Cruising along the Mekong Delta gives you a whole new look at Vietnam. In the city, there are obviously poor people, children ask for money when tourists walk by, but it is peppered throughout a city with 5-star hotels, fancy restaurants, and beautiful public parks. Once you’re out of the city and into rural Vietnam the lifestyle changes. The landscape is filled with rice fields and small hammock-coffee shops along the road.
As we were driving to the Mekong we noticed that in the middle of the rice fields there were grave stones and tombs. How it works…families bury their dead in the middle of the rice field to stake their claim on the land. If there is any dispute over whose land it is, the tombs tell what family has been on the land and who it belongs to. I of course thought, couldn’t I just put a tomb on some land, make it look old and dingy and claim my family has used this land for a hundred years? I wonder if they actually check inside the tomb if there is a dispute? I’ll keep that plan on the back burner, just in case I need it.
The standard of living along the Mekong is very different than in the city. It’s a little difficult as a tourist to drive by, float by, and walk by houses and families knowing that I spent more on my 3-day tour ($70) than that family makes in an entire month. However, I also know that my tourist dollars help the community. It’s difficult to not let the guilty feeling seep into you. But, I have found that generally in the rural areas people are grateful for the tourists and the money they bring. I still occasionally feel like a rich, white, asshole though.
Day two on the Mekong was another jam-packed day of fun: the floating market, making rice noodles, a BBQ, and the day ended with a paddle boat through the flooded jungle.
The floating market on the Mekong is a daily event. Our guide kept saying we can’t be late, because even 15 minutes later and they might be gone. I think this was a bit of an exaggeration to get some of the folks off their ass in the morning. At exactly 6:30am we headed from our hotel down to the river and jumped in our boat. For the next 30 minutes we cruised by houses on stilts and small children playing in the water off of their porches. We also cruised by a lot of floating garbage. The river itself looks brown. Our guide kept insisting that the river wasn’t dirty, but was just full of silt because it was the end of the line. That might partially be true, but there was also styrofoam, plastic bags, dead fish, and several people using the banks of the river as their own personal bathroom.
Once we arrived at the market small boats would approach us, attach themselves to a hook or bar on our boat and try to sell us all a fresh coconut, coffee, or soda. Our boat would just pull them along until they detached and another boat would quickly take their place. As we floated through the market we could see several small boats that were entire grocery stores. I mean, entire freaking stores. You could buy your fruits and veggies, meat, spices, everything you would need for cooking that day. It was pretty cool, but not nearly as cool as the lady in the floating pho boat. Pho is a traditional street food here in Vietnam. It’s a soup with broth, noodles, veggies, and meat. And the pho lady had her boat all set up to cook and serve people on the river their breakfast. She even had a working burner right in the middle of her boat. She also had a line of two boats waiting to get to her, so she was definitely doing something right. Although there were small boats around the market, the majority of the floating market is for bulk buying. I saw several boats filled to the brim with bags of sweet potatoes and several other boats overflowing with pumpkins. I had no idea that pumpkins were so popular in Vietnam, but they are. I also did not know that pumpkin flower fritters were delicious. FYI, they are!
After the market we continued down (or up, not really sure) the Mekong to a place where they make rice noodles. When we arrived people were well into their work day of making noodles, and just like the coconut candy everything was done outside in the open air. Sure, there’s a roof, but no walls or doors. Seeing food being made does help explain the abundance of ‘Saigon belly’ that occurs. Making rice noodles is a long and painstaking process. Once the liquid is cooked and made into a giant flat tortilla type thing, it has to dry, outside, for at least 24 hours and sometimes as long as 72. I took several pictures of the process, but my favorite pic is when the dog wandered through. No one cares that a dog is walking through where food is being made, it’s just normal.
I’ve actually been asked by multiple people if I’ve eaten dog on my trip, and my answer is ‘I don’t think so’. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure I haven’t eaten dog. Here’s my reasoning. I’ve seen hundreds of dogs on my trip. Dogs with collars, dogs without collars. Dogs just running around, and dogs that obviously belong to the vendor near by. I think if they were cooking up dogs, there wouldn’t be so many roaming the street. However, I haven’t seen many cats, so it’s entirely possible that I ate one of those. But, everything I’ve eaten so far has been pretty tasty, so I’m not complaining.
Eventually we made our way to a BBQ, no cats and dogs were not on the menu, however pretty much everything else was. The family run farm/BBQ offered fish, snake, frog, field mice, and snail. We were warned ahead of time that the animals would be alive and we could pick out which one we wanted to eat. I had planned on trying everything, but my plans changed once I saw them actually cooking. The frogs were already dead and marinating, same with the field mice. Everything else though was still alive and in true Vietnamese fashion the death was neither quick nor painless. When the first guy in our group ordered a snake I thought they would kill it and then cook it. Boy, was I wrong! The ‘cook’ grabbed a snake out of the bag of snakes and swung it against the cement BBQ. This did not kill the snake. Next, he threw the snake onto the fire and as it tried to squirm away he would use his tongs to move it back to the middle. The process went on for about a minute. After I saw this, snake was off my menu. I have no problem eating meat, it’s delicious! But, there’s no need for the meat to die slowly. I’m more of a ‘chop it’s head off’ type of girl.
After the snake grilling, I decided to go with frog. After all, it was already dead, cleaned, and soaking in what turned out to be a mouth-watering marinade. I ordered 1 frog, and a water. My frog was served with a little pile of chili salt and a kumquat. Turns out, frogs are super juicy and tastes a whole hell of a lot like chicken. But, you’d probably have to eat 20 to actually fill up.
The day ended with a peaceful paddle boat through the flooded forrest. Again, the paddle boats are a little shaky and I was fairly nervous the whole ride. The water itself wasn’t very deep, maybe 3 feet, so I knew I could definitely keep my bag dry if we tipped over.
We continued on to our hotel and called it an early night. The next day we had to leave by 6:30am again to finish our journey into Cambodia.
Overall, the tour from HCMC to Phnom Penh was amazing. I had no idea what exactly was in store, but it turned out great. Like I said in a previous post, my only regret was not doing the homestay. Holding a snake, super cool. Eating a frog, delicious. Playing with puppies and missing a bunch of information, totally worth it!