What’s for dinner in the Mekong Delta?

As dusk began to fall, the local food market in Can Tho was abuzz with activity. Vendors lined both sides of the road, their array of delectables set neatly on the ground ready for the evening rush.  Scooters clogged the streets as their riders slowed down to check out what they were going to have for dinner that night. Wandering through the market, I can assure you there was nothing there that tempted our palate – no thanks to the live frogs bound by rubber bands so they wouldn’t hop away (nor the skinned ones either for that matter!). The tray of chicken parts, the bucket of snakes,  the shallow pools of water keeping an assortment of fish just barely alive – it was enough to make me want to be a vegetarian.

The large bags of bright pink shrimp were no temptation either, especially since we had witnessed first hand their unique drying methods during our travel day from Kep, Cambodia to Can Tho, Vietnam a few days earlier.

Passing through the border crossing was uneventful that day except for the corrupt Vietnamese border guard who was charging all tourists $1US to enter – a bribe that made its way directly and openly into his pocket. This caught us unaware and we found ourselves in a little bit of a bind as we had the equivalent of about $1.25 in Cambodian money, and a $100 US dollar bill.  Lucky for us, a couple of young Swiss girls stepped up to the rescue and offered to pay our bribe for us.

The Cambodia side of the Ha Tien border crossing.

Welcome to Vietnam – the border crossing at Ha Tien.

Once we were in Vietnam, we, along with six other foreigners were promptly deposited on a street corner on the outskirts of Ha Tien where we were told to wait for our connecting bus to Can Tho.  It was here we observed the drying process for the shrimp.  Large baskets, filled to capacity with pink shrimp, were emptied directly onto the road – that’s right, no tarp or cloth, just straight onto the dirty pavement.  After about an hour, they were swept up, passed through a sifter that separated the large pieces from the small, and the large pieces were then dispersed back onto the pavement for another hour of drying. They were then shovelled up and dumped back into the baskets, operation complete.  Next stop, your dinner plate via the market.

It was a two hour wait in the searing sun, followed by a painfully slow 6 hour trip to Can Tho.  We thought Google Maps was being awfully conservative when it stated the 200 km journey would take 3 hours.  We never imagined it could take six! You would think that after all the travelling we have done, we would have been prepared for anything by now.  Nope, not this time.  It was now 2:00 in the afternoon and we had not eaten anything since breakfast.  We had no Vietnamese currency in our pocket, just a $100 US bill that was totally useless. We had no food, and just a few sips of water left in our bottle.  An ATM machine was in town, but by the time we figured that out, the bus’ arrival was imminent.

Again, we were lucky. A friendly German guy joined our group and offered to exchange US dollars for local currency.  And no, it wasn’t a scam, he was just being friendly and helpful, recognizing that we all had just arrived from Cambodia.  The Swiss girls who had helped us at the border offered to change our hundred dollar bill into smaller currency,  allowing us to exchange a few dollars into Dong with the German guy.  With a few hundred thousand dong in hand (20,000 dong = $1 CAD), we bought a couple of drinks and some biscuits – that would have to keep us going until we got to Can Tho.   It turns out the Swiss girls were also going to the same hotel as us, so we all shared a taxi in Can Tho saving us each a bit of money.  It’s funny how travel days work out sometimes.

Can Tho is the largest city in south western Vietnam, in a region called the Mekong Delta.  This is where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries .  Dubbed the “rice basket” of Vietnam, the area produces more than half of Vietnam’s agricultural output.  It is also Vietnam’s most important fishing region. With an extensive canal system, rural life revolves around the river.  The main rivers are important transportation channels for large vessels laden with all types of cargo whereas the smaller canals are reserved for local traffic.

We didn’t really come to Can Tho to visit the city, which was a good thing since there isn’t anything all the exciting to see here.  We wanted to explore the waterways, especially the floating markets, for which Can Tho is famous.  Our six hour tour was arranged through our hotel and included a boat with boat driver and an English speaking guide, who turned out to be a young biotechnology university student with a strong American accent.  Apparently she learned English from cassettes sent to her by her American relatives.  For $16 US each, we thought the tour was good value, even though our boat seemed to be the slowest one out that day and even ran out of gas on our way back.  No worries though, a passing boat graciously offered a litre of gas to get us home.

Throughout the day, Nhu, our guide, energetically shared her knowledge with us. She grew up in a rural community about 60 km south of Can Tho and could speak from personal experience.  The two floating markets – a wholesale and a retail market – gave us a glimpse of what life is really like on the river.  Each boat advertised their wares by attaching a sample to a tall bamboo pole which flew like a flag high at the front of their boat: onions, potatoes, cabbage, pineapples, tomatoes all fluttered in the wind.   Small refreshment boats skirted amongst the larger boats selling hot tea or cold drinks.  A floating cafeteria was a popular stop for breakfast for some of the larger tour groups.  It was fascinating to observe the wheeling and dealing of a floating market, especially from a small boat such as ours.  We were right in the thick of things.

Another interesting stop that day was  a small family operated business that produced rice noodles using a very manual, labour intensive process that converted raw rice into rice noodles in what can only be described as very unsanitary conditions.  Cigarettes hung from the mouths of workers, scooters passed directly through the work area sputtering smoke, and chickens pecked at the rice paper as it dried in the sun, right next to the pig pens.  Think about that the next time you buy rice noodles from the Asian store.

After three days in Can Tho, we headed north to Ben Tre, a small town that is quite off the tourist track but still in the Delta region.  The area is well known for its coconut industry.  The Oasis Hotel offered up comfortable accommodations for the next three nights.  We particularly enjoyed the refreshingly cool pool that we took advantage of each day.

Equipped with a map, some vague instructions, our water bottles and cameras, we headed out on our own by bicycle. Somehow we found our way to the ferry crossing 15 km from town.  The ferry transported us to a little island that offered an enchanting experience.  The single paved pathway that looked more like a sidewalk than a road was jammed with school kids – the morning kids were heading home and the afternoon kids were heading off to school.  And every kid greeted us with a friendly “hellllooooo”.  When we stopped at the school to take a few pictures, Chris gained instant celebrity status as a group of boys hammed it up for the camera and then swarmed him to take a look at their picture.

We did another boat tour in Ben Tre which we found a tad touristy for our taste.  The stops along the way – the brick factory, the coconut candy factory, the fruit farm – all were focused heavily on selling you stuff (except for the brick factory).  Mind you, the stuff they were selling was quite yummy and Chris took advantage to stock up on snacks for our next bus trip.  Even though it was touristy, we were happy to spend another day on the Delta, in good company with other guests from our hotel (a family with two school age kids from the US and a young couple from England).

After six days in the Delta, it was time to move on.  An uneventful bus ride would take us to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon, where we planned to spend the next two nights.

Transportation for the day.

Coconut candy “factory” – everything is done by hand, including wrapping each
piece of candy in edible rice paper. 

Making sleeping mats from rice reeds.

Visit to the brick factory.

Most of the factory workers were women.

Part of our tour included a short bike ride -
what do you think of my new hat? 

We switched to a  rather tipsy Vietnamese canoe for a short trip.
Luckily we managed to stay upright.

Coconut mats are made from the husks of coconuts - 
another thriving cottage industry in Ben Tre. 

Travel Tip #1:  The Kim Long Hotel in Can Tho is comfortable and clean and is in an excellent location just steps from the waterfront where you take the boats to the floating market.  The owner is very friendly and speaks English well.  At $14 per night for a standard, double room, it was excellent value too.

Travel Tip #2:  Given the choice between the short or long tour of the floating markets, we recommend the latter as you spend a lot more time on the river and get a really good sense of rural life.  We also recommend you do a private tour even though it costs more.  We saw the large boats full of tourists who probably only paid about $5 US for their tour, but all they did was go to the market, possibly stop for breakfast at the floating cafeteria, and then turn around and go back.  It is much more fun in a smaller boat where all the waves toss you about, and you can weave in and out amongst all the market boats.

Travel Tip #3:  The Oasis Hotel in Ben Tre was also a great find – clean, comfortable rooms, good air conditioning, and good wifi.  As mentioned already, the pool was a welcome treat.  Ken, the owner, is friendly and helpful, with a wealth of local knowledge and experience that he is happy to share.  Breakfast was good – one of the best omelettes we’ve had (and we’ve had a lot of them on this trip!)  They rent out bikes ($2.50 US per day per bike) but check them out carefully before heading out to make sure the tires are not flat and the brakes work. Compared to our hotel in Can Tho, the Oasis was not exactly a bargain at $25 US per night.

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  1. Angus says:

    Hi Guys, coincidentally Janet and I just watched a short documentary on dams in that area and the threat to the people’s way of life as counties like Laos move forward with plans to add more dams to support hydro. These dams could devastate the economies of the countries further downstream.

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/01/18/uk-laos-dam-idUKBRE90H0A220130118

    Angus