A touristty whirlwind through the tranquility of the Delta
Previously we were in Mui Ne, catch up on that here.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh around 4pm, and checked into the first cheap hostel we could find: 115,000₫ for a night, and right next to the park that all the coaches depart from; a sort of unofficial tourist city centre.
Whilst wandering around, comparing Mekong Delta trip prices, we stumbled across an organic vegan PYO diner. With sections for greens, noodles, vegetables and tofu, you could select everything you wanted in your stir fry, then the chef would give you a pager and you’d be summoned with a buzzing once it was ready. It was served with a broth, and chilli sauce.
A lot more pricey than the open-front eateries we’d been frequenting, but the novelty offered value in itself. I chose some flowers, pak choi, some chicken-style tofu, shiitake mushrooms and green tea noodles for a grand total of 58,000₫.
On our wander back to the hostel we came across a travel agent offering day trips a third cheaper than the rest. With a bit of bargaining, we secured our spot on a 2 day 1 night trip for 450,000₫ each.
Our good luck spell ended though, and the hostel was suffering a power cut upon our return. I ended up having a bizarrely intimate and frank conversation with a Korean roommate, who shied away once the light was back on. It’s like you are more free to be in the dark.
Due to the time constraints my companion had, with his visa ending in 3 days, we opted to go on a tour, where we wouldn’t have to work out timings and could follow someone else’s schedule. Neither of us are tour people; both preferring to meander and discover freestyle but needs must – sometimes your companions will bodge their dates and you’ve just got to make the best of it…
17/03 And so the merry-go-round begins
Our tour was a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Western Europeans; fortunately our guide was trilingual. Listening to him switch between English, Vietnamese and Chinese was beyond impressive. “Call me Lim, or Slim, like I am.” He would offer up terrible jokes with such a deadpan delivery that his audience, regardless of language, would be laughing.
Our first port of call was evidently the first break stop for all groups, as the road was blocked with buses and the paths were congested with tourists. Nevertheless, it was an impressive Buddhist temple, and we were able to explore it with little discomfort as most of the tourist droves got stuck outside the gate, negotiating to buy gimmicky hats. With a mix of beautiful mosaics and impressively colossal statues, we had our fill of temple.
We then filed back on to the bus, to shortly file off it again, onto a boat. The houses on the riverbank were still surprisingly suburban, and the water in the river was murky; though our guide assured us it was all mud and not pollution or litter. Everywhere we looked were other tourist boats.
We stopped off at an island to see how coconut candy is made, and got to sample some. We went on to buy a pack (peanut flavoured) for 25,000₫ as it was delicious; a sweet toffee-like candy that wasn’t as sugary as traditional toffee, and had a light fresh taste that I already miss.
We were then shepherded onto horses and carts for a brief circuit on the island, and this was the part of tour culture I’d been dreading to encounter: the exploitation in the name of entertaining Westerners. The horses were evidently over-worked, poorly cared for, and mistreated; all in the name of attracting those tourist bucks.
Our boat then took us to the lunch island, where the included veggie meal was a surprising disappointment of little tofu and lots of rice. With some leisure time scheduled in, that included activities like cycling and fishing, we opted to have hammock time. Funnily enough all of the activities we were offered had been excluded from our tour package.
Though the shops sell you one package, I’ve never encountered a guide splitting up groups and excluding some people from certain activities, depending on their package. It just goes to show, it pays to be cheap.
Buy buy bye?
After a while spent trying to work out which boat, of the squadrons clustered at the island’s edge, was ours, we headed to the next island. A bee island. Expecting to be shown hives, we were seated in a restaurant and shown a single honeycomb. Given only the basics of bee knowledge, we were instead instructed on how to take a special tea.
A light herbal tea, served with honey, lime and nectar, it was a summery tasting drink that I could’ve continued drinking, if we weren’t then nearly force fed royal jelly (which has EVERY.SINGLE.HEALTH.BENEFIT) and snacks such as dried coconut and candied lotus seeds. The hostesses proceeded to try and sell us everything. Another unfortunate tourist side effect.
We were then lead through a souvenir bazaar to another shelter, this time with a selection of Vietnamese fruits on the table, served with chilli salt. I’ve previously been introduced to salt and mango, so was keen to try this; I was not disappointed. The salt and the kick of the chilli balanced the sweetness of the fruit, and kept me dunking more. I found pineapple and mango suited this better than jackfruit, dragon fruit and grapefruit. We sampled the fruit to a medley of local music performed by about 5 singers and a guitarist; a pleasant afternoon.
We were soon herded on for the much-anticipated mangrove boat tour. However, due to the volume of tourism the boat ride felt distinctly like a Disneyland ride. Though the scenery was beautiful, the river was narrow and felt artificial.
Our boat then took us to Can Tho, and our hotel. A pretty posh hotel (full toiletry kits included), a free bus was offered to take us the 2km (yes, really this time) into town, where a night market awaited.
This was the best night market we had seen, with the widest variety of street foods we’d come across so far. We tried a fried potato spiral, something I’ve previously had in Europe, but served with sugar – a surprisingly delicious mix. On our walk around, past overpriced “European” eateries, we find a decently priced Vietnamese restaurant offering all the specialities. I finally got to have a Vietnamese pancake (38,000₫) and my companion had another clay pot; we shared summer rolls.
The 2km walk back was short and simple, not requiring the taxi our tour guide insisted we ought to get. I’m not sure if it’s a partnership with local taxi firms or genuine interest in tourist safety that encourages Vietnamese in the tourism industry to insist on taxis all the time…
18/03 Down in the floating markets in the morning (woah-oh-oh-ohhhh)
With checkout looming at 6am, we had an early breakfast of bread and jam and tea. We were on the bus and heading out to the boat by 6.45am.
Heading to the floating markets, it was great to finally see the Mekong Delta as seen in the books and online. Like Da Lat, there was a visible variety of different levels of wealth, with some homes overhanging the river looking remarkably unstable and rundown, but also filled with clean clothes and new furniture.
The river was fairly packed; as well as the long and thin tourist trip boats, there were large boats that families lived on, and brought their produce to market, and some smaller, nimbler boats that sold refreshments to the tourist boats, powered by small motors on sticks. To stop the boat, the boatsperson would simply lift the motor out of the water.
One of the cons of being on the tour boat meant we had fairly little interaction with the market. Had we come down on our own trip, we could’ve rented one of the smaller boats with a local person rowing, and been able to weave in and out, and hop onto all the boats our hearts fancied. But maybe I’ll save that until next time.
Our boat then took us down a sidestream, and we enjoyed the scenery drift slowly by. Until we suddenly slowed down… to pass by a sinking quarry boat. The crew were all still aboard, holding onto a rope to perhaps try and prevent further sinking, to no avail. As they stood, sinking, staring at us, we all sat, staring back. It was an odd moment, where none of us knew how to react… but soon we had passed by.
We passed through some back alleys and a fish market, to arrive at a garden, where we were shown how rice noodles are made. A long, drawn out process, severely hindered by the multiple clusters of tourists and schoolchildren milling about. At the café, we were able to grill a schoolchild on what all the different foods were, so on his recommendation we tried a rice/coconut cake for 5,000₫. It was light, and not too sweet. We also tried another iteration of Vietnamese pizza, this one made of dried, crisped noodles (think rice crispies, but as spice noodles) in a round base, with sweet chilli sauce on top.
Our final stop on the Delta tour was an exotic fruits garden, where we could see how fruit grows. Having grown up near farms, my expectations were pretty low… and completely shattered when I discovered that pineapples grow from the centre of bushes on the ground. Our guide also told us the difference between jackfruits (in the garden) and the notoriously stinky durian. You can smell a durian a mile off, and the spikes are long, whilst the jackfruit doesn’t smell, and you can pat it without sustaining injury. We snacked on mango from the garden for 15,000₫.
We then headed back to Can Tho for lunch at a pre-selected café. The noodles were instant, and Westerner portions were smaller than those of the Vietnamese – and the vegetarian option stretched to tofu and noodles, for a sum total of 35,000₫. I had to buy an emergency ice cream on the way back, a snip at 23,000₫.
It hadn’t been quite the peaceful meander along the Mekong I’d been hoping for, but I ‘did’ the Delta, and I did it full-tourist (nearly).
You can read the next, and final, episode in these adventures here.