I wond’r if these cigarettes are free? Exploring Ben Tre and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta

The famous Mekong Delta, in the South West of Vietnam was to be our next target for exploration. However, to begin our venture, first we needed to catch a flight from Da Nang down to Saigon, and stay there for the night. Annoyingly the flight was rescheduled to 10.30pm, then delayed to 11.30pm, but eventually we made it to Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon). Having heard a lot about taxi scams that occur (e.g. meters being tampered with to run at double the correct amount) we were on our guard. So much so I ended up having a stand-off with our taxi driver, dropping us off at our accommodation; he wanted us to pay for his airport collection ticket on top of what the meter said. In the end I caved in after Joella had already walked off, after all it was only 80p… Later I found out this is standard practice – doh!

That night we were staying in a Hostel for the first time, and were pleasantly surprised by how large, up-market and clean our room at the Himalaya Phoenix was! Following a quick breakfast of bread, eggs and fruit, we soon found ourselves in a [scam-free, Vinasun] taxi en route to the bus station. On arrival we were greeted with a number of people shouting at us from various glass fronted cubicles, barraging us with sales chat in Vietnamese. Luckily we already knew exactly where we were headed, so purchased our tickets to Ben Tre with ease.

Following a straight forward 3 hour bus journey, then an unexpected free transfer, we soon arrived at our hotel for the next two nights: The Oasis. Although it could be argued the name is a little misleading (the rooms were fairly basic and in need of repair and modernisation), we were more than happy with the vibe from the other guests and staff.

The owners were a Kiwi bloke named Ken and his Vietnamese wife. Ken was a chatty guy with many a story to tell, so much so he’s actually written and published his life story: “Life is an Adventure, if you choose to make it so”. I was thoroughly intrigued, so couldn’t help purchasing a copy! I soon found myself nearly half-way through, fascinated learning about what it was like growing up in New Zealand during the 1950’s.

As there were only two restaurants in the town, we ended up sharing a taxi and a table for dinner with fellow hotel guests, a German couple from Cologne. The food was distinctly average, having opted for rather uninspiring beef noodle stir-fry. We weren’t feeling adventurous enough to try any of the other delights on the menu such as crocodile, sparrow or snake…

Ben Tre – Coconut tour (and a lot of beers)

Seeing we hadn’t yet experienced a guided tour on our travels thus far, we were easily swayed to book ourselves in after being told how awesome it was by fellow guests, which was in part down to the impressive local knowledge of Hong the tour guide.

After making our way on board a make-shift passenger boat, consisting of plastic patio chairs lined up along a mid-sized wooden vessel, we set off for our first port of call: a coconut factory. Apparently Ben Tre is known for it’s coconuts, being one of the largest exporter / grower in Vietnam. It was amazing to see just how useful coconuts are and that not a single part is wasted – the cream is often used for make-up, the flesh is squeezed to make candy, the fibrous husk (coir) is made into mats and the shell can be turned into ornaments.

Our second stop was the coconut candy shop, where we were also able to see the process of turning coconut flesh into a variety of coconut flavoured chewy sweets. It was impressive to see just how much coconut juice could be squeezed out of the tiny pieces of flesh, all by hand! After trying a few I was temped into buying a chocolate-coconut flavoured combo; unfortunately we later discovered this flavour was mostly inedible… Before heading to the next part of the tour, we were taken on a tasty fruit safari 🙂 Finally, we were introduced to all the strange looking fruit we’d seen on our travels and got to try Jack Fruit, Rambutan and dragon fruit as well as the usual bananas and pineapples.

Next, we visited a workshop where they were weaving mats by hand. We were mesmerised by how fast the workers were weaving – just as well, considering that sadly many jobs like these are being taken over by machines. If that were to happen, many people like these would be without a job, and will often find it impossible to re-train, considering some are disabled after stepping on unexplored land mines left from the war.

For lunch we were treated to more local delicacies, all while being surrounded by dense jungle. The first course consisted of Elephant Fish, that was skilfully pulled apart by our tour guide Hong, allowing us to wrap it up inside delicately thin rice paper, along with spring onions and cucumber, which we dipped into a lovely peanut sauce. Next was a beautiful chicken Thai Green Curry, and finally we had some pineapple seasoned with pepper (honestly, it works) – yummerz!

The final part of our excursion saw us navigating down hidden canals that seemed to be under constant threat of being completely taken over by mangroves either side. We all got to wear Vietnamese rice / coolie hats, and I couldn’t help imagine the fear that American soldiers must have felt while paddling through these unknown waters to their potential death at the hands of Viet Cong.

That evening we enjoyed some takeaway pizzas, swinging on the numerous hammocks that surrounded the swimming pool, swapping stories and literally drinking the bar dry with a friendly Aussie couple and two talkative Irish girls.

Can Tho – Cai Rang floating market (and complimentary cigarettes)

The next day, following brekky, we were soon on our way via a local bus to the capital of the Mekong Delta: Can Tho. I expected a larger town than the sleepy Ben Tre we’d come from, but wasn’t expecting what we’d find: a large, bustling city, complete with a strip of brightly lit hotels and walkways lining the riverfront, which reminded me of Las Vegas.

After checking into our hotel, we spent the evening grabbing some food and strolling along the riverfront, while trying to avoid a particularly insistent lady who wanted us to hire her boat, despite our repeated no’s that became angrier by the second.

The next morning was reminiscent of the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia; we were once again up before dawn, in order to catch a glimpse of the famous Cai Rang floating market at it’s busiest.

By 6am we’d already sourced a boat, driver and were headed up river in the early morning sun towards the market. Within half an hour we were in amongst all the hustle bustle, yet despite it being 6.30 in the morning, much of the market had already completed its trading for the day! Fortunately however, there was still a lot going on, and we were entertained by various fruits and vegetables being thrown between boats. Cleverly you can tell what a particular trader is selling based on what’s attached to the tops of their large poles. We were keen to get involved so grabbed ourselves a coffee from a passing coffee boat.

Once back on dry land we made our way over to a cafe on the river side, for which we had been given breakfast tokens by our hotel. It turned out to be a rather fancy establishment complete with a plastic looking head waiter with a creepy smile and an ultra tight fitting suit. Confusingly we were even given complimentary cigarettes to go with our beef noodle soup and smoothies! Not wanting to miss out on free stuff (my Scottishness shining through again) I opened the packet intent on having a puff, but I just couldn’t do it.

Before heading for food, we fancied a couple of beers and soon found ourselves talking to a charismatic chap originally from Can Tho. He kept us entertained a lot longer than we planned to hang around for, challenging us with brain teasers involving matches and arithmetic – who knew 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2? We then couldn’t resist [another] KFC for dinner…

In the morning we’ll be departing the busy Mekong Delta for Phu Quoc, which was to be our desert island getaway

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