The Mekong ends its 3,000 mile journey to the South China Sea in the vast delta that lies to the south of the hectic megalopolis of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. But the Mekong is no longer one river as it arrives in Vietnam. After splitting into two main tributaries as it leaves Cambodia, the river branches out until it has nine main outlets to the sea. The Vietnamese call it Cuu Long or Nine Dragons, and it is an important part of Vietnam’s culture and economy. It’s also said to be a place where visitors can discover an old, slower pace of life.
I wanted a glimpse of life in the delta, so we booked an overnight cruise along a tiny section of the river.
The landscape becomes a sea of rice fields almost as soon as you leave the crush of Saigon, most of which have just been harvested when we visit in fall.
But that sea of rice is really only visible from the highway.
Cai Be is the departure point for our overnight cruise. I expect (hope?) to see at least a bit of Cai Be’s famous floating market as we are ferried to our ship, but it is already late morning when we leave the dock. Even at a busy market, most of the day’s business would be over by now, and the market at Cai Be is shrinking as the number and size of the roads serving the area have increased. Why sell your goods along the river when it is faster to load them into a truck and ship them to the city?
We do see a couple of market boats, but otherwise the riverbank is quiet.
It’s my first glimpse of the odd mix of riverside development that crowds the river’s banks in urban areas.
Soon we arrive at our home for the next 24 hours, a lovely wooden vessel with cabins for 20 passengers and wonderful open decks for watching life along the river pass by.
After settling into our cabin, the first order of business on board is to be lunch.
The tables are already set by the time we pulled off the dock and into the river (we are beginning our tour on the Tien Giang River), but it is clear from the black skies ahead of us on the river that a storm is brewing.
As the storm approaches, the crew hustles to clear the tables and position sheets to block the rain before it begins to fall.
And fall it does! The rain comes down in sheets, pouring off buildings along the shore and flowing across the decks of boats on the river (including ours).
Of course, while we watch the storm well-protected from the weather, the Vietnamese who live and work on the Mekong hunker down and go about their business pretty much as usual.
I suspect torrential rainfall is not unusual here!
And then, of course, we finally sit down to a lovely (if late) lunch.
After lunch we have time to simply watch the world drift by. From the Tien Giang River, the cruise takes us through the busy Chợ Lách shipping canal, and then into the quiet Mang Thit River. Along the way we watch as people fish from tiny boats, as commercial traffic moves in each direction, as goods (mostly coconuts) are unloaded, and as barge after barge pushes loads of river sand toward construction sites near and far.
The river’s banks are as varied as the traffic plying its waters, with tangled jungle giving way to manicured orchards, small simple homes and a few elaborate modern ones, shops and businesses in cities (and seemingly in the middle of nowhere), narrow twisting side channels, and massive industrial sites.
And then there are the brick kilns –not that we knew they were brick kilns at first – the only industrial site I find entrancing.
As dusk nears we are transported from the ship through a narrow channel and to shore via a smaller boat.
Once on land we walk through a “village” – really just a collection of houses and farm fields along the river. Some houses are quite nice and modern, while others are more traditional in style and look very basic. Every yard has fruit trees, and our guide stops along the way to explain what each tree is.
Our destination is a home that has prepared tea and a large assortment of local fruits for us to sample.
My favorites are the sweet ripe mango slices and the rambutans (chôm chôm, a white fruit with a spiky red exterior that reminded me of a lychee), but most of it is delicious. The only ones I don’t like are the papaya (I’ve always hated papaya) and the sapodilla (hồng xiêm, which looks and tastes like an over-ripe pear).
Our guide explains what each fruit is and how it is grown. Then, instead of hurrying us along to get back to the boat before it begins raining again (the darkening sky is clearly warning us of more rain to come) and the sun sets, she entertains us with stories while creating whistles and figurines out of palm leaves. She is charming, but I am not excited about returning to the ship in the rainy darkness. When the evil eye doesn’t work, I suggest that perhaps it is going to rain, but she doesn’t get the hint.
It is already dusk when we started back, our guide commenting that it is too dark to take pictures now (as she shows us what she claims is a lovely farm scene) and that maybe we should have brought flashlights (as we stumble down a very muddy trail).
And then the rain comes.
We huddle in a patio with a roof through the worst of the rain (buckets of rain) while our guide runs back to get plastic bags (for rain coats) and flashlights from the boat. Fortunately the rain is largely over by the time she returns, but it still is a slippery, ankle twisting walk back in the dark.
This was not how I had planned to spend my birthday!
Of course, back on the boat dinner was being prepared for us and a nice meal does a lot to wipe away frustration!
The next morning I awake at dawn because there is supposed to be a floating market where we are anchored, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a market.
Instead, most boats seem to hurrying toward our final stop, the floating market Cai Rang.
We join the parade. And, as we approach Cai Rang, more and more boats fill the river, until it is a floating parking lot of large boats with a steady flow of small boats maneuvering between the others.
We transfer to a smaller boat and joined the flow of traffic.
While a variety of things are available at the market, most of what we see for sale are groceries, mostly fruits and vegetables and particularly coconuts, pineapples, watermelon, dragon fruit, and a root vegetable that is probably taro.
The market boats and the activity happening on them are fascinating, but so is the area around the market. (Or, at least, it’s fascinating to an urban planner.)
The shore on both sides of the market is lined with industrial businesses that process goods brought in on the river.
From our perch on the water we can see work underway in many of these businesses; it is largely hard physical work done using the most basic of tools.
But we aren’t just gawking. Our guide negotiates the purchase and preparation of a couple of lovely pineapples. The yellow flesh is soft, sweet, and juicy – messy to eat, but perfect for a morning snack.
And then, too soon, we are at the dock where our guide is waiting to take us back to Saigon.