Drifting Through The Delta:
In search of what we never set out to find
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
by Marc Nair, 22 May 2017
The road south from Ho Chi Minh City is pretty empty on a Monday morning. Cars and trucks and motorbikes stream past endlessly on the northbound side, a dusty, undulating blanket even at 7a.m., cramming their way into the city for another frantic week of trade. It’s been 10 years since I’ve been here and it seems to have been carbonated, had a good shake and then somebody pulled the tab.
Every other young person has started or wants to start a business and there are more cafes then you can hop to in a lifetime. Downsides to this boom are the fact that the backpacking area of Pham Ngu Lao seems to have been given over entirely to foreigners. No locals are seen on walkabout; everyone is on the back of an Uber or Grab bike. It does seem pretty surreal; a 21st century proto-tourist colonialism. Or maybe we are the fools for walking about in the searing heat.
Today, I’m heading out of this honking morass and going towards the Mekong. Mr Phung, the boss of Roadstour, very kindly sponsored Mackerel on a full-day trip to check out some islands in the Mekong River Delta and to go on a motorbike sojourn through a series of villages in the afternoon. And if some of the photos in this story appear a little trippy, that’s because they were taken with an IR (Infrared)-modded camera, shooting in full spectrum.
Our first stop was the dock at My Tho City, the capital of Tien Giang Province. From here we took a boat to cross the Mekong to Ben Tre Province. My guide on this trip, Mr Quoi, kindly explained that we would be visiting three out of four islands in the delta, each of them associated with an animal or mythical creature, with all four islands growing (apparently) into their respective animal traits.
Unicorn Island - Strength
Dragon Island - Power, success
Phoenix Island - Beauty
Tortoise Island - Long life
I thought about this as we motored our way to Unicorn Island, where we neatly avoided the crowds and sipped tea in a small house that had bees in a corner, chickens in another and a couple of snakes in cages, just in case people wanted to pose for a photo. I was asked if I wanted to purchase bee pollen and other dried fruit, homegrown in their little garden. Outside, there were rows of clothes for sale, but no unicorns, and no strength to be found.
Honey tea with bee pollen straight from a garden on Unicorn Island
We skipped Dragon Island and spent most of our time on Phoenix Island, where we were introduced to a legit coconut candy making operation (with way cheaper prices than the city).
After that, I hopped onto a little horse carriage for a short ride through a village. Ignoring the occasional motorbike, it was a throwback for a moment to an older time. Struck by the quaintness of it all, I asked if the horses were used for transporting goods before tourists appeared. Sadly, the horses are as imported as the tourists. Ah well, I guess the islanders needed to find a reason to keep tourists on the island longer than necessary. But still, it was nice to have a snack stop made up of local fruits and listen to a rendition of Southern traditional music (essentially, melancholic country tunes).
After that, it was off to a restaurant for lunch. The fish looked delicious (see pictures below), but was far too much for one person to eat. So we skipped that and landed at a local house on Turtle Island to have a fresh coconut, always a pleasure on a hot day.
From left to right: Fish being caught, fish being displayed, fish after being fried.
That was the end of part one.
Part two commenced with a quick lunch at a roadside restaurant and quickly escalated when we hopped onto the back of Mr Quoi’s motorbike. This tour, he explained, was not on any of the other travel sites. This was only possible because he lived in one of these villages and so, had a good rapport with the various businesses and more importantly, he knew where he was going.
Traffic is a lot... sparser out of the city
The first thing we saw was a very simple ‘factory’ making lion dance heads. Or rather, unicorn heads, which apparently are used in lion dances all over the world. Funny how I never noticed that little nub of a horn before. Apparently, it is good luck for all Vietnamese houses to have a pair of them somewhere as well.
Then we were back on the bike again to take in amazingly lush swathes of rice-fields. The narrow roads were empty for the most part and other than being stupendously hot, I was grateful to redeem a sense of exploring, to have eyes on vignettes of quotidian scenes that nevertheless feel refreshing against the claustrophobic sameness of the big city.
We ended up at a massive temple called Thanh Hoang, which apparently was only willed into existence a few years ago onto what used to be farmland. The temple was new and shiny with old trees that looked very uncomfortably transplanted onto strange surroundings. It begged the question of whether this was for tourists or the locals. Outside, rows of pineapples slowly rose to the top of their stems in due oblation as I got into the car, which had conveniently come to the temple to send me back to Ho Chi Minh City and my hotel.
It had been a rather atypical day. I was expecting more of an adventure, to be honest, and the islands in the morning were quite blah. There wasn’t anything unique to see and whatever was there was ‘manufactured’ for tourist consumption. One doesn’t simply ‘happen’ upon a man offering coconuts from his back garden. In fact, what I enjoyed most were the moments in between; drifting down the narrowing delta or clambering a rickety bridge for a serene view of rice paddies.
Such moments elide the usual tourist brochures, and are indeed hard to quantify when it’s all about localised cultural experiences. So the motorbike ride in the afternoon was a very good way to break from the norm, and I must credit Mr Phung and his team for daring to innovate in a rather staid industry.
Here’s to more afternoons jolting along narrow lanes in search of what we never set out to find.