Thursday, May 31, 2012

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 clich├ęd, 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.

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 ( www.buffalotours.com) 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 -

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