Mekong Delta – The rice bowl of Vietnam

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Our departure towards Can Tho

The same day we came back from our half-day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, we left Ho Chi Minh City heading towards the Mekong Delta in the afternoon. There are two main bus terminals in Ho Chi Minh City: Ben Xe Mien Tay Bus Station is the one serving passengers who want to travel to the provinces in the Mekong Delta. So we took a taxi from our hotel and arrived at the station about 15 minutes later.

We had informed ourselves beforehand about the major bus operators offering a comfortable journey with air conditioning for about VND110,000. The busses to Can Tho leave every one to two hours and the ride takes four hours, including a break at a large service station.

We jumped out of the vehicle, rushed to the closest ticket office and asked when the next bus to Can Tho was due. The lady at the counter assured us that there would be one leaving within the next 15 minutes, so we quickly bought the tickets. We paid less than expected, which should have made us suspicious, but they did not leave us time to think. The staff directed us to the car park, but to our surprise we passed by the big coaches and walked into the other direction. Gradually we realized that in all the hustle we had not specifically asked for one of the major bus companies, not considering that there might also be other, smaller operators which go to Can Tho. So we found ourselves in front of a van which was already packed with people, obviously all of them locals who gave us a curious look. Again they did not leave us time to think and we were squeezed into the back seat of the van. There was of course no air-conditioning, but ventilation was ensured by the open windows. Although the travel conditions were not as expected, we were quickly able to laugh about the situation.

It was not until 4.30pm that we finally left Ho Chi Minh City and by that time about three other people had got in the crowded van. We remained the only tourists on this journey enjoying a real local experience. Arriving in Can Tho about four and a half hours later, we had spent most of time looking out of the window at the nature. The van had stopped two times for us to get food and water. Exhausted, but full of anticipation we got off the van.

Arrival in paradise – Nguyen Shack

At the bus stop in Can Tho we caught a taxi to get to our accommodation which we had booked, after consulting the reviews on booking.com and tripadvisor. We had chosen the ecolodge Nguyen Shack, six kilometres from the city centre of Can Tho. As it was already pitch-black outside, we barely saw where the driver took us. We only noticed that we were driving into a rural area. At the end of the drive, approximately 20 minutes later, we arrived at the riverside in the middle of fruit gardens and groves (VDN190,000 for the taxi ride).

At the Nguyen Shack we had a very warm welcome from Alexia and the staff. It had been a long day and we were craving for food. So we subsided into the bamboo chairs at one of the bamboo tables in the lounge and ordered food and drinks. Our dinner was freshly prepared by two local females who did a really nice job.

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Shrimps with sticky rice

We enjoyed the friendly and welcoming atmosphere. After the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City this was the perfect place to calm down and relax. Alexia provided us with detailed information on their guided tours and other activities to be done in this lovely area. We quickly decided to book all three offered tours as the groups were small and the price unbeatable (€26 p.p. for all three). As we needed to get up pretty early the next morning to get to the floating market of Cai Rang we said good night after dinner.

Our bamboo bungalow was located just next to the outside dining terrace, accessible via wooden stairs and open to the river. The room with en-suite bathroom was spacious and well decorated, equipped with a fan, a minibar and two hammocks. The bed came with a mosquito net, which was adequate for a good’s night sleep. It was such an incredible experience falling asleep to the sounds of nature!

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia and with its length of 4,350 kilometres the 12th longest river of the world. It rises in a south eastern province of China and flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before draining in the South China Sea, south of Ho Chi Minh City. In Cambodia the Mekong bifurcates into two main channels, the Bassac River and the Mekong River, and this is the beginning of the Mekong Delta. These two channels enter Vietnam (called Hau River and Tien River in Vietnam) and split further into a complex series of small canals and distributaries forming the unique landscape of the Mekong Delta region in Southwest Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is among the world’s largest deltas, with over 80% of its area in Vietnam and the remainder in Cambodia.

The alluvial soil developed from sediments deposited at the delta by the river system turns the region into an extremely fertile agriculture zone. The access to irrigation water and the fairly constant temperatures throughout the year allow farmers to grow up to three rice crops in a year. Thanks to this fertility Vietnam has attained rice self-sufficiency and is the world’s top rice exporter along with Thailand.

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Local rice factory in the village

But the Mekong Delta region and the local rice farmers are also threatened by the global climate change. The dry season has become even dryer, which means less fresh water fills the region’s river system. In addition, due to the ocean level rising more salt water is pushed into the delta. These changing conditions destroy the farmer’s third crop which is grown in the dry season. So some of the farmers have left the rice production business and switched to shrimp farming.

Floating market of Cai Rang – The early bird catches the worm

It was 5.30am when we left the lodge to go to the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta by boat. Our guide was a young Vietnamese guy from the Nguyen Shack’s staff who spoke fluent English and was familiar with the culture of the Mekong Delta. There was a Czech couple joining us, so it was five of us on the boat. The floating market of Cai Rang starts around 4am and Vietnamese people principally are early birds. So when we chug along the river, the people were already busily preparing breakfast and getting the kids ready for school at their waterside houses. It was the first time that we became aware of the public address system in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War the nationwide network of loudspeakers announced crucial warnings about bombing raids. Today they broadcast a combination of local news, patriotic songs and communist ideology by the government at dusk and dawn.

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Floating market Cai Rang

When we arrived at Cai Rang at about 6am the vendors had already started to get into full swing. The market is open all day but the busiest time is between sunrise and 9am. Every boat has a long pole at its bow with samples of the goods that are sold. Boats are packed with seasonal farm products and specialities of the area. There are smaller boats that offer soft drinks, coffee and snacks to serve the vendors, market-goers and tourists. We stayed at the market for quite a while, navigating around the market boats and watching the vivid market life. This was definitely one of these magical travel moments that will linger in your memory for a long time.

 

In the past the water route was the only way to get to other towns and exchange goods. Nowadays, thanks to the improved regional infrastructure, such as new road and bridge network, market activities in the delta have gradually been shifted to the land. The land market of Cai Rang was our next destination. After a short boat ride we went ashore and strolled along the market stalls. Our guide introduced us to local fruits and other specialities and we had enough time look at all the goods and take pictures.

By around 8am we arrived back at Nguyen Shack to have breakfast, before we left for our next tour, a guided bike tour to witness the local life in the village.

Bike tour through the village

After a hearty breakfast we were ready for our three hours bike tour through the village. There are several bicycles available at the accommodation that you can also borrow for an individual tour any time you want. It is a great way and so much fun to discover the delta on a bike.

Our first stop was the traditional doctor of the village, or rather the doctor’s practice as he was not able to be there himself. Alexia, our guide, explained to us that the medical services offered at the city hospitals are too expensive for most people in the rural areas as the health insurance system limps. Thus there is a trend to go back to the roots and rely on traditional medicine which is more affordable. Traditional Vietnamese medicine has been practiced for several thousand years and has been intertwined with traditional Chinese medicine.

Just next to the traditional doctor we came by the village school. Vietnam’s education system requires children to attend school for the compulsory primary education (grades 1-5). Due to the comparatively high school fees many pupils in rural areas quit after the compulsory time returning to work at the family business. Secondary education is divided into lower (grades 6-9) and upper education (grades 10-12). After completing 12 years of education high school students need to take a graduation exam which is also used as the basis for university and college entrance admission.

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Village school

The next two stops on our list were two local family business, a black smith with his son and a rice wine producer. We watched the black smith working in his little shack and were introduced to the process of rice wine manufacture, including a tasting of the traditional alcoholic beverage. As the Nguyen Shack team is well known in the village and also supports the community with donations, the local people were not bothered by us looking into their houses and walking across their properties. Again we experienced the open-minded warmth of the Vietnamese people.

The village pagoda we visited next is home to a group of female monks who take care of a handful orphans living with them. They are supported by donations from the local community as the government does not fund religious institutions. When we entered the building a female monk came to us holding the youngest orphan in her arms. She handed the seven month old girl over to me and left to go into the temple and pray. We walked and looked a little bit around the temple, listening to Alexia’s story about the pagoda and its residents. Another orphan joined us. The monks had prepared some fruits and drinks for us, so we stayed for quite a while getting some rest and enjoying the company of the cute kids.

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Beautiful little Vietnamese girl

Afterwards we went back to our bikes and headed towards the local rice factory. Again we were allowed to look around and were shown the milling process. On our way back to the Nguyen Shack we had a short stop at a local pottery.

This tour through the village offered a truly authentic experience with the local people. We liked it so much that two days later the both of us got onto the bikes again, equipped with a map from the staff. This time we took another route to explore another part of the area.

People from the Mekong Delta area are known for their laid-back way of life and their welcoming manner. There is something beautiful and admirable about their simple lifestyle that is so closely connected to the river. They seem to be at peace with themselves. At least that was the impression we got.

Sunset tour

Our sunset tour started at 4pm and took us along the canals for about one and a half hours. A boat tour through the Mekong Delta is a fascinating experience as you get to know the lifestyle of the local people who are so closely connected to the water. We were deeply impressed by the important role the river system plays in their daily live. They wash themselves and clean their clothes in the river and use the water for cooking. It is always busy next to the riverside and on the roads along the canals. People are cleaning their houses, working on their boats or on the fields and the kids are cheerfully coming back from school. Our group always drew excited “hellos” from groups of children across the water.

 

Our stay at the Nguyen Shack in the Mekong Delta is still fresh in our memories. It is such an amazing place to travel to, especially to get away from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. We were deeply impressed by the mentality of the local people, the landscape along the river system as well as the magic atmosphere of the accommodation. If you come to Vietnam you should not leave the country before you have been to this unique place.

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