Let the river be your guide. The Mekong can lead you through the whole South East Asia. Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam – been there, done that, witnessed pointless wars, appalling genocide, every day joys and struggles of the local people. The river feels like home. It feeds them. Millions of people depend on its tributaries for food, transport and many other aspects of their daily lives.
Flat, hot and green, the Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s most important agricultural region. Much of the area is covered by rice paddies that are irrigated by delta water and fertilized by delta silt. Many paddies and farms produce three crops of rice a year, enough to feed the entire country, with some left over to export. Other products from the region include sugar cane, coconuts, pumpkins, various kinds of fruit, fish and snakes – you name it!
The river means everything to the people living in the basin, especially in rural areas. It’s their source of life.
The Mekong Delta fascinates me. I spent many beautiful moments discovering its secrets from the small boat called “sampang”, navigating through the canals and visiting floating markets. As you can imagine, it was amazing!
I often google pics of the places I will be visiting. It gives me the thrill, puts me in a good mood, but also raises my expectation.
I wasn’t amazed by all the place I’ve been to. Some of them were brilliant, others were just “all right”. My trip to the Mekong Delta definitely belongs to that first group. It was awesome!
I had a feeling it was going to be something unique so when we were planning our itinerary I decided to go off the beaten track (the “beaten track” in that case means one or two days trip from HCMC – nightmare!!) and spend 4 days literally out of nowhere, lost in the lush tropical jungle in the south of Vietnam.
How did we get there? We flew from Danang to Can Tho. Then we caught a cab from the airport and it took us a good half an hour to get to…
Nguyen Shack – rustic bamboo bungalows hidden in the green labyrinth of the Mekong Delta. One day I stumbled upon their website and since then I knew this was the place I wanted to stay!
It wasn’t dirty cheap like other places we stayed during our trips, but don’t be stingy – pay for the experience! Nguyen Shack is not just another “cool” place (although it is pretty cool!) the owners employ young people and also have a charity helping the local community. It’s an opportunity (sometimes the only one) for many people to have a decent life.
You have to stay in the Mekong delta for longer. Time doesn’t “fly” here (or I should rather say “flow”?) – the place is incredibly peaceful. The days are so hot even an ice-cold shower doesn’t help. I’m soaking, so everyday we are looking forward to feel the afternoon breeze. You will have to get a good insect repellent as there were a lot of mosquitoes. We got 99% DEET. It could probably kill a yeti. Nguyen Shack has its own restaurant and there are no other options to eat out, as this place is incredibly remote, so we are “sentenced” to get our food there. Happily sentenced! The food is delicious.
I always wanted to go for a cooking classes. The food in Vietnam is so delicious, it would be a sin not to give it a go. Apparently the best place to do it is Hoi An (Vietnam’s culinary mekka), but we though that 30 USD per person was a bit too much. In Nguyen Shack we could do it for 15 USD for the two of us. Did we learn to cook? Well… for sure we had a lot of fun! 🙂 We learnt how to prepare Vietnamese Pancakes, Morning Glory (yes! this is how they call it) and Ginger and Coconut Chicken. Yum!
During the class I also discovered why the food was so yummy. Unfortunately, it’s not all about the unique ingredients or the skills of the cook. The answer is much more simple. It’s MSG. They add it to everything. When I asked “what’s that” pointing at a small packet with so-called “seasoning” they were not able to give me the answer. Apparently they don’t see anything bad in adding that particular flavour enhancer. Let’s be honest – it won’t kill you, but it’s good to know next time when you get frustrated asking yourself “why my food doesn’t taste the same as when I had it in Vietnam?”. Don’t overthink it though, it’s a normal practice in Asia.
In the afternoon we go for a bike ride and it was absolutely one of my top experiences in Vietnam. The goal is to get to the closest village. It’s not far, but we somehow manage to get lost in the maze of the paths. Don’t pity us. Not all who wander are lost! We had a unique opportunity to have a glimpse into the real life of the local people.
If you think of the Mekong, think brown, not blue. The river means everything to the people living in the basin which means it serves as a bathroom, toilet, kitchen and very often, sadly, as a bin. 🙁
We haven’t met any other tourists on our way, but I’m sure it will change a lot within the next couple of years. In the meantime we enjoy little kids running after us screaming “hello!” and we reply to them with our broken Vietnamese (not even sure if you call it “broken Vietnamese” those 3 words we know) laughing “Sin Xao”! A beautiful and careless afternoon. At night there is a power shortage so say “goodbye” to the fans. It’s the first time I can’t sleep at night. It’s awful, but we are in the remote area of Vietnam, so I should brace myself. Go hard travelling, or go home!
Floating markets. Real cream of the crop and one of the highlights in this region. Early bird catches the worm, so try to get there at dawn (they are the busiest between 5 and 7am). We go by a private boat straight from our shack. On the way we can see how the local people live on and around the water. They build their houses on the poles. No land, no tax – says Johnny, our guide. A precious tip on how you can avoid paying taxes in Vietnam!
Cai Rang is the most popular floating market and one of tourist magnets of the delta. It’s buzzing! Farmers from the region bring their goods, fruits and vegetables to the markets and sell them to local dealers. These dealers sell the products to shops in the neighboring towns and to wholesale dealers from the big towns. The business is crazy! It’s so lively and colourful, it’s hard to imagine this is not another tourist trap. It’s a real life! It’s Vietnam!
On the floating markets you do not only find people buying and selling goods, you also find floating restaurants – can you beat that location for a romantic meal? We are so ready for our breakfast al fresco – a smiling lady sells us delicious hot bowl of Pho soup – we are eating it with chopsticks (somehow during those 2 weeks we became chopsticks pros!). A cup of the best coffee in the world and all I want is to scream GOOD MORNING VIETNAM!
We get off our boat to have a short walk to the local market in the town. Johnny shows us the most popular Vietnamese desserts. Did you know that most of them is made of… rice?
The Mekong Delta is often called “the rice bowl of Vietnam”, the brave, little, white grains from the South can feed the whole country!
We get back to Nguyen Shack ready for the second round of breakfast (can’t believe it’s just 8am – so many things happenend!). After the breakfast we go on a bike tour (no more getting lost!). Our starting point is a local school, where we meet its pupils and Johnny tells us about the education system in Vietnam. The next stop is rice wine factory. Have you ever tried rice wine? It’s a local moonshine, strong like the best Easter European Vodka. In brief. It’s disgusting. 🙂 Saying that – I am really surprised how versatile rice grains are. Sweets, alcohol, paper. Incredible, isn’t it? We also visit a local doctor (I should rather say a “shaman”), a small pagoda which is also an orphanage and a ceramic factory famous for producing big plant-pots for bonsai tree. Johnny is an excellent guide and small percentage of the money we pay for the trip goes to support the places we’ve visited. It’s a very nice business model indeed.
We spend the afternoon chilling out and talking to the young guys working at Nguyen Shack. They try to teach us some phrases in Vietnamese (obviously we give up after 5 min, but it wasn’t completely useless as I still remember how to say “cheers”!). Johnny tells us the story how one day during the trip he confused “cement” with “semen”. 🙂 We are laughing together, because none of us is a native speaker so we’ve all been there.
It doesn’t matter how good is your English. What really matters is that even though we come from different countries, different cultures and backgrounds we somehow connect on that basic human level. We laugh and joke together. The employees of Nguyen Shack are the soul of that place!
That bit of our trip was fantastic. I’m so happy we decided to spend here more than 1 day, even though we had to skip Phu Quoc Island. Don’t make your itinerary impossible. Choose fewer place, stay longer. Explore. Make your stay meaningful. In the world of fast food, fast life, fast money I do believe in slow travel. At the end, it’s all about the quality – getting to know someone local, exchanging stories and experiences with fellow travelers, enjoying lazy afternoon in a hammock with a good book. Carpe diem. Catch the moment, because life is like a river. It flows fast, even though it doesn’t seem.
In the next post I’m taking you back on the beaten track. Get ready for the craziness of Saigon!