Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Mekong Delta (1) My Tho - Sailing on the Mekong

Chilling out at Chalet Suisse in the Mekong
So we were setting off on our final leg of Vietnam through the Mekong Delta.  We had booked into a little place called Chalet Suisse which we thought was in Ben Tre but it turned out it was about 4km outside My Tho, between My Tho and Ben Tre in a place called An Thanh.  The bus journey was only 1.5 hours so we set off from Saigon in the usual confusion but miraculously arrived at our chosen destination.

The bus station in My Tho is very well disguised as nothing in particular and when we were dropped off with our bags we could have been anywhere.  Luckily for us, there was a man there called Phi who could speak English and who kindly arranged for a couple of motorbike taxis to take us and us bags to the Chalet Suisse Guesthouse about 4km away.  I don’t know how they manage to balance us on the back and our rucksacks between them and the handlebars but ten minutes later we were deposited in one piece at Chalet Suisse.

The guesthouse was in lovely little village of An Kanh with lots of cafés and shops selling the local specialty, coconut candy.  It was located down a quiet narrow lane and set in beautiful gardens with a small stream running through it around a pond full of fish among coconut palms.  It was very peaceful and the only sounds we were aware of were birds chirping, chickens squawking and, at night, geckos barking.  It was just perfect. 
Chalet Suisse gardens
The owner (we never did get her name) was a really lovely lady who had spent the last 32 years living in Switzerland.  She spoke broken English punctuated with French and could not do enough to help us.  We were the only guests there and it was a lovely little oasis in exactly the sort of surroundings you expect when you think of the Mekong Delta. 
The whole place was wooden built and the rooms were all large, with good sized bathrooms, big beds and a ceiling fan.  All rooms opened directly onto the garden and we were provided with a couple of deck chairs and sat outside in the afternoon watching the birds, butterflies and coconut squirrels (although again, I didn’t see a single one).  As the sun set the sound of geckos took over and bats fluttered about overhead in the twilight.
Floating fruit bar
The cost of the room was really cheap as well.  For some, it may not have been considered an ideal location but it was away from the main towns which are a bit impersonal, and there were plenty of places to eat (although it was a bit hit and miss because the lack of English on the menu), cafés were everywhere, and it was cheap to get a motorbike taxi to either Ben Tre or My Tho.  For us, it was ideal.
Being in the Mekong Delta we obviously wanted to do a boat trip so the owner contacted Phi for us, the man we met at the bus station, and he arranged a couple of day trips for us, and he also organised a boat to our next stop Can Tho.
Houses on stilts along the riverbank
On the first day we were up early and headed up to the floating market.  We travelled 2 hours by motorbike to get there, stopping for coffee on the way and we then took a boat around the floating market.  This could be best described as a wholesale market where the farmers turn up with their coconuts or bananas or pineapples (or whatever) to sell to the wholesalers who then transport them to the city (usually Saigon).  The market was quiet when we were there because most of the wholesalers were heading to Saigon en masse to sell as much as possible before the New Year celebrations (Tet). 
The river is so wide at this point it seems more like a lake.  As we floated around we stopped by a little floating fruit bar to taste some fresh pineapple and watched the people who live on the river going about their business including some kids larking about in the river.  We watched as a boy of about 8 jumped in the Mekong for a bath.  First he vigorously covered himself in soap suds before yelling something incomprehensible and dive bombing into the river from his houseboat, splashing his unimpressed sister in the process. 
Rice wine with various pickled reptiles
On the way back to the guesthouse we stopped off at a place which makes various products from rice, including rice paper, rice wine and something not dissimilar to rice crispies which they cover in caramel.  We tried lots of tasty sweet treats and resisted to urge to buy any rice wine with pickled scorpion, snake, spider (you name it, they’ve pickled it in rice wine). 
We also visited a coconut candy making place where we bought ginger candy and some of the coconut candy that the area is famous for.
It was a lovely day, and we were back before midday to have a little nap.  Unfortunately my nap turned into the rest of the day.  We had both at this stage developed bronchitis and I had a headache, fever and was generally feeling crap.  We were planning on heading out the next day at about 1.30pm so I just slept under the fan, only waking up to drink lots of water or down a few paracetamol.
Rickety bridges abound in the Mekong
I continued to sleep well into the next morning and by the time Phi turned up to pick us up and take us to a rIverside café for lunch I was feeling a bit better.  It was only 5 minutes on the motorbike to a lovely outdoor restaurant along one of the backwaters of the Mekong.  We settled down at a table by the side of the river and ordered Mekong fish with rice noodles and vegetables with a spicy chili sauce.  This was served with rice pancakes which you soak in water before you fill up with pieces of fish, noodles and vegetables and roll up before dipping in the sauce.  It was delicious.
While we were waiting for the boat which would take us out for the rest of the day we watched life on the river.  As we were chilling out we noticed that on the mud banks just below decking where we were sat there were lots of little mud skippers.  

A mud skipper
These are, according to Paul, proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  They are half fish, half newt.  They have fish like faces, long bodies and two front legs, a bit like tadpoles that didn’t quite finish growing up and grew a long tail.  They skip around on the mud with alarming agility (hence the name).  The larger ones (all of 4” long) took on a blue hue and when protecting their food source (in this case, some leftover fish we had thrown onto the mud bank) an impressive reddish fin rises along their spine.  There were dozens of them and they kept us amused while we waited for our boat.
When the boat arrived, we had to do the stepping stone thing again i.e. get in a smaller boat which could take us to the slightly less small boat which we would be travelling in.  Phi’s wife, whose English was limited, was to be our guide for the rest of the day. 
Sailing through the undergrowth
Safely on board we set off down the backwater through the water coconut palms and almost immediately it felt as if we were miles from anywhere.  We sailed slowly through the coconut groves, barely coming across anyone else, and both agreed it was exactly how we imagined a boat trip on the Mekong would be.
During the course of the day we spent about 4 or 5 hours on the boat alternatively sailing along the open river and then down little backwater channels to access various points of interest.  

We really enjoyed our day and it was particularly lovely because we were on our own and not part of a large tour.  We saw a few kingfishers but not as many as I would have liked, lots of other birds, Paul saw some fish and there were lots of butterflies.  The place just feels as if it is teeming with life.  You can hear the sounds of the forest from the boat and when you look into the dense undergrowth you can only imagine what’s looking back at you but it’s all hidden away beneath the dense foliage.
I had already undertaken some research and ascertained for my own benefit that saltwater crocodiles no longer roamed freely in the Mekong.  However, when we were deposited on one of the islands (Coconut Island I seem to remember) we found ourselves face to face with a rather large compound of these prehistoric monsters.  There must have been 30 of them in this place ranging from 6’ to at least 10’ long.  I actually thought one of them was dead as it was out of the water, mouth gaping and motionless.  Its skin had dried off and turned a bit of a funny pale shade of green and we couldn’t even see whether or not he was breathing

After about 10 minutes Paul announced to me that the “dead” one had shut its mouth, and when I turned to look I could see that one of its feet had been pulled forward.  It still looked dead to me but it clearly wasn’t and we still couldn’t see evidence that it was actually breathing.
Most of them were in various stages of trying to cool down around the water, looking alarmingly monstrous.  Some of them were silently gliding through the water, very slowly and very deliberately, and every now and again, two would have a bit of a scrap which was really scary because then you realise just how fast they can move, and the power they’ve got.
Rowing along a narrow, shallow channel
They were fascinating but awful at the same time.  There is something not quite right about them.  They look like dinosaurs.  They look like they should be extinct.  I found them compelling but even thinking about them now is making my skin crawl.  Crocodiles are wrong.  End of.
We also stopped for some honey tea and were taken for a little trip along a very shallow, narrow channel on a rowing boat – this was yet another tiny boat with one girl rowing at either end and Paul and I balanced precariously in the middle.  

Once again it was one of those moments when you wonder whether you are going to end up in the water because the boat doesn’t look fit to carry all four of you (and you also wonder how they can possibly know there are no crocodiles left in the Mekong).  However, we glided with ease through the narrow channel through a canopy of coconut palms and bamboo and the only sounds we could hear were the forest, the splashing of the oars in the water, and the two girls chattering away to each other.
Sunset on the Mekong River
We drifted around for the rest of the day, up and down the narrow channels, on the lookout for kingfishers and mud skippers, until dusk when we enjoyed a beautiful romantic sunset.  After that it was time to go in search of fireflies and it wasn’t long before we were treated to a display in the bushes along the riverbank.  I expected to see a kind of dull orange glow but the light they emit is like a tiny bright bulb.  When you see lots of them in the bushes along the banks of the river they look like strings of fairy lights. There were amazing little critters and once we had seen enough it was time to head back.
Phi met us at the harbour at My Tho and before heading back to our hotel we had a wander around the flower market.  Tet (Vietnamese  New Year – same at Chinese New Year) was just around the corner and it is custom for every house, shop, business, boat, truck and even some bicycles, to display golden (usually yellow) flowers at the entrance (or on the front of a boat, bus etc) and they also deck out the inside of their houses with flowers.  There were thousands of flowers of different types but largely all the same colour:  bright yellow.  Yellow flowers for Tet are more traditional in south Vietnam and signify the noble roots of the Vietnamese (according to folklore their ancestors are a dragon and a fairy). 
Yellow flowers at My Tho market just before Tet
The market was bustling and the roads were filled with people transporting huge quantities of flowers balanced precariously on scooter or even by bicycle.  Over the next few days we hardly saw a single place unadorned with yellow flowers.
We returned to Chalet Suisse at about 8pm, spent the rest of the evening relaxing and then the next morning packed ready for our boat and motorbike trip to Can Tho.  We were enjoying the Mekong and looking forward to spending another day on the river although we suspected the 5 hour journey would not be quite so picturesque as the last couple of days.


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