October 12, 2019
We joined our first “group” morning on the bus, which was sizable for our little band of merry travelers. It allowed us to spread out and for me to bound back and forth from side to side to take pictures. Not that many came out due to reflections, but it kept me busy. As we drove out of town, we met with the now expected ever-present crazy traffic.
As we drove further and further out of HCMC, we left the hustle and bustle of the city behind and yet the traffic continued.
Finally, we made it to the countryside where there was nothing but rice field after rice field. The Mekong Delta is 14,000 square miles of relatively flat fabulously fertile land. It is the largest agricultural center in Vietnam. Rice is an important crop as Vietnam is the 2nd largest exporter of rice in the world and 55% of that rice comes from the Mekong Delta. Due to the fertility of the land and the favorable climate, the farmers can grow and harvest three crops of rice per year in this region unlike other parts of Vietnam. Families live and die on their farms. Those that have passed are buried in tombs in the middle of the fields so that they can be honored every day as others work. The living believe they will be blessed by their ancestors and wish to keep the connection between the living family members and the deceased.
Our bus journey eventually led us to the Mekong River where a boat was waiting to take us on a cruise of the 12th longest river in the world. The Mekong runs through six countries – China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At the point where we caught our boat, the color of the water is a milky brown from the silt deposits. Don’t let it fool you … just because it looks dirty doesn’t mean that there isn’t life within its waters. The Mekong River is home to 1300 species of fish including some that grow up to 600 pounds.
The Mekong is a major waterway. Large fishing vessels travel along the Mekong and out to the South China Sea for months at a time. Many families still make their living one way or another from the sea whether by fishing or by some means of water transportation.
As we continue our little cruise, we were treated to fresh coconuts. If I haven’t mentioned it, it is hot as blazes here even in October so the coconut juice was quite refreshing. It also provided quite a good photo opp for the group.
We turned off of the river and headed into some of the side canals of the Mekong. Our destination was a community hidden among the overgrowth of one of the islands. I was fascinated by the canoe-like boats we saw that were loaded down with mud and building supplies. They looked like they were barely floating above the surface and could sink at any moment … but they never did.
It seems everyone has a boat – some big, some small, some elaborate, some simple.
Our boat dropped us off at a make-shift pier jutting out the side of someone’s farm. We walked along paths studying the different kinds of plants, fruits, vegetables, and flowers that just seemed to grow willy-nilly.
To say the land is fertile here is to not give credit where credit is due. I believe that even I could grow things in this land and that’s saying a lot since I have a tendency to kill silk plants. And the plants and fruit grow big! We walked along the boundaries of several orchards, meeting some of the locals as we went.
When it came time for us to take a closer look at life along the canals, we became passengers in boats steered by women with long poles. To complete the look, we were given attractive bamboo hats to wear. I was not happy with certain members of my boat who chose to make jokes about snakes and crocodiles hiding among the shallows – those people will remain nameless. Luckily for them, the snakes and crocodiles were imaginary.
We had been without food or drink for over an hour, so we stopped for tea, fruit, and a musical performance (all pre-arranged, of course). We could have done without the performance (a little hokey), but the fruit and tea hit the spot.
What do you get when you cross a scooter with a tuk-tuk and a truck? Well, I’m not sure, but it might be whatever this thing is called. We split up into two groups and they were our mode of transportation as we explored the local community and took a trip deeper into the farms to visit a family. The seats were unforgiving and allowed you to feel every bump in the road, but the ride was mighty fun as we careened around corners. I wouldn’t want to go miles in one of these things, but it was fine for a few backcountry roads.
Prior to this trip, I hadn’t tried sugarcane juice. I thought it would be entirely too sweet. It really isn’t. On our way to a coconut candy factory, Bee stopped at a sugarcane juice vendor to show us how they press the juice. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
At the little outdoor family-run factory, we learned that no part of the coconut is wasted. The resultant candy is chewy, not too sweet, and pretty good. If they could figure a way for it not to stick to the wax paper they wrap it in, we probably would have bought some to bring home.
Our boat captain retrieved us only to deliver us minutes later to a riverside restaurant because, you know, we hadn’t had anything to eat in at least an hour… The provided lunch was excellent. On the menu was: chicken soup, phenomenal shrimp steamed with coconut juice, braised beef with coconut juice, rice steamed inside a coconut (there seems to be a theme here), pancakes filled with shrimp, beans, and mushrooms, and stir-fried vegetables. Oh, and this lovely gentleman to the right (assuming it’s was a gentleman) was a deep-fried elephant ear fish that was made up into the most succulent lettuce wraps imaginable. Ugly fish, great tacos!
With full bellies, we headed back to port to be met by this charming little boy sorting the coconuts left behind by tourists.
On our ride back to HCMC, Bee answered more of our questions about life in Vietnam.
- The average salary across Vietnam (not including street vendors)? $700 per month.
- Unemployment rate? The government says it is 4%, but this includes street vendors; not including street vendors, it would be approximately 20%.
- Healthcare? If a person is employed by a company, the company pays for healthcare for its employees. It a person doesn’t work for a company, they have to purchase their own healthcare. There is no social welfare system.
- Is anyone doing anything about the amount of trash in the streets? The government publicizes programs to clean up the environment but people don’t follow the programs. There are no littering laws in place. There are some recycling efforts, but no programs are strictly enforced. Trash is definitely a problem as is single-use plastic.
- Smoking and drinking? There is an alcohol problem because beer is extremely cheap; there is an issue with drinking and driving. 50% of Vietnamese men smoke; cigarettes cost $1 per pack and as low as 50 cents.
- Scooters versus cars? There is at least a 100% tax on cars and a high price for motor vehicle licenses so most people drive scooters. There is no road tax for scooters, it only applies to cars and buses. Motorbikes/scooters cost $800 to $2000 each. Gas costs $1USD per liter; 55% is tax.
We could tell we were back in the city as soon as we saw the traffic. The traffic dance continues.
The day on the road and river was long so a nap was in order. Upon awakening, we were hungry but were intent on not overdoing it like we had last night. Bee had mentioned a restaurant called Hoa Tuc, so we ventured out to find it. Tucked back in Saigon’s old opium refinery, Hoa Tuc’s interior was refined yet inviting and the food was delicious. We decided on the Hoa Tuc signature rolls, seafood and pork fried rice with lotus seeds in lotus leaf wrap, and the lightly battered prawns in caramelized garlic fish sauce with crispy brown rice. It was the right amount of food to split between the two of us and each dish was as delightfully yummy as the last. I don’t think I’ve ever had better fried rice or caramelized prawns than what we enjoyed at Hoa Tuc. We’d definitely return.
Fully sated, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we’re up at a reasonable hour to head to the airport with the group for a flight to Hanoi. We’re headed to Halong City before our trip to Halong Bay, the part of the tour to which I’m most looking forward.