On our one day Mekong Delta tour we visited a traditional folk music show, saw the floating market in Cai Be, went to a workshop where they make delicious coconut candy, and we visited a wonderfully picturesque farmstead for lunch and a bicycle tour in Cai Lay.
I am living in Saigon now for quite some time, but I never visited the Mekong Delta so far. This time, we did it. It was a private tour and a little pricier than than the more common 4-Islands-Tour, but so much better, we definitely don't regret the bit of extra money. I met a friendly Australian family at their hotel, and we started the tour together.
During my time, I never thought much about Australia. Sure, there is a bunch of amazing, venomous animals there and the Aborigines have an interesting view on dreaming, but I never invested much thought on the people. However, since I live in Vietnam, I met scores of Australians, and they all were a friendly lot. Time to learn more about Australia, I guess.
We got picked up by our tour guide, a local named Khanh. In a small and modern bus we went straight for the Mekong Delta. The ride takes about 1,5 - 2 hours on smooth roads. The good thing about the private tour is, if you ask them to turn up or down the AC, they comply. On larger group tours, the drivers always find an excuse why freezing cold is actually good...
Mekong - By Boat of Course
The first station of the day was a station indeed, the boat station to be precise. Some years ago, there were not many streets in the Mekong Delta area, and everything had do be done by boat. Even nowadays, many islands and houses are only accessible by waterways, and every family in that area owns a boat. So it's only natural to spend a good amount of our interesting 1-day Mekong delta tour on a boat, even if it's just a tourist shipper. But a nice one, I admit.
Of course the second source of income at the boat station, apart from the boat tickets, are hats. Hats, hats, hats for everybody. Naturally people get off the bus and realize that the sun burns down without mercy, so even if the boat has a roof - what you need is a hat.
The lady led me to the counter, where headpieces are piled on top of each other, but I just pull my own trusted and rumpled headdress out of my pocket, that makes her grin.
Our private tour to the Mekong delta is slightly off the beaten track. That means, most people are not used to tourists and they respond friendly and cheerfully, waving at us with wide smiles.
Uncle Ken however, buys a cap, barters for a reasonable price (interestingly, the price for the hats there was not too high in the first place) and we board our boat. Instead of a driver we get a captain and off we go, through the interesting land- & cityscape of the Mekong. It is indeed amazing, how river bound the people are. Many of the stilt houses are inaccessible from the land and all of the delivery processes and other daily traffic that is usually accomplished by motorbikes in Vietnam, in this region is done by boats.
We slowly travel along the river, through wide arms that have the feeling of lakes, and small arms that are so narrow, that our captain has to be careful with oncoming traffic. Then we reach our first destination for today's tour:
Folk Culture Performance
An island with a cosy and old farm house, surrounded by jungle vegetation. These days it looks more like a restaurant than a farmstead, with a souvenir stall, tables and the steps in front of the main room of the house are used as a stage. A man with a guitar provides nice, traditional Vietnamese music, and two singers/actors perform a selection of interesting songs about the country life.
It is actually rare to experience good traditional music in Vietnam. Too many places are flooded with modern pop music at a deafening volume. But this performance was exceptionally amusing and the music just beautiful. They serve good, green tea (another rarity) and a selection of fresh fruit.
Around the estate there are jackfruit trees, durian trees and ginger flowers of enthralling beauty.
Floating Wholesale Market
After the folk culture show, we return to our boat and head on with our tour towards the show manufacturer. On the way, we pass the floating market.
Well, it's not the kind of floating retail market you might expect from the pictures on other travel blogs.
This floating market is comparatively small and a wholesale market. Our tour guide Khanh explains, how the merchants tie a sample of their ware to the mast, so people see from far off, what they have to offer. Like other wholesale markets, this one is not bustling, but always busy.
Coconut Candy Workshop
We arrive on a small landing and enter the show workshop. We see the stages of processing the ripe coconuts, how they get cleaved open, pressed, boiled and slowly transform into delicious coconut candy that is capable of pulling out the fillings of your teeth.
My regular readers might remember how I actually lost a filling to Vietnamese coconut candy when I was in China and tasted it for the first time.
We also witness how rice paper and pop-rice is made. And while we sample some tea with honey and kumquat, together with different traditional Vietnamese candies, I keep strolling around to discover the snake wine corner.
Bottle after bottle, filled with small cobras, ginseng and scorpions, swimming in some high-percentage schnapps. There is also a living python in a cage next to it, usually used for tourist performances. Jake asks if we could touch it, but the lady tells us the python is grumpy and better not disturbed.
Right now, the dry season changes and turns to rainy season. During that time, the air pressure fluctuates and animals, as well as some humans become irritable. And, as you might agree with me, playing around with a grumpy 2,5 meter long python is not such a good idea.
The workshop offers all the stuff they produce, as well as items from other workshops around the area for sale.
My queen ordered me to bring some coconut soaps, and our honey is off as well. Okay... Here I almost joined the python in the grumpy corner.
They wanted 100.000đ for one coconut soap!
That's a lot, even for quality soap, even for European standards. I have our tour guide Khanh tell them that my queen would kill me if I pay that much for a soap.
After a bit of haggling, we agree on a reasonable price and I buy a package of 4 soaps and a bottle of honey.
After that, Jake tries the snake wine and we head back to our boat - floating along the river, towards the the boat station. The river life and daily activities of the Mekong delta are a truly interesting sight on our tour, so totally different from what we know from the city or other countries.
A Beautiful Farm and a Friendly Family
It's lunchtime already and everybody is hungry and curious about lunch. It has been announced that we will have lunch with a local family, having authentic specialities of the Vietnamese cuisine. But first, we need to get there, and while we ride on the bus back to Cai Lay, Khanh asks us whether we want to walk the last 300 meters to the farmstead, or go by boat. We opt for the boat, and Mr. Nghiep, the house owner and retired farmer, picks us up at the roadside. Through narrow canals we reach... paradise.
I am serious, this farm is beautiful! They have a fish pond, lots of different and interesting fruit trees, beautiful flower beds, a nice and airy house, a dog and some pigs at a corner. Such a quiet and cosy place.
Mr. and Mrs Nghiep are retired, that means they have given up on the rice field. Instead, they offer two rooms to tourists. Homestay is probably the best way to experience Vietnam, and there you have everything.
Delicious Lunch at our Mekong Delta Tour
The lunch is excellent. I am serious, I have eaten great Vietnamese food on various occasions, but this home cooked meal can compete with the best of the best.
The creepy, fried elephant ear fish is the centre of attraction. It tastes like heaven, even the scales are crispy and delicious. There are fresh vegetables, rice paper to wrap them up, greens with chicken, Vietnamese pancakes (banh xeo) with bean sprouts, marvellous rice soup and sweet sticky rice with beans for dessert.
My personal favourite however, is the barbecued mouse. Jake and I instantly dig in, but it takes a while to convince the others to try the mouse as well.
It might sound a bit weird to eat mouse but well, by far not the weirdest thing I ate in Asia so far. This is the countryside and the rice mice here are clean. If you want to eat mouse in Saigon, prepare to pay a lot of cash for this delicacy, but on the farms, they catch them easily.
Khanh translates that the mice feed on the rice only and Mr. Nghiep shows me how they balance the mousetraps on the palm trees, where the mice usually hang around.
Afterwards, a cycling tour on the countryside was planned, but unfortunately everybody was exhausted and the heat quite strong, so we rather took a break at the beautiful farmstead, fed the dog with the leftovers, walked around the area and generally enjoyed the peace and shadow. The owner showed us how to catch a fish like the one we had for lunch, while his wife played with the little girl.
The retired farmers are exceptionally friendly people and have two rooms for rent, the larger one with a view on the paddy fields. Their homestay offer includes delicious meals and you can do the cycling tour if you wish. I am seriously tempted to return there just for the cycling tour through Cai Lay another day. Most of our food was from the garden itself, and you could taste that freshness. Even the dessert fruit came straight from the trees, not five meters from the dining table.
I have gathered some information and the cycling tour is supposed to be amazing. You see the village, watch the people working in the fields, visit a pagoda and so on. Something you shouldn't miss if you didn't forget to bring a hat or buy one at the boat landing.
At around 3 PM we say good bye and return to the bus. This time we walk, and we see more of the stunning landscape of the Mekong delta.
The bus takes us back to the city and all that's left are beautiful memories and a bunch of pictures.
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