It’s late afternoon and the sun is setting over the canals of South Vietnam. As I pedal my old sturdy bike atop a levee bank, my throat dry and legs in need of a rest, I hear the sound of splashing and youthful banter.
‘Xin Chao, Xin Chao,’
The familiar greeting jumps up out of the water as a half dozen beaming children play up for this weary photographer.
After happily reeling off a few frames I motion to take my leave when a weathered old man signals from the other side of the levee to join him on his porch. Eighty-eight year old Do Van Huyen invites me to sit and pours me a welcome drink.
With a slight feeling of imposition, I share some tea and a local Chuoi Nuong, a banana and sticky rice cake, and shoot the breeze as though we have known each other for longer than 10 minutes.
An orchid owner and father of 13, he can still be found amongst the trees tending to the fruit on a daily basis. Most of his time now, though, is spent on his porch watching over his grandchildren.
How many does he have?
‘I am unsure today!’ he replies.
All thoughts about tomorrow seem to be forgotten as this incredible man and I share stories about family, farming and fishing, the holy trinity of life in the Mekong, as the sun dips low over the water and the sound of laughing, splashing children surrounds us in this idyllic palm lined setting. It is at this point that I realise I am in one of the friendliest places in the world.
The Mekong Delta.
All aspects of life in the delta revolve around the river and its thousands of tributaries. Vietnam’s largest concentration of agricultural industry is found here, with rice and fish the main source of income for farmers.
Venturing southwestward from the vibrant Ho Chi Minh City, a two-and-a-half-hour drive through emerald green rice paddies will bring you to Can Tho, the regions lively capital and the most convenient base for exploring the delta and the people who call it home.
The one place that truly captures this wonderful wetland lifestyle is the daily organised chaos of the ‘floating market’ of Cai Rang. Situated upstream from Can Tho, Cai Rang is the daily trading centre for locals, who rise before the sun to load their boats with produce. Each boat will specialise in one good or another, often signalled by a pineapple or mango tied to a bamboo pole.
East of Can Tho, is the island of An Binh. Situated between the two major branches of the Mekong, An Binh is growing on the ecotourism trail due to its family homestays and farming based attractions.
Here the locals live in harmony with the rivers, taking full advantage of the waterways and fertile land to fish and cultivate rice and fruit. Most tours now charter boats to the island and use its orchards as a stop on their itinerary.
While strolling between the branch’s of an orchid may not sound as exciting as wandering through the Cu Chi tunnels or as adventurous as trekking amongst hill tribe villages, there is no better cure for the deltas humidity, than the juicy lychees and sweet mangosteens on offer.
The homestay experience is growing throughout Vietnam, and it is a wonderful way to experience the lives of the locals first-hand.
The Ba Linh Homestay is a perfect example (95 An Thanh, An Binh | Long Ho, Vinh Long). Providing basic but clean bedrooms and home cooked meals, with a small orchid out the back, the Ba Linh family allows you to immerse yourself as much as you like into their lifestyle.
Most homestays are family homes or farms with guest rooms in the front, and they offer the perfect platform to meander at your own pace through the villages and farmland. It is here that the importance of the canals and rivers really becomes apparent. Seeing children swimming under the setting sun as a fisherman shows off his catch, makes it clear that the network of rivers and tributaries are like veins, pumping life into the area and its people.
The most popular way to explore the waterways is to take a guided ride in a sampan through the narrow tributaries.
Rowed by local women in an ungainly backward pushing motion, any memories of the chaos and commotion at the markets float away on the gentlest of breezes. Shaded by banana and coconut palms the sound of paddles sculling water is the only interruption to the soundtrack of the local wildlife.
The Vietnamese cuisine is one of the country’s major draw cards and the Mekong delta, ‘the food bowl of Vietnam’, doesn’t disappoint.
As we lash the sampan to a rough concrete and bamboo jetty, I cross the road into an outdoor restaurant. Ushered to the back of the house I spend the next hour indulging in a mixture of culinary delights. Whole fried fish seasoned with oranges and lemongrass, a bevy of spring rolls full of fresh shrimp and coriander, and the customary bowl of Canh Chua.
The region’s use of sugar and coconut milk, and its spicy influence from neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand, give the cuisine its full, vibrant flavours. Chili, garlic and shallots are used liberally while the fish on your plate, likely caught only hours earlier, lends itself to a fresh and light dining experience.
Many small portions are served for all to share and it is a time for families to relax and spend time together. Elders are asked to eat first and this respect is indicative of the loving spirit of the delta’s people and the overall positive aspects of Vietnamese culture.
If fishing and farming provide the backbone to the delta’s way of life, then family that provides it with its heart and soul.
‘How many children?’ Do Van Huyen asks before he offers to take in my whole family next holiday. Perhaps it is this hospitality and genuine warmth, more than the amazing scenic wonders that make the Mekong Delta Vietnam’s most visited region.
Whether it is preparing the perfect fish soup or opening their homes to travellers, Vietnamese people have harnessed the mighty Mekong’s powers and are now putting them out there for the world to see.