Fruits of the Dragons
As the mighty Mekong river reaches Vietnam and approaches the South China Sea the main waterway splits into a maze of rivers that form the Mekong Delta. The region is known locally as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, representing the nine main tributaries. Located just a few hours away from Ho Chi Minh City, enjoying a Mekong Delta river cruise is a lovely excursion when visiting south Vietnam.
The delta region covers an area of around 40,500 square kilometres in south-western Vietnam. It is the mouth of the Mekong, Asia’s third longest river, which has run nearly 5000km from its source in the Tibetan plateau, through China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and finally into Vietnam.
Three to four hours’ drive away from the relentlessly loud and energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the hectic urban hubbub slowly transitions to rural rice fields. It is possible to undertake a river cruise along the Mekong Delta from a number of locations in the area; there are plenty of choices with various levels of indulgence. It’s a lovely way to see the country from a very different perspective and at a pace that is much more laid back. We chose a two day journey from Cần Thơ to Cái Bè starting along the Sông Hậu branch of the river and sailing into the Mekong.
Depending on budget there are different boats available. Some are rather splendid – we travelled on a traditional style Bassac boat. These are wooden vessels with private cabins and a decks with seating so that you can enjoy the view.
The cabins are compact, but had all the facilities we needed, including a teeny en-suite shower room.
A Slow Journey Along the Mekong Delta
Cruising along the Mekong can best be described as ‘leisurely.’ We saw all sorts of vessels, large and small, as we travelled along.
All along the journey we saw water hyacinth floating gently by. This is a fast growing plant that floats freely in the river. It is a bit of a problem in the delta as it can get clogged up in a motor boat’s propellers and is also somewhat invasive, preventing other life thriving on the river. It is apparently edible (not sure we’d want to fish it out of the river and have a munch and, anyway, it needs to be cooked first) but it can also be collected and processed in order to make woven products such as mats, bags and baskets, which local people can sell.
Mekong Delta River Cruise – A Land Excursion
Many of the boat trips offer excursions to various attractions along the way. It is also possible to visit some of the onshore villages in the area and to explore them on foot, visiting local farmers and learning about the food that’s produced there.
The area is extremely fertile and rice is the major crop grown. Due to the climate in South Vietnam it is possible to achieve three crops per year.
There are no cemeteries in Vietnam so families set up graveyards in the fields.
There are also a number of fruit trees that grow in the region. Some are familiar.
Jackfruit has become hugely popular in recent years as a ‘meat substitute’. Its texture and ability to absorb flavours make it incredibly versatile for vegetarians and vegans – mock ‘pulled pork’ is a particular favourite. But actually it is very tasty as a fruit in its own right.
Tapioca is the starch derived from the roots of the cassava trees and often used in puddings (which are far more delicious than school dinners).
Some of the residents are happy to open up their houses and it is possible to do home stays with local families. If you’re just on a day trip, visitors are sometimes offered some of the amazing fruits grown on the island.
This platter was exceptional. There is an sequence to eating the fruit in order to gain maximum enjoyment: Always start with the fruit with sour flavours and finish with the sweet.
One plate that was a particular revelation was the pineapple. Of course, fresh pineapple is utterly scrumptious, especially when it hasn’t travelled half-way around the globe, but it was served by sprinkling a little chilli and salt on each piece and was a taste sensation. It makes sense: like a lot of Vietnamese food it includes sweet and sour flavours (which the pineapple provides) plus an additional salty dimension and a good dose of heat from the chilli.
Banana leaves are not only functional, they can also be decorative – just look at this lovely banana leaf ‘origami’ grasshopper.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to our boat.
Time for a delicious, decadent seafood dinner…
…followed by after-dinner drinks watching the sun set over the Mekong.
Journey to Cái Bè
Our boat docked at Tra On for an overnight stay onboard. The following morning we headed towards Cái Bè. The Mekong becomes much more of a working river and we passed by many riverside emporia and floating shops.
Cái Bè has a Catholic church – an unusual structure to see in the region. Dating from 1929-1932 apparently it has the tallest bell tower in the province.
The local boats have eyes painted on them which reputedly scares away the crocodiles.
On arrival at Cái Bè we disembarked and visited a factory which made rice products – rice paper and rice cakes – as well as candies.
In making coconut candy, shredded coconut is used to make coconut milk and cream which is combined with sugar and malt syrup and then heated and mixed together.
Whilst still warm, the mixture is then laid into strips to cool and then they are cut into bite-sized candy pieces.