Written by Ishtar on 05 Aug, 2005
A tour guide can make or break the day. When we booked this tour through TNK Travel, we had been to another travel center on Dong Du Street in Saigon, right next to the Café Qing, explored pricing for a similar tour, and were quoted…Read More
A tour guide can make or break the day. When we booked this tour through TNK Travel, we had been to another travel center on Dong Du Street in Saigon, right next to the Café Qing, explored pricing for a similar tour, and were quoted $36/pp. The next day, I had my food-poisoning episode, so any thought of a bus tour went out the window. However, as I began to feel better, TNK’s brochure was at the reception desk of the Indochine Hotel , and it was hard to believe that US$7 could buy a full-day tour with lunch to the Mekong Delta. But it did, and the bonus was the guide.
He was a 60-year-old man who spoke very lovingly of his wife. They had been living in Saigon during the pre-war era, and he had tasted the days of non-communist rule. When the proverbial hell broke loose, he recounted days when they had sold everything they had to be able to buy rice to survive. He proudly told us how he always told his wife: "Wife, I shall love you tomorrow more than I love you today." I liked his manner, as it was totally unaffected and genuine. He stressed the importance of the family unit in Vietnamese society, so much so, that I ended up purchasing a book called "The Ancient Civilization of Vietnam," written by Nguyen Van Huyen (1908-1975). I devoured it along the way, mostly during the train rides. He wrote the original book in French, as La Civilisation Annamite, and on the date of its 50th anniversary, they reedited the narrative to bring it up to date. Wonderful reading, enlightening, and a great accessory to your trip, should you decide to go.
I had brought along my trusted diary and wrote down, fast and furious, a lot of the facts he was flinging at his audience on the air-conditioned bus. The trip takes slightly under 2 hours, mostly on National Highway 1 before turning into unpaved roads, but his tutoring made time literally fly for me. Oh yes, we did have a brief stop at Café Ngoc Qui on the way to the Delta: here one could stretch on a hammock and swing to the sounds of nature. He seemed to think these stops are necessary for the ladies, and he was absolutely right, as mostly women populated the line to the W/C. A word of caution about the restrooms here: the majority are hole-in-the-ground types, but if you make a right-hand turn instead of a left, there will be a couple of Western-style toilets that give you privacy via a curtain. Pick your poison. I went for the Western-style. You could also get iced bottled water for VDN15,000 (less than US$1), and I immediately purchased two of them. During the entire trip, you must keep hydrated.
The hammock and I became fast friends, and not too long after, I heard the guide’s melodious voice calling for his group. As we boarded once again, he started speaking about the 8 million bikes, which rule the streets of Saigon, and how the motorized Hondo motorbikes are used to lure females. He was very proud of the fact that Vietnam had won a US award for construction of the New Saigon city. He emphasized the work ethic of the Vietnamese male and the role of the female as the support member of the family. A few of the hairs on my back went up, but I chose to continue listening. An animated discussion followed only after he mentioned that there is hardly any divorce happening in Vietnam. As he recalled, the elders of the family or community resolve all family disputes, and a decision is usually rendered to keep the couple together. As this was in total contradiction of the story related to me by the lovely Hang, who worked as a server at the Café Qing, I simply couldn’t sit still. You will hear her story in the next journal on Luxurious Saigon.
. As we approached each destination, our guide would throw himself body and soul into the history of each and every item, and from a personal perspective as well. This is what made him so irresistible. We learned lore and facts from him, and I came away totally enchanted. The snake has a long legend of power and is still considered today a sexual stimulant. He told us tales of a certain district where one could go and drink snake blood, directly squeezed from the animal’s neck – is this considered too much information?? – and of men who feel virile after they’ve swallowed the still beating heart of a snake. Aside from the experience at the Tan Phu bee farm, most of the other snakes I caught sight of were bottled.
For anyone interested in Chinese medicine, banana wine is used to treat rheumatism and kidney stones; this is not your everyday banana, but the one which I described as having seeds in it, and being used as a vegetable.
And what of the Delta now? There are over 3,000 farming families that live on the massive state-owned Can Tho region of the Mekong. Regardless of the situation today, the farmer is free to grow what he wishes to grow without any restriction from the government; he is also allowed to adapt more modern versions of cultivation as he begins to face global competition with the expected entry of Vietnam into the WTO. The Doi Moi , or open-door policy, which was instituted in the mid-1980s, led to much deregulation of domestic production of rice and other crops. Hold on to your seats: in the early 1990s, farmers actually were given land use rights. Currently, Vietnam holds the number-two position in the export of rice and coffee in the world. While we are talking numbers, it’s important to note that more than 50% of the country’s rice crop comes from the Mekong Delta paddies - together with 70% of all fruit exports and 60% of all seafood exports. While the rest of Vietnam has an average per capita of $400/annum, the area here stands at about $250 instead.
Much needs to happen by way of infrastructure if the region wants to compete on a global basis: there is no airport of any standard and the roads, electrical systems, and sewage are very inadequate. Though the country has one of the highest literacy rates in SE Asia (93%), graduation levels are the lowest in the Delta.
. Our trip was absolutely memorable: the last leg included a visit to a bonsai tree growing farm which was part of an agricultural model called "Garden Pond Cage" The final boat trip was the most enchanting, as it was steered by young women donning conical hats, long sleeves, and bare feet to get a better grip on the boat’s surface. A maximum of four people per boat was allowed, and we arrived in fairly regular succession to our original launch which waited for our return.
As with most of the areas we visited, I felt that one day was simply not sufficient to get the full flavor of a region, especially one as varied and vast as the Mekong River Delta. Three-day and more tours are offered by TNK and other operators, but I liked TNK because of our guide. Their office is in Saigon in the backpacking district. They will pick you up at your hotel, but on the return leg of the trip, everyone gets out at their office and finds their own way home. It was probably one of the best value-added experiences of the trip.
230 De Tham St.