26 April 2016

Saigon III: Mekong Delta Day Trip

Numerous tour companies run trips from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, a huge region of southwest Vietnam that begins about 50 miles southwest of Saigon. There are thousands of villages and towns, as well as more rural areas and tiny river tributaries to explore. When researching this trip, I soon realised that you really need at least a couple of days to get even a flavour of the region, but I only had a day and so I booked onto a one-day tour.

It's possible to get a day tour for as little as 250,000 VND (about £8) and as much as 2.3 million VND (£74) for a tour that gets you to the delta by speed boat, avoiding the long minibus journey. I booked a middle-of-the-road option run by Asiana Link, which cost 1,150,000 VND (about £36). I would have paid a bit more for a more authentic experience but I figured — rightly, I think — that the extra cost gets you more comfort and a smaller group but not more authenticity. Even if you make your own way to the delta and pick up a tour there, the guide will still take you to the places s/he wants you to see, including the unavoidable 'workshop demonstrations' and shops.

Bearing in mind my expectations for the trip, I had quite an enjoyable day. Was it enough to say I've 'done' the Mekong Delta? No way. But did I learn a bit about the people and the region? Sure!

I was picked up from my hotel just before 8 am and joined the other seven members of the group. It took about two hours to drive out to Cai Be and once there, we hopped onto a wooden river boat for a brief cruise along the main part of the river. There were plenty of mangroves and jungled forests but the area was a lot more built up than I was expecting — it becomes more rural further west into the delta. There were, of course, other tourist boats but we also saw many locals going about their everyday business, travelling in small sampans and transporting various goods in larger boats.

We transferred into a couple of sampans for a paddle along one of the quieter tributaries. It was about 11 am and already extremely hot, but I still had a quick go at paddling. There was some very loud party music playing, which our guide said was a wedding, but who is to say?

Our next stop was at a 'local house' where we listened to some traditional music (with a finale that mashed up Auld Lang Syne and Frère Jacques; not so traditional...) and had the chance to buy some more drinks. I was a bit hot and bothered at this point and wish we could have skipped this: the whole experience felt even more cynical than usual. The tour was supposed to visit a floating market but this just consisted of one boat selling fruit. I wasn't entirely surprised given that I had read that the markets were usually over for the day by early morning, but again our guide's spin that "it's better to visit when it's less busy" grated a little.

The last port of call before lunch was to a 'family-run' workshop, where we watched the making of coconut candy (this is delicious — very chewy and sweet) and puffed rice.

Lunch itself was pretty nice: there was a lot of food and we also got to have a go at making banh xeo, a type of Vietnamese pancake made from rice flour, turmeric and coconut cream. Unfortunately, mine didn't look great but it tasted nice.

3 pm, the hottest time of the day, didn't seem the best time to go for a bike ride, but I actually really enjoyed it — once we got moving, the breeze was wonderfully refreshing. I also realised that it's probably been almost 10 years since I've ridden a bike; luckily, it is just like riding a bike, and the quiet countryside paths were an ideal place to regain my pedalling legs.

We visited a temple and a couple more 'ancient houses', one of which was a homestay — essentially a B&B — which is a huge business in Vietnam. It was there that I realised that even if I had done a homestay on the Mekong Delta, it would probably have still felt like the tour I did: too many retail opportunities and too little freedom to discover and explore. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the day and would recommend Asiana Link's programme: our guide was interesting and funny and didn't pressure us to buy or to tip, which was appreciated.

We got back to Saigon at around 5 pm and I had a super-speedy shower before heading back to the Bitexco Tower Sky Deck to enjoy the view at sunset. The sun was setting as I arrived and although it wasn't the best sunset ever, the views of the cityscape by dusk and by night were impressive. Annoyingly, in a misguided attempt to look modern and snazzy, they had installed lots of colour-changing lighting, which is the fastest way to ruin a nighttime picture when you are shooting through a glass window. Some of the windows were either very grubby or intentionally frosted too. Still, for 200,000 (£6), I think that the Sky Deck is a great deal.

For dinner I went to a restaurant called Nhà hàng Ngon, which is just along the block from Secret Garden. I had heard that it was a great place for hawker-style street food but instead it was a smart, yellow French-colonial-style building with regular tables rather than stalls (NB, the stalls might be in the garden at the back). The menu was extensive and the atmosphere was lively and bustling. I had a beef and rice-vermicelli dish called bún gao xào bo, which was very nice and certainly filled me up (this was £4 and most dishes are around that price; pho is cheaper). On the way back to my hotel, I stopped at a great concept store called Ginkgo, which is a great place for non-tacky souvenirs. They have a nice selection of clothes, bags, homewares and Marou chocolate.

Now, though, it's time to say sayonara, Saigon; you have been hot, hectic and fun!

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