Our alarm went off at 5:45AM to go on a tour, but I was up at 4 or something, due to jet lag. After breakfast, we got in a van at 6:55 to head to the Mekong Delta. We booked a tour with the same guy who did the food tour because we were so happy with him. And because it was pretty cheap, and we were worried about the assembly-line nature of tours to the Mekong, it was a private tour. There were actually more staff than us – a driver, our guide and a guide trainee and the two of us. Here is our approximate route:
This was our first experience of Vietnam outside of Saigon, and Saigon is certainly not representative of Vietnam as a whole. We drove for about 90 minutes down to the edge of the Mekong Delta, to one of its 9 branches. There we got on a boat to cross the river. I have a weird obsession with the world’s great rivers, but this is only the second one I have technically been too (depending upon your definition). I must say, it was wonderful to get out on the water – in addition to checking something off my list – as there is something about being on a small boat in a large body of water that really feels different from being in a city.
On the other side of the river we went to a coconut candy “factory” (really a large hut). Jenn and I were a little concerned about this experience as we had read online about how it was basically just an excuse to try to get tourists to buy stuff. But we were there so early they weren’t even ready to sell. Instead, we learned how the candy was made and got to try some. Moreover, we got to try snake and scorpion liquor! (I later wanted to buy some and bring some back to Canada but it seems like it’s illegal so we decided not to bother.)
After the “factory”, we walked through the property to where we were met by a tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is a motorbike with a trailer attached that people sit in. The tut tuk took us on a drive around the island, where we could see the full range of life on the island, from shacks to extremely nice houses. It actually reminded me a little bit of inland Florida, where poverty and wealth are right next to each other. (And it wouldn’t be the last time I felt similarly about rural Vietnam.)
We then arrived at a sort of restaurant where we ate local tropical fruit and were supposed to listen to local music. We were super early and they weren’t even ready for us, but soon we had honey tea and tropical fruit including dragon fruit, longans, mini bananas and guava. Everything but the guava was good, as it seems that guava is not in season. This was our first real taste of Vietnamese fruit outside of the hotel breakfast and it reminded of us of our experience in Cambodia: tropical fruit is so much better in the tropics than it is in North America. Fruits I don’t normally like, such as dragon fruit, are delicious in the tropics. We even had some papaya we liked! (At the hotel.) This is one of my favourite parts of travelling in the tropics, as fruit is just so much better.
After the fruit and tea, it was time for a sampan ride. The ride was brief, due to a dam being built on the river, but was really pleasant and serene and a complete change of pace from Saigon. Some people come to the Mekong solely for this and I have read many reviews where people are very unhappy about the brevity of the boat ride. What I would say is that, if you are really looking for this kind of experience for more than a brief jaunt down the river, you likely want to do the Mekong yourself and should stay in one of the cities in the delta for a night or two. A day drip from the city with an organized tour is going to be “highlights” rather than a long sampan ride unless, of course, that’s what they promise you.
After the sampan ride, we headed back across the main river in the motorboat. On it we were given coconuts to drink, a very common thing in Vietnam. I don’t love coconut – I like the flesh and I like the milk but I don’t like coconut oil or anything with the “essence” of coconut – but this fresh coconut water was very refreshing. Still, it was my only taste of it on the trip because, frankly, I like other things more.
After we got back to the dock, we got back in the car for another couple hours and headed to the Cu Chi tunnels. Jenn and I had mixed feelings about heading to the tunnels for different reasons, but we had decided to go because a trip to both the Mekong and the tunnels was only slightly more money than just the Mekong. I thoroughly enjoyed the drive both to the Mekong and the tunnels because we got to see a lot of the country we would otherwise not get to see.
At the tunnels we had a bizarre lunch: the tour staff went off to eat by themselves and we had pseudo Chinese food. It was fine, but it was kind of surreal given that we were in Vietnam, a truly great country for food, and we were eating, as Jenn put it, “mall Chinese food”.
These particular tunnels were built by the Viet Cong in order to hide from the American forces in Saigon. (I say these tunnels because the Viet Minh had already been using tunnels against the French during the earlier war and villagers in different communities had independently built other tunnels to hide from the French and Americans throughout South Vietnam.) There are many impressive things about them, including their complexity, their depth and their width, or lack thereof. The exhibit around them is a little kitschy, at times, like much of touristization (for lack of a better word) of Vietnamese history, but there is still a lot of interesting information and the act of going in the tunnels is something worth your time. And I got stuck in a widened hatch because my chest is too large!
We later learned that the tunnels near Hue were actually built by normal citizens and that might actually have been a little less surreal, but we were still glad we went. It’s a feat of engineering that is truly incredible and it’s proof that, just because one side has more resources, doesn’t mean they’re smarter or more determined. Frankly, the creativity and resourcefulness of the Viet Cong/Viet Minh is awe-inspiring, even with the spectre of death hanging over all of it.
I’d say there was a lesson here, in the tunnel construction, for all would-be invaders, but the Americans clearly didn’t heed it then nor have they heeded it since as they continue to involve themselves militarily in countries in which their foes are going to be far more motivated than they are to be clever and resourceful. (Why? Because the people who live in country care more than the people ordered to invade that country. Always.)
Oh, one other thing: because of the way our tour went – Mekong in the morning and tunnels in the afternoon – the tunnels were pretty much empty for us. And we finished just in time as a massive school trip showed up as we were leaving.
When we got back to the hotel we were shocked to find the hotel pool and deck full of people. This was shocking because we had literally seen one other person in the pool since we got to the hotel, and maybe 2-3 using the deck. We later discovered it was a tour group and they were all there at the same time. In fact, it might have been a tour from the company I used to tour Turkey.
After the swim, we wandered around looking for food. We found a small Banh Mi stall and paid less than a Canadian dollar each for our sandwiches because in Vietnam food is ridiculously cheap.
After dinner we headed over to one of the Pasteur Street Brewery locations in Saigon. Pasteur Street seems to be the biggest craft brewery in Vietnam, with multiple locations in Saigon, locations in Hanoi, Danang and maybe some other places, and with more bars selling it than any other beer. (They list the cities they are sold in on their menu but also we saw it everywhere throughout our trip.)
We were fairly disappointed with the quality of the beer in comparison to Heart of Darkness. But, upon reflection, we figured we probably would have enjoyed Pasteur more if we had gone their first, with lower expectations, than after having gone to what is likely the best brewery in the country first. The beer wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great, though one was good and the rest were fine. It’s just that our expectations had been raised.
After that, it was time for a swim.