Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mekong Delta, Vietnam (2008)

Before arriving in Asia, we'd already booked an overnight Mekong Delta tour with the highly-reviewed Sinhbalo Tours. The cost was only $125/per person at the time of booking, and it got reduced to $90/pp later, when some other people joined our tour.

The tour van arrived bright and early the next morning, but we did have time to grab some banh mi for breakfast, from a street vendor outside of our hotel. We were soon joined by two other couples; one from London (they were in the midst of a 4-month trip!), and one from Chicago (the girl was interviewing to teach at the international school). We drove 2.5 hours to catch our boat (somewhere near Cai Be) but it was a nice van (Mercedes-Benz, no less) and we had a good time chatting with the other travellers.

Once we got on the boat, we just cruised around, stopping occasionally to check out locals making various foodstuffs; coconut candy, rice cakes, peanut candies, ginger candies, dried banana and sweet potato chips, coconut rice crackers, etc.

Of course we ended up buying some; the coconut candy was particularly good.

The canals reminded me a bit of Venice but with only very primitive buildings and much cleaner water.

For lunch we ate at a small restaurant on the shore, which was raised up on stilts. They served us fresh fish spring rolls, pork, beef and rice, noodle soup, spring rolls, and fresh fruit with chili salt. The food was tasty (D especially liked the fresh-caught fish in the rolls) and the location very picturesque.

After lunch we cruised down to Vinh Long where we got back in our van and drove to Can Tho (via car ferry). We arrived around 4:30pm and checked in at Tay Do, our hotel. It was billed as a 2-star by the tour company but turned out to be quite nice. For dinner (not included in the tour) we all went together to a restaurant called "Mekong" on the riverfront. They had a mix of cuisines, but we wanted more Vietnamese food, so I chose chicken with lemongrass and D had another banh xeo. We also had some fresh spring rolls, and paid a total of $9 for the two of us. Afterwards we swung by the local market to look at some craftwork before heading back to the hotel.

We were up even earlier the second day; packed and down to breakfast before 6:30am. The free breakfast was not very exciting; mostly just rolls, jam, and cheese. We met up with our tour guide and were on our way again by 7:30am.

Our first stop was the Cai Rong floating market. The guide explained to us that each boat advertised its goods by running them up on a long pole. So, for instance, the boat which was selling watermelon had an entire watermelon tied to its pole.

We cruised around on a small boat looking at the various goods, and then asked to stop on a pineapple boat. We hopped over, and paid about 50 cents for an entire pineapple. The pineapple vendor figured out that we meant to eat it right away, so she peeled and cut it nicely for us, so we could eat it right off the stem.

From there we went to visit a local elderly couple's house, where we were fed snake wine (we didn't know what it was until we drank it), banana wine, and more fruit. There was a funny episode where the husband tried to communicate using charades that the snake wine was good for male fertility.

The couple was super friendly, although they spoke no English at all, and their garden was lovely. Our guide told us that although they were in their 70's, the husband still shimmied up their coconut tree every morning to harvest coconuts.

We noticed that all along the river, everyone was super friendly, especially the children. Every person would wave back with a huge smile whenever we waved at them. We kept cruising and soon found the Phong Diem floating market (much smaller than Cai Rong). On the way, the mother and son who were navigating our boat fed us some fruit (papaya, pineapple, and banana), which was really nice of them, but by this time I was getting kind of sick of fruit. We finally arrived at the dock by mid-morning to catch our bus. Soon afterward, our tour guide (not knowing that we were sick of fruit) took us to a fruit stand. Luckily there were some new varieties, though: jackfruit, sarsparilla, and a small round fruit almost like longan but much tarter.

It took quite awhile to get on the car ferry this time, so it was past noon when we stopped for lunch. Our guide asked us what we wanted to eat, and we told him that we wanted to eat "what you would eat". He was a little horrified at that and said that the places that he ate were "dirty", but we insisted that we would be fine, so we ended up at a very local eatery which barely a restaurant at all; more like a bunch of tables outside of someone's kitchen. It wasn't that dirty by Asian standards, but there were definitely flies in the vicinity, and chickens wandering around under the tables. We were served stir-fried pork, catfish in a sour soup in a clay pot, sauteed pumpkin blossoms, mango, and candied lotus fruits. The bill ended up being about $6 per person, which was more than I thought it should cost, but it's hard to complain when the difference is so small. From there it was another 2-3 hours back to Saigon.

We were dropped off at our individual hotels, but we agreed to meet up again for dinner. We ended up at Quan Nuong 3T, a very popular Vietnamese BBQ place, located above Temple Cafe and Fanny's Ice Cream. We were told the Temple Club was a favorite with "Brangelina".

The six of us were joined by some friends of the Chicago couple (teachers at the international school), and as a group we ordered lemongrass beef, beef with cheese, live shrimp (one giant shrimp per skewer, still moving!), squid, garlic rice, morning glory, veggie soup, and venison.

Of course everything also came with lots of fresh veggies. My favorites were the shrimp and the lemongrass beef, although some in our party were cringing while watching the live shrimp cook over the flames.

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