Lush Mekong Delta! Tuk Tuks and Sampans to Elephant Ear Fish!

May 3rd 2019

Each day on this Intrepid tour of Vietnam has fulfilled our hopes and was packed with diverse opportunities to experience local activities and customs. Today, on our 9th and final full day together, was no exception!

Starting with a quick tour of Ho Chi Minh City, our main focus was to explore the Mekong Delta (Ben Tre); ride in sampans and tuk tuks; sample regional specialties from the famous river for lunch; and end the day at KOTO restaurant for our group farewell dinner. This blog post includes 3 short videos to reflect this amazing day!!

Our day started bright and early as Jay led us through a shortened version of the Ho Chi Minh city/Saigon tour. In this city of over 8.6 million the roads are hectic and noisy and motorcycles are common anywhere there is an open space!

In spite of this intensity, shear number of vehicles, and questionable safety of many loaded vehicles, we saw very few accidents during our time in this amazing country.

Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon by many locals) is the most populated city in Vietnam and has a vibe of development, evolution, commerce and culture.

The city has a complex history and the strong French influence from the past is noted in its architecture and French colonial landmarks, including Notre-Dame Cathedral. This majestic cathedral was constructed of materials imported from France. The gardens were colourful and well manicured, and appreciated by a multitude of birds and toddlers!

The yellow 19th Century Post Office also reflects this French connection. Walk inside to view the beautiful arched ceilings and “step into the past” red phone booths!

Jay presented a famous photo of a helicopter perched on the rooftop of a CIA’s apartment building as Americans evacuated the city on the final day of the American/Vietnamese war. The photo was taken by photojournalist Hugh van Es on April 29th 1975. This building was formerly called the Pittman Apartments. This is not a tourist site, but for further information on this event, here is an interesting blog site.

The building formerly known as the Pittman Apartments is located at 22 Ly Tu Trong St in Saigon’s District 1. https://www.rustycompass.com/blog/visiting-saigons-historic-rooftop-symbol-of-the-end-of-the-vietnam-war-295/#.XU4rnboTGEc

We drove by the Reunification Palace which some of us plan to explore tomorrow on our extra day in Ho Chi Minh City.

Heading out of the city, we boarded a boat for Ben Tre. Ben Tre is the capital city of the province of Ben Tre located in the southwestern part of the Mekong Delta, about 90km west of HCM City and is famous for its coconut products.

The Mekong River is a massive water system fundamentally necessary for the survival of the Vietnamese people. Economic advantage vs environmental vision is always a balancing act.

 

This video reflects Part #1 of our wonderful day exploring Ho Chi Minh City then our trip up the river in the fascinating Mekong Delta.

The low lying boats are close to overflowing with heavily loaded sand from the river bottom. Massive amounts of the silt from the natural base of the river is being excavated and sold. I couldn’t help pondering what effect will this have to the future of the Mekong Delta?

Other vessels are loaded with coconuts or produce from the Delta. Some boats are fishing vessels often accompanied with interesting living quarters on the back. Vessels have eyes painted on the front by their owners. According to legend, the custom of decorating  Vietnamese fishing boats with a pair of eyes is credited to Lac Long Quan, who believed this practice would scare off sea monsters.

Although we didn’t see any floating markets, pagodas, or Buddhist Temples today, we had an amazing adventure touring the coconut gardens and mangrove forests around Ben Tre. Clearly you need more than 1 day to explore this magnificent and abundant ‘rice bowl’ Delta!

Our modes of transportation were tuk tuks on a narrow cement roadway through the villages and coconut plantations, then sampans meandering through mangrove canals.

As we toured through the villages at Ben Tre the importance of coconut trees to these rural villagers’ livelihoods became blatantly evident.

We stopped at various locations to witness hard working locals (mainly women) manipulating palm leaves to create brooms (also used for roofing materials and baskets); utilizing the fibre from coconut husks to create mats and handicrafts; and extracting the water and milk from coconuts to create candy and delicious food products.

This video #2 reflects much of our experience traveling around villages in Ben Tre.

 

Ben Tre is famous for its delicious variety of coconut dishes in addition to specialty fruit, green Xiem coconuts, Mo Cay candy, coconut tree items, and handicrafts. Although many locals live off the land in similar ways to generations proceeding them, there is a growing push to diversify and expand economic options in this area.

I discovered some very informative websites about the Ben Tre economy and exports. I have attached these links particularly the Vietnam Investment Review.

“One of the area’s most famous products is keo dua (coconut candy), a favorite treat of southerners, closely followed by banana candy. The two traditional candies originated in Ben Tre.”

https://www.vir.com.vn/ben-tre-vietnams-coconut-kingdom-59087.html

“Only in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre can you find the Green Xiem coconut. It’s so special that it was recently granted a certificate of Geographical Indication.”

“Some of the province’s unique fruit specialties include milky yellow-fleshed and stoneless durians, green-skinned pomelos, Cai Mon mangosteens, high-yield “Four Season” mangos, and special Mo Cay oranges.”

We tried mangosteens with Jay at a market and rambutans on the boat. Although the exteriors are brightly coloured, the fruit inside is delicious. We also saw durians and pomelos growing on trees during our walks.

http://coconutvietnam.com.vn/news/use-the-8-great-part-of-the-coconut-tree/250.html 

During our excursion in the sampans we meandered through the canals bordered by mangrove and coconut trees. Our group was divided into 3 sampans  (small rowing boats) with a local gently maneuvering us through the water. We all wore the traditional conical hats called non la (leaf hats). They were light and cool as they protected us from another day of 38+ temperatures. Our guide even sang traditional Vietnamese songs as he softly directed our boat, until his cell phone rang!

We stopped at a lovely restaurant/boarding location on the return trip from Ben Tre back to HCM City. At this location we consumed a vast range of foods specific to the Mekong delta area. Possibly the most intriguing menu item was the Elephant Ear Fish which were presented so uniquely they were the focus of many photos.

Fresh coconut water…Bird of Paradise flowers…Delicious local food… Fascinating tours and scenery. I would have loved spending additional time exploring the Mekong Delta area!

During the bus trip back to Ho Chi Minh City, we saw many more motorcycles with unique loads–even one pulling a huge live pig! It was raining and the ponchos were out!

In Vietnam most garbage is burned, but there are roadside vendors recycling nearly anything you could imagine. I have included a few photos of some specialty metal being recycled in these roadside stores.

In video #3 more of Ben Tre is illustrated plus our return trip on the Mekong River, back to Ho Chi Minh City, and our final dinner together as Jay’s “Tiger Team”at KOTO restaurant.

 

Jay shared a heart warming ‘Thank you’ speech on the bus as we returned to Ho Chi Minh City and I responded on behalf of our tour group.

This was a very unique, cohesive, adventurous group of individuals from England, Australia, Canada, and Vietnam. Most of us are still keeping contact with one another. Thank you to each of you for sharing your laughs, stories, photos, energy, and positive attitudes. In addition, Intrepid is extremely lucky to have such a knowledgeable, caring, efficient ambassador of fascinating Vietnam.

KOTO restaurant is run by an organisation dedicated to developing the hospitality careers of disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

Jay’s final gift to us was a personal clay whistle of our animal sign according to the Chinese New Year. We had fun and made quite a racket attempting to create a melody with them. Thanks Jay! You will always be in our hearts and memories.

The next blog post will include: our sad goodbyes to 6/12 of our tour group, further exploration Ho Chi Minh City, and meeting 6 new tour members and a new guide as we make the transition from Vietnam to Cambodia.