Day 3, Vinh Long: Vietnamese Homestay in the Mekong Delta
Day 2, Saigon: Ben Thanh Market & Vietnamese Water Puppet Show
The scheduled time to meet our guide for the 2-day adventure trip to the Mekong Delta was at 8 am. We got up early, had breakfast and checked-out from Nhat Thao Guest House. But we deposited our baggage at the reception and carried a small backpack each with one set of clothing. We would be staying at the same guest house after the trip as we were very satisfied with the room conditions and the friendly staff and would not mind staying there again.
At around 8 am, our guide, arrived and showed us to a waiting mini-van on the main road. The mini-van was not the small run-down type that was commonly seen on Vietnam roads but a comfortable and spacious new one (don't ask me the model, I'm a car idiot). We were glad that we opted for the mini-van instead of the local bus option, which was cheaper nonetheless, but would make stops along the way and take longer time (about 5 hours) to arrive at the first stop of the journey.
After boarding the mini-van, the guide introduced himself as Thanh Vo and also the driver and another tour guide (I forgot their names). He informed us that there would be another group joining us in the mini-van but they were on a different tour package. Few minutes later, we welcomed an Australian family on board — a lady with her two young children. They were on a 3-day package.
It was to be a 4-hour journey to our destination in the Mekong Delta and most of us dozed off until we reached the Mekong Rest Stop 1.5 hours later in Tien Giang province. Mekong Rest Stop was a designated stop for tourists with several restaurants, gift shop, small shopping mart and washrooms. The prices were higher too. Thanh told us that it was "inconvenient" to stop at the locals' rest stops but did not elaborate why — well, most foreign travellers would not use a local's washroom in the rural areas, neither would they dare to eat nor drink at the local's rest stop, which was more suitable for Vietnamese tourists.
Alighted from the mini-van, Shren and I walked up to a push-cart stationed outside the gate of the Mekong Rest Stop. The lady was selling some foodstuff wrapped in coconut leaves, which looked like dumplings. Eager to try the Vietnamese dumplings, we used finger and hand signals to communicate with the lady and bought two of them, both cut in halves. They were rice dumplings (bánh dừa) with sweetened red pork in sticky glutinous rice. It was a sweet tasty snack. We shared among ourselves and gave a half to the Australian kids to try. But they did not like it.
After 15 minutes' rest, we continued on our journey. Some of us dozed off again, waking up occasionally to take in the sights of the agricultural landscape around us. And it started to rain very heavily. We prayed that the rain would stop soon as we approached our destination in Vinh Long — it did slacken but did not stop completely.
At noon time, the mini-van came to a stop on a narrow road and the Australian family alighted. The other tour guide led them away to their homestay and adventure. Thanh said that they had opted for the modern Vietnamese homestay, which was a different accommodation from the typical local homestay that we had opted for.
Few minutes later, it was our turn to alight. It was drizzling and Thanh led us down a dirt path to a hut where several locals were seated at a couple of low tables. A stall was selling drinks and snacks. There was a river next to the hut and a small pier. We were actually at a ferry stop and the locals were waiting for the next ferry. The drizzle turned heavier and we donned on the disposable raincoats that Chavez bought the night before. Not wanting to damage my DSLR camera (again), I wrapped it up with a plastic bag and shoved it down my bag. Then, the ferry came and we boarded with the locals. Some of them even drove their motorbikes onto the ferry. Thanh paid for the ferry fares.
Ten minutes later, we were at the other side of the river where we disembarked next to a pomelo plantation. Thanh led us through the plantation to a road where we walked for a short distance before stopping at a modern 2-storey Vietnamese house. The house was mostly concrete with tiled flooring and looked similar to the buildings in Ho Chi Minh City. This was not our homestay, but we stopped here for lunch. As per local custom, we removed our footwear and raincoats before stepping into the house. The friendly lady host treated us to some jackfruits while we waited for her to prepare lunch.
When lunch was ready, we surrounded a table full of local dishes with Thanh and the lady host. There were vegetables, vermicelli with shrimps, some kind of small fishes and a bowl of sweet yam soup. These dishes were simple fare of the Mekong locals but they were not bad tasting at all. Some of us helped ourselves to more rice. After lunch, we were treated to more tropical fruits — sweet rambutans and more jackfruits.
Thanh also prepared two hammocks for us to take a short rest.
Back on the road again after the drizzle stopped, through the pomelo plantation and we were back at the pier. No ferry was in sight but a small private motorboat was waiting for us. We boarded and the boatman steered the boat downriver (or was it upriver?). Thanh introduced the boatman as the host of the typical Vietnamese homestay that we would be staying with for the night and we were greeted with a very cheerful smile. He would bring us directly to his home.
We observed various types of activities along the river and watched the locals going about their daily lives as we cruised down/up the river. There were small fish traps sparsely littering both sides of the river and also service facilities, such as a petrol station, a provision shop, ferry stops and several wholesale centres for local produces. The river was the main road to the Mekong locals. We also made a stop at the local police station (or was it an immigration post?) to have our passports verified — a necessary procedure for foreigners staying in the region.
Half an hour later, we reached our destination. We were shown around the rustic estate where our homestay was. (Instead of me trying to use words to describe the place, check out the photos).
There was a wooden shed and a washing point outside the main house.
The latrine was about 10 metres from the house and beside a pond where carps swam — do think twice before eating carps in the Mekong Delta. Despite its external look, the interior of the latrine was modern, tiled and clean. Thanh explained that it was specially "retrofitted" for tourists.
The rustic kitchen had a bathroom with water from taps. As usual, no footwear in the house. I was really thrilled by the rural feel of the wooden architectures. I had grew up in such environment for 10 years and it was nostalgic. The last homestay I had experienced was in 2005 up in the northern border of Vietnam — in Sapa — with one of the ethnic minority tribes.
After depositing our backpacks in our bedroom, that was partitioned with wooden planks and newspapers outside the main structure, we were seated to a table and treated to some boiled bananas by the host's wife. It was really sweet (does boiling banana make them sweeter?). Thanh also taught us how to address the host and his wife as chú (meaning "uncle") and cô (meaning "aunt") respectively. We also learnt simple Vietnamese words like chào (hello) and cảm ơn (thank you).
With 3 hours left to nightfall, we began our activities for the day with "grafting" in the plantation. There were trees of pomelos, starfruits, mangoes, rambutans, limes, etc, and also vegetables.
With a pair of pliers, plastic sheets, strings and the roots of a water hyacinth plant, Chú showed us the steps to do grafting on a lime plant. Joanne and Chavez applied what they learnt on other branches.
Thanh explained that the grafted branches would be cut and planted after 2-3 months and they would grow into new trees. And that was how Chú plantation grew in size.
Next, we were tasked to pull out vegetables from an overcrowded plot and replant them on a newly-cleared plot. We used a wooden tool to make holes on the earth, place the roots of the vegetables in the holes and covered them with soil using our fingers. Shren screamed when she touched an earthworm and we laughed and made fun of her.
All the activities were very easy. It was a matter of getting the hands dirtied.
After washing our hands, we were ready to help Cô with preparing dinner in the kitchen. We helped to peel, cut, mix and boil the ingredients.
It took us quite some time to prepare, but a big dish of prawn salad was finally ready.
We also took turns to cook a piece of pancake each on a stove with wood burning underneath it. The pancake was made from egg with flour, and with minced meat and bean spouts as fillings. We would be eating our own cooking, so no one wanted to overcook their pancake.
Lastly, Cô taught us how to make Vietnamese dipping fish sauce. It was in fact a mixture of salty fish sauce with sugar, white vinegar, some chili padi and garlic in varying proportions according to one's taste — and we now know why Vietnamese's dipping fish sauce is sweet. I liked it a little on the spicier side.
It was finally time to eat. Big vegetable leaves were used, in place of the traditional rice papers, to roll slices of our pancakes into spring rolls and dipped in the fish sauce. The prawn salad was also eaten the same way. The taste was fantastic! It was unbelievable that even the girls finished their big pancakes without a trace left.
Chú also brought out a bottle of rice wine and two shot glasses. He engaged everyone to down a glassful each, either with him or among ourselves. Chú, despite his age, did some childish actions to make us laugh and enjoy more of the rice wine. He made us laugh throughout the dinner and it was not long before we were all red-faced. Cô, who had not taken a sip of the wine, had also downed one glassful on our insistence.
After dinner, we purchased more canned drinks and beers and chatted at the table. We also helped Cô to setup mosquito nets around our beds. At 8pm, it was pitch dark outside. Chú led us for a short walk into his papaya plantation behind the house to see fireflies. We had brought along a couple of small torchlights but Chú walked ahead without one. It was hopeless for me to take any photos in the darkness.
Then we saw the fireflies, beaming brightly in the pitch darkness. It seemed difficult but Chú managed to catch some fireflies and put them in a mineral water bottle with holes on the cap. There were not many fireflies around due to the earlier heavy downpour.
Back in the house, we chatted further as we took turns to shower. The girls wanted hot water so they had to boil water on the stove for half an hour. The guys simply showered with cold water as it was pretty warm and humid. The walls of the bathroom were pretty low (Vietnamese are not very tall) and the girls forbade the guys, especially me and Chavez, to go near when they were showering. My head was above the brick walls when it was my turn in the bathroom.
It was hardly 9pm when we were all about to hit the beds. I regretted taking in so much fluid and had to make a trip to the latrine through 10 metres of darkness with a torchlight. The latrine was not lighted too. I was back in the bedroom when Thanh apologised for forgetting to switch on the light in the latrine. The others laughed at me.
I was tired and slept while the others watched World Cup on the television, that was in the living room, through the windows next to their beds. I was never a soccer fan.
Day 4, Vinh Long: Floating Market & Cycling Tour in Vietnam's Mekong Delta