Mekong – the “Mother of Waters”. Beginning in China and passing through five Southeast Asian countries, the Mekong River is the twelfth-longest in the world and discharges nearly as much water as the Mississippi. When it reaches Việt Nam, the river splits and heads to the sea through a maze of distributaries and canals. Here, the river resembles a network of interconnected rivers rather than a single river, so it trades its familiar Thai-origin name for a local name: Cửu Long – “Nine Dragons”. This huge river delta makes up the southernmost provinces of Việt Nam at the tip of the Southeast Asian peninsula.
With plenty of time left before my visa expired after my Dad went home, I hopped on a bus from Hồ Chí Minh City down to the unofficial capital of the Mekong Delta, Cần Thơ. The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Cần Thơ was the hospitality. Though I have found Vietnamese people throughout the country to be friendly, the locals in more touristic places are often ambivalent and sometimes try to take advantage of tourists. In Cần Thơ, however, there are far fewer tourists (most visitors to the region come on short organized tours from Hồ Chí Minh City), and the locals seemed more curious when they saw me, often offering their help or rubbernecking in amusement as I sat on the curb eating my bánh tráng trộn! Cần Thơ itself, though the fifth-largest city in the country, has a rather provincial feel; the traffic is lighter, calm canals criss-cross the city, and the city itself seems to go to sleep at night – a far cry from the energy and neon lights of the other major cities.
With a flat landscape and an abundance of natural irrigation, the Mekong Delta is the agricultural heartland of Việt Nam. More than half of the rice grown in the country comes from this region, along with over half of the seafood and a glut of tropical fruit of all varieties. Some of the rice is used to make the rice noodles known as hủ tiếu. Though nowadays these noodles are made by machine, I had the opportunity to visit a traditional hủ tiếu factory. Here, the batter is mixed using rice flour and then spread over a hot surface to be steamed for one minute; then, the crêpe-like sheet is dried under the sun for several hours before being passed through a shredder to create the noodles. Another thing made from the Mekong Delta’s agricultural wealth is anything and everything coconut-flavored – in particular, chewy coconut candy and amazing coconut smoothies (don’t even ask how many I’ve had!).
With so many waterways and not many roads or bridges in the delta region, the rivers were traditionally the simplest way to bring produce to market. There are several floating markets in the Mekong Delta, and the largest of these is in Cần Thơ. I awoke well before dawn to board a sampan boat. As our boat passed under a bridge with a large sign announcing the entrance to Chợ Nổi Cái Răng, we rounded a bend in the river and came to an area where hundreds of large boats were anchored. Each boat, piled high with fruits and vegetables, displays a sample of the items it is selling on a stick raised from the bow. Dozens of sampans were cruising among the anchored boats as their captains browsed the day’s selection. Buyers make their way from merchant to merchant looking for the items they want. When they find what they are looking for – say, some nice-looking durians – they pull up to the merchant boat and load up (this market only trades wholesale). The durian buyer will then take his smelly boatload to his shop or cart in town to sell that day. Though we weren’t looking to buy a mountain of fruit for our small tour boat, we pulled up between the noodle soup boat and the coffee boat to order some breakfast!
With the whole day ahead after visiting the floating market so early in the morning, I rented a bicycle and set off to explore the Cần Thơ countryside. Once I left the city behind, I was cycling down narrow concrete paths along canals and rows of houses. Many people mingled along the sides of the paths fishing, laying in hammocks, or enjoying food from the many carts that lined the paths. The day was hot, and the drink carts were tempting, so I stopped to join a family cooling off with some iced sugarcane juice from their cart. They didn’t speak a word of English, and my Vietnamese is still limited to ensuring I don’t say “shut up” instead of “thank you”, but they were very friendly and we managed to have some sort of mimed conversation about where I was heading on my little non-motorized bicycle. Eventually, I had to say goodbye and leave the shade of their pavilion to continue on. By this time, school was out for the day and I was cycling alongside waving kids on their way home. I entered Cần Thơ from the opposite side I exited, and passed through an area that seemed to be developing American-style with a grid of cul-de-sacs and rows of individual houses under construction. I passed through this area quickly and made my way back into the fluidly chaotic traffic of the city center.
After a few days in Cần Thơ, I took a bus up to the much smaller Mekong Delta town of Bến Tre. At the bus station, I hailed a motorbike taxi to take me out to my guesthouse in the countryside just outside Bến Tre. The narrow, winding pathways through the jungle proved confusing even for my driver, who was holding the map! Nestled on the bank of a minor canal amid a grove of low-hanging fruit trees, I found myself in a very peaceful place. Here, I continued my cycling and smoothie-drinking for a few more days while catching up on some things I had been putting off during my Dad’s visit. Even here in the countryside, piles of bricks and spinning mortar mixers indicated the ever-present development occurring throughout Việt Nam.
The lush vegetation and agricultural production of the Mekong Delta does not come without a cost – that cost is known as the southwest monsoon. During my stay in Bến Tre, the first of the monsoon rains came down, marking the beginning of the rainy season that will last for the next six months in much of Southeast Asia. So far, the rains have been only brief afternoon downpours, but the preparation required to emerge dry after such a storm adds an extra level of adventure to the trip! Once I had dried off after my first unsuccessful monsoon experience, I took a bus back to Hồ Chí Minh City to enjoy the city life for the last few days my visa would allow.