Mekong River Delta
Biking, ferrying, boating, exploring
the Mekong River Delta
Getting to Vien Thanh, a town along the Mekong River Delta, was one of your typical South Asian adventures. We waited in the hot high-noon sun for a bus that was two hours late, we hopped on the back of some guys' motorbikes with all our bags to get a ride into town when no taxi would take us, and squeezed our way onto the 60-second ferry to take us across the river. It had been another long day of travel, but watching the sun escape through the scattered clouds to illuminate the water like a shimmering reflecting pool renewed my spirit.
From the ferry drop-off point, it's a very short walk down a narrow sidewalk to get to our homestay at Nam Thanh's house. In the front of his home sits a few tables for the guests and along the side, jackfruit, starfruit, and lychee trees line a small pond. Chickens and children run across the property sporadically. Nam and his entire family (four generations) opened their home ten years ago to guests visiting An Binh. It's such a small island that there are no resorts or hotels, and thus very few tourists or touristy attractions. It's a refreshing, relaxing, and welcoming place.
Right away we were invited to join Nam's wife and sister as they prepared dinner for us and the other guests. Dain and I rolled spring rolls filled with potato, bean sprout, and carrot and helped make the thin stuffed pancake dish called Banh Xeo. Although we make omelettes at home often, our pancakes looked pretty messy! We were pretty full after eating just these two dishes but the food kept coming... near the end we couldn't even bring ourselves to try some of the food they put down. Our favorite dish was the fried elephant ear fish, served whole. You eat it by breaking off some meat and wrapping it in rice paper with cucumber, basil, and lettuce. We ended our meal with some fresh fruit from the garden.
At 6am the next morning my alarm blared from somewhere inside the room. It was time to join Ti Ti, Nam's brother-in-law, as he took the family boat around the island to a floating market. Sitting in folding chairs on top of an older boat fixed with a motor, we puttered down the river just as the sun was skimming the water's surface. We didn't make it to the market in time to see it at its busiest but enjoyed seeing the variety of activities that take place in the delta. There are cargo ships, construction ships, small speed boats carrying boxes of Tiger beer or bushels of lychee. We may have missed the market but the river was far from empty.
We stopped off at a honey farm where neither the beekeeper nor us wore protective clothing. The honey lemon tea they made us was delicious. From there, we transferred from our motor boat on the main channel to a four-person canoe rowed by an old lady standing up with two paddles. She took us down a quiet stream lined with small homes on either side. We heard the sounds of people's lives: faint radio, hacking down banana bunches from the trees, kids shouting "hello" and giggling when you say it back.
When we got back on the boat, Ti Ti let some of us steer the boat. I can now say I've driven a boat in the Mekong River!
The last stop was a large kitchen of sorts that specialized in making all sorts of regional treats. We saw them making rice paper, which looks so labor intensive and takes a lot of finesse- you have to take rice water, spread it out thinly onto a steamer, steam for a few seconds, and lift this fragile sheet onto a parchment to dry. Almost every one of them had a small tear or fold- practice makes perfect! The strangest, and most intriguing, by far were the jugs of brown liquid stuffed with various species of snake. Our guide said that this was rice wine fermented with poisonous snakes for at least seven months because that's how long it takes for the venom to be safe for human consumption. He also said that this is a vitality drink and especially crucial for parents who want to conceive. Verdict: all rice wine is kinda gross, but this wasn't too awful. Think of vinegar and rubbing alcohol.
We learned how to make vegan coconut caramels (recipe here) and saw the end-to-end process for making a kind of Vietnamese rice crispy treat. You start by puffing the rice by rolling the grains over hot sand from the river. The puffs are filtered twice: once to recycle the sand back into the pan, and a second time to remove the husk which is used as kindling to heat the stoves. Nothing is wasted! The next step is to make a caramel out of coconut milk, sugar, flavoring like chocolate, and peanuts. The puffed rice is tossed in until coated, pressed into sheets, cut, and packaged. It's delicious and seems easy to make if you have the right equipment.
When we returned to the home, Dain and I borrowed some bikes from Nam and rode around the island. It's pretty small and only takes about an hour to do the loop around the one road/sidewalk. The path is about five feet in diameter and you're constantly making way for big motorbikes heading in either direction so I can't say it's a particularly casual ride but it is a magnificent one. The entire island is just brimming with fruit trees: banana, papaya, mango, lychee, rose apple, jackfruit, longan, pomelo, lemon. Even more beautiful are the people you pass. Everyone wants to say hello, especially the kids, and you see huge smiles from everyone you meet. At one point Dain teetered off his bike and a man came from his orchard to make sure he was alright, warmly squeezing his shoulders and making sure the path was clear for us to continue. This is the general impression we have of the Vietnamese people: they will go out of their way to help you and treat you as an instant friend. It makes visiting such a remote place all the more special.