Mekong: Vietnam’s Heartland (Snake Alert)

From the bustling city of Can Tho with its’ 1.5 million people to the rural backwaters of the tributaries, the Mekong River and Delta are the heart and soul of Vietnam.  The river originates in the Himalayas of Tibet travelling through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, emptying into the South China Sea through 9 tributaries that are known as the 9 Dragons.  The Mekong is the 10th largest river in the world, and the fertile land around the Delta is Vietnam’s Rice basket, helping the country to become the second largest producer of rice in the world, but it’s also so much more. 

Tourists usually book a one day trip to the Mekong from Saigon, but that only works out to about 4 hours in this massive region after travel time to and from My Tho city, the first stop.  I booked a 3 day trip that allowed me to experience a lot more of the area.   After a 2 ½ hour bus ride from Saigon, we arrived at a rest stop in My Tho City where we boarded a boat to make our way along this mighty river.  It is absolutely massive and until recently residents had to travel across by boat or ferry, now the Can Tho Bridge makes road traffic easy, although it’s almost 3 kilometers long, the longest span bridge in Southeast Asia.  We crossed over to Ben Tre province by boat for a visit to a Coconut candy factory where we were able to watch the small group of workers create the delicious sweets.  They also sold some alcohol at the site, which we were able to sample, coconut wine, banana wine and… the infamous Snake Wine.  I couldn’t visit Vietnam without a taste, so I downed a shot.  It was like firewater at 35% alcohol but I couldn’t detect any unusual flavour, possibly because my taste buds had been numbed.  Of course we were encouraged to buy wine or sweets and it didn’t take much convincing for me to get some of the delicious coconut/peanut candy… soft and chewy… mmm.  We hopped back into a 4 seat row boat with a Vietnamese woman squatting on the front deck as she rowed us through a narrow canal to the honey bee farm.  Now that made me a little nervous, since I’m allergic to bees, but took my chances and luckily didn’t get stung.  We sat down for some honey tea that was the best tea I have ever had.  Of course it was sweetened with honey, and also bee pollen and lychee… delicious.  They also brought out the pet python and we got a chance to hold him if we liked, a few of us took the challenge, and it was okay… no one became the python’s lunch.   We stopped off on Unicorn Island, one of four main islands across the Mekong from My Tho, where we sampled some Vietnamese Folk Music and wandered through the rural community back to the boat that took us back to the city, where the group split up… the one day group headed back to Saigon while we continued our journey.

I had opted for a homestay with a local family. But it wasn’t just me there was about a dozen of us in all.  The family had built half a dozen one room cottages to meet the demand and is in the progress of building a few more.  Still you get the feel for their rural way of life.  The room itself is very basic, just a double bed, a fan and mosquito net.  You don’t need an alarm clock, the roosters will wake you. When we arrived, Tri and his family, his wife, parents, and 3 kids had prepared our dinner – spring rolls, fish, lettuce, noodles and rice paper wraps to make our own fish rolls. It was delicious and we also got to sample the local ‘Happy Water’ or rice wine, that we downed in a series of shots, much smoother than the wine I had earlier in the day.  We woke early the next day, before sunrise and walked the short distance to a nearby rice paddy, next to Tri’s watermelon patch.  It was a beautiful morning and interesting to see how local families raise their crops.  We had a quick breakfast of a baguette before hopping back into the boat again, gliding across the glass like surface of the Mekong tributary, just as the sun was coming up.  As we neared the city of Can Tho, river traffic began to pick up.  Many were headed to the floating market, the region’s biggest and busiest.  As we meandered through the market we saw people hawking everything you could imagine from fruit and vegetables to plastic baskets.  A small boat pulled up alongside ours and a woman and her young son (he must have been about 4 or 5) tried to sell us something to drink, coffee, soda, beer and bananas.  We pulled up alongside another boat that had a pineapple on display, indicating that was their specialty.  We were able to get onto the boat deck where they proceed to cut fresh pineapples for us… delicious and refreshing.  When we’d had enough we headed back up the river, with houses of every kind along the banks, many of them on stilts and there was also an industrial area, with everything from casket makers to logging operations, there was even a floating full service station along the water highway.   Our next stop was a noodle making factory, where we were given a short lesson in how it’s done, and I got the chance to roll a rice sheet off the hot griddle and transfer to the bamboo mat for drying.  Let’s just say, practice must make perfect.   We also visited a nearby fruit orchard, sampling some of the fruit and got a chance to cross a ‘monkey bridge’, basically a log across the river with some supports and a railing to hang onto.  I was a little nervous, I didn’t want to fall in with my camera and was only wearing my Blundstone boots, but it was actually easier than I thought.   The group then split up with the 2 day trip people heading back to Saigon while we made our way a couple of hours up the road to Bluesky Crocodile Land, basically a croc farm.  They raise the crocodiles from baby until they are midsize and ready for ‘harvest’, and they also have a few areas with older and much larger crocodiles that are used for breeding.  Apparently the Mekong once was inhabited by many crocodiles that would attack the fishing boats, until locals began painting big red eyes on the front of their boats.  When the crocs would see the boats coming, they would think they were big monsters and back away. Even though there are no crocodiles in the river any longer, the tradition continues and even some Vietnamese ships paint the same design on their bow.  As you leave the park, there is a case of handbags, wallets and belts all made of Crocodile skin, and the most expensive one is under $50… hardly worth the life of these amazing and prehistoric creatures.   We got back on to the minibus for the 2 hour drive to the Tay An Buddhist Temple on Nui Sam or Sam Mountain.  As we started the long climb up the 185 stairs I realized I had left my camera in the van and raced back about a block to pick it up, then had to run the stairs to catch up to the group.  I was exhausted but it was all worth it…the view was spectacular.  We removed our shoes at the entrance and wandered through each of the rooms, with various Buddhist altars set up throughout the complex, and more than 200 statues throughout.  There are also caves that you enter to find shrines including a mirrored room full of golden Buddha statues.    We doubled back a few miles to Chau Doc and our hotel for the night, certainly the most budget hotel I have stayed in so far. It wasn’t horrible, just very basic.  I know it could have been worse, some of our travel companions found ants crawling down their wall, a window that wouldn’t close and no mosquito net.  We got cleaned up and I joined a guy from Spain and another from Italy and we wandered through the town and the night market, stopping for dinner at a street vendor that was packed, so we knew it would be good… and it was delicious.  I had Beef Pho, that had the best beef broth I think I have ever tasted. I decided to call it a night, and went back to crash.   We woke up the next morning, had a quick breakfast of tropical fruit and then the group split up even more with some going on to Cambodia while we headed down to the river for a ride to the nearby floating houses.  These places are amazing.  People build their homes over giant floating drums and then have massive fish nets under the house in which they raise fish for sale in Saigon or to be turned into fuel. We actually got to go into one house and saw the holes in the floor where the fish are fed, and right on cue our guide dumped some food into the water and we all jumped back to avoid getting soaked as the fish launched into a feeding frenzy.   We also visited a nearby  Cham Muslim Mosque and wandered through the community where we were greeted by children, one selling waffles while the others blew big plastic bubbles through a straw, a Vietnamese treat.  We made our way back to shore and the hotel where we boarded the mini bus back to Saigon.  As we settled in, the bus suddenly stopped and we were told we had to transfer to another minibus… and this one was packed already.  The four of us squeezed in to the back row and that’s how we had to sit for the 6 ½ hour drive back to the city.  It was very uncomfortable, especially since we were all exhausted but couldn’t sleep because we were in such a tight squeeze.  My visit to the Mekong region is one of the highlights of my trip to Vietnam, and if you are planning a visit to Saigon, make sure you take the time to visit.

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5 Responses to “Mekong: Vietnam’s Heartland (Snake Alert)”

  1. kay
    January 17 at 11:08 am #

    Hi, sorry i found this post on Google, and I already got the wine from but i am now looking for wine or liquor with tarantula or other creatures, do you know where to find ? Thanks a lot.

    • Darren
      January 20 at 2:54 am #

      Sorry Kay, I don’t know where you might find trantula wine… If I spot anything on my travels I’ll let you know… unless anyone else here happens to have any idea for her?

  2. Karen Weir
    January 17 at 9:29 pm #

    Wow Darren, what an excellent read, awesome pictures and an amazing video! You’ve done such a great job with this post! Bravo!!

    • Darren
      January 20 at 2:42 am #

      thanks Karen… it sure helps to be in such an amazing place! xo

  3. Lindsay
    January 22 at 3:03 pm #

    tarantula wine?!?!?! Oh my goodness!!

    Darren — what a great update. Love the video, too! How cool!!!!!!!

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