The Awkward Person’s Guide to the Mekong Delta

Oct 1, 2013 in Vietnam | 2 Comments

So, look, I apologize for teaching that cute little girl to pickpocket, but I’m sure she had it in her anyway. She was weird and sneaky, okay?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few hours earlier, I was pissed at my tour guide. I don’t know why such a simple gesture filled me with such rage, but his hand around my upper arm, assisting or guiding me onto the boat, set me off instantly. I jerked away, and made my way to a free seat, fuming. I don’t know that he noticed, or cared. Perhaps half of my fury that it was obvious how little he cared for his travel charges for the day, and I was merely a wayward child needing to be shuffled quickly off to a seat so he could get quickly through his arduous duty, and get home. As we set off down the river, I acknowledged that my anger was disproportionate to the incident, but replayed the scenario, and how I should have dealt with it, over and over anyway.

I’d taken the guidebook’s suggestion to book a day tour of the Mekong Delta and floating market at Cai Be, with the plan to disembark at the end of the day, rather than return to Saigon, and stay the night at a local homestay, before continuing on down to the largest floating market at Can Tho. It is more economical to do this, rather than taking a local bus and trying to make the connections on one’s own, however my disillusionment with the tour persisted through the day.
The packed minibus left Saigon at around 8am, and pulled into the tourist boat wharf in Cai Be around 11:30, which in itself is problematic—these markets are most active in the morning, and so by the time our boat was floating through, most of the action was over. There were still enough boats out on the water to get the idea; many of them stay for days until all their goods are sold. The guide pointed out the long poles attached to the boats, with their goods attached like flags, signaling the wares of each: pineapples, potatoes, something resembling turnips.

We sailed quickly through and docked at what I would quickly recognize as a one stop tourist “factory” shop, where we were rushed through demonstrations of the manufacturing of local products: the rice paper station, the rice wine station, the coconut candy station, the puffed rice station. These are included on nearly every tour I’ve taken in Vietnam; I can make rice paper in my sleep, and could probably set up a rice wine distillery in my kitchen. After our guide’s cigarette break, during which we were heartily encouraged to purchase the local products, the tour group was led around the way to another shop with a tea service out, and had some very nice local green tea with local honey, while the apparently endless and miraculous benefits of royal jelly were shared with our captive group. I actually enjoyed this portion, because the tea was quite good, and I found the royal jelly sales presentation hilarious. See, I’m surprisingly easy to please.
After tea, we scurried back to the boat (the guide had made it clear that he would not wait more than five minutes for anyone missing) and sailed out onto to the Mekong to An Binh Island. The way is scenic and enjoyable, and my mood continued to improve as the tour boat alit on the island, and the group tramped along a small road beside the river and down a thin trail through orchards and a small village, until we reached our lunch spot, a large wood paneled homestay, with tables out on the veranda, fruit trees all around, and a rather sad looking python in a cage by the gate. We enjoyed a simple lunch, and were told that in our free time afterwards we could rest in hammocks or take a dusty, rusty bike out around the area. Unfortunately, our free time was only about half an hour, and the heat oppressive, so the biking option didn’t seem that great, and I opted to just hang out at the homestay—which, in Vietnam, are less like staying with a family in their home, and much more staying in a family run B&B.

After the lunch break, we got to the portion of the day I’d most been looking forward to, a row boat tour through the small canals off the Mekong. Vietnamese conical hats were distributed among us, which was great in the glaring sun, and under the power of local women rowing their double oars in a rhythmic pulse, we glided along the narrow waterways fringed with mangroves and dotted with tiny local houses that seemed to be slowly sinking backwards into the water. Eventually we met back up with the big boat, and after a five minute trip up the river to an egress point, it was my turn to leave. I hopped off the bow of the boat, skipped up the stairs, and with a casual wave, ducked into the small market stalls to make my way to the main road. My heart soared, “This is what I’m talking about! Adventure! So badass!”
I quickly found a willing moto driver, and after looking closely at the name and address of my chosen homestay in the guidebook, we negotiated a price, and I hopped on the moto, and we buzzed off down the road, abutted by banana trees, small rice fields, and swampy bits overrun with water plants. After about 20 minutes, we pulled up to a small wharf that appeared to probably be where the ferry for Vinh Long on the mainland landed. This was definitely not the homestay.
I pulled out the guide book, and pointed again to the address, and began a hand waving discussion with the moto driver, attempting to indicate that this was not where I’d asked to go, and to please take me where I wanted to go, while his gestures seemed to indicate that I was a fool, and of course this is where I wanted to be, this is the place. I had to pee, and so I gave up, and tried to find a WC. Looking around, I didn’t see anything obvious, so I walked up to the two women manning a gate, appearing to be taking money for admittance into the wharf area, or something I was not clear on. Whipping out the guidebook again, I turned to the phrase portion in back, and stammered out the collection of sounds that was supposed to correspond with “where is the toilet?” and the two women burst into howls of laughter. Trying again, I held out the book and pointed to the phrase on the page, which only caused further gales of laughter, and a vague hand wave behind them towards the waterfront. Okay. I wandered down and back again, seeing nothing resembling a toilet, or even any open establishments of any kind, and decided to smoke a cigarette instead. Sometimes (despite all health risks and such, sorry Dad), you just need to pause.
After a few minutes, I decided to give things another go, and approached the most grandfatherly looking moto driver in the group congregated at the end of the road, pointed out the homestay info in the guidebook again, and negotiated a price again, and hopped on again, and zoomed off down the road, again, back in the direction I’d come. I was entertaining the notion that I’d end up back where I started, and what I might do in that situation, when the old guy suddenly swerved off the road onto a tiny footpath alongside a canal that skirted along farms, and went over several ridiculously skinny cement bridges with no railings at all, until we happened on a sign over the road that read Song Tien, the name of the homestay. I’d made it!

A woman came running out of the front house, likely the one I’d had a brief phone conversation with when I made a reservation, and led me across the “road” to several rooms hanging on wooden stilts over the canal, where I settled in (with a quick run to the WC), before returning to hand over my passport, as you must do for all lodging in Vietnam. A young girl was with her, very interested in me as the woman and I attempted to communicate meal times and boat departures with her basic English, my nonexistent Vietnamese, and a large portion of bad sign language. I whipped out my iPhone, to use the Clock app, and Icoon picture dictionary, and got the gist of all the info as the little girl looked on excitedly.
She leaned in, pointing at the screen, and I showed her some photos, played some music, and turned on the camera app as she poked along happily on the screen. I demonstrated how to take a picture, and we took several selfies together before she took the phone from me and poked and swished to her heart’s content, not really accomplishing much in phone operations, but gleefully enjoying the moving graphics nonetheless. As she jabbed clumsily away, I was happy I had a Lifeproof case on the phone.

I’m not a real kid person, and after awhile was bored with entertaining this one, and several times I reclaimed the phone, and put it into my cargo pocket, trying to bring playtime to an end, but she was onto that and stuck her little hands into my pocket to grab the phone again. Finally, I reclaimed it one last time, stood up, and went in search of the woman who’d disappeared into the house, feeling awkward about leaving the girl alone, but thoroughly done babysitting. After poking my head awkwardly through several doors, I located the woman, and purchased a cold Bia 333 to enjoy on one of the cute wrought iron swinging benches by the water. I grabbed the guidebook to sort out my plans for the next day, and was enjoying my beer and a cheeky smoke as the sun started to go down, when the child reappeared. She patted my pocket, looking for the phone, but I’d dropped it in my purse, which was under the guidebook, out of sight. She sort of wandered around, hitting the plants with a small stick, and then wandered back as I stubbed out the cigarette on the ground next to me, with all intentions of retrieving and trashing it when I went inside. She grabbed the butt, mimed taking a drag, stuck it in her mouth, and as I stood up to grab it from her, “No, come on, don’t do that…” she ran off down the path to the big house, and I followed half heartedly along until she was out of sight behind the house. What the fuck. First I’d taught her how to pickpocket, and now she was gonna be a smoker; I was seriously screwing this kid up.
I finished my beer, and tossed it into the trash in front of the house, just as she came back, sans cigarette, and mischievously grabbed the can out of the trash, and ran back into the house. I followed again, “No, dammit…” and she was miming drinking out of the can when the woman indifferently walked into the room, and I waved sheepishly, gesturing at the beer can, trying to grab it back. The kid dropped it, and I darted in, crushed it, tossed it in the trash again and scurried back to my room to hide until dinner. What had started as an endearing interaction with a local child was now absolutely creepy. And people say I’ll change my mind about not wanting to have kids.
I was all alone for dinner, the only guest apparently, and no family to be seen, out in a pretty little gazebo in the yard, with an impressive array of food, and the only person I saw the whole time was an old man in the kitchen who just nodded at me when I brought the finished plates back in, not sure what to do. I went off to bed, with the sound of water rushing beneath the floorboards, and the crickets chirping and buzzing, lulling me off to sleep, with hope that the next day would be just a little less awkward.

At breakfast the next day, the kid was back, and after a young woman brought out my food, and disappeared back into the house, the girl dragged up a stack of plastic chairs and climbed up to sit at the table next to me, looking at me expectantly. I smiled, said, “hello, xin chao,” and returned to eating, hoping to get through this meal without incident. She hopped down, and searchingly patted my pants, but I’d left my phone in the room, and the only thing in my pocket was my chapstick, which she grabbed deftly, and ran off with. Seriously, again? I did not bother chasing her, and after a few moments the woman walked up and handed me the chapstick, all pushed out and with the cap missing. I said thank you, cam on, made a wishy-washy hand gesture that was supposed to convey, “look, sorry, this crazy kid keep stealing my stuff,” but probably meant absolutely nothing to her, and she smiled and went back into the house, leaving the girl with me. She clambered up the chairs again, and grabbed the small spoon I’d used to mix my coffee, and ran off with that. Good, fine, I thought, and was almost done with my meal when she returned with the spoon in hand, and began rubbing it on my pant leg. Startled, because I’d been focused on ignoring her as much as possible, I looked down at her, furiously rubbing the spoon, which appeared to be wet, on my leg, and waved her away, “Stop, khong, no.” When I stopped flapping my hand at her, she went back to dragging the little spoon across my thigh, and I looked closer at her pants, which were askew, and her shirt untucked, and looked over to a suspicious wet spot on the otherwise dry walkway, and back down at the now dry spoon. “Oh my god, did you pee on that?! Khong, khong, stop it, what the hell?” I put my hand on her shoulder and pushed her away—gently—stood up, and leaving what remained of my breakfast, headed quickly to the bathroom to wash my pants, repeating to myself, “urine is sterile, but what the fuck.”

Pants damp, but quickly drying in the heat, I decided to go for a walk down the road, far from the homestay, and enjoyed the scenery quite a bit until it was time to return to catch a boat to the mainland. I was packing up when the woman came up to tell me the boat was ready, and the old man pulled it up to the river’s edge, and I jumped on, and in no time I was across the water in Vinh Long, that incredibly awkward homestay behind me, moving on to my next challenge, finding the local bus to Can Tho.
It was fairly easy to find the bus station in town, but the organization of it, and precisely which bus to take to Can Tho, was less obvious. I approached a nearly empty shop front that had the name Can Tho on a sign, and asked the woman inside about a xe buyt to Can Tho, and she nodded, and I pointed down, “here?” and she nodded, and I sat out front wondering how long I would have to wait, and how I might recognize the necessary bus, when I was approached by several xe om drivers, and a German woman. The xe om drivers were telling me, I mostly gathered, that the bus left from a different station, and of course they would take me right now, for a small fee, and the German girl was asking me if I knew how to find the bus to Can Tho. After some awkward circular conversation, and a few glances back towards the shopwoman who didn’t say a thing, the German and I jumped on the back of two of the motos, and headed off into town. We pulled up a while later where a minibus, reading Can Tho on the side, idled by a gas station, and were quickly shuffled onto the bus, crowed with locals, and sat on the floor next to a young group near the back. As the bus rumbled dustily down the road, with infrequent breezes through the open windows, I offered the staring group some of my gum, and as they accepted, we exchanged names, and quickly realized that our communication was probably going to be stuck at that. One girl typed into her phone to ask where I was from and how old I was and shared that info with the group, and another person in giant mirrored aviators, whom frankly I first assumed was a cute butch lesbian, which is why my smile may have been more friendly, but after a while I realized was probably just a feminine looking guy, requested, “kiss me,” but the first few times, I swear it sounded like “kick me” and I was left, smiling in a confused way, shaking my head, with no adequate retort. I wondered just how long this bus ride would be.
Thankfully, the locals began to trickle off the bus at the many, many stops along the way—including the young group, mirrored aviators giving me a wave as they hopped off—and I was able to move from the floor to a seat next to an old woman with a live chicken in a plastic bag at her feet, which rustled every once and a while, but otherwise seemed quite content with it’s odd lot.
In Can Tho, the German and I opted to stay in a room together to save money, and booked a tour with an engaging older woman to the Cai Rang and Phong Dien markets for the next morning together, again to split costs, and then went off on our own ways into town, as it was obvious we were not entirely compatible travel friends—and her English was rather basic—despite our practical living and tour arrangements. I located some delicious bun oc—snail noodle soup—and some weird looking purple and green rice cake balls, and a few Bia Larues poured over ice, and was quite pleased with the evening.

The next morning at dawn, we were handed off to a different woman, who spoke significantly less English than the woman who’d sold us the tour, who we followed quietly down to the riverside, picking up a hot Vietnamese coffee along the way, and pushed off out onto the Mekong in a little boat. The Cai Rang floating market is the largest in the Mekong Delta, and during the hour long trip there, the woman supplied us with little tiny bananas, and fresh cut pineapples as the sky slowly brightened. The market had all the boats and bustle and activity that the Cai Be market had lacked the previous day, and it was wonderful watching the buying and selling from bigger boats to little boats as we glided amidst the chaos.

Afterwards we headed another 20 km farther to the tiny Phong Dien market, which is all small boats, clustered and bouncing off one another, a mad mess into which the woman wedged our boat. We bought some mild grapefruit type fruits from a woman who was fascinated by my tattoos, and I eyed the guy selling bun cha from the riverside, but was too intimidated to ask our boatwoman to paddle us over, to my regret.
The rest of the day we went up into the small tributaries off the Mekong, stopping at another rice paper and rice noodle factory, and to walk through some rice paddies out in the countryside, before returning to Can Tho. It was quite beautiful and serene, and I report sadly that the pictures from Phong Dien and this portion of the trip have been lost.
The rest of the day was positively easy, the German and I successfully arguing the proper exchange rate with the hotel as we checked out, wondering the streets that were suddenly devoid of xe oms until finding only one, where we separated, I arriving at the bus station just in time to catch the very next bus to Saigon, and seeing her arrive as my bus pulled away, and the only minor inconvenience of the bus ride was the Vietnamese music that was piped in for the entire journey. The bus station in Saigon is rather far from the Pham Ngu Lao area, but, by simply shaking my head and walking away from the crowd of xe om drivers clustered around the bus, I was able to get the ride for half of what they were quoting (although still much more expensive than if I’d braved a local city bus).
Maybe I’m slowly getting less awkward after all.


  1. Will
    October 3, 2013

    “This is what I’m talking about! Adventure! So badass!” Yes, yes it is. How else could you encounter “local products”—jars of cobras with scorpions in their mouths embalmed in some undefined liquid! hahahaha. And, you look so cute in the conical reed hat and hipster sunglasses. We won’t squabble about the smoking…. love you.

  2. Steve
    October 14, 2013

    Hi Melia – 1st comment, but hardly the first time I’ve been riding along on your trip. It’s all so extraordinary it makes our paltry comments seem trivial. I’ve been reading, and looking, with a permanent grin that varies only when it drops open in astonishment. There has to be something life-changing in this. Not just where you went and what you did, but what it reveals you to be capable of. Write on!


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