Longing to travel in Vietnam? This 7 part series, which travels from Hanoi in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south, will entice you to experience Vietnam’s vibrancy and beauty; meet its resilient and hospitable people and marvel at their ability to blend calm serenity with seeming chaos … and make it all work.
It is about a two and a half hour drive from the center of Ho Chi Minh City to Cai Be located in the heart of the Mekong Delta.
As you leave the metropolitan area high rises puncture the skyscape. These tall, modern buildings offer expensive apartments to Vietnamese returning to Vietnam as well as foreign workers.
Alongside the highways uncultivated wetlands are dotted pink with lotus blossoms and cultivated rice fields receive constant care from planting to harvesting.
Depending on your travel arrangements between city and Delta there may be some tourist stops: outlets, temples and restaurants. If you choose to hire a private car with driver and/or guide (often surprisingly good values but check prices first) you will be in control as to what you see and for how long.
Traveling the Delta
The waters of the Mekong start in Tibet, wind their way through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and finally, in Vietnam, fan out into the delta. As Vietnam’s agrarian heartland, the Delta still provides approximately half of the country’s agriculture needs.
Like roads, these waterways are busy with traffic, the wider ones more busy than the ‘back lanes’.
Many farmers bring their sugar cane, vegetables and fruit to a floating market and sell to ‘middlemen’ on larger boats who, in turn, sell to retailers. Some middlemen send small boats out to farms to collect produce.
If there are opportunities in your Delta itinerary you may find yourself at a floating market or with a family who make puffed-rice treats (food for another TMS article) and rice candy; but the big attraction is simply maneuvering through the waterways of the delta.
Turning off the big water avenues, your driver might steer through a channel which cuts across one of the many Mekong River islands. This is where your camera will start to click steadily around each turn, under each bridge and every encounter with locals going about their daily lives.
It may seem surreal; like a Disneyland ride (which ends all too soon as you come around a bend and see the same dock you left from just minutes earlier). But, unlike a Disneyland ride, in the Delta you come around the bend and find yourself back in a main channel of the Mekong with wider waters and then just as quickly enter another channel. It’s not over.
Perhaps this channel will be a little busier and again your camera clicks like lazy castanets.
A fisherman pulls up his netting; and you hope you have a backup camera card with you.
It’s time for lunch (your shutter finger has had quite a workout). May we recommend a crispy on the outside but oh so tender on the inside elephant ear fish (this specialty is always served upright with something in its mouth) fresh from the Mekong. Okay, you might feel a bit hesitant; after all you just saw the colour of the Mekong and there’s a lot of silt and ‘stuff’ between Tibet and lunch. Concerns, however, will slip away with the first taste. Take your host’s suggestions on how to eat it. Our favorite is a piece of lettuce (guide-assured washed in bottled water), topped with a leaf of mint and some fish. Wrap it up, dip it in fish sauce and …. oooh yum! Lunch usually comes with other courses: soup, steamed rice, steamed vegetables and, oddly, French fries (it keeps those who can’t step away from their western comfort food content) and, perhaps, a bottle of Vietnamese beer ‘333’ (‘Ba ba ba’) or a soda to wash it down. All for a price that is, usually, ridiculously low.
With boat waves constantly bruising the shoreline, well-used channels suffer erosion; homes and businesses threatened. Older boys take on the job of diving into the murky brown water to fill sacks with sand which are then passed from hand to hand until they reach the shore and placed in position.
The above are just a sampling of what you might experience on the Mekong. Your time on the Delta will be yours … unique from all others. We can assure you, it will be memorable. All you have to do is get in the boat (yours will most likely be bigger and have seats).