm near Long Xuyen. It was a rather bizarre experience, thousands of crocs of all ages and sizes sitting around doing nothing much except waiting to be turns into handbags, shoes and food. After this we climbed back aboard the torture bus for the last leg of the journey. As you approach Chau Doc you cant help but notice Sam mountain, rising 5km up out of an ocean of flooded rice paddies, it dominates the landscape. Mr KY informed us that before we could retire for the evening and recover from injuries inflicted by the torture bus we would be climbing 200 or so steep steps up the mountain to visit a pagoda (Buddhist temple). It was a tough climb with sore, stiff limbs but we were rewarded with a series of beautiful shrines built in caves set into the mountain side and some excellent observation platforms where we could take it the stunning views across paddie-fields and over the border with Cambodia. After this is was a quick dinner and an early night in preparation for yet another 6 am start.

We started the next day with a basic breakfast of bread and cheese, then set off on foot following Mr KY to a jetty and boarding a narrow wooden boat with an alarming amount of water in it. First of all we toured a floating community, literally a whole village living in houses built on top of old boats or frames tied to empty plastic oil drums, there are floating shops, people keep dogs and pigs on the river and there is even a floating petrol station! After this we visited a Cham minority village. The Cham people moved into the delta after the Cham kingdom was conquered by the Vietnamese years ago and still live a traditional Muslim life. Living in houses built on high stilts to avoid the yearly floods they make silks, cloths and other local crafts, most of which you have the opportunity to buy if you wish. After half an hour looking around and chatting with the local kids we left, stopping briefly at a floating fish farm. Here Mr Ky got us all wet by encouraging us to stand on the platform close to the edge of the fish pen, then throwing in a handful of food and sending the fish into a frenzy, spraying water in our direction.

Once we were back on dry land we got back into the torture bus and headed back towards Can Tho, picking up extra passengers along the way, mainly sickly old women with whooping coughs and too much luggage who sat behind us and chewed loudly through a selection of bad smelling food. We stopped for lunch in a pizzeria in Can Tho before getting getting back on the bus for a 2 hour stretch to My Tho. Here we swapped into an altogether more luxurious bus for the trip back to Saigon.

All in all it was a very good tour of the Mekong Delta, the scenery was stunning, Mr KY was a great guide, we got a real taste of how traditional life on the delta functions and aside from old ladies with whooping cough, uncomfortable buses and a few annoying Italians everything was great.

(pictures to follow soon)


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