Travel Report: The Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
I was into the last few days of my monthlong adventure across Vietnam. And what better way to sign off than with a boat cruise through the country’s stunning Mekong Delta. An intricate maze of river and swamps encompassed by jungle, rice fields and dotted villages, I’d read how this was one of the great experiences of South East Asia.
I’m guessing just about every would-be visitor has a different aspect of The Mekong Delta that particularly captures the imagination. For some it might be the silence of the place. Nothing but the sound of coconut tree branches rustling in the breeze.
For others, it could be catching a glimpse of farmers, shielded from the sun in their cone-shaped hats as they work the paddy fields. For me, I couldn’t shake the image of the impossibly cool Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Crouched in the back of a boat as it cuts its way through the Mekong Delta’s muddy waters. Man I was disappointed when I found out those scenes were actually filmed in The Philippines.
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
To get onto the Mekong Delta myself, I had to pick my way through a glut of operators. Unfortunately, much like my research on Halong Bay, I came across all kinds of cowboy outfits. Operators that pack their customers like sardines onto tiny boats. Who ensure their passengers spend more time in souvenir stores than they do on the river itself.
Finally, after much online research, I settled on the Insight Mekong Delta Tour through a Ho Chi Minh based company called Deluxe Group Tours. I rarely go down the group tour route. However, The Mekong Delta is an isolated region and I really only had a day to spare before my return flight to China. Moreover, they assured me there would be no more than ten people on the tour, which didn’t sound too bad.
Thus I paid my dues ($45) and they picked me up from my hotel as promised, between 08:00-08:30. From there it was a two hour minivan drive into the heart of rural Ben Tre Province. Eventually, we passed along a wide section of The Mekong River and down onto a series of dusty roads. And just minutes later we were rumbling to a stop outside the tiny village of Nhon Thanh.
Perched on the edge of The Delta, the village is home to a small but dedicated brick making community. They make their bricks using clay dredged directly from The Mekong. “You can see many factory like this on The Delta….” our guide said, leading us into the heart of Nhon Thanh’s modest operation. “Little skylines of brick towers… smoke rising… smell of baking clay”.
Nhon Thanh Village.
The towers he was referring to are orange kilns. Nhon Thanh had about a dozen, which I found strangely alluring. Bright orange, wonky and hive-shaped, they serve as furnaces to cook the bricks. Once fished out of The Mekong, the villagers leave the clay to dry in the sun for several weeks before baking.
Next we got to enter one of the kilns. It felt like going inside a giant beehive, thankfully without the buzzing things. The baking process, powered by rice husks, takes up to several days. “On cooking day it gets crazy hot here” laughed our guide. “In fact, workers need to wear hat, goggles and protective suit”. Furthermore, he revealed that each kiln was good for “about 50 years” before it had to be replaced.
He also led us through several large storage areas, where piles and piles of finished bricks awaited pickup. They’d be going, Mr. Guide said, all over Vietnam for various construction projects. Under a rickety wooden shelter, we came across some villagers resting by a mountain of rice husks. A worryingly thin grandfather, his son and grandson, seemingly keeping a polite distance from our tour. The young boy, enthusiastically sucking on a lollipop, shot me a cheeky look as I grabbed my photo.
From Nhon Thanh Village our guide led us down to the banks of The Mekong. “Jump on…. make yourself comfortable….” he laughed, gesticulating towards a massive wooden Sampan. It was lovely onboard, all polished wood surfaces and loads of space. Within minutes we were chugging through the water, while our guide and a crew member handed out coconuts. “Drink… drink, enjoy the view”.
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
Sipping on fresh coconut juice… sheltered from the burning sun… it wasn’t exactly a scene out of Apocalypse Now. Which was probably a good thing, as I had no particular desire to be shot at. “You know, we always choose quiet part of Delta” our guide boasted. And true enough there was no sign whatsoever of other tour boats. Just an unblemished landscape of muddy water, lush green jungle and a blue, cloud-laden sky.
After half an hour of cruising another vessel came into view. “Some villages make the clay pots” we learned. “This one go to Ho Chi Minh, soon they will be in hotels… companies… souvenir stores. Is good business”.
Our next stop was a coconut candy workshop. We literally just pulled up at a nondescript clearing and picked our way through the jungle to a raised wooden hut. In that brief two minute walk I was left drenched in sweat and had a line of bugs installed on my neck. Thankfully a brief swish of my hand sent them packing.
In Vietnam people affectionately refer to The Mekong Delta as Coconut Country. “Yeah, you can find hundreds of coconut factory here” our host said, as we gathered inside the hut. “They make juice… fresh coconut slice… oil… craft product… but the candy is the best! We call it Keo dua“.
In one corner of the hut we saw a pair of men hacking flesh out of a pile of coconuts. In another, a teenage boy sat on a wooden stool grinding a pile of shavings into an oily wok. “They cook the coconut with a secret mixture” our guide chuckled.
“They even won’t tell me precise ingredient, but you can be sure some milk and A LOT of sugar”.
After cooking, the syrupy sweet coconut mix cools off before a team of ladies moulds everything into bite sized squares. These same women later wrap each individual piece, a relentless not to mention tedious process that takes up hours of their time every day.
Needless to say they had plenty of coconut candy bags for purchase, should you be so inclined. But I liked how nobody put any pressure on us to buy. Rather, they simply treated the group to some complimentary pieces, safe in the knowledge that they’d most likely shift a few bags. And so it proved, because the candies were so soft and flavourful around half the group ended up taking a bag or two for the road. Each pack, containing around thirty pieces, goes for 35.000VND ($1.50).
They have some other curious products on sale too. Take this absolutely brutal rice wine, for example, containing either sun-dried cobra or black scorpion. Hmm, which one would you go for? I went for the neither option. Apparently, the high alcohol level (35%) neutralises whatever poison remains in the creature’s body. Yikes. What’s more, locals reckon just a small shot glass serves as a potent aphrodisiac.
Back on The Mekong, we had another half an hour of river gazing. Leaning back, feet up, it was a joy to see us progress through the wide expanse into smaller networks of narrow river alleys. So fun, in fact, that I had to take up the guide’s offer of a photograph. “Just crawl to end of boat… keep going, keep going….”
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
Buried somewhere within one of these alleys, lies another tiny village. This community works in the mat and basket-weaving trade. Everything made from either bamboo or sedge (a grass-like flowering plant with fibrous leaves).
“One small mat sells for just $1” he told us, as the women carried on working without even looking up. I guess they were used to groups like ours strolling into their homes. It was interesting to learn that nearly all of the weavers were women, due to the fact that they had “small hands”. “And better patience compare to men” laughed our guide, referencing the very precise weaving process. “One mistake and BOOM, wasted mat”.
From the village our leader surprised us all by walking us to a nearby bike station. “Ok we got lunch coming” he announced, “But first you gotta work for it. So we go cycling”. Immediately, I began pondering what manner of bicycle I might have to get to grips with. But actually it was a decent bike more than capable of handling the ten minute journey ahead.
I had expected the route to be… a bit wild shall we say. But in contrast the ride played out along a spotless stone road. Not even a pothole in evidence as we passed little clusters of houses and the occasional farm. Overall it was a piece of cake, though the sun was so burning hot I doubt we could have ridden for much longer without suncream and water.
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
Parking our bikes in the garden, we entered the idyllic jungle compound of Cai Coi Riverside Restaurant. This was a wonderful spot, an authentic Mekong Delta eatery with not even a glint of an online footprint. Inside the giant hut we gathered around a long wooden table, eagerly awaiting our Mekong feast.
And what a giant banquet it was, with all the traditional Vietnamese staples such as noodles, fried rice, stir-fried chicken and vegetable spring rolls. The standout dish though was definitely the amazing deep-fried fish, served whole and perfectly battered from eyeballs to fin. A work of art really.
Things did a get a touch cheesy on the last leg of our cruise back to the minivan. Our guide admitted that he needed new photos of clients enjoying the tour. Hence he asked a bunch of us to pose on the boat, wearing of course a traditional Vietnamese conical hat (Non La). Generally, I tend to run a mile from such situations. But I’d really enjoyed my day in The Mekong Delta, so I thought why the heck not.
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh our guide announced an unexpected pitstop. “Now we’re passing biggest temple in Mekong Delta. We can take a quick look”. And so I hopped out of the minivan for a speedy but highly enjoyable self-guided tour of The Mekong Delta’s grand 19th century Vinh Trang Pagoda.
Vinh Trang Pagoda.
Dating back to 1850, the complex is fairly unique in that it combines classical Vietnamese architecture with Chinese, Khmer, Thai and even European flourishes. As you’d expect, the compound includes representations of all the iconic Buddha forms. Including The Laughing Buddha (symbolising happiness and good luck) and The Reclining Buddha (Gautama Buddha before he enters parinirvana).
Above all, it’s a wonderfully peaceful place with vast courtyards, well-kept gardens, potted plants, fruit trees, bonsais, towering bronze statues and grand altars. I also loved the porcelain mosaic creations found peppered around the complex. All beautifully detailed and depicting traditional Buddhist stories.
A number of highly respected Buddhist monks rest within the pagoda in marked gravestones. Moreover, Vinh Trang serves as a children’s home for orphans and disadvantaged/disabled youths. Poke around some of the courtyard corridors and you might see them drinking tea, playing chess or studying in their dorms.
Vinh Trang Pagoda is free to enter daily from 09:00-11:30 & 13:30-17:00. Most Mekong Delta day tours from Ho Chi Minh include a stop here, either on the way in or back from the main tour.
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