Friday, 8 January 2016


29th - 30th Dec 2015

Paddling up one of the many streams
We left in a bus from the Pham Ngu Lau (backpackers' area) for a two day, one night trip to the Mekong Delta area. The Mekong starts on the Tibetan plateau and runs through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and out to sea through a vast delta network in Vietnam. It is the world's 12th longest river. In fact it is known in Vietnam as the Gu Lam 'Nine Dragons' presumably due to the nine main tributaries forming the delta. It is a vast flat rice producing area and around the fertile river banks it produces lots of fruit of all descriptions plus, of course, fish from the river itself.

There were 14 of us on the bus, including our guide, a fluent English speaker which helped. Apart from myself and the guide there were 3 South Koreans, a Vietnamese couple, a fat bloke from Macau, a Canadian Viet Khieu (Viet Khieu is the term for Vietnamese living abroad and descended from those who fled the country post 'reunification' in 1975. The majority of whom ended up North America and Australia) and a family of five from Australia.....and more about them later.

Out of Saigon south-west for 1.5 hours to the town of Ben Tre on one of the main tributaries. New roads and large bridges have been built over the area since I was last here. New roads they may be but I suspect there has been a lot of skimping on the construction, a common feature in Vietnamese building projects  where quality is paid for and junk provided and a neat profit is made by someone. Every few hundred yards we went over a (expansion?) joint in the road section often with a severe jolt. Rather uncomfortable. It was during this initial part of the journey it became apparent that the Australian family were going to be a 'pain in the arse'. The father, 40ish, stocky, thick-necked and of rather neanderthal appearance was irritatingly loud and kept making inane comments. I began to suspect he was a little bonkers. His wife, a Viet Khieu, was silent and passive. Their three children aged about 12 (girl), 10 (boy) and 3 (boy) were hyperactive, especially the manic 3-year-old boy, and were continually egged on by their stupid father. In short the family from hell.

Anyway we arrived at Ben Tre and into a small wooden motor-boat for an initial trip down the river past many fish traps and banks covered in coconut palms (water coconuts we were informed).

Left: A pile of coconut husks at a small factory which made matting from them.

Every bit of a coconut is used in some way. The outer husks for matting material, the shell for making cups etc. and the meat and milk for consumption. Coconut is, apparently, a very healthy food/drink. We were told that there is an order of monks who live on an island in the river who eat and drink nothing other than coconut for their whole lives. Can you imagine it? No point in asking "well, what's for supper tonight Brother Nguyen?" or "have you tried that new coconut joint 'Coco Nuts' down the track? Their roast coconut is to die for and they have a great cellar of coconut milk".

We were given a demo of how the husks and shells are removed. This was done by a young boy standing over a vicious 3ft high spear and whacking the coconut down over it to break off the husk. This looked impressively dangerous as one false whack would have resulted in the spear going through the boy's hands or into his chest. Elf 'n' safety be damned. I suspect there are no 'old' coconut husk removers.

One of the local 'boutique' industries is making coconut flavoured toffee. I tried it and it is rather good. Also coconut wine (55% proof). I tried that also....and bought a bottle plus coconut shell 'tumblers' to bring home to delight my dinner party guests. There was also coconut stuff to put on your hair and coconut tea, and just plain coconuts with straws in them to drink the milk. 


Left: Coconut toffee being produced 

 Another local produce is honey...with further off-shoots of honey liqueur (not tried), honey medicines and, of course, royal jelly, which is alleged to cure everything from impotence to dandruff. I was not clear as to whether you ate the stuff or rubbed it on.

Right: A lady showing off her frame of honey bees.


We were then invited to sit down to drink honey tea while being serenaded by local Mekong folk singers (left). They played old traditional love songs, seven of them, and none was short. OK, a lot was lost in translation and the melody was a bit obscure, an acquired taste perhaps, but they got 10/10 for effort, passion and endurance....and a tip at the don't bother to apply for a slot on X-Factor.

Onwards down, or up, the smaller streams and the boats got smaller............

....and smaller............

...until we were into 4 seaters; the Mekong equivalent of a gondola paddled by a traditional Mekong gondolier(ess). These little boats were rather unstable and demanded a bit of care when boarding or capsize drills would ensue. I don't think the paddler was up to an 'Eskimo roll'.

...and then a rather good lunch at a restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Beer extra. Fortunately the Australian delinquents had declared themselves to be 'Veggies' and sat at a separate table. I hoped that someone might have the good sense to put some elephant tranquiliser in their tofu.

After lunch the next mode of transport was Vietnamese tuk-tuk which took us along some very narrow tracks and over streams and ditches. Good driving, as the gap between wheel and edge of track over several unguarded bridges was only a few inches. 
Then on foot through orchards growing all sorts of weird and wonderful fruit (don't bring any jurian fruit with you) to our original boat which took us back to the quayside at Ben Tre at 2.30pm. Not a long day and reasonably interesting.


'Everybody back on the bus' for what should have been a 2 hour journey on to Can Tho, the major town in the Mekong district. In fact, due to traffic jams it took 3 hours which, in itself, would have been fine if it hadn't been for the little pack of feral Oz brats shouting and screaming and climbing over and under the seats ably encouraged by their moronic father and disregarded by their apathetic mother.

Can Tho, a city of 2 million people but spread out over an even larger area than Saigon (with 12 million approx), straddles one of the major river tributaries. It is the 4th largest city in Vietnam and probably quite a pleasant, if uninspiring, place. We arrived at our hotel, the Van Phat, boasting a 'Vietnamese' 4 star rating. Large Vietnamese hotels like this contain vast grandiose empty halls downstairs and are often, as in this case, remarkably free of guests. Bedrooms look reasonably decent and have the facade of luxury, except that lots of thinks don't work (ie bedside light and the sink didn't empty in my case) and the Vietnamese have a penchant for rock hard mattresses. They are, after all, people who think nothing of sleeping on uncovered concrete floors. 

We had a 'group' dinner in the rambling semi-covered outdoor hotel restaurant (there wasn't an indoor one) on the riverside. Fortunately, again, two tables and the demented Oz brood were not on mine...or at least I avoided theirs. I declined a 'ride' into town and spent a bit of the evening watching busy river traffic. Boats of all sizes were chugging up and down and most of them seemed to have no lights. Not sure how they navigated and avoided crashing into one another, but they must have known what they were doing, I suppose.

Next morning up quite early for a visit to the 'floating market'. We were asked to be on the bus at 7.30 am (the market starts at 5.00am) which we all were except for, needless to say, the Oz family. They arrived 15 minutes late and as soon as they were on the bus the 'father' gleefully announced he had to go to the 'toilet'. He was gone for at least 10 minutes. Why the hell he could'nt have gone earlier defies logic. We should have left without him, but our guide was far too conscientious.

The floating market is a purely wholesale commercial set-up for local businesses whereby all kinds of fruit and veg are brought up the river to be sold. The larger barges hold the sellers wares and customers in smaller boats come up and buy in bulk only, ie you can't just order a dozen apples apparently.  They display the stuff they are selling by hanging relevant items on a tall bamboo pole at the front of their boat/shop.


We boarded a smallish boat to tour the market. One of the Oz brats nearly fell in at one point (or was pushed possibly). I had happy visions of them all going overboard and us steaming on oblivious.....merely wishful thinking.

Right: A small boat was cruising around selling drinks and snacks; the equivalent of the NAAFI wagon.

We passed a couple of these (left) cruise boats, converted rice barges I am told, which take passengers in some comfort on trips up and down the river. Some of the bigger ones go on to Cambodia, past Phnom Penh and the Tonle Sap lake up towards Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

Right: A selling boat displaying yams or mangos.

Back at the hotel for a quick lunch and then back on the bus at 12.30pm for the return journey to Saigon. The Oz Family From Hell (OFFH) were late again. This journey was meant to take 4 hours, including a stop half way at a town market selling more fruit (I really did'nt want/need to buy fruit). However, we got into the mother of all traffic jams after the 'fruit stop'. The OFFH were at their wildest worst; the 3 yr old brat had acquired a sort of Star Wars sword that lit up and made a filthy racket with which he proceeded to further irritate the very patient and fortunately non-violent passengers who were mostly trying to get some sleep. Stuck in the traffic jam alongside another bus full of Vietnamese, the Oz father proceeded to stick his nose against the window and blow silly faces at them to both our and their great embarrassment. I think by now you might begin to get the measure of this dysfunctional family.

We arrived back in Saigon at 8.00pm. Phew. A 7.5 hour, rather uncomfortable, bus journey.

OK, all in all, an interesting and educational tour and we were efficiently hosted by a very charming, polite and patient guide....although what he made of the OFFH one can only imagine. My only slight gripe is that we spent 9 hours touring the Mekong, 14 hours at the hotel and no less than 13 hours on the bleeding bus being harrassed by the OFFH. Choi Oi! As the cry of exasperation in Viet goes.

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