A day trip to the Mekong River

Finding ourselves in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to as Saigon by the locals), we decided to enquire about tour prices at a big tourist agency in Nguyễn Huệ Square.

The office’s powerful air conditioning offered us respite from the humidity outside. However, the tours on offer were way out of our budget and allocated too much time to souvenir shopping along the motorway. Disheartened, we ventured back out into the Square.

We followed Lê Lợi Street, which was half under construction (for a new metro line), and spotted a small travel agency close to Ben Thanh Market. We hesitated before the open shop front. Our eyes caught the smiling agents inside, who beckoned us to come sit down.

The wall fan breathed down our necks as we listened to the two women explain the options to us in broken English. We bartered down the price for a tour and booked in for the next day. As we weren’t staying in a hotel, they couldn’t arrange a pick up in the morning. We agreed to make our way back to the agency, where the bus would collect us.

The next morning, we hailed a local city bus from the side of the road. Inside, we paid the attendant VND 5,000 in small notes (about 30 cents). The bus was full of Sunday workers heading off to their various jobs throughout the urbanising city.

Even though the traffic into town was already beginning to pile up, Lê Lợi Street was deserted. We arrived early at the tourist agency. It was still closed, so we went next door to Phúc Long Coffee and Tea Express. My dad and partner had a hot coffee (as opposed the popular cold coffee with ice), and I had an ice tea.

At 7:30am, one of the agents came racing up to the shop. “I’m so sorry, I’m late,” she said, puffing as she unlocked the roller shutter door and pulled it open. She brought out three little plastic chairs and beckoned us to sit at the front of the shop, on the pavement, and then brought out coffee – strong Vietnamese hot coffee – in little glasses.

Our minibus arrived around 8am. After a few rounds of the city centre, picking up our fellow tourists, we set off down the motorway to Cai Be on the Mekong River. There were 26 of us crammed onto the tour bus, mostly Vietnamese.

The tour guide humoured us with the five ‘easy’ reasons why there are so many motorcycles in the country (according to him, there are seven million motorcycles in Vietnam):

  1. Motorcycles are easy and cheap to buy, especially the second-hand Chinese ones (although they don’t last very long so if you have the money, it’s better to buy a Japanese model).
  2. They are easy to drive; and
  3. Easy to park.
  4. It’s easy to get to work; and it’s
  5. Easy to pick up a girlfriend

In his words, “the bigger the bike, the bigger the girlfriend. There’s no chance of a girlfriend if you have no bike!”

However, according to his statistics, 11,000 people die each year from motorcycle accidents. So, it’s also “easy to die”. Oh, and apparently everything made in China is fake, including all the fake Chinese helmets people wear so as not to get a fine.

The journey took two hours down the long elevated road through the flat rice fields. A viaduct followed alongside us the whole way and tombstones periodically stood out from among the fields of sky reflected on land.

Once at the majestic Mekong River, we quickly transferred to a dark wooden riverboat with a low roof and open sides. We dispersed, avoiding a seat in the sun. It was already late morning by this stage and the floating market had mostly dispersed.

Shack-like townhouses bordered the murky brown water on either side. We passed wide wooden or metal canoes fixed with petrol engines. Women with straw-pointed hats sat among sacks of vegetables and beckoned customers from loud speakers hooked up to the engine. Men motored past with rolled up fishing nets. Colourful clothes hung on lines at the end of houseboats.

The driver braked and a cloud of petrol fumes washed over us. He had pulled us up next to a brightly painted riverboat laden with fruit. Some of our group clambered onto it, the tall ones having to stoop under the low roof as they entered. They returned with little plastic bags full of tropical slices. Jackfruit was passed around.

We got out on the far bank to visit the local artisans. We saw rice popped to make “crispy rice” snacks, coconut stretched for sweets and jars filled with snake and fortified wine. We were taken to a large hut to see how they cultivated honey and made the alternative medicine, royal jelly. We enjoyed a cup of Vietnamese honey tea as they tried and failed to persuade us to buy their products and souvenirs.

Back on the boat, we crossed the fork in the river to Vinh Long and transferred to slim rowboats. Women in purple long sleeve shirts, gloves and conical hats (known as nón lá) stood behind and paddled us down an estuary using gondolier-like sticks. The banks towered above us and we could see the roots of mangroves and tall trees pock out from the water. A child on a bicycle cycled over an arched single bridge as we went underneath.

At an inlet by a village, they turned the boats around and we took the same route back to the mouth of the river and into the boiling sun. At the riverside, we took up the seats of the leaving tourist group and ate fruit and watched Vietnamese stories unfold through dance, song, mime and music. Another tourist group arrived and we were herded to a different venue for a lunch of boiled rice, pork and a few vegetables. A couple from Singapore bought the blowfish to try.

Our guide collected 35,000 dong (A$2) from each of us as a tip for the gondoliers and the musicians. We never saw him distribute the money but we took his word.

The heat didn’t stop us from exploring the narrow paths through the river villages during our hour’s break. We set off by bicycle as far as time permitted, before turning around and hunting for the same paths through the trees and shrubs and little houses, until we were once again at the restaurant by the waterfront. With fifteen minutes to spare, we relaxed in low hanging hammocks.

The return journey back to Ho Chi Minh City was quiet. We rested in the air conditioning and watched out the window as motorcyclists in raincoats drove beside us through heavy downpours. The weather cleared by the time we reached the inner city and said our goodbyes.

Travel details:

Mekong River tour: if you want to visit Can Tho floating markets on the Mekong Delta, you will need to spend the night there and then head out to see the markets in the early morning. We opted for a day tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Cai Be – to get an essence of river life within our 24-hour time limit.

We picked a small tour agency off the street the day prior (everything online was too expensive) and bartered for the tour price. We didn’t want it to be a shopping experience and paid for a mid-range bus / lunch. We ended up seeing a lot for USD$25 each.

The tour was in English and Vietnamese. We toured mostly with Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh City, keen to explore the nearby surroundings over the weekend, and they made the experience feel less artificial.

Photo: Cai Be on the Mekong River, roughly two hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City.

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