The Mekong Delta In A Day

It was the first tour we took after we got to Vietnam.  And we almost didn’t go. Husband (not me! Husband!) was worried about the small boat we’d be taking to tour the Mekong Delta area. Also, because we had two extra bags full of gifts (for Luke’s orphanage and Bykota House) we had a lot of luggage and he wasn’t crazy about checking out of our Saigon hotel, trucking all 8 bags to Can Tho, staying one night there, and then trucking everything back. It turns out we had our own private van/driver all the time in Vietnam so it really wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. And besides that, our travel agency said the hotel would hold our extra bags for us if we wanted. But Husband’s compromise was to shorten the Mekong Delta thing to one day instead. I’m just really glad we didn’t cancel altogether, because it was one of the best days of the whole trip.

Not our boat.  But much like ours. It's open inside, with bamboo folding chairs lined up to make two rows.  Relatively stable and not scary except when you have to get off/on by walking stepping off the front and it wobbles and you feel like you're going to fall in.  Not saying that happened to me or anything...
Not our boat. But much like ours. It’s open inside, with bamboo folding chairs lined up to make two rows. Relatively stable and not scary except when you have to get off/on by walking stepping off the front and it wobbles and you feel like you’re going to fall in. Not saying that happened to me or anything…

So first we drove like two hours to, I think, My Tho.  (My memory isn’t that good, but this description of touring the Mekong sounds similar to what we did.)  From there we hopped in the boat – just us and our guide and the boat pilot (driver? captain? The guy driving the boat).

The first thing we came to was the floating market.  Except our guide wasn’t big on going anywhere before 8am (one of my favorite things about him) so by the time we got there, it wasn’t so much a “market” as a few random boats selling fruit.  Also, our guide said the market is really more of a wholesale place for restaurants and other land markets, more than selling to individuals.  But it is a kind of fun concept – you’re out for a day on the river and get a craving for a pineapple… no problem! Just sidle up to one of these boats…

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mekong floating market

mekong floating market 2

The big stick with the fruit hanging off is supposed to tell you what kind of fruit they have for sale.

Farther on down the delta, we saw more boats, as well as some floating houses and little towns built right on the edges of the river.

I like how this family has a small garden, right on the front of their boat.
I like how this family has a small garden, right on the front of their boat.
See all the antennaes? That's how they pick up the local channels.  Most people in the cities now have cable; the guide said it's only the poor/rural homes that use antennae.
See all the antennaes? That’s how they pick up the local channels. Most people in the cities now have cable; the guide said it’s only the poor/rural homes that use antennae.

We cruised to an island (I think it’s called “Turtle Island”) where there’s a big family coconut candy business set up for the tourists – it’s a real working place, but also intended for tourists to walk through, like a pumpkin farm or something.

Boiling the coconut and sugar to make the candy.
Boiling the coconut and sugar to make the candy.
After the candy is poured out and a little firm, it's cut into small pieces about the size of taffy and then wrapped in rice paper.
After the candy is poured out and a little firm, it’s cut into small pieces about the size of taffy and then wrapped in rice paper.

The consistency of the candy is like caramel.  It comes in regular coconut flavor, plus they also add coffee, chocolate, or durian to it.  It’s really, really good.  Our guide advised us to buy some for the kids at the children’s center.  So we bought like five packs (~20 in a pack).  A couple packs for the kids, a couple for us. We should have bought ten.  It’s that good.  Also, candy makes a great gift for classmates and co-workers.  Really annoyed with myself for not buying more!

This woman is making the rice paper.  All day long, she ladles out a very thin pancake crepe-like layer of soupy rice juice, carefully lifting after it cooks for like 30 seconds and hanging it to dry.  Over and over.  She makes a few hundred a day.
This woman is making the rice paper. All day long, she ladles out a very thin pancake crepe-like layer of soupy rice juice, carefully lifting after it cooks for like 30 seconds and hanging it to dry. Over and over. She makes a few hundred a day.
The rice paper drying.
The rice paper drying.

After watching the candy-making, then our guide showed us how they make rice-wine.  Think “moonshine”.  They have a home made still and a bunch of glass jars.  And they add flavors. Like coconut.  And snake.  According to the locals, snake wine is better than viagra.  If you know what I mean.

snake wine

They really like their snakes in the Mekong Delta.  Or I guess you could say, they’ve learned to use all those snakes in the river and their rice paddies to their advantage.  You know like how when life gives you lemons and all that.  There was a huge python in a pen just outside the candy making room.  Our guide says, “You want to hold him?” And I’m all ha ha ha, that’s funny.  And he says “Lots of tourists like to take picture with snake.”  Um, yeah.  Not us.  Thankyouverymuch.  (Leah actually DID want to hold the python.  I put the kibosh on that idea right quick.)

Also, they like to make things out of snakeskin.  (Also crocodile skin.  And frankly I sometimes have a heard time telling them apart.  Which is bad since one is shed naturally and one is not.)

Drew wanted a wallet or a bet made from (I think) crocodile skin.  Badly.  Quinn and Husband were quite firm in saying no.  Given that it might have been a problem in customs, I had to agree.
Drew wanted a wallet or a bet made from (I think) crocodile skin. Badly. Quinn and Husband were quite firm in saying no. Given that it might have been a problem in customs, I had to agree.

In addition to the coconut candy, this family operation also made fresh rice crispy type treats.  And when I say fresh, mean really fresh… starting with freshly popped rice…

popped rice

Over a really big, really hot fire.  Then they sift out the burnt pieces and the husks, and add some sticky sugar-coconut instead of marshmallows…

It's a big batch.  Takes two to mix it up.
It’s a big batch. Takes two to mix it up.

Then roll it out and cut it into squares.

mmmmmmm.
mmmmmmm.

When we finished the tour, the guide gave us a sample plate with all the kinds of candy they had.  He jokingly called it “lunch”…  We had a very time knowing when he was kidding and when he wasn’t, so we ate it all and wondered if it had to hold us for a few hours.  Then, back on the boat, he put out a plate of fresh fruit (bought from the floating market earlier, I think).  Little clementine like oranges, small bananas and a few fruits that weren’t familiar but were yummy.  We ate a ton.

And then… we pull up to another island and he tells us we’re stopping at a small family restaurant for lunch.  And this is what we found at our table…

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Couple things.  First…  Isn’t it pretty?  Second… I don’t eat fish.  Okay, that’s not true.  I eat tunafish sandwiches and fish sticks.  Which tells you that I developed my food choices when I was like five and apparently have not broadened my horizons since.  I don’t know, there’s just something about fish – the smell, the way they look on the plate, the fact that fish is so often served with the head still attached…  You know, like these poor guys.  They’re Elephant Ear fish.  And cooked this way?  They are surprisingly yummy.  What?  Like I was going to be rude and not eat it?  When in Rome…

(They also gave us shrimp, fully intact and fully creepy.  And like the good little tourist that I am, I pulled out some of the meat, tossed it in the soup and ate it.  The soup was really good.  And I mostly didn’t taste the shrimp.)

All of the food was very very good.  The only problem was we’d eaten the snacks and fruit thinking it was our only meal and we weren’t all that hungry anymore.  It’d be really nice if our tour guides ever gave us advance notice on these things.

After lunch we took a path behind the restaurant out to through the fields to a nice outbuilding with a sitting area for the entertainment portion of the day.  The seating was like family antiques, intricately carved wood inlaid with mother of pearl laquerware style.  They served us tiny cups of tea. (They are always serving tea in Vietnam, every time you sit down anywhere.  Most of it is very good.  This particular tea had a distinct flavor that didn’t so much appeal to my palate.)  And then a woman and man (I think from the family who owned the whole operation) sang some classic Mekong Delta songs about courting and farming and having been away during the war.  Video and photos weren’t allowed, so you’ll just have to imagine that part.  But it was nice and the only cultural-type entertainment we had in Vietnam.

After that, we got back on the boats and headed on down the canal.  Apparently at that point we were supposed to get into a smaller row-type boat and explore the canals a bit, but the water level was really low so we skipped that part.  You can imagine Husband’s disasppointment.  LOL.

Arriving at Vinh Long, where we got back in the van for the drive back to Saigon.
Arriving at Vinh Long, where we got back in the van for the drive back to Saigon.

Oh before I leave the river behind, I want to share my favorite part about the boats.  Most of them have faces on the front, like this:

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Our guide told us that back in the day they painted the faces to fool the crocodiles in the river – the crocs were always attacking, but the faces fooled them into thinking it was a bigger beast and they’d stay away.  But now there’s no crocs in the river anymore – they’ve all been captured and moved to crocodile farms.  So the faces are just decorative and traditional.  But I love them.  They’re so expressive, I can just imagine the boats talking to each other like Thomas and his friends.  (What can I say, after years of babysitting and raising four kids of my own, my brain is stuck in children’s book mode forever.)

So we drove back to Ho Chi Minh City that night, instead of overnighting in Can Tho.  We were all super tired and most of us fell asleep on the way.  But before we made it back to the hotel, our guide made one last stop, at a laquerware business in the city.  I admit, I was a little annoyed and just wanting to go to the hotel.  But we got a cool little tour of how they make laquerware and the showroom inside was full of the most beautiful stuff – way better than the laquerware you see in the markets.  I bought a bunch of gifts, and a little something for us too.

Laquerware is made by coating the piece with a stain made from the resin of laquer trees.  Often it's inlaid with mother of pearl, or in this case, duck egg shells.  (Duck egg shells being stronger and tougher than chicken egg shells.)
Laquerware is made by coating the piece with a stain made from the resin of laquer trees. Often it’s inlaid with mother of pearl, or in this case, duck egg shells. (Duck egg shells being stronger and tougher than chicken egg shells.)
These are pieces still in progress.  No photos allowed in the showroom.
These are pieces still in progress. No photos allowed in the showroom.

And that was our day.  Lots of traditonal Vietnamese culture and a nice break from the city.  If you get the chance, definitely take the Mekong Delta tour – and don’t worry about the boats.  🙂

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