We’d reached the end of the Vietnamese railway in Ho Chi Minh City, but one of the most important parts of the country, the Mekong Delta, lay further south stretching from an hour outside Ho Chi Minh’s suburbs all the way to the Cambodian border.
At the delta, the Mekong river splits into ‘nine dragons’ – 9 huge rivers which themselves each split off into a dense network of smaller rivers, canals and backwaters.
Having just a couple of days between our Christmas celebrations in central Ho Chi Minh and plans to see in the new year on Phu Quoc, we took a day trip to the countryside around Ben Tre. The tour lived up to it’s promise of amazing scenery and delicious food, although parts of the day did feel a bit touristy with some things done ‘for show’, rather than us being able to experience usual day-to-day Delta life.
You don’t have to head far out of town before roads give way to a maze of palm-lined backwaters that reminded us a lot of Kerala. One of our favourite parts of the day was a tranquil sampa canoe ride along quiet waterways. Not only did it give us a (relatively) legitimate reason to wear the famous Vietnamese conical hats for some much-needed shade (and less-needed selfies), it was a much quieter part of the itinerary with no other tourists in sight. Other than a couple of one-man fishing canoes carrying bamboo fishing cages, the place looked untouched and wild.
As well as acres of rice paddies and fruit orchards, these dense coconut plantations stretching along the waterways are actually big business; farmed not only for coconuts, but also their husks, wood for construction, and leaves for baskets and matts. Barges piled high with empty coconut shells dotted the banks.
Our first stop on the river felt the most touristy. We docked at a small place on the riverbank devoted to all things coconut; a local guy was husking ripe coconuts at lightning speed, women prepared coconut candies, others were selling painted coconut shells and carved ornaments. We rounded off the stop with a shot of coconut wine and the only non-coconut-based activity; the option to hold a huge python. Emboldened by the coconut wine, Timian gave it a go whilst Rebecca retreated to the homeware and candies.
Next up was a cycle ride through a tiny network of streams, too small even for canoes. This was over far too quickly and we could have happily spent all afternoon meandering through the shade of the palm-lined lanes. We passed the tall kilns of traditional brick-making factories, the mounds of rice husks burned to heat the kilns, and small houses with women sat outside hand-weaving mats and baskets. After working up an appetite we stopped at a fruit grove to gorge on miniature bananas, mangoes, oversized pomelos dipped in chilli salt, and candy-floss tasting jackfruit.
Before heading back to Ho Chi Minh, the final stop was a walk through a covered market in Ben Tre, our guide’s logic being “You buy everything frozen in your countries, it’s not possible to buy fresh food like this.” It was certainly no Tesco Express; huge buckets of squirming eels, rows of sedated chickens tied at the ankles, and cages of the local delicacy, coconut rats. Whilst that was a little depressing, sharing the aisles with scooters taking shortcuts right through the market kept us on our toes!
The tour was a great introduction to life in the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam’ and if we’d not been on a countdown to 2016 on Phu Quoc, it would have been a great start to a couple of extra days exploring the floating markets, staying overnight on a boat, or with a local family in a homestay.