We thought the Mekong delta was a huge empty area filled mainly with rice paddies and waterways. Turns out that it is filled with those, but also 20 million people, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Who says you learn nothing on tours!
However, that was nearly where our education in the delta ended. We did learn that bus tours have not improved in the five years since our last one!
We were rammed onto a minibus and whizzed around ‘attractions’ in the area. The first was the Mekong Rest Stop. A petrol station, toilet and gift shop. Half and hour wasted for us, we won’t waste any more of your time telling you about it. It seemed promising when were taken to see the biggest Buddha in the Mekong and even given enough time to explore, but went downhill. We were taken to a tourist trap island called Unicorn Island, so we could be sung to, rowed around in a tiny boat (on a crammed river full of tourists), stuck on back of a horse and cart for a pointless round trip (poor bloody miserable horse), have a two minute demonstration on making coconut candy and many more delights and chances to be flogged crap.
However, it was not all bad. We got away after lunch and borrowed bicycles to cycle around the village on the island for half an hour, and then spent our evening at a lovely homestay, the Minh Tin Homestay. We had to take a moonlit boat ride up the Mekong (complete with fireflies), then enjoyed a wonderful home cooked feast of DIY shrimp spring rolls, pork and green beans, fish hotpot, chicken soup, omelette and fruit platter. Washed down with a couple of beers and a laugh about the tour with a few other guests we retired to bed.
We couldn’t have had a better start to the next day than eating breakfast watching the sunrise over the Mekong, before we rejoined the tour group (despite a slight boat engine scare) to see the floating market. We were then dragged around a succession of terrible honey shops, noodle factories and finally escaped the tour at Can Tho when they returned to HCMC. We instead had decided to head to the small town of Chau Doc, near the Cambodian border, and a million miles from any tourist traps. At last, the Mekong Delta we had dreamt of!
We found a beautiful waterfront hotel and spent our afternoon and evening watching the world go by on the bustling river before attempting to order food in a restaurant with no English menu or English speaking staff, using a translation app and the help of a local school student. We thought we had a grasp on what we had ordered, but when the grilled chicken turned out to be a boiled and then deep fried quails egg, we gave up and pointed a lot! It was all excellent, so who cares!!!
Next day, we were up again for the sunrise (it’s clearly a thing in the Delta!). We then found a local lady who was happy to take us out on the river in her rowing boat for a couple of hours. We avoided all other tourists in their big boat tours and had a quiet look around the floating houses watching the fisherman at work, saw the fish farms (every house has one) and visited a Cham village (ethnic minority Muslim tribe).
Grabbing a quick lunch of Banh Xeo for less than 50c (golden egg pancakes stuffed with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp and salad, dipped in fish and chilli sauce) we hired two ancient moto drivers to take us to Sam Mountain, a sacred Buddhist site with a shrine at the top. Turning down the offer of a ride to the top, we decided to walk. 1000+ steps later, that was a terrible idea. But, it had a stunning view so maybe it wasn’t!
We returned to the market to point and guess with a menu and got a Mi Cay, which we had never heard of. It turned out to be a red pepper stew with squid, prawns, fish balls, cauliflower, broccoli and noodles, along with some home made soft drinks which were equally peculiar, especially Abby’s tea with extra chocolate flavoured slimy bits.
Chau Doc was, despite seeming likely to be small and dull, actually a lovely little town and a beautiful place to spend a couple of days, and left us with a much better impression of the Mekong Delta.