Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ups and Downs in the Mekong Delta

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010 Trip End Jul 08, 2010
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Hung Homestay

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Sunday, June 27, 2010


We were in Saigon and needed to get to Phnom Penh. We also wanted to see a bit of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam so we booked a 3-day/2-night tour that would take us around a few towns and cities in the Delta and end with a boat up the Mekong over the border into Cambodia to Phnom Penh. The tours out of Saigon are insanely cheap and since we aren't always tour people, we kind of looked at it as a way to cheaply get to Cambodia and maybe see some sights along the way. The one thing we were pretty excited/nervous about was that we'd chosen the "homestay" option on the first night so instead of going with the tour group to a hotel, we'd hook up with a local family and stay with them outside of town.

We left our Saigon hotel early and had a two-hour bus ride to a town called My Tho, the first stop on most Delta trips Mekong River at My Tho
Mekong River at My Tho
The scenery was already quite different from other parts of Vietnam in that it's much flatter, there are massive rice fields stretching forever, and there is some kind of water everywhere - be it lake, pond, ditch, canal, stream or river. We boarded a small boat at the My Tho harbor and were shuttled around the Upper Mekong, past floating houses, fish farms, lots of floating garbage, and most of all a ridiculously large number of boats. There were small canoe-sized boats with noisy car engines strapped onto the back, big fishing boats with hammocks on the decks, and massive barges hauling great mounds of dirt and sand down the river to who knows where.

The boat toured around a bit through some narrow back channels and eventually stopped for a "free" lunch, which turned out to be a small plate of fried noodles. We had to pay extra for drinks and anything else ordered off the menu. We made the huge mistake of not looking at the price before ordering a plate of spring rolls, which we've never paid anything more than $2 for in all of Vietnam. Amazingly, we eventually get the bill and they were freaking $8!! of the many downsides of organized tours...being stuck at some overpriced lunch spot with mediocre food and paying more than any other meal had cost us during the whole trip - and this was supposed to be the free meal!
Pam on Tour Boat
Pam on Tour Boat

There were a number of other attractions to see in the afternoon - another downside of tours, having to go on a set schedule to places you really don't care too much about. But we did see some interesting things like a coconut candy "factory" (really more workshop than factory) with three ladies making candy by hand and selling it to tour groups for $1/bag. It was actually pretty good tasting and interesting to see them work. They did the whole process by hand - growing the coconuts, grinding up the flesh, separating milk from oil, cooking the milk with peanuts or chocolate, cutting long strips with a giant knife, and packaging them up in rice paper and plastic. Back home we'd call it organic artisanal confections and charge $10 a pound at Whole Foods.

At the next stop - a fruit farm with a traditional music performance - it rained. Really hard. Full-out tropical monsoon rain. We were covered at the time, but it wasn't letting up and our guide said we had to move to the bus to stay on schedule (another downside of the group tour). Luckily we had ponchos, but they only went to the knee and the lower half of our bodies got absolutely drenched on the 10 minute walk to the bus. The path was mud and flooded and we just had to trudge through it in our flip-flops. I kept thinking of Forrest Gump when he was in Vietnam and was describing the rain: "big old fat rain, rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath."

After the rain, we dried off a bit on the three hour ride to the next destination, Can Tho - the biggest city in the Delta at over two million and where we'd spend the first night Brian on Tour Boat
Brian on Tour Boat
. We pulled up to a hotel and most of the group went in, but us and another couple stayed back to get transferred to our homestay. We really had no idea what to expect as we were taxied across town through some back alleys to a random boat dock and put on a small boat, puttering down a small river out into the countryside. We pulled up to another small dock next to a line of palm thatch bungalows lining the river. We met Hung, our host, whose parents own the property. He showed us our room, which was an extremely rustic, but perfectly adequate place to spend the night. It was a private room, with a sink and shower, comfortable bed, fan, lights, mosquito net, and even a porch overlooking the river. I think the term "homestay" is a bit misleading since we had visions of being curled up on the floor of a stranger's living room, waking up in the morning spooning with the family dog.

We did, however, have a wonderful meal in the family's house. We were introduced to an old neighbor woman who showed us how to make sweet potato and bean sprout springrolls, which she would fry and serve with a spicy chilli sauce - we had to work a bit for our dinner. The rest of the meal was a whole elephant ear fish, which is caught throughout the rivers of the Mekong Delta, the ubiquitous steamed rice, fried tofu with tomatoes, stir-fried green beans, and rice paper wrappers with herbs for wrapping up chunks of fish and eating them like tacos. It was absolutely fantastic.

After dinner we got into the beer and spent the next 5 or 6 hours having a fantastic time drinking and chatting with the other couple who was with us, Paul and Mary from Scotland. Hung invited us to drink shots of rice with with his brother who probably didn't need any more Lots of Boats
Lots of Boats
. After the brother stumbled off to bed, Hung sat with us and we talked for hours. He spoke amazing English, which he taught himself using books on tape after he dropped out of school to work for his family. He told tragic stories of his family's history - how they used to be wealthy landowners but the government took their land during one of the redistribution periods in the eighties, forcing them to become farmers and one of the siblings to flee the country on a tiny boat across open ocean to Malaysia and eventually to Canada where he still lives today. But despite the hard life, he had such an optimistic spirit and was smiling and laughing and telling jokes while mixing in some fascinating bits of Vietnamese history and culture. He said he's met people from all over the world through the homestay and is very grateful for the experiences. It was an incredible night and before we knew it, it was 1am and we suddenly realized we had to be up at 5 to rejoin the tour group.

We had a restful few hours of sleep in our bungalow but the alarm went off way too early. The rest of the day was spent going through the motions of the tour group and being kind of annoyed that we were stuck on boats and buses instead of enjoying a nap and a shower in a nice hotel. We saw a floating market (disappointing and filthy), a rice noodle workshop (mildly interesting), and a fruit farm (just an excuse to sell fruit to tourists just at the point in the tour they are starving because the meager baguette breakfast has long worn off) Boat
. After lunch, we boarded a bus to Chau Doc, a town near the Cambodian border where we'd spend another night before taking the boat to Phnom Penh.

The bus was supposed to take about 3 hours but about an hour in - the very minute I fall asleep no less - we come to a complete halt. Traffic Jam. And not just any traffic jam. The kind where engines are turned off and people exit their vehicles and walk a half a mile to see what's happening. Our guide left to investigate and we are miserably left standing on the side of the road in blazing heat as motorbikes swerve past trying to dodge the people and parked vehicles. The guide finally returned with news: a Saigon Beer truck has collided with a large bus and the truck lost. It is now laying sideways blocking both lanes of a major Vietnamese highway. It's likely there is spilt beer everywhere. The guide says it will be at least an hour...ugh. We were miserable. Tired, sweaty, and only wanting a bed and shower.

So we waited and waited and waited. Eventually one of us got the idea to walk to a roadside coffee shop to sit in the shade and get a drink. We trekked up the road with our guide making sure we all stay together so one of us aren't left along the roadside when things get moving again. We got to the store and it was a little mental boost - a shady spot with cold drinks and hammocks. (I love hammocks.) And I had a deck of cards in my pocket so I thought we could pass the time with a group card game. But it was not to be...the minute I settled into the hammock the guide comes back and says we have to move back to the bus because if traffic starts to move and we are not on the bus we'll lose our place in line. we walk back and wait some more Floating House
Floating House
. Finally we get word that things are going to move. A crane has come and moved the truck and policemen have arrived to direct traffic. It was about an hour delay but we finally started rolling to Chau Doc.

Two hours later we arrived, visited a nice hilltop pagoda, and were finally brought to our hotel, which was definitely the nastiest place we'd stayed the whole trip - another downside of the group tour...having no choice of accommodations and not knowing how crappy they'll be. Oh well, it had a bed and a shower so it wasn't all bad. We explored Chau Doc a bit though there really wasn't much to it at all. We found a place for some beers and had some snacks on the street but it was a pretty early night.

The next morning we were on a boat, speeding up the Mekong to Cambodia. So despite the downs, the tour accomplished our goal of getting us through the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. And we saw some interesting things along the way and met some cool people, but it was the experience of the homestay with Hung that made it all overwhelmingly worthwhile. So much so that I'm going to forget about Chau Doc and pretend that Hung's homestay was our last night in Vietnam since that will leave me with much better memories of a country in which we've spent so much time and where we've experienced so many absolutely wonderful things.