Monday, 8 December 2014

The Mekong Delta

Our last stop before returning to Ho Chi Minh City and then flying north back to Hanoi for three and a half weeks over Christmas and New Year, to look after an apartment and ‘white cat’.

Our trip so far, courtesy Google Maps
The Mekong Delta and our route from HCMC in blue
So far we’ve travelled nearly 2300km, mainly south, since we arrived in Hanoi on 1st November and experienced quite a change in climate. Here in the Mekong Delta it’s hot and humid, about 30⁰ C and 85% humidity, there is a slight breeze making the real temperature a little more bearable, but when the sun comes out (about half the time during the day) it’s almost unbearable and very debilitating, requiring frequent iced coffee or fruit juice stops!

Our guide telling us about honey production
We have three destinations in the delta, with two nights at each and, at the moment, we are at our second destination, Cần Thơ , our first was Vĩnh Long and we’re about to travel on in the morning to our third, Châu Đốc, which is right on the border with Cambodia. 

The Mekong Delta is a huge area of 15,000 square miles in the very south of Vietnam and is largely flat and at sea level, having been formed mainly by sediment deposition from the Mekong River. Its flatness has allowed the river to split into many branches as it flows to the sea and the inhabitants have, over the centuries, built many interconnecting canals, so the whole area can be traversed by boat, although many new bridges have been built allowing easy road connections, at least in the populated areas we’ve visited. 
On our rowing boat trip
Just cruisin' down the river
It is home to nearly 20 million people, nearly a quarter of Vietnam’s population and most of them work in agriculture or fishing, they are the largest rice producer in the country and have about half of the country’s fishing fleet. Most of the people live around the northern part of the delta, the very south has few roads and many swamps, with mosquitos and little reason for tourists to travel there, unless bird watching is your thing. The Mekong River is one of the world’s major rivers, coming in at about number 12, it’s about 4400km long with its source high up at 5224m in Mt Guozongmucha on the Tibetan plateau  and flows through China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

There were a few of us, about 15 in all
On the bikes with an Aussie girl who was on the trip
Most tourists visit here over one or two days on guided trips from Ho Chi Minh City, but as we had more time available we wanted to do a trip on our own and hopefully get a bit more ‘under the skin’ of the place. The problem we had is that the main bus station in HCMC that serves the south is 10km west of the city centre and, although the bus is cheap, 100,000vnd (£3), the taxi ride to the bus station is not and we were quoted $15 (£9) for taxi and bus to Vĩnh Long

Our Homestay
Helping prepare dinner in the Homestay
The alternative, that we chose, was to take a one day guided tour there and get them to leave us there at the end of the day. The trip cost $19 each and for that they picked us up from our hotel, we had a boat ride on the Mekong, visiting the floating market at Cai Be, transferred to a number of small rowing boats for a trip along a canal, walked to see rice paper making (third time for us!) and coconut candy making (a speciality of this area, sweet and chewy, but quite nice), another boat ride, a stop to listen to a group of native singers and musicians while eating local fruits (jackfruit, guava, grapefruit and watermelon), washed down with tea and their local fire water, another boat ride, lunch of rice, pork and vegetables, a bike ride, another boat ride to Vĩnh Long, just where we wanted to go. Our guide phoned the Homestay we had booked, left us at a tourist office for collection and we waved goodbye to everyone on the bus as they set off back to HCMC. A really nice day and so much better than just a taxi and bus ride here, and just $4 (£2.50) more!

Dinner with our German friends
And what a dinner it was. This is two of six courses!
Vĩnh Long is a big city and major transport hub in the Delta area, so we decided not to stay there, but book a room at a Homestay, across a branch of the Mekong on An Binh island, which is very rural and, we felt, much more like the real Delta. The Homestay owner, or at least his nephew, met us at the tourist office and took us across on the ferry, where his motorbike and another lady and motorbike were waiting to take us to the Homestay. 
Night visit to the crocodile farm. Each point of light is an eye!
Sitting on the back of a motorbike with a big rucksack on is quite a challenge and I was hoping he wouldn’t brake or accelerate too quickly, lest I should fall off! Legs were almost cramping as my toes gripped the foot rest through my sandals and my hands were going numb gripping the rail behind, but we made it, finishing a long way down a dirt track alongside a lily covered stream to the lovely rural house, in just the style and location we were hoping for. 

A branch of the Mekong River
Jackie finds a little puppy!
Their big house, which seemed to hold about four generations and four families was quite rustic and the row of cabins were good quality, but had windows with no glass, a gap between the walls and the floor and the walls and the roof, but it was reasonably large with a big bed and an equally big mosquito net to cover it. We were going to need that as the cabins spanned a pond with lots of fish and, at night, lots of small biting things! Being rural, there was no air-con, only a fan, which we were a bit worried about in this heat and only a toilet and shower block serving everyone, but they did have very good wi-fi. There was a big roofed open common area with tables and chairs and hammocks round the edge, lots of tropical vegetation all round and a real rural feel – fabulous!

The Elephant Ear fish we had on our second night
On the local bus to Cần Thơ
Our host couldn’t have done more for us and the other two German couples staying there were very friendly and we had a great first evening with them. We all went into the main house kitchen for a cooking lesson and then sat down to a splendid and massive six course dinner of some of the things we had prepared and many more we hadn’t, including two whole steamed fish between us, all beautifully presented with hand carved vegetables, table cloths and all the things you would expect in a classy restaurant. More food than we could possibly eat and great company! Our host even took us on a night walk to see fireflies and the nearby crocodile farm, where there are hundreds of baby crocodiles, bred for human consumption.

The huge statue of Ho Chi Minh on the riverfront at Cần Thơ

The Mekong 05:30 am today
Breakfast the next morning was an equally splendid thing and we then said goodbye to our German friends and went for a bike ride on the free of charge bikes they provide, round part of the island, using a map they provided, with extra instructions from the Germans who had done it the day before (I’m glad they did otherwise we too would have got lost!) visiting, en route a tropical fruit farm where we were invited to taste fruit, tea and their local fire water (where are the musicians we thought!). Another cookery class and fabulous six course dinner the next night, this time eating ‘Elephant Ear Fish’, a locally caught river fish that is a speciality here, but this time on our own as the local Vietnamese couple, the two guys with a guide and the four Dutch girls, all ate on separate tables and only nodded and said ‘hello’ to each other. 

The floating market
It was a great stay and a worthwhile experience, the motorbike ride was less scary on the way back to the ferry, we took the ferry back on our own and walked the 400m or so to the bus station and caught the local bus to Cần Thơ, where we seemed to be the local entertainment! White people on their bus, had they never seen any before? It seemed not, but they were all friendly, most said ‘hello’ and we enjoyed the experience, stopping at every stop, at one point outside an engineering workshop two guys put four big metal shafts in the middle of the bus floor to be dropped off further on, one lady passenger putting her foot on them to stop them rolling. It’s great the way these things seem to happen and at a stop further on the bus stopped, another guy got on and lifted them off into his workshop!

Cần Thơ is the major city in the Delta with over 2 million residents and it seems a world away from the Homestay, particularly as our hotel here seems more like a business hotel, but at least we have air-con here! Our first impression of the city was not so good, but we found a good iced coffee shop, a great area nearby for fabulous local food (no westerners) and, after walking down to the river front and past the huge statue of Ho Chi Minh, we were accosted by local women trying to book us onto a trip to the Cai Rang floating market, the biggest in the Delta and, by all accounts, the most rewarding to visit, no visit to Cần Thơ is complete without a visit there our Lonely Planet guide tells us. 
A 'service boat' selling breakfasts
$40 was our first offer for a full day out on a boat to include the floating market, reduced to $25 for a four hour trip just to the market, which we turned down as too expensive. Our second offer was from an old lady who showed us her small boat and quoted $20 for a three hour trip which I accepted and then found Jackie was unhappy I hadn’t even negotiated! Be there at 05:30am she told us as that’s the best time to see all the action and beat the tourists.

Even time to have a chat
Looking through our guidebook it told us to budget for $5 per hour for a boat, so it looks like we had been ripped off and Jackie didn’t let me forget it so, after waking to the alarm at 5am, we walked through semi darkness and coolness (well, less hot shall we say) the mile or so to the river front, ready to negotiate. On the way we walked through a small park packed with people using the outdoor gym equipment and people playing badminton and doing Tai Chi at the roadside – at 5:15am! 
At the river front we were approached by a man asking if we wanted to go on a boat trip to the market. “How much” Jackie asked, “I can do a three hour trip for $15” as we arrived at our agreed meeting place. A younger woman was waiting there and I showed her the card we had been given asking if it was her, all while the other guy was trying to get a sale from us. 
River scenes on the way back
She was a bit non-plussed at first, but quickly gathering her wits she realised we were her booking, but had sent a motorbike to collect us from our hotel (that’s why it was more expensive, but language problems prevented us from realising this) so didn’t expect us to be there. Meanwhile the other guy had taken our 300,000vnd ($15) and was hurrying us to his boat, but lady (a) was having none of it, she was on the phone getting her man back from our hotel on his motorbike and summoning her boat and operator whilst having a stand up row with the other guy. He relented and handed back our money, us getting an agreement from the lady to do it for 300,000vnd (should we have paid the originally agreed 400,000vnd?).

Unloading onto land produce bought from the floating market
River views on the way back
Anyway, things were quickly organised and we were on the water and away with our very nice pilot by 5:45am, just as the sky was getting light with the promise of a nice sunrise. The floating market is an amazing experience and it is very large, it’s just a huge collection of big boats selling local fruits and vegetables to other local people who arrive on smaller boats, presumably to take it to the land markets later in the day. 
Each big boat seems to sell just one or two types of fruit or veg, a lot crammed with just pineapples and it’s fabulous to see all the comings and goings this early in the day, just as the sun lights everything at a low level. There are numerous ‘service’ boats offering drinks and breakfasts of noodles or rice that buzz up and down selling their wares to the big boats and it’s quite a social occasion as well the people chatting and laughing between boats, all having a bit more energy in the relative coolness of the early morning.

The Chinese temple
Our pilot returned via a different route, turning off the Mekong and onto back streams and canals that were flat calm and beautiful through quiet backwaters fringed with palms and banana trees with just the occasional house, usually with a bamboo roof. As we got near Cần Thơ we realised we were very near our hotel, so asked him to drop us off, walking the 100m or so back to our hotel for 8:15am, in time for breakfast! Our man was really sweet, as he was behind us, driving, we didn’t notice he was weaving bracelets, and making a cricket also out of leaves which he presented to us as we arrived at the market. On entering the backwater he presented us with a pineapple, beautifully prepared and cut in half like a big lollipop. (We just hope he didn’t rinse his knife in the river too many times while doing it!) 
The Pagoda
Back out for a visit to the museum (closed on Monday unfortunately), the Chinese temple and the pagoda, which are about the only other sights in Cần Thơ, it’s, by now really hot and muggy, so an iced drink break and we retreat back to the hotel and the air-con before we collapse from the heat – it just becomes unbearable, how do people survive without air-con?

Spices laid out to dry, the smell was amazing!
The clocktower is made of stacked empty beerbottles
Helen H stop reading now!

Last nights dinner was a fabulous half suckling piglet, tasted great as long as you didn’t think too hard about it! I couldn’t bring myself to eat the ear, and the tail must have gone with the other half. Brian decided the snout was too much for him too. Now just deciding where to go tonight as the heavens have opened, as they did yesterday, when we went out to book the bus it had stopped, but the street was like a river and men in tabards were holding drain covers open. May be the same tonight!
A page from the Vietnamese calender. The date shows the 5th of December, but it's the 14th October in Vietnam as they use a lunar calender that has 12 months, but of 29 or 30 days. The last day of their year is 30th December and falls on our February 18th and is known as 'Tet'

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