Indochina with Selective Asia – Chapter 5: Mekong Delta

Bicycles and the elephant head fish

Time to leave the big city and get a more rural and agricultural feel of Vietnam around the Mekong Delta. The area is responsible for well over half of the rice production in Vietnam and it also grows a huge selection of fruit and vegetables.

'Royal' dhow At Cai Be we waited at the dock as other tourists filled the benches on the waiting dhow but Chang restrained us from boarding, saying ours was coming alongside. Our jaws dropped as a similar sized dhow arrived with just two cushioned loungers and a few chairs. “This one’s for you” said Chang. We felt a little like visiting royalty while the deck hand served us a cold towel, drinks and a tray of fresh fruit. Our tour of the creeks and sleepy backwaters of the Mekong began as many enviously looked on from the packed dhow alongside. Regal bit over, our bicycles were on board to explore more of the district on land, “saddle up”.  In fact over the two days here we did quite a few kilometres of easy cycling to see paddy fields, fruit markets, local homes etc. Local homes were of such huge variety, from newly constructed and beautifully painted ones, to ‘it’s going to fall in the river any moment’ wooden ones on stilts. The ingenuity and the desire to use every last bit of anything was also fascinating, very little went to waste. We watched the boats loading the rice for markets, whilst the husks went downriver to fuel the brick kiln fires. The bricks went to market whilst the ash from the fires was bagged up for the farmers to fertilise the land. Coconut tea cosy Local craftsman use rice for all manner of things, rice paper for spring rolls, rice wine for blowing my skull off, pop rice (instead of popcorn), it’s so absorbing to watch their craft. Coconuts too are not just for milk, but carved into all manner of objects, including being hollowed out to make a great tea cosy.

The beauty of cycling through the countryside is that the sights are accompanied by an ever changing soundtrack. Children yell “hello” as you pass the school, birds squawk, black ducks quack and there’s a regular “put, put, put” coming from boat engines on the water. The smells add to the sensory cocktail, smoke from the kiln, pungent herbs from the fields, sweet smelling flowers or ripening fruit, mixed with the haze and aroma of rice as it cascades into a waiting boat.

Westerners seem to be a rare commodity in some of the places we visited and often the warm smiles were accompanied by a curious gaze. The children were often the boldest, running over to say hello, tell you their name, whilst mum and dad may grab a sneaky picture of the pale faces and wavy hair. One little boy (3 ish) grabbed my hand and pulled me along as if to take me home, much to the amusement of his parents. Elephant head fish Incidentally, locals are so confident in each other’s road craft that they just step into the road and expect you to steer around them. So the guy who stepped out in front of me whilst I was behind the handlebars had no idea of the risk he was taking.

Being a cyclist and a curiosity is hungry work, so amongst the rural and the rustic we had lunch at the beautiful Du Thuyen Victoria restaurant. It’s a modern building but cleverly built to reflect a much older style. Our belly busting traditional Vietnamese menu included a artistically presented elephant head fish, which was stripped and made into fish and vegetable rice rolls by our dexterous waitress.

Floating market Some of the produce originating from the places around our cycle tour ended up at the Cai Rang floating market. Large vessels clump together with long poles towering above them to signal what they are selling. So if it’s sweet potatoes today, you tie a few of those to the top of the pole. Smaller grocery boats collected produce from many of the big boats to take a selection down into the villages to sell. Watermelon seemed to be in season, with boat after boat piled high with mouth-watering cargo. In the mix were the food boats, preparing breakfast for the hungry traders who had been on the go for hours. The Mekong is home to such a variety of vessels, from long thin boats, where fishermen toss their nets into the water, to huge sand barges so overladen that the water is dangerously lapping over sections at the bow (pointy end).

Neon lotus blossom Our overnight stops at Can Tho and Chau Doc were both in very nice Victoria hotels. At Can Tho you can easily walk into town along the Mekong, but there is a courtesy boat if you prefer. The centre is ablaze with light after dark, including giant lotus blossom sculpture and the noisy restaurant boats.

At Chau Doc we chose to add a ‘down’ day to rest weary legs and let our minds absorb all the glorious things we had seen up to this point. Whilst others were out exploring we had the whole pool area to ourselves and could relive visits to temples and pagodas, mountains and paddy fields, in our minds. Tomorrow morning it would be time to say goodbye to Vietnam and hello to Cambodia.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia

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Steve Aldridge

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