I decided to spend the first days of my visit to Vietnam south of Ho Chi Minh City, in the region known as the Mekong Delta. Compared to the hectic tourist scene in Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hoi An, this region was comparatively laid-back and quieter and the highlight of my trip to Vietnam.
Hectic Ho Chi Minh City
I spent my first day in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. I definitely was a little ticked off about the bumped-up Visa fee scheme for US citizens, where a one-year Visa now cost $175 for multiple entries (While I loved Vietnam, I have no plans to go back within a year). The Visa on Arrival waiting area looked dreadfully slow when I showed up, but somehow I managed to jump a number of people who were waiting. One word of advice for those who print the entry form to fill out before showing up – you need to fill out everything, including your all of your family member’s date of births (I couldn’t remember my sister’s birthday so I just made something up). What they need with that information – who knows??? But never doubt the bizarre nature of a bureaucracy.
Getting a taxi to my hotel in District 1 was easy enough, but the meter began to go haywire and I was just a little suspicious, so I made a call to my hotel to speak with the driver to make sure I was not being played into some exorbitant taxi fare downtown. The other nightmare was a sudden downpour which stuck us in traffic for basically an hour without movement – what a welcome to HCMC!
I spent the day at the Grand Silverland Hotel & Spa, a mediocre and over-priced place right across from the Ben Thanh food market. My first impressions of District 1 were – hello America! Every chain restaurant and luxury brand was fully represented around the area, from Bulgari to Burger King. District 1 has some wonderful colonial architecture, such as the city hall and opera house. In my usual state of being disoriented and tired after landing in a new country, I headed over to the Ben Thanh food market. The place, like other indoor food stall centers, had a good selection of food stalls ranging from roasted fish to even Indian food. I opted for some good old-fashioned Vietnamese comfort food – Bun Cha, the dish of dry rice noodles, fatty pork and a delicious fish sauce to flavor it all. The place was admittedly chock full of tourists but it was a healthy mix between having Vietnamese food and not needing to venture too far out of my comfort zone – so far.
I never ventured too far out of District 1 and other travelers I met admitted the Westernization is lifted the further you get out of the city center. On my tight timeframe and with many people advising me against spending a lot of time in HCMC, I just explored some of the very beautiful relics of the colonial era that still dot the area – The Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera House and most splendid at night, Ho Chi Minh City Hall. On the flipside of remnants of French Indochina and Western brands is Ben Thanh market, the kind of place you go to find everything – similar to the Russian Market in Pnomh Penh or the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon. Most of the goods will be of little interest to visitors, unlike Chatuchak in Bangkok which has some legitimately cool stuff. Unless you are in the market for children’s shoes or a knock-off watch 🙂
I was picked up after my day in HCMC to head down to My Tho, and frankly I was more than happy to say goodbye to HCMC. While highways in most of Vietnam are in horrible shape and the option of bus/road travel looks like a terrible option compared to the many inexpensive flights on Vietjet Air, the southern stretch running from HCMC – My Tho – Can Tho is quite good, with HCMC – My Tho being a true smooth super highway.
My Tho has such a comparatively small-city feel compared to HCMC. The only thing not on the Mekong that draws people to My Tho is Vinh Trang Pagoda, an amazing mish-mash between traditional Vietnamese styles and French colonial styles applied during the occupation of ‘Indochina’. I was shown one particularly impressive image in the main part of the temple – a progression from birth to death to teach everyone that at the end of the day, rich or poor, everybody comes from the same place and ends in the same place – but the biggest draw of the Pagoda are the enormous Buddha statues that have been built – sitting, sleeping and standing.
Ben Tre Province
My Tho is of average interest. Some people stay for the floating markets around My Tho because of the convenience factor. I read better things about Can Tho and going even further south in the Mekong area. So from My Tho I made my way onto a boat headed to the islands named Dragon, Unicorn, Phoenix and Turtle, with pretty heavy differences in how many tourists each attracts.
The boat ride out to Ben Tre province is not terribly scenic, with fairly flat, lush terrain and growing industrial development. At sea level, there is nothing to really see. On our first stop, we began with samples of dried squid and some very strong locally-brewed rice wine. I am not particularly fond of dried seafood, but tried to give everything a chance.
Occasionally, some of these visits involve watching some local products being made – I can not honestly say I find most of them terribly interesting, but for a few minutes, it can be ok. In Vietnam, it seemed like any of the local guides add in a visit to see something or the other being made, and then you have the chance to buy it. In this case, it was coconut candy – I love fresh coconut meat so watching coconut get mascerated and eventually boiled down to a taffy-like coconut candy was a bit of sacrilege from my perspective. The condensed coconut fat and sugar was way too rich for my taste buds. I picked up a small packet just because I have never seen in it before, but I have yet to open it. Luckily, this demonstration was over very quickly.
One of my favorite parts of visiting the province is hopping onto a donkey-drawn cart and making our way through the island’s dust paths. I was actually sad it was not longer! That being said, at the end of our ride, there was a treat of sugarcane juice with lime and peanuts (the one time I actually enjoyed sugarcane juice) and plenty of fresh fruit. For the tourists, snake handlers and beehives were present – I was not interested in doing any of that, but I liked the laid-back feel of the island. We left the first island via the backwater canals.
Turtle island is an even more laid-back and rustic island chock full of farms, and we took a visit to an elderly couple to see how they live and the variety of fruits that are grown in this area – I was giddy to climb up and pick my own young coconuts, which the the owner of the plantation was able to cut in three precise strikes in a triangle. I was told his story – he was a Viet Cong soldier during the war who managed to even hide up in coconut trees. After the far, he came south to begin farming different fruits. It was an enjoyable experience to sit and just really feel a part of the life on the island – as I was told, it may not be a wealthy life, but it is a happy and comfortable life.
After the ride back to My Tho, I boarded a nifty Futa Bus at My Tho station bound for Can Tho, a 2-hour journey that cost under $5USD. The inside of the bus is curiously designed – instead of seats, passengers lie down on small bunks, hence why your shoes are the first thing put into plastic bags. The concept is interesting, but being left with pretty much the last bunk on the bus, I was on the upper level right in front of the main window – the two hour trip was a combination of blaring Vietnamese favorites and some insane driving, horn used very liberally. That meant sleeping was impossible.
At some point in the journey, we took a 20-minute break at a giant Futa bus depot chock full of little shops and eateries. Not really understanding how long the break was, I made a quick stop inside and rushed out back to the bus to avoid being left behind. Alas, language barriers. I am not sure if traffic is really a problem on the HCMC – Can Tho route, but the Futa ride went right on time – amusingly enough, once I arrived at the Can Tho bus station, the ten-minute taxi ride into downtown Can Tho cost about the same as the two hour bus trip.
Can Tho was remarkably different than the central parts of HCMC – the city felt far less Westernized. Not very many Western-style cafes or restaurants or convenience stores, and very few foreigners. The city was about just aimlessly exploring – the waterfront where occasionally a lady would try to hard-sell me on a boat tour. A statue of Ho Chi Minh, and more than a few night markets selling everything from cell phone covers to snacks. Just the comparative lack of Westernization is a selling point for the city.
The hotel listings looked very interesting – there is one hotel, the Victoria, which is both lavishly-rated and starting at $175/night, lavishly priced. Down from there are a host of far cheaper options with good ratings. I opted for the next down on the list, Anh Dao Mekong. It was in the city center where I wanted to be and seemed decent enough. It was only on my way to Can Tho that I realized I accidentally booked Anh Dao Mekong II! Foolish me didn’t realize this hotel was actually a few miles away from the hotel I wanted to stay at. Thankfully, a working internet connection on the bus ride re-booked me to the original, and at $40/night, I was in the finest room in the hotel. One has to keep their expectations reasonable at $40/night anywhere, however. It had a bed, a bathroom and the A/C was sufficient to deal with the humidity.
I did not get the vibe of a foodie city from Can Tho. I recommend taking a visit to Cafe English near the waterfront promenade. Besides having a complete menu of snacks, drinks and light meals, the cafe provides a chance for locals to improve their English through partnering. On the other hand, I had dinner at Phuong Nam, the top-rated restaurant on Tripadvisor. It is a regular place, but a horribly game-y plate of “lamb satay” was enough to offend my taste buds after a couple of bites.
Cai Rang Floating Market
If you are taking a trip down to the Mekong and do not need to return to Ho Chi Minh city, Can Tho has a small airport which flies directly to destinations such as Hanoi and Da Nang.
I was off to bed early and up and out at 5am as my guide Susan Bui awaited me downstairs. I missed breakfast at Anh Dao Mekong, but I am 100% sure I did not miss a thing. In the dark of pre-dawn we took a quick ride down to where I could barely make out a boat was even present, but she had me bring my luggage on the boat (!) and we were off in the canal in pitch dark.
I am not a morning person, but I was super-exhilarated to see the red and then purple of the sun slowly rise behind us as our boatwoman navigated us down into the Cai Rang Floating Market. It was sensory overload to watch the activity going on as wholesale fruits and vegetables being traded on the water – each boat had a stick up presenting the good(s) it sold and as we made our way through, we encountered everything from watermelons to yams.
Waking up that early, I was definitely hungry and decaffeinated. Luckily, the market has a few very talented women who manage to provide nourishment for the market – as Susan referred to them, “floating subway” and “floating Starbucks”. I was in awe watching the lady in red, managing to stabilize her small boat while making us Banh Mi, even grilling the bread on a little coal fire. The floating coffee boat managed to put together ice coffees and Vietnamese coffees with great care while staying afloat, and that very sweet Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk was just what I needed to perk up.
I was trying to mix being camera-happy with trying to take everything in, but as we went away from the market into the canals, it was time to put the camera down. People living in the houses along the canal were going about daily errands, right on the canal – a mother bathing her daughter, a woman washing her dishes and a man brushing his teeth. We took a walk through one of the villages – splendid in a mix of overgrown greenery, spare rubbish, and small houses along the canal.
As a treat when we returned to the floating market, Susan took me aboard a pineapple boat, where I enjoyed a fresh cut pineapple (one of my favorites). I could have spent hours watching the activity in that market, but even the few hours visiting it was possibly my best memory of Vietnam. Bangkok has similar floating markets, but these are primarily done for tourists. Cai Rang is a real floating market that is a center of trade. The government is trying to encourage traders to move from the canal to the new structures along the shore, which will be a shame, but I suppose this is part of modernization.
The Cai Rang floating market is just one part of the puzzle – it is worth is to see the hectic morning activity at the on-land market just on the shore.