The Mekong River is long and wide, starting in Tibet and flowing out to the South China Sea. I traveled on it by boat in Laos, which is about the midway point, and again in Vietnam, in the massive Mekong Delta where the river meets the ocean. The Delta is a huge area, a totally different landscape from farther north; it’s flat and steeped in water. I took an overnight trip to the Delta from Ho Chi Minh City, with a tour group of about forty people.
The bus ride took several hours, out of the city and into the watery flatlands, and our guide, Mr. Ky, spoke to us for the first half hour, telling us about the foods grown in the region. Our first stop was in the canals off the river. We listened to a few songs performed by musicians who must do this for at least ten different tour groups a day, so it’s not surprising that they sounded a little tired. We ate a few fruits and then followed Mr. Ky down the concrete paths between canals to a little spit of land used as a dock. While we waited for our boat, Mr. Ky told us how the rivers and canals flood up to two meters every year, which is essential for the rice the delta produces–90% of the country’s rice export.
Then came my favorite part of the day; we climbed into tiny boats in groups of four, and drifted down the estuary. The boats were piloted by men and women standing up in the back, using long poles to propel us gently along. Unlike everywhere else I’d go in Vietnam, it was almost silent here. I could hear some traffic in the distance, but mostly it was quiet and peaceful, floating along the brown river, surrounded by bright green foliage and the occasional chirp of a hidden bird.
At the end of our far too short ride, we watched villagers making coconut candy, which involved putting it through a grinding machine, then stirring it into a thick paste over a wood-burning fire, and finally cooling, stretching, and cutting it on long tables. It was a lot like the process I’ve seen at fairs, to make caramel.
After a boat ride along the Mekong, we had some lunch, then stopped off at a temple for a few minutes. Huge buddhas in various states of repose loomed over ornate buildings and blooming bougainvillea. Shards of pottery were made into mosaics on the gateways.
That night, I had dinner with a couple on the tour. Chrissy’s from Germany and Nicolas is from France. They were doing almost my exact itinerary, in reverse, so we shared a lot of tips with each other on what to do and where to go. We wandered around the food market, checking out the many different kinds of seafood on display, and purchasing palm juice for our walk. We had some pho and an elaborate, delicious dessert assembled by a woman who laughed when we came back for seconds because we liked it so much.
The next morning, we went to the floating markets of Cai Rang. There are other floating markets in the delta, and I think those other ones are what most of us were expecting to see. We thought we’d see lots of small boats, propelled by those same poles used in the estuary the day before, filled with people selling fruits and vegetables to one another in the pre-dawn light.
Instead, we saw lots of little boats come up alongside much larger motorboats, and exchanged dozens of fruits. The large boats put up huge poles topped with the fruit they had for sale, so that you could tell from a distance which boat to pilot to your small boat to. Many longtail small boats pulled up alongside ours with people hawking lottery tickets, flat pop, and snacks.
Mr. Ky then took us to a small operation where people made thin, stiff rice paper. Afterward, we went to a fruit farm, where we saw all sorts of delicious things growing: mangosteens, jackfruit, rose apples, pineapples, dragon fruit. Fines for picking the fruit were severe, since this was a working farm, but I won’t say it wasn’t tempting.
The tour was a little too managed and a little too big for my taste, so next time I’ll do more research and probably pay more to hire a guide and take more time meeting people. Still, I’m glad I went.