The Mekong Delta – Those two words probably evoke one of the most powerful images of Vietnam… Forget scooter frenzied Saigon and ethereal Halong Bay; instead picture women in conical hats, gently coasting through lush mangroves, one oar dipping into opaque waters, and you will feel like you have stepped into the pages of the National Geographic.
Called ‘Nine Dragon River Delta’, the 13th longest river in the world starting from Tibet, it is not by any stretch of the imagination beautiful. Dissected by watery canals, arteries of murky water leaves you hoping your flimsy boat will not capsize, submerging you into a feast of disease, but there is a definite charm about this ‘no frills’ jewel – a water world where everything bobs up and down and where the waterways outnumber land.
As we raced through softly lapping waves towards Unicorn Island, there was an array of boats in different shapes and sizes that created the hustle and bustle of our surroundings – small ferries shuttled people back and forth, and fishermen lowered their nets into deep murky waters. Twenty minutes later we stepped on to a wooden jetty, walked fifteen metres through a clearing and suddenly emerged into a shaded, leafy oasis.
The Delta is Vietnam’s ‘Rice Bowl’ – an unlikely agricultural phenomenon that provides the country with a third of its annual food crop, and the Mekong is a living museum of its culinary delights. We were welcomed on to the island with a platter of tropical fruit – juicy papaya, sweet mango, cool dragon fruit, coconut and sugar cane tantalized us into buying more. Continuing our sugar-high ecstasy, we sampled tea drizzled with sickly sweet honey straight from a bee’s hive. This is obviously the Delta’s answer to Lucozade! Our two pint-sized ladies didn’t break a sweat as they maneuvered our party of five through intimate, narrow canals sometime later. Lined with boats with a backdrop of overgrown palm fronds, the waterways were a traffic jam of tourists, snap-happy at their cameras. We were all intent on documenting our setting and who could blame us. Yes, the Mekong is annoyingly ‘touristy’, but with good reason.
But back to feeding time. This time we coasted towards Coconut island where a feast awaited. A vicious-looking fish called ‘Elephant Ear’ sat central to our table. It’s bizarre texture and peaked snout didn’t look remotely palatable but our waitress peeled the fleshy meat from its bone and served it in translucent pancakes with vermicelli noodles and crispy lettuce leaves. More food came to our table… a dish of Vietnam’s favourite vegetable – Morning Glory, a broth of tomatoes with white fish, and a bowl of fluffy white rice.
Before we could digest our lunch, our guide whisked us off again – ‘We’re on a tight schedule!’ she reminded. We had a further three-hour journey to our homestay in the Can Tho district where we’d be perfectly suited for our early visit to the Cai Rang floating market the following morning.
Our homestay wasn’t quite so ‘homely’… Or at least, I imagined a room with a pane of glass to the window. Even the pretty ‘Barbie’ pink mosquito nets had been dined on in places by a hungry moth. Was everything about eating here at the Mekong?
It seemed to be. We were staying with a local family and our orders were to be in the kitchen by 6pm for our cookery class.
A number of ingredients were set in front of us – fish sauce, cane sugar, tamarind, chilli peppers, ominous bowls of brown paste – and our host demonstrated how we were going to prepare recipe number one: Bang Trang Re (deep-fried turnip spring rolls). Eat your heart out Nigella Lawson! We rolled up gooey turnip paste into lacy rice paper, which would then be deep-fried in a vat of oil. It wasn’t the healthiest of dishes but like all things Vietnamese, it was the perfect balance of salty, sweet, sour and hot. Five recipes later and ravenous, we tucked into our feast of vegetables, bean curd and fish, washed down with the local ‘Bai, Bai, Bai’ beer and to finish, a nightcap of potent rice wine that soon has us snoring like drunken sailors.
In hindsight, the rice wine was not a good idea. Heads sore, our sergeant was at our heels again. It was the crack of dawn – hardly a sociable time of the morning, but this was the grand finale of our trip – we were heading to the Floating Market of Cai Rang, best visited at 6am when trading would be in full swing.
We hopped on to a motorboat and gazed out sleepily at our surroundings. ‘Houses’ stood shoulder to shoulder on stilts in their makeshift character along the river. They reflected perfectly on to the brown still water, a wonderful juxtaposition of calm against the mad, jumble of clothes that hung on every facade. From small canals, we exited into a wide river mouth and as promised, the market was abuzz with activity.
Countless barges lay low in the water with a mast flying high to signify its trade. Mangoes, pineapple and cucumber were stacked high and to the brim, so expertly packed in, nothing was lost to the river. Amidst the big boys, small sampans approached us with their goods. Waif like but strong, women propelled their boats towards us,half a dozen of them, arms going at frantic speed in a race to reach us. We bought pineapple, mangoes, melon and steamed buns and ate until we were in danger of capsizing our boat with the extra ballast.
It was approaching noon and trading at the floating market was coming to a close. Our eatathon wasn’t quite over yet though. Lunch was being served by a local family amidst rice paddies and fish farms. From what I could gather this was a middle-class family. The home was modern by the Delta’s standards but they forgot to add one small necessity.
‘This is the toilet?’ I asked peering into a dimly lit room. A small hole at the bottom of the wall allowed enough natural light to show me it was empty. My perplexed look slowly transformed to horror with the realization that I had to do poop in the above mentioned hole.
‘You want a western toilet?’ she asked laughing. I laughed with her realizing that the hole must be a joke aimed at tourists, and followed her towards the river. Not exactly convenient for that ‘middle-of-the-night-need-to-empty-bladder’.
As it transpired, ‘Western’ style toilet was a ‘loose’ term. A couple of planks were straddled precariously across bamboo scaffolding towards an enclosure above a rapidly flowing river. I concentrated on my footing and climbed into the makeshift water-closet. At least it had a little gate to serve as some kind of privacy. The host threw me an amused smile and left me to do my business. I wish I had opted for the ‘hole’ after all. Further down the river, I heard the jubilant laughter of my buddies as they caught our lunch. I was famished but on seeing our table laden with freshly caught fish, for the first time that weekend, I went hungry.