Touring Through Mekong Delta

After contemplating in several of Saigon’s tour offices for 2 days, I decided to go with the easier, cheaper and more convenient option to get to Cambodia: taking a 2 day 1 night tour to Mekong Delta. At first I didn’t even know which place in Cambodia I wanted to end up in, but after talking to a few fellow travellers I decided to aim first for Kampot, then move on to Sihanoukville.

River tourist boats.
River tourist boats.

 

The Mekong Delta tour package included visits to “local” this and that, often meaning watching Vietnamese people performing in a way or another while bunch of tourists take pictures of them and then buy whatever they’re selling. I knew in advance that this tour would wreck my nerves from time to time, but as I write this from the most bounciest ride of my life, sitting at the back of a local minivan from God knows which decade and being the only English-speaking person in sight, I know I am also experiencing something beyond the tourism.

2 of the almost 1000 types of bananas.
2 of the almost 1000 types of bananas.

 

Our tour group consisted of 28 people from all paths of life, different ages and countries. The tour guide’s every 3rd word (not exaggerating) was “my family”, and after staying in a “homestay” (more like a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere) with 5 other people, it actually felt a bit like “family” after all. The tour stared off well: after 15 mins from Saigon, some family realized that they’re in the wrong bus. As they left in a taxi to their Phom Penh ride, a Russian family from another bus joined ours. On the road, we had multiple stops to the “happy room” as our guide phrased it. Once in My Tho, we went on a river cruise to a few islands, including Dragon island and Unicorn island. First was coconut candy making (interesting but so obviously made just for tourists that it was disappointing). On another island, we saw and some took pictures with a snake and drank honey tea while the people were trying to sell us their products. On another island we had a horse carriage ride for 10 mins down a straight road, and ate some pieces of fruit while sad-looking women sang some traditional music…At one point we also had a cruise down the river in a small boat, which was actually rather pleasant.

Paddling in the river.
Paddling in the river.

We sat few hours on a bus until the 6 people who paid extra for a home stay were dropped in the middle of nowhere to go on a riverboat to our accommodation, where we would enjoy dinner with the locals (except that they didn’t join us or say a single word during our stay). The dinner was magnificent, but the whole “homestay” was complete bullshit. In the morning they provided us with the bill for drinks. Coffee at breakfast was good, but not included in the price. I understand the homestay workers: they have different people each night who come in after sunset and leave at dawn. It is rather hard trying to be friends with different people each night for years, so I get it. But the advertisement for this homestay was rather different from the truth.

Coffee in the floating market.
Coffee in the floating market.
Watermelons for lunar new year.
Watermelons for lunar new year.

 

Second day we left our lovely homestay around 7am, (though most of us had been awake more or less the whole night listening to the outdoors life and traffic from the river), to go see a local floating market. The floating market starts at 4am, so when we got there around 8 it was mostly just locals selling stuff to the few tourist boats around. Interesting to see for sure, but I’m not so sure about the authenticity.

And that's how you do it. Rice, tapioca and water, steam and dry.
And that’s how you do it. Rice, tapioca and water, steam and dry.
Rice papers drying out.
Rice papers drying.

 

 After the market we were taken to a rice paper and noodle making place, again one show with a gift shop. It was interesting to see how the rice papers and noodles are made, though. After that we had a walk to a fruit orchard, which was okay – I’ve never seen dragon fruit in the nature before! We could’v bought highly overpriced fruit at the garden, but no one did. That was the end of day 2 program, we took the boat back to Can Tho, the others went for lunch and I got a bike ride (with my backpack and 2 handbags) to the local bus station where I was hurried to the van, only to sit there for 1.5hrs even before we left towards the border town of Ha Tien.

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Saigon

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh on Friday evening after a lot of hassle in several countries, not having eaten or drunk anything since the morning. Needless to say, I was in a bit of a shock, coming from the Island of Gods to a city with a population twice as much as Finland’s. On my first night in Saigon, I just went to walk around the (backpacker) district 1, were my hostel was conveniently located, found myself some good fresh spring rolls and read the Lonely Planet to locate myself.

Great coffee and bananas for breakfast.
Great coffee and bananas for breakfast.
Bright post office, where people mainly just take pictures. Apparently they do handle mail too.
Bright post office, where people mainly just take pictures. Apparently they do handle mail too.

On my first whole day, I went to see the sights: the colonial bright yellow post office and the famous Notre Dame church. In the afternoon I decided to join a French guy from the hostel to see the famous and popular Cu Chi tunnels, where brave people of Vietnam suffered and survived during the war. The tunnels were interesting enough, and we even had a veteran as our tour guide, but the group of 80 people was a bit too much to handle. I skipped the possibility of shooting all the real guns, but did manage to crouch 40 meter way 6m underground to get the war feeling: Not pleasant.

In the evening I went to enjoy dinner at the same place we had lunch: the magnificent Saigon Vegan restaurant, cheap and amazing food from fresh ingredients! I went there 3 times in 2 days, and if I had stayed longer, I would have definitely gone more.

Fresh spring rolls for lunch and dinner, can't complain.
Fresh spring rolls for lunch and dinner, can’t complain.

Market life.
Market life.

The second day I started walking around, trying to find Chinatown with no success. All the areas I went to seemed to look more or less the same, but I did roam through some interesting and very local markets. I visited the war museum, which made me want to puke and cry a bit, showcasing pictures of the war and of mutilated people and all that. Pretty one-sided approach to the whole subject, but it was interesting to see anyway. In the afternoon some kids stopped me to practice English, which was pretty interesting since I hardly understood a word they were saying. In the evening I had dinner with another French guy at the same vegan restaurant. Om nom.

 

Beans beans beans.
Beans beans beans.
Bars from heaven.
Bars from heaven.

On the third day I woke up early morning to wait to be picked up to a cacao farm: the plans changed a bit so instead of 7 we left at 9 to visit Marou chocolate factory outside of town. After the visit we went to Mekong area, to Treasure Island by ferry to select cacao beans for Marou’s Treasure Bar. It was so much fun, and we got 300kg of top notch cacao beans. We enjoyed dinner back in HCMC, spectacular Vietnamese cuisine country-style from local ingredients, shared at the table. This magnificent meal of several small dishes cost around 12€ per person, my most expensive meal in Vietnam. I took a motorbike taxi home, and booked a Mekong Delta tour for the next day at 10.30 pm. The best thing about big cities: they never sleep.