Trading boats at the Cai Rang floating market

Mekong Delta: Living on Water

Nov 24, 2014 - Carlos

The mighty Mekong River starts in the Tibetan mountains of China and runs through six countries in Asia, emptying into the sea via a network of other smaller rivers. This network of smaller rivers is known as the Mekong Delta, located in the south of Vietnam. Believed to be inhabited since prehistoric times, the Mekong Delta has been a lifeline for people in the region.

From HCMC, we took a two day tour to explore this biological treasure trove and experience local people’s lives. The fun started the minute we boarded the bus. It was already pretty much full with only a few seats left, but a Slovakian dude was so hungover (maybe he was still drunk?) that he couldn’t even stand up to make room for other people. I’m still impressed (and glad!) that he didn’t puke during the bumpy ride. He was a great source of entertainment though, especially when we had stops and he would try to get up and walk around.

The fun continued during the bus ride. Two hours in, one Australian guy realized that he had forgotten the 2000 Australian dollars that he hid under the mattress of the hotel room he checked out of this morning. It was unbelievable. Who carries that much cash on them these days? Who hides their money under the mattress in the hotel?? The stupidity of some people still surprises me. He had no choice but to go back to Ho Chi Minh City and pray that the money was still there.

Once we arrived in the city of Can Tho, we switched to a boat and began cruising the Mekong River. We made the following pitstops over the course of two days:

Coconut Candy Factory

Here we saw first hand how locals transformed coconuts into delicious candies. From manually opening the fruit to cooking the coconut milk to packing each individual candy, the process was very labor intensive. At the end of the demonstrations, we had free tastings of the candies!

Final coconut candy
Final coconut candy

Bee Farm

Locals raised bee colonies to produce honey and other goods such as beeswax and propolis. The most exciting part was to hold a part of the beehive full of bees in our hands.

Julie holding the bees
Julie holding the bees

Fruit Farm

Being the tropical country it is, Vietnam has several different fruits that are normally not found growing naturally elsewhere. We visited one fruit farm and were able to see fruit trees and learn more about each fruit and the particularities of growing them.

I think the biggest surprise here was the dragon fruit “tree.” I’ve eaten dragon fruit several times, but if you asked me how its tree looked like, I would have never guessed it right. It was at the fruit farm that we found out that dragon fruit actually grows from a cactus. The cacti were attached to a cement block that made it look like a “tree” of dragon fruits.

Dragon fruit growing out of a cactus
Dragon fruit growing out of a cactus

Crocodile fishing

I genuinely thought this would be disappointing, just like the squid fishing in Ha Long Bay. Except this time it turned out to be legit! During lunch, a fenced-off area nearby contained more than 10 crocodiles. It was pretty exciting to see so many up close.

Crocodiles
Crocodiles

They looked like statues and we started wondering if they were actual real living animals, until raw meat was placed in front of them. The crocodiles immediately started to move, making very abrupt and fast movements, trying to catch the so desired bait. I was surprised by the power of their bites – the loud POP! when their jaws slam shut could be heard from afar.

Carlos and the crocodiles
Carlos and the crocodiles

Floating Market

One of the highlights of the tour was the chance to visit the Cai Rang floating market, the biggest and most colorful in the Mekong Delta. Every morning starting at sunrise, local families take their boats and gather on the water to trade their produce. Each boat specialized in one type of produce (e.g. pineapple) which is hung on a tall pole to tell others what they’re selling.

Looking for customers
Pole with produce for sale

We had the chance to cruise among the many trading boats, just like locals would on a daily basis. To buy anything, two boats would be tied together so people can go from one to the other. For example, when buying fresh fruits, all were cut on the spot so you could taste it before buying.

Cutting a pineapple on the spot
Cutting a pineapple on the spot

Besides the small boats, which usually sold 1kg or less worth of goods, there were also bigger boats that sold in bulk.

Big bulk boat
Big bulk boat

Boat Through the Small Canals

I had a few ideas of what I wanted to see and experience during our tour to the Mekong Delta, but none of them could compare to riding the canoes in the small canals. This was the Mekong Delta experience that on its own, made the entire trip worth it.

Carlos wearing a conical hat
Carlos wearing a conical hat

We boarded the small canoe big enough for only 4 people inside, with two locals rowing front and back. We rowed from the Mekong to a small canal, which was incredibly narrow and shallow. It barely fit two boats side by side. The river was murky and opaque from the muddy riverbed. Rowing was actually more pushing the muddy riverbed than rowing the water.

Rowing in the small canals
Rowing in the small canals

Banana trees, coconut trees and the likes rose from the riverbed on either side of the canal, seemingly forming a sort of tunnel. I felt like we were exploring some extremely remote and dangerous area of the world, with nothing around, but us and the wild flooded jungle. It was difficult to comprehend that a ride like this is a typical way of transportation for locals, that they spend so much of their lives on water instead of on land.

Narrow path among the coconut trees
Narrow path among the coconut trees

A tour of the Mekong Delta ranks high on our list of most authentic experiences in Vietnam. We always enjoy seeing and experiencing how the locals live. Not only is it so different from our regular lives, It’s eye-opening and we learn so much.

For more pictures from the Mekong Delta, please visit the gallery!