I was beginning to get very tired from sitting at a desk in an office in Hanoi surrounded by bustling crowds and motor vehicles, when a voice from somewhere in my head called on me to go and discover a new land. I quickly realised that the voice was an echo from a childhood wish many years ago, when I watched a local TV series called ‘The Southern Land’. The green waterways of the Mekong Delta, lined by abundant trees with wooden boats slowly drifting by, and the tender tones of people from the south were a totally different world from the north I lived in and I felt inspired, even as a child, to go there some day.
Not from a rabbit hole but from an aeroplane I emerged into the warm air of HCMC, where it’s easy to reach the Mekong Delta by bus or motorbike. I chose the bus because the hot weather made me reluctant to travel on unfamiliar roads by motorbike.
Kingdom of coconuts
Although all 13 city and provinces in the Mekong Delta region have rivers, water and trees, each area still has its own different features. Rows of coconut trees in Ben Tre city in Tien Giang province, beautiful in pictures, had always impressed me so this was my first destination. At the Mekong Delta Bus Station on Kinh Duong Vuong in Binh Tan district are many buses heading to Ben Tre as well as other Mekong Delta cities and provinces, at VND80,000-120,000 a ticket.
About 90 km from HCMC, the trip took more than two hours. We stopped at a wharf called 30/4 in My Tho city, which lay on the banks of the Tien River (Tien Giang), while Ben Tre was on the other side, and we started our water excursion in a motorboat.
The Tien and Hau Rivers are the two largest branches of the Mekong River in Vietnam, flowing into nine estuaries that give the Mekong its Vietnamese name of Cuu Long, meaning nine dragons. These estuaries then also splinter into a more complex maze of smaller rivers, canals, and dry streams (except during the flood season) interspersed with villages and floating markets.
The boat took us through an immense water world. Though the river was rather turgid I soon forgot all about it as the fresh air and cool breeze blew away the heat and my tiredness.
After 45 minutes the water gradually turned a green colour, dyed by trees and plants. We reached a small islet called Lan or Thoi Son. The high level of alluvium in the river fertilises the local soil to help plants become luxuriant and fruitful. Just as I expected, there were a lot of coconut trees ‘hanging their beautiful hair’ in the breeze.
Jumping in a wooden canoe, which can carry four people at a maximum, we visited the islet via the interlaced canal network. Under the skilled control of the local rower, we passed under many ‘arched gates’ made naturally by nipa palm leaves bending down into the water in a poetic way. In the green space of trees and reflected water the canoes, with local rowers in their traditional hat and dress of Ao Ba Ba, painted a peaceful picture that blended humans and nature. It would have been perfect if there was even just a slightest puff of wind. As we moved along in the early afternoon there was so much sunlight and heat despite the shade provided by the trees, so we had to just grin and bear our ‘free sauna’. Some foreign tourists, though, took the chance to take off their shirts and sunbathe.
We dropped into a place making coconut candy to see how it was made, from cracking open the coconut to the packaging process. There were also many other products for sale made from coconut shells, such as bowls, spoons, tea pots and some decorative ornaments.
After tasting some fresh coconut milk and sweet coconut candies, I waved goodbye to the kingdom of the coconut and headed off to the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta, Cai Rang in Can Tho city, about 120 km from Ben Tre. From the bus station on Ben Tre’s Dong Khoi Ave you can alternatively take a bus for VND70,000-100,000.
Floating markets are everywhere in the Mekong Delta and appeared together with the first settlers in the region long, long ago, as the river was the transport ‘highway’.
When we arrived in Can Tho it was dinner time, so I couldn’t help but quickly look for something to ease my grumbling stomach. Luckily, I didn’t have to look for too long. In the centre of the city was a series of stalls selling various BBQ dishes. My stomach soon quietened down from yummy street food costing a mere VND80,000, nearly half the price of the same dish in Hanoi.
From the street with the BBQ food it was only a two-minute walk to Ninh Kieu Wharf, one of the must-see places in the city. On the banks of the Hau River, at the junction of the Hau and Can Tho Rivers, Ninh Kieu Wharf is the city’s main trading centre, where hundreds of boats ply the river, bringing products from elsewhere in the region. The wharf was built in the 18th century, specifically for the city’s market, and has featured in many literary pieces over the generations.
The view at night time is truly charming, with twinkling lights from floating restaurants reflecting on the river and the boat traffic adding to the pretty scene. Perhaps for this reason, many local people were sitting in a nearby park and taking in the view and the cool breeze off the river.
In such a relaxed atmosphere I had a good night’s sleep and woke early to visit the floating market. Although it starts around 5am and runs until midday, it’s at its most liveliest early on.
From Ninh Kieu Wharf it took half an hour to get to the Cai Rang floating market by motorboat. Along the riverside are many small houses with thatched or metal roofs tottering on wooden or concrete pillars. Our ‘captain’ said that only the rich could afford concrete pillars while the poor had no choice but to settle for wooden pillars, usually the trunk of a Hopea Odorata tree that can withstand the heat and humidity and can last for 10 to 20 years. If we had visited during the flood season, from September to December, we would not have seen the pillars because they would have been hidden under the water as the houses become floating houses.
Besides these unusual ‘houses on stilts’, we also saw other floating houses; the boats of fishing families on the river. Some were casting nets or doing the daily chores such as washing the dishes or hanging out clothes. Sometimes there were children swimming, splashing water on each other and laughing.
While smiling with them, I recognised we were at the market, because a number of other tourist boats had created a traffic jam on the broad river. Our boat had to wait a while before it could get close to the centre of the market.
Finally, we were surrounded by boats full of vegetables and fruit such as potatoes, tomatoes, watermelons and pineapples, with people selling food and drink as well. The noise was a mix of boat engines, waves lapping against boats, and the shouting of the market vendors. Everything was bustling and animated, just like a market on the land.
But it all seemed different from my imagination, which had been crafted from pictures I’d seen before I came here. Instead of row boats, there were mostly motorboats, which being much larger gave the impression of not being overloaded with fruit and vegetables and other food. Ms Caroline Shaw, a tourist from England, said there were many more row boats and it was more colourful and animated 13 years ago when she first visited Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. Despite the change, she still found the floating market interesting, as there was nothing even remotely similar back home. Our ‘captain’ said that there were fewer boats at the floating market today because of the development of local roads. He was worried the floating market may one day disappear.
Leaving Cai Rang in the hope that it would survive for a long time, we once again passed by tattered houses on stilts with high buildings appearing and disappearing right behind them. In more or less the exact same area, life can be so very different.
Another water world
My next destination was Chau Doc city in An Giang province, which took about four hours and VND120,000 from the bus station at 91B Hung Loi in Ninh Kieu district in Can Tho. Chau Doc is famous for breeding basa catfish and for its fish sauce, and there is a statue of a fish in the centre of the city.
Once again in a motorboat, we had the chance to meet another face of the Mekong Delta - floating houses breeding catfish. Spread out on nearly 10 km of the Hau River, thousands of floating houses sit next to each other with water hyacinth drifting on the water to create a picturesque scene. Catfish breeding has been developed for decades in Chau Doc and each household may own several or even dozens of floating houses. The floating houses, 4 metres in width and 7 to 8 metres in length, have a 10 metre-deep space at the bottom covered by a metal net, while up top is where the breeder lives. We were able to help them feed the fish and see the fish splash the water in pursuit of something to eat.
Chau Doc is also known for its natural swampland, called the Tra Su Cajuput Forest.
Only 30 km from the centre of town, the bus ride to Tra Su presents beautiful views of seemingly endless paddy fields and sugar palm trees on the both sides of the road. At the entrance to Tra Su we walked about 500 metres before hopping into a motorboat to go deeper into the forest. Reaching a smaller wharf in the forest we changed to a small row boat. Each of us were given a traditional hat to protect us from the ‘biological bombs’ of the local birds.
Having already lowered my life-long expectations to avoid the disappointment I experienced the day before, I was surprised to see that Tra Su was pretty much how I had remembered and imagined it all these years. On 850 ha the forest boasts all possible shades of green. Above us was the dark green of the cajuput trees while around us was the fresh grass-green of the water hyacinths covering the water, like a giant green carpet our boat was gliding on. The flood season is even more beautiful because there are more water hyacinths.
The green dress of the jungle was colourfully embellished with some pink lotus and water-lilies, white cajuput, and many other unnameable flowers. The water flickered in the sun and changed from silver to blue, amber to green. The regular splashing of the oars, together with the chattering of birds, was the only thing breaking the silence on the waterway. I could see many birds perched on branches, including storks, teals, herons, moorhens, and tailorbirds. Birds nested in layers among the foliage, at the top, in the middle or even just above the water. There are some 70 types of birds and 140 types of plants in the area.
We stopped at a cottage on stilts to take in the view of the forest and enjoy grilled fish and rat and a bowl of sour soup - typical dishes of the Delta area. No, I didn’t dream about that. I ate rat, for the first time, and it wasn’t as horrible as I had thought. It actually tasted sweet and nice, just like the whole trip.