Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vietnam - Day 4 & 5 (Mekong)

We woke up nice and early and met up with our tour guide for biking through the Mekong. The tour was not cheap at all, but....it was just the four of us, a private guide and everything we needed completely taken care of. It was awesome. (http://sinhbalo.com/cgi-bin/app.cgi)

It was about 3 hours to reach our destination - somewhere just outside of My Tho. We got out of our van, pulled the cheap bikes out, strapped on ill fitting, dented busted helmets and set off on the skinny paved road. It was heavenly after the chaos of Ho Chi Minh. Cows, canals, green, rice farms, tropical fruit trees, scooters, school kids on bikes - not exactly supreme peace and quiet, but everything was fascinating and came at a much slower speed. Actually, it was far more urban feeling than I expected, but delightful anyways.

Notice the awesome fit of my custom helmet. Did I mention it had a huge dent in it as if it'd already been in a wreck or two? After an hour of biking we stopped in at a factory where they made made some special local treats the old fashioned way - by hand, cooked over rice hull fires. (specifically for the tourist trade of course) We bought some delicious coconut candies and had a chance to sample the famous "snake wine" seen below:

Yes, that is a sun tea pitcher filled with dead snakes and moonshine. Or home distilled rice wine - and I do mean distilled, we saw the distiller. So wine is being generous. I took the teeniest sip, it tasted fine, but the idea of snake guts mixing around in there really grossed me out. Kyle and Kevin manned up and did full shots of the stuff.
After sampling and purchasing a bunch of the treats, we rode another mile or so to our boat. And we sailed off down the mighty Mekong.

I loved the boat paint jobs which were a mix of weathered wood and bright cheery colors. We had lunch & drinks on the boat and then sat back in our chairs for a couple hours to relax.

It was gorgeous and perfect. Well ....Kevin & Kyle kept talking about how they needed to go on more sales trips, which is always a downer (for me anyways), but other than that, it was perfect!

Eyes were painted on the boats to scare crocodiles. Or so our guide, Tao, told us. But he was often full of crap. I can't even tell you how many things he told us straight faced that turned out to be completely wrong. Apparently our gullibility amused him.
We docked in a completely non-descript location that was an island in Ben Tre province. Five minutes of biking and we were at our homestay where we would sleep and eat for the evening.
It was called a homestay but was really more like a family had added an outdoor sleeping area for up to 10 people, a few bathrooms and showers. Notice the Pomelo tree over the chairs & tables.
Our guide had told us he'd slept here once before and rats chewing on the roofs had kept him awake all night. I only half believed him at that point, but when we saw our sleeping location, it seemed pretty likely he had told the truth.

Not exactly the privacy we expected, that is one large, not fully enclosed room with 10 cots in it. And mosquito nets. I was feeling sort of nervous. I mean, we were in the tropical jungle, weren't there all sorts of critters who might scurry around our "bedroom" at night? Like my arch enemy cockroaches? Ugh. Would mosquito nets really keep everything out?

We put our fears aside and talked our guide into taking us for another bike ride since it was only 2-3:00 (at this point, time & days of the week had completely lost relevance). We went on a brutal 1.5 hour ride down a super dusty, bumpy sandy road. My bum ached.

See me in front of the lady with sticks? And Kyle in the green shirt?
But...all the kids yelled friendly hellos as we went by and we saw fascinating things like wedding preparations:

And the shells of cocoa beans:

It was gorgeous. Even though by the end my bum really ached. Darn bikes. We had a wonderful meal back at our homestay. First we got to watch the grandma kill, scale and gut our fish, then we took cold showers and missed the rest of the dinner preparations. We had rice wraps for appetizers - the steamed fish, topped with pineapple, rice noodles, lettuce & basil, all wrapped in the those awesome chewy rice paper rolls. All the meals in the Mekong ended with soup - in fact most meals people ordered for us ended in a soup. (when we ordered for ourselves, we tended to skip the soups)

By 9pm it was dark and there wasn't much to do, so we went to bed. Kyle and I saw our very first firefly ever. Prior to that, we saw a rat climbing around in the beams of our roof. I went to sleep very nervous, but relieved that so far I hadn't seen any bugs of alarming size and no cockroaches.

I slept very well. I woke up a couple times to dogs barking and a another time to a helicopter landing on our shelter - no, make that a boat motor - that thrummed loudly on and on. In the end I loved it. I slept well and loved waking up to fresh air, morning sunlight and twittering birds. Kyle and Kelley had the worst sleep ever.

I would definitely recommend a homestay, it was rustic and made me a bit nervous, but it turned out great and was one of the most memorable parts of the trip (in a good way).

The next morning, we were off on our bikes again. It was even more beautiful as we were on tiny single lane paved trails with gorgeous coconut groves and more traditional houses. I won't even mention how much my bum ached this time, but I promise to get more time in the saddle before I ever suggest a bike tour again. My leg muscles & stamina were fine, but man...its like riding a horse and getting saddle sore if you haven't done it in a long time. Gorgeous traditional houses were everywhere. We left the trails for a bit and hit our first main road. Wow. It was frightful but fun since none of us got run over. The traffic was no Ho Chi Minh, but roads were narrow, and there were lots of trucks, many scooters, bikes and no real rules about how & when everyone tried to pass. Or what to do when the guide was way in front and you were stuck between some old guy going 5 miles an hour on his bike.
We rode for a couple hours and our guide took us to the house he grew up in, where his parents still live. It was so beautiful - just maybe 500 sq feet and entirely made of natural local plant materials. The roof was woven of palm fronds and the walls were made of something similar with light filtering through. The floors were packed earth and swept immaculately.

His parents have a rice farm they tend and also grow cherries - or at least something he called "cherry" that looked like a cherry and tasted like a cherry, but had no pit & a different seed structure. We drank fresh coconut juice at their house because Ben Tre is the Napa Valley of coconuts. Famous throughout vietnam. And they were indeed the best ones we drank through the whole trip.

More biking, but this time we hit an even bigger major city and had more spine tingling adventures with the traffic. The biggest rush was biking through a roundabout with the rest of traffic. Ay-yah! It felt so good to make it through alive! We were true vietnamese traffic veterans at this point.... and then we boarded another boat to take us to our lunch location. This boat was teeny and the canal we traversed was equally teeny. and muddy.

Once again we got off at a non-descript dock and found lunch waiting for us. First up - fried elephant fish, rolled once more in the delectable rice paper rolls. Yum. I keep forgetting what we ate for the rest of the meal, I loved the rice rolls the most. I know we always had some clear soup with greens, rice and some sort of stir fried or stewed meat. It was all delicious though.
That is a whole fried fish. With a special "fried fish stand" apparently. I want one. After lunch we had an hour to nap in hammocks. Delightful. Then we rode off, back to the big town and went through the same big trafficky round about (equally exciting the second time).

Actually i have to stop and explain what made biking in the traffic so great. It was frightening, things coming at you from all directions, with no seeming organization. But, observing the vietnamese, you could see they were alert, but relaxed. No one made sudden movements and you realized your survival depended on doing the same. So I would purposefully relax, breathe deeply and try to not focus on any one thing but observe the movements all around me and in my peripheral. And flow with everyone else. The way it works is that you stay alert but act slowly, gracefully and try to be predictable to those around you. It was amazing to become a part of that and have it work. Like I said in Saigon, people would just walk into traffic, but do it slowly enough that everyone goes around them. That is the key to the chaos. Be predictable, alert, no sudden movements. It was fantastic.

Then we were back in our van, headed to Ho Chi Minh. Dinner that night was superb but once again...sort of a blur.


Anonymous said...


i just saw you website on Google, and I already bought these on http://www.buy-snake-wine.com but i wonder where to find other snake related products, any idea ?

Thanks for your help.

Misha Leigh. said...

This is so cool hearing all of your story in chapters. : )

Shauna said...

That fish looks NASTY! Did it taste good??