Cruising the Mekong Delta

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
Trip End Jan 11, 2011

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Having been a bit disappointed with the tour of Cu Chi we were a little nervous about going on a second one, but we had already booked a two day trip to the Mekong Delta. We were wondering though, are tour groups really for us?
The bus that took us out of Saigon dropped us off in a delta village and we boarded our first boat. This took us to Coconut Island where we watched various coconut products being made. It was quite interesting - I like watching things being produced - but we were still a little uncomfortable with being herded from site to site, even though we had a comparatively small group of sixteen. Next we were transferred to a four person rowing boat and taken up a narrow river to our lunch stop. On our guide's recommendation we ordered some Mekong specialties: elephant ear fish and grilled fresh water shrimp. The fish came whole and we pulled pieces of flesh off the bone, then wrapped them in rice paper with cooked noodles, herbs and veges to make fresh spring rolls. Both dishes were delicious. In the afternoon there was an option to pay a bit extra and catch a boat to the town where we would be spending the night or take a long, boring bus ride.
We opted for the boat. This brought the group down to a comfortable number of ten. Our boat cruised up a small canal which connects the two main arms of the Mekong Delta. It was lined on either side by fruit gardens and small shacks on stilts. There were also many small boats with people going about their business; fishing, dredging, transporting goods and much more. Small boys were having their bath in the Mekong (although I'm not sure that they came out any cleaner than when they went in) and, whatever they were doing, everyone waved at us cheerfully. Chris, a German guy, asked to take over steering the boat, and as he did an excellent job the captain was happy to take a break. The locals thought it was hilarious, pointing out  the white guy driving a boat and having a good laugh. 
After a toilet and drinks break the guide had a surprise for us. While we had been sitting around getting to know each other he had been fishing catfish out of the rice paddy. He had grilled these and, together with other nibbles and some beers, laid out a feast on the floor of our boat. It was really wonderful, cruising up the Mekong nibbling local delicacies, making new friends and waving to the locals. Then the sun started setting - spectacular.
We arrived at the town of Can Tho and were led to our hotel. We decided to have dinner with Chris and two Irish sisters also on our tour and opted for an outdoor stand on the waterfront. The vendor brought out a little charcoal griddle and placed it on the table, so we cooked the grilled shrimp and snails ourselves. The snails were actually Chris's but I tried one too - a first for me! It was a bit chewy but tasted OK.
At 10pm Nathan, Chris and I met our guide, Phu, and the guide of another tour, Donald, in the hotel lobby. They were keen to show us the Mekong Delta nightlife. The five of us jumped in a taxi and headed across town to a 'discotheque'.
Now this was like no other club either of us had been to before. Firstly, the bouncers, dressed in suits and bow-ties came to open the car door for us like we were A-list celebrities. Inside, Phu had reserved us a standing table. Each table came with its own hostess. The club was full and there were bottles of Glenmorangie and Hennessey all over the place. It's still a mystery to me how the locals can afford this. The music was something else - dance remixes of Western pop songs and Vietnamese tracks played by DJs positioned in front of a big screen showing fashion TV advertising. Like the other Vietnamese men in the club Phu and Donald were excellent dancers, they had all the moves! By the end of the night Nathan was convinced they were together and that Phu's claim of having eleven girlfriends scattered around the Mekong Delta is a cover story. By means of transgression Nathan quickly discovered the club rules: no photos and no drinks on the dance floor (try enforcing that in New Zealand). Then there were the girls  - each one stunning and immaculately dressed. I felt quite out of place in my purple jandals, but no one lifted an eyebrow. Aside from myself and the large middle aged lady at the table next to ours I'm sure the women in the room were all employees. And I haven't even mentioned the two girls on stage. Dressed in nothing but matching underwear their dance moves emulated sexual positions - extremely risque in a society as conservative as Vietnam. It was a little like being in some kind of crazy, high-rolling strip-club slash gay bar. However, the most bazaar thing of all was that to compliment their drink patrons were encouraged to buy large platters of fruit. Fruit platters in a club - really?
As you can imagine, the five of us were a little worse for wear when we got up before 7am the next morning. Phu pulled himself together and led both his group and Donald's combined to the waterfront. There we boarded a boat and were taken to the Cai Rang floating market, one of the Mekong Delta's biggest attractions. Farmers from all over the delta load their boats with produce and gather here to tender their wares. A stick erected vertically on each boat and an example of the produce is tied to it - pineapple, kumera, cabbage, carrot etc - to show the buyers what's for sale. While we could buy coffee and fresh fruit for breakfast this is really a whole-sellers' market and many people were buying in bulk to then sell on in their villages. Phu told us that the sellers would stay at the market, living on their boats until all the produce was sold would usually take between three days and a week.
After the markets we were taken to a noodle factory and then a rice factory. Rice is Vietnam's biggest export product, and the Mekong Delta is the country's largest producer. Nathan and I quite enjoyed the factories although we were again being rushed through to make room for next groups. It must seem strange to the workers that hundreds of Westerners shuffle through their workplace every day, snap some pictures of them at work and then move on again. The reality is that at home we rarely get the chance to see how the things we consume are produced. Here in Asia there are people making things everywhere, whether in factories or on the street corner.

We had lunch back at Can Tho and finally got to try the classic Vietnamese dish of claypot catfish. The fatty fish is slow cooked with palm sugar, cracked pepper and chilies, creating a wonderfully rich, thick caramel sauce. It is really a poor man's meal; will keeps for weeks without refrigeration and can be added to again and again. Even when all the fish is gone the sauce, eaten with rice, makes a tasty meal. 
This brought our tour of the Mekong Delta to an end. Despite our earlier skepticism about group tours we'd had a fantastic time, met some great Vietnamese and travelers alike and been given an insight into Vietnamese life that would have been difficult to achieve on our own.
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Robyn on

You think that was the cutest puppy photo - wait 'til you meet Boris who lives next door to us!! Really interesting to see and hear about Mekong Delta - we didn't make it down there. Your blogs are so well written and with such fantastic photos we feel as though we are tripping with you guys.

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