Mekong Delta day trip
07/01/2014 - 07/01/2014 85 °F
A day trip to the mighty Mekong River was my final sightseeing in Vietnam
For my final day of sightseeing in Vietnam, I decided to book a popular day trip out of Ho Chi Minh City, south to the Mekong Delta. This rural area of farming and fishing villages is the country's breadbasket -- or should I say rice bowl? The Mekong supplies the rest of the country with the majority of its food. In fact, Vietnam is now one of the world's biggest exporters of rice -- nearly half of its crop is sent abroad. Life is more traditional, here, our guide Hung explained. People wake up with the sun, work long hot days, and then go to sleep when it is dark.
The Mekong River Delta produces most of the country's rice and other agricultural products
Another interesting fact is this is where the bulk of Vietnam's population growth is happening. The country has swelled to be the 13th largest population in the world, Hung said. The government has an interesting way of trying to keep the population down, though. If you are a government employee -- military, teacher, civil service, etc. -- you are permitted only two children. If you have a third or more, you will not be eligible for a promotion or raise, and may even lose your job! If you're in the private sector, though, you can have as many babies as you like. Vietnam's industries and agriculture were "de-Communistized" (my word) in 1986. Formerly, the government owned all the land and production facilities. It was given back to the people, in a sense, a couple decades ago to fuel economic growth, which it has. The country is still Communist politically, though. There is only one party and no official opposition. Economically, though, it is essentially Capitalist.
After a 2 hour minibus ride, we transferred to a single deck cruise boat to cross the Mekong River
Our minibus load of day trippers include three other Americans, four Scots, a handful of Vietnamese, Italians, Danes and a sprinkling of other nationalities. I had a great time chatting with many of them -- particularly the Scots -- during the tour, and on the ride back. It took about two hours to drive to the river port where we would embark on a single-deck cruise boat. I was struck immediately by the muddy brown color of the Mekong. The long, winding river passes through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos before reaching Vietnam and emptying its accumulated silt into the sea. Our boat ferried us across the river to one of the larger islands in the river. There they had a few cheesy, Touristy activities lined up for us. These included a bee farm and coconut candy production facility. They were only mildly interesting, being the usual blatant attempts to sell products to a captive audience. Reading beforehand about them had almost made me reconsider taking the tour.
Cruising the Mekong River
The next part was why I persevered, though. We boarded tiny boats paddled by two villagers each and holding just four of us passengers. We went up one of the narrow waterways of the delta for about 20 minutes. We were right down on the muddy brown water. Every shift you made with your body weight literally rocked the boat. On either side of us, coconut trees and other dense vegetation sprouted up, taller than man height. We spotted dragon fruit, jackfruit, and other products harvested by the villagers. The banks of the river glistened with wet brown mud, which they pack hard there to build up a barrier to control the Mekong's flood. A Vietnamese-American high school graduate was on our boat and she talked to our husband and wife team of paddlers. Apparently, doing this for the tourist trade is an important supplement to their income. They had been waiting two hours for their turn to take us on our 20-minute ride, for which they would earn 12,000 Vietnamese Dong. It was sobering to think that an amount slightly more than 50 cents could be such an important revenue source. That also explained why we'd seen so many young men eagerly paddling back to our starting point, so they could have a chance at another boatload.
My favorite part of the tour was being paddled through a narrow channel in tiny boats by locals
Lunch was next, which meant a preset menu of rice, beef, and vegetables. We'd also had a nice snack of fruit at one of the earlier activities, so it was actually enough to fill most of us up. They gave you the opportunity to order (and pay for) other, more bizarre foods. These included "Elephant-eared fish" (looked like a blowfish), cobra, crocodile, and a particularly nasty looking river lobster. Thankfully, everyone at my table declined on the Man vs. Food opportunity. After lunch, we were given about a half hour of free time. Most of the group hopped on the ragtag bicycles the villagers had available to explore the island. I decided to wander around on foot to take some pictures. I was glad I did because it allowed me to see the delta area from a new angle. Much to my surprise, some of the homes were very modern -- sporting satellite dishes and colorful materials imported from the mainland. I asked Hung about it on the ride back. He said some of the villagers, such as those running the restaurant, had become comparatively wealthy from the tourist trade. Others have family members working abroad who sent back money to build or improve their family homes. And still others, may be government employees, who are well paid in Vietnam. I took a wrong turn going back and was the last from the group to arrive back at the restaurant. We boarded a diesel-engined boat and chugged noisily back through a bit wider of a channel to our cruise boat. From there, we recrossed the Mekong River, and piled back into the minibus.
We also got a chance to wander around one of the islands in the river delta
I had enjoyed seeing a different side of Vietnam, away from its crowded streets, honking, and ever-present motorbikes. Getting down on the river, inches away from its chocolate milk colored surface, was quite the experience. Trading stories with the Scots and other travelers on my last sightseeing day was a nice way to decompress from my immersion into Vietnamese culture. It allowed me to step back and consider my nearly three weeks in Vietnam and Taiwan. I'd enjoyed the history and scenic beauty of both. The chance to walk the streets alongside them, and feel the fast-paced rhythm and energy of their daily life, was something photographs really can't capture. It is these memories I take with me on my way home to America.