The trip to the Mekong delta was an organized three day tour with hotel and meals included. We were the only Americans on the trip.
The first day started as early as the second and third – at 6:30am. We started on a boat trip on the Mekong River to see the Cai Be floating market. A boat selling fruit pulled up next to ours and we tried a sample of jack fruit which is firm and sweet. The fruit itself is large like a watermelon with spiky skin.
We later got off the boat and toured a local village and stopped by a local workshop. Here the locals were making rice paper, coconut candy and popcorn rice candy. It was amazing to see the process and I realized how much hard work goes into these things.
Even though they are sold at very low prices, people are working hard with their hands to create them.
As soon as we got off the boat kids greeted us selling postcards. Ten postcards for a dollar. The pictures looked like they were taken in 1975. After being relentlessly pursued by a young girl, I folded and gave her a dollar. I thought my guilt trip was over but instead it attracted all of the girls who didn’t make a sale. As much as I wanted to help each one of them, the dollars given out would never end.
After this we boarded the bus again and went to lunch at a restaurant on the river. The featured fish was fried Mekong Elephant fish. This fish comes directly from the Mekong river, fried whole and served. Lunch is served family style and the Vietnamese style of eating together involves serving yourself using your own utensils.
Here we were entertained by a guitarist and two girls singing traditional Vietnamese music (Đàn Ca Tài Tử – A folk art form from Southern Vietnam accredited by UNESCO in 2013). The voices were piercing but it was fun just watching them and being in the jungle eating with locals. During lunch it started pouring rain so our next stop was cancelled and we went directly to the hotel.
The second day we woke up early and left the hotel by 6:45am. Our first stop being Chau Giang – The Cham village in Chau Doc. Most of the Cham people are Muslim and live close to the river.
The village homes were not very nice and are built on stilts because they are so close to the river.
Sometimes the river rises almost as high as the stilts. Each home has the year of the water level written on the stilts.
A couple of children were begging for money and I felt terrible not giving them anything. It was clear that they were living in poverty.
Down the street was the Masjid mosque. The Cham people have to pray five times a day and the children are taught Arabic at the Mosque. They are the “nomads” of Vietnam and sometimes get moved out to the river using boats as their homes.
Next was Chua Xu Lady temple at Sam Mountain. The temple is among one of the holiest place in Vietnam and every year Vietnamese followers will make their pilgrimage to her place. We happened to visit during this busy time. The temple was packed with people and before getting off the bus, our tour guide couldn’t stress enough for us to watch our belongings there. People were bringing whole roasted pigs, incense and flowers as gifts for her to bless them throughout the year. Legend has it she brings luck, health and happiness to those who pay respect at her temple. It was so hot outside and we had time to explore the town before heading back.
Chau Doc town is a part of Vietnam known for their fermented and dried fish. Vendors had piles of fish set up in the open for customers to buy. Even though the fish is fermented, I would be afraid of getting sick from it being open to all the elements uncovered. Doug and I stood out like sore thumbs. With him being big and me being brown we were stared at the entire time we were here. Sometimes people pointed to us and stopped and stared.
Even though it was hot and humid everyone was dressed for winter covering up their arms, legs and even wearing gloves! I know Vietnamese people like their skin to be covered from the sun so seeing a brown person with skin exposed to the sun must trip them out. Especially the girls.
Next stop was the Tra Su forest Cajuput. The forest is peaceful, beautiful and mostly water. During the Vietnam war, American paratroopers plan to land here until they saw a wave go across the fields of green. What looked like land was really water covered in duckweed. This was the most peaceful area I’ve visited in Vietnam so far.
The only way to see it is by boat. The boats are narrow canoes with a person paddling with ores in the back. No motors or busy trails of people. Sometimes it was so quiet we couldn’t even hear the paddle. The forest is only six miles from the Cambodian border. I still wondered how scary it would be to be here without a boat and navigating though trying to find a shore. It seemed endless.
The floating market was fun to see. This market is on the down river section of the Mekong. Instead of getting off the boat to buy things the sellers floated up next to our tour boat and sold us things. We ended up buying a kilogram of star apples and two iced coffees.
The second night we stayed at a four star hotel and ate on the property. This hotel was nicer compared to the first night and we were glad to be in a room with air conditioning and have time to ourselves. After checking in we met in the lobby an hour later for dinner. The dining area was outdoors and beautifully lit with an awning of colored lights. Steamed fish, stir fried tofu and mushrooms, tofu soup with vegetables, steam pork loaf casserole, chicken and fried pork ribs were all placed on the table family style. Right before we started to dig in, a lizard popped out of the soup, rested on the serving spoon and jumped across the table using the dishes as his spring boards. He buried himself under a lady’s plate . Once it was confirmed that he “disappeared” everyone started eating, including myself.
By the third and last day it was clear our group had camaraderie. Even though we had a language barrier there were more smiles and picture taking among all of us. I know the kids loved Doug especially. Every time he boarded the bus they would high five him or try to get a reaction out of him. I was kind of sad to leave the group behind and venture out back on our own. We only stayed with the group until lunch. After lunch they were going back to Ho Chi Mihn City. After a really nice breakfast buffet we boarded the bus to take a motorboat to the Cai Rang Floating Market which is the biggest and most colorful floating market in the Mekong Delta’s region.
We stopped to take a bike ride along a river trail leading to a tree of nearly 160 years old and recognized as a heritage tree of Vietnam. The tree is a gua and it’s so large it looks as if it’s many trees but in actuality its only one.
This part of the jungle once had tigers roaming through so the local people had to travel in large groups to avoid confrontation by the deadly animals. Today two large tiger statues sit on each side of a small temple built by the tree in remembrance to their presence years ago.
After the bike ride we walked to a small area that sold fresh juices and grilled “meats”. River snake and rats were among the grilled meats served here. There was a bucket full of live black river snakes next to the grill. One of the people working let me hold the snake and told me it was harmless. After holding it and getting to really like the snake I passed him on to the next person.
Minutes later when everyone sat down to eat fresh fruit, I saw the guy take the exact same snake, slam it against the brick grill and then throw it directly on the fire. I felt horrible for the little thing even though I’m not a snake fan. I watched him struggle for his life on the fire and then the inevitable happened. The man put a fan directly on the flames and burned the snake alive. Poor little thing.
Our tour guide Dat told us river snakes don’t taste very good and to try cobra instead. Cobra prices are very high and depending on the cobra’s breed it can go even higher. He then pulled a photo from his cell phone showing me a cobra on a grill with a big yellow puff coming out of the middle of its body. He explained the snake was carrying eggs and when it’s grilled the eggs burst into a cooked omelet. It was gross and fascinating at the same time. He said you don’t know if the snake has eggs or not until they cook them.
We parted ways with the tour group and stayed in Can Tho for a few extra days. This was an incredible experience to see the jungle side of Vietnam and how the locals live in this area. Even though there was a language barrier with most of the people on the tour, the camaraderie was there and we were sad to leave them. I learned so much from being with them and about Vietnamese culture. One thing for sure is the people we toured with all had big hearts and were very kind to us and welcomed any interaction.