Learning the Traditions of the Mekong Delta
After a few work days in the heat of Ho Chi Minh City and a trip to the War Remnants museum, it was time to get back at nature. Signing up for a tour of the Mekong Delta was easily done at my hostel, and hosted by the An Travel Vietnam tour group. Although I was hoping to be exploring untouched nature which didn’t happen, nor did we see many animals in their natural habitat, it was still a very fulfilling and interesting tour. It wasn’t the indigenous flora and fauna that fulfilled my craving for nature, but rather the various local businesses that we visited that used very traditional, organic methods to create their goods.
The bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City took about 2 hours, getting us to the Mekong Delta at 10am, where boarded our tour boat. I realized right away that this would not be as nature filled as I had hoped. The water was a deep brown colour (perhaps naturally), there were no shores without houses, some more run down than others, and there were boats everywhere whose engines did little for the ecosystems around them. I quickly realized that it was silly for me to ever have thought that this would be untouched nature. Deltas are some of the most fertile lands on the planet and therefore some of the first to be populated and have their species domesticated.
With that in mind, my expectations changed, hoping instead to find traditional natural processes for cultivating food, cooking and living. On our first stop, at Coconut Island, that’s exactly what I got. It was a small factory, cooking coconut candies and other goods.
We could see the relatively small machines that were used to grind the coconuts, cook the meat, and the process to harden and cut it all up. There were no added chemicals, no black smoke coming out of a chimney, even the wrapping was done by hand. And the candies were delicious! We also got to sample their various other products, including a coconut liqueur which definitely had some kick!
We then had two more stops, one featuring the lunch that was part of the tour, and the other to a bee farm. The lunch was good and filling, and was followed by an optional bike ride around the island. The bikes were very rundown and it was hard to find one that ran smoothly, but there was no need for speed so it made little difference. The trail was beautiful and relaxing.
We passed by an alligator farm where we thought the alligators were fake because none of them were moving! They literally did not move until food was presented. Some had their mouths perpetually open, as if whatever position they were in when their last meal ended, they would have to maintain until their next meal was presented. Laziest creatures ever! At the bee farm, got to sample the honey in some tea and snack on some honey glazed dried bananas. Both were delicious and accompanied by some traditional Vietnamese live music.
Despite giving up on my dreams of a tour of the Mekong Delta’s nonexistent natural environment early on, that was exactly what the last stop was.
We boarded a smaller boat and were paddled along on a ride along one of the delta’s small capillaries. There were no motors, there were no houses, just small boats drifting slowly along and towering plants arching above us. I also could not believe how well our boat was paddled by a little, old Vietnamese lady.
At this point, we separated from the people that only opted for the one day tour (big mistake on their part). We were dropped off in a rather inconspicuous parking lot on the side of a highway and, as our bus drove off, were told to wait there to be picked up by our homestays. After a few tense moments where none of us knew if we were ever going to see civilization again, a lady appeared on the other side of the highway. She fearlessly crossed it and then mentioned for us to follow her back so, finally, after a solid game of real-life frogger, we were driven to her home on the back of some motorbikes. This would be my first taste of real Viet life!
The next day, a 5am alarm call got us up in time for breakfast, out the door by 6 and to the floating market by 7. Maybe it’s because it was where I was able to have my first coffee of the day after a very early wake up, but I thought the market was fantastic. It’s such a cool experience to see merchants passing you on both sides, flaunting their foods and goods. Ten thousand dong were dropped in the river during the open water coffee exchange, but the merchant just shrugged it off and carried on. Had I not been expecting a free lunch later, I would have opted to try a lot more of the food as it all looked very tasty.
After another tour, this time of a fruit farm, whose 50,000 dong fresh and juicy fruit plates were a definite bargain, and a rice noodle factory, we headed to lunch. This was the only meal we had to pay for the entire trip. After lunch, we boarded the bus and arrived back to our hostel in Ho Chi Minh City at 5:30pm.
Upon arrival, I was absolutely exhausted, which is a testament to how much we saw and did in the Mekong Delta during those two days. The price tag of D500,000 was well worth it, considering that you would be paying over half of that in Ho Chi Minh City anyway for the meals and accommodation alone. Living with the homestay for a night was an amazing experience and an interesting glimps into their lives. Most importantly, it was great to see that despite the human presence in the Mekong Delta, many traditional customs were kept and there still are some portions where you can find the unadulterated nature that I was looking to explore.