After the madness of Ho Chi Minh City, we thought it would be nice to spend some time in a more peaceful part of the country before we began our journey North. We decided on the Mekong Delta, a landscape carpeted in a thousand shades of green and glittering with a serpentine network of rivers, canals and streams. We took a bus to the city of Ben Tre, Saigon’s urban jungle giving way to trees, water and bright white birds wheeling in a pale blue sky.
Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted by a man trying to sell us a tour of one of the rivers as well as a night in a homestay. This is a regular occurrence in Vietnam – pretty much as soon as a bus stops, it is usually surrounded by people trying to offer their services to travel-weary, naive tourists. This particular tour sounded good, so after we’d checked in to our hotel, we bartered for a good price which included our bus to the next city to go on the trip the next day. By the time we had finished negotiating, we had worked up an appetite, so we set off into the town to find some food. It was quite a walk, but our noodle soup with tofu was hearty and filling. Everyone then left to go back to the hotel apart from two of us who wanted to explore the area a bit. We walked down by the river, past stalls selling all kinds of fruit – oranges and mangoes and rambutans – so colourful and fresh and so much cheaper than the fruit in HCMC. As we walked, the sun started to sink gently into the sky, the light changing from golden to rose to mauve. After we’d walked a fair way, we turned and strolled back the way we’d come, the buzz of the market having quietened down some with people loading flowers into boats and lucky yellow trees onto the backs of bikes. We climbed onto a bridge to see the sun set over the river, a deep pink orb settling into a bed of purple clouds, its violet reflection dancing on the water. On the way back, we started to see the signs of celebration of the lunar new year, the same kind of happiness and energy that we’d seen before in Saigon. We walked past restaurants packed with people who waved to us as we went by, past groups of children playing in the street, some smiling shyly at us while others confidently shouted ‘hello!’ It was then that it struck us that we hadn’t seen any westerners the whole day and that maybe we’d found somewhere where tourists are still somewhat of a novelty. There were several fairgrounds, twinkling lights illuminating smiling faces and street food stalls. We stopped at a corner to order ‘banh trang’, which we weren’t entirely sure what is was, but were glad we did so because it was fantastic – rice noodles and sauce and nuts and egg all mixed up together. Even though the stallholder didn’t really speak English, she came over to the low wall where we were perched eating to see whether we were enjoying it. We grinned and put our thumbs up, our mouths full, and she beamed back.
The next day was our tour on the river. We were met by the guy we’d organised things with the previous day who drove us to where we were met by our guide for the day. His name was Huong, he was in his seventies, face wrinkled with laughter lines, and he was one of the sweetest people ever. He joined us for breakfast – egg sandwiches (a classic) and amazing Vietnamese coffee – pouring us tea (explaining that there were five main teas which Vietnamese people regularly drank and that this was Chinese green tea) and obviously enjoying the chance to speak English. To get to the river, we went with Huong on traditional horse and carts, adorned with flowers and charms and colourful fabrics, driven by women wearing woven triangular hats. Before we got on the boat, we stopped to try some local honey with tea – lovely and mellow and sweet – served with longans, bananas, papaya, jackfruit and pomelo. While we ate, we watched some traditional Vietnamese musicians, skilled old fingers plucking out haunting tunes on stringed instruments, voices quavering and hands clapping.
We then got into little boats manoevured skillfully through small channels in a tunnel of greenery, the ladies standing rowing barefoot as they rowed slowly but steadily. It was so tranquil, the sun beaming down sending shimmering reflections into the trees which in turn were mirrored in the water, a canopy of emerald leaves. We then switched to a boat with an engine to tour the river’s islands. We went first to a quiet sleepy island, gardens full of fruit trees, pomelos nestled in cocoons of white net to stop insects from spoiling them. Huong showed us some of the islanders’ graves, colourful and ornate, explaining that you had to be buried on your own land. On the next island we saw keo dua, or coconut candy, being made, tasting the still warm candy from paper plates (we all bought some). We then were taken by boat back to our homestay, where Huong left us, but invited us to cycle over to his house later that afternoon so that we could listen to his stories which we’d begged him to tell.
Cycling past the little waterways and palm trees and people still celebrating the new year was so peaceful. However the tranquility was broken somewhat by screams of laughter as we realised that one of our friends couldn’t ride a bike at the age of 22 (he said the ride was harder than his masters dissertation). When we arrived at Huong’s house, he showed us some photos of himself as a younger man when he was a translator for an American officer during the Vietnam war. He told us about his life and about the love story between he and his wife who he obviously adored: ‘I told her I’d love her forever’. It was heartbreaking to disover that she was ill and that he prayed for just ten more years with her: ‘when she dies, I will die’. As he spoke, he wrote the odd word down on a blackboard (he teaches the local children some English), pausing on some, relishing the sounds of others and occasionally asking us if we knew the word or whether he was pronouncing it correctly. His wife had prepared us some food, which we didn’t expect at all – sweet and crunchy coconut rice paper, chicken with lemongrass and dried octopus. Their generosity was humbling and we left them a generous tip – how could we not for such kindness? Meeting Huong and his wife, and listening to his story, is a memory that made the Mekong Delta such a special experience for us and one that I don’t think any of us will forget. Huong cycled back to our homestay with us and bade us farewell, asking that we write him letters which we all promised to do. His parting words were ‘good luck to you forever.’
Photo credit: Alena Tromp.