Down in the Mekong Delta

Of all the places I planned on visiting in Vietnam, I was especially intrigued by the Mekong delta area. To my mind, the Mekong delta conjured up images of floating markets and undulating boats against a backdrop of exotic foliage…completely clichéd, I know, but sustained by years of the occasional photo, and the occasional article on a travel website.

Visiting the Mekong delta was THE part of my trip which I was looking forward to the most, and which I was most ignorant about. After all, the Mekong delta is a huge expanse of land compromising the bottom bit of Vietnam, and no single article I had ever read could have captured it in its entirety. I didn’t, indeed, couldn’t, see it all. I did, however, want to connect in some way or other to the area, and understand what life was like in the most exotic location I had ever visited.

I ended up spending 2 days in the Mekong delta, and the truth is, I fell in love. I don’t know why, I don’t know how but the place, and the rhythm of life there just sucked me in.  Of all the places I visited in Vietnam, this was the place which left the most lasting impression on me. In this series of posts, I will try to tell you stories about what I saw, heard, smelt and learned in the rice bowl of Vietnam, and why I would go back again to see more of the area.

***

Minh, a freelance guide arranged by Buffalo Tours, picks me up from my hotel in Ho Chi Minh. I’ve been sick for the last couple of days so I haven’t had time to see much of this sprawling city, I tell him as he asks me whether I like his home town and what I have seen so far. Minh’s eyes are kind and his smile is warm. It takes only a short time for me to relax and start chatting with him, and during the long ride down to the Ben Tre, I get to pick his brains with several questions, all of which he answers knowledgably after tipping his head slightly to one side, squinting a little, and thinking the question over. So as he explains to me the difference between temple and pagoda and tells me about how people in the delta make a living, the landscape starts to change little by little. Roads become wider and wider and lined with palm trees, cities spring out of what I had expected to be endless expanses of rice fields, golden Khmer temples unseen in the North and Central part of the country peep from behind tall trees by the water, and the vegetation grows lusher and lusher, until we’re crossing bridges over great expansive of the Mekong river, only recently built to make travelling across the delta easier.

  

Ben Tre is only the first stop along my short journey around the Mekong delta. From here, we board a little boat which put-puts along the smaller river channels, taking us to little corners of the area where we can observe local life. As I look down at the water and notice its rich brown colour, I can only compare it, in my mind, to a river made of molten caramel, thick, creamy and glistening in the sun.

Seeing what life is like down in the Mekong delta is a humbling experience. There I am slathered in sunscreen and mosquito spray on a 2-month holiday, observing people whose lives couldn’t be more different from mine. I see men and women toiling in brick-making factories, bare-breasted men amongst a sea of coconuts, removing the shell of the fruit by expertly easing it off using a large sharp blade secured to the ground. On and on they go, doing one fruit per 10 seconds, with nothing between them and the blade other than a pair of thick gloves, after which the women take over, further cleaning up the fruit and separating the eatable part from all the rest. I see women hunched over wooden structures working on mats made of thick thread, or seated behind big pots stirring sticky, sweet white substances that will end up being coconut candies.

Then there is the walk in a village with better paved streets and lanes than I had expected, and colourful clothes hung at every household to dry in the sun. There is the sound of proud roosters and the site of napping dogs, the women resting in their hammocks, and the humbly constructed village temples by the river bank. And then, finally a ride on a vehicle which I can only describe as a weird mix between a motorcycle (front) and an open truck (back), on which I whiz on roads bordered by green rice fields under a pale, sun drenched blue sky.

Do you know what the difference between a temple and a pagoda is?

This tailor-made tour was made possible by Buffalo Tours, which operates customised, guided private tours in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.  18 years’ experience and 250 employees in ten offices worldwide (including eight in south-east Asia) offer local expertise and destination insight to create bespoke holidays including accommodation, transfers, flights, cruises, day trips and excursions. Buffalo Tours is a Vietnamese travel company, which means that the profits made stay in Vietnam and the local region.

Editor’s note: Buffalo Tours sponsored my Mekong delta tour, but as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

-Text and Photography by Denise Pulis @www.theartofslowtravel.com. All rights reserved.

 

33 thoughts on “Down in the Mekong Delta”

  1. What a fascinating story and series of images. I want to go there now, after reading this! Vietnamese friends of mine in Australia used to refer to their Buddhist temple as a pagoda, but I thought that it was just a quaint translation. You’ve made me look it up with your question, and I see that temple for them would mean a pre-Buddhist religious place of worship, such as a Taoist one. Very interesting…

    1. Hi Andrew,

      I am so glad you liked this post. I have a few more coming up on the Mekong Delta. The way that the difference between pagoda and temple was explained to me is that a pagoda is a tower-like structure which traditionally houses sacred relics. Without that structure, than it should be called a temple. However, in Vietnam the term pagoda is used very loosely.

    1. Hi Amanda,

      oh wow, that sounds like something up my alley. I’ll definitely look into it the next time I’m in the area. Were you satisfied with the quality of the cruise?

  2. Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience on the Mekong and what everyday life is like for the residents. Like you, I’ve always envisioned floating markets. That is a lot of coconuts and all used for coconut candy? Did you get the chance to try it?

    1. Hi Mary,

      No, I don’t think it’s not all for candy. Vietnam exports a lot of coconut. Yes I tried it, but it was a bit too sweet for me!

  3. Very informative post and beautiful photos! I knew nothing about the Mekong Delta area prior to reading it other than it was one of the places that I remember hearing mentioned all the time in movies set during the Vietnam war period. I can how it would be quite a humbling experience to see how people are living in the area while you were there on vacation.

  4. After reading your intro I was afraid you were gonna be disappointed… That’s happened to me before when I was looking forward to places too much :) glad to hear you actually loved it even more. Also…an, that’s a lot of coconuts :)

  5. When I saw Mekong Delta, my first thoughts was the Vietnam War. Thanks for sharing your trip and showing another side of the region.
    The coconuts reminded me of an episode of the last Amazing Race — I think one of the teams had to do something with coconuts. Husking coconuts is a real skill, wonder how much they make.

  6. I’m sorry to have missed this area on our trip to Vietnam. I can well imagine being humbled in the face if poverty and hard work. You’ve done a beautiful job capturing the mood and the scenes.

    1. Hi Leigh,

      I am not sure I’d use the word poverty here. The people I came across definitely led very simply lives, but apart from the hard work, they seemed to be happy lives. Small hut-like homes had TVs and often satellite tv, and those who did not have TVs went to the local ‘bar’ to watch it communally on hammocks. The villages are also generally self sufficient, providing enough food for everyone.

  7. I loved this account of your visit to the Mekong Delta and how much it meant to you. Interesting how some places just grab us like that. Sounds like you were lucky to have Minh as your guide, too.

  8. What a beautiful description of life in the Mekong Delta. I’m headed that way in July and your post certainly whet my appetite! I hope you are still having a great time.

    Natalie x

    1. Hi Natalie,

      I’m leading a sedentary life here in Melbourne for now. Which parts of Vietnam are you planning on visiting?

  9. Nice photography skills. So many coconuts. Yum. Really looks like you got involved with the locals in mekong delta

  10. Wow, this photography is mind-blowing to say the very least. I also respect the detailed account of the Mekong Delta. It makes me want to experience a culture shock to the highest degree.

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