21. Visiting Ben Tre – or so I thought….

05/01 – 07/01

After my decision to change my itinerary back in Hoi An I had now more time available to explore the Mekong Delta. It also meant that I would come back to HCMC. I took full advantage of this fact and stored a few things at the hostel – no need to carry my new suit and painting and rain jacket with me.

My luggage suddenly a bit lighter I was off to get the bus to Ben Tre. I read that it is a beautiful little town with canals, and also less touristy than My Tho (a popular place for one day trips). I also wanted to get a nice homestay there, and booked a room for two nights at the Mekong Cycle Rest Homestay, listed in Ben Tre. Tan – the son of the owner gave me clear instruction how to get there, so I was all set.

Instead of the slow bus I was advised taking the Thinh Phat bus, which would take around 2 hours to Ben Tre. Their buses leave from their office in District 3, so after a longer than expected taxi ride thanks to the busy morning traffic I just arrived on time to get the 10am bus. The ticket was 75,000 Dong.

The journey to Ben Tre was uneventful, it was nice to see the scenery changing as soon we left HCMC, then I saw the Mekong for the first time in Vietnam – it was the fourth country I managed to see the Mekong.
Instead of getting into the centre of Ben Tre I got off at the bus station, as I had to take a local bus to Cho Lach, as the homestay is 5km away from that place.  I didn’t think anything about that – just that the homestay is not in the centre of Ben Tre – but probably easy to get into town. How naïve I was….

So after getting out of the bus I went to the bus station- just to see a bus with the sign Cho Lach leaving. Great – I just missed it. I realised later that I could just have waited where I got off the Thinh Phat bus – as the second stopped there as well….great thinking..  At the station I was pointed towards a bus that was leaving to Cho Lach next – but it was empty. I looked a bit unsure if this really was the correct bus, until a woman came over and pointed at it when I said Cho Lach – well it was the right one surely.

After 30 minute wait the bus finally left – though I was surprised that I had to pay for two tickets: one for me and one for my bag – even though the bus was half empty. Well – it was only 21,000 Dong each. After we left the bus station I also followed the last instruction I got from Tan and gave my phone to the conductor t to call Tan – so he could tell her when I had to get out of the bus. Some chuckles on the bus after the procedure was done. I also looked a bit more confused than usual – as I was told that the bus ride will take an hour. 1 hour? That doesn’t sound close to Ben Tre – unless I get a free city tour with the bus. Obviously – it didn’t. For the next hour I was able to enjoy some nice scenery as we passed rice fields, flower shops, little villages, while we drove further and further away from Ben Tre. Maybe I should have checked the map before booking the homestay.

5km before Cho Lach (which is a town around 30km away from Ben Tre!!!!!!!) I was told to get off the bus here. So suddenly I was standing next to the main road in the middle of nowhere – I only saw lots of trees and a few buildings. At the corner into a little road an elderly man was waving at me – Tan’s father was waiting for me with his scooter. With my big bag on my back I was sitting on the back of the bike while we drove to the homestay – another 10 minutes away from the main road. Trying to keep my balance and not falling off the bike because of my luggage, I was able to get a first impression of the area. The tiny paved path was leading between small hamlets, some kind of plantation and lots of trees. It was very very green.  We finally arrived at the homestay, located in a lovely area, with only a few houses around. The homestay consisted of one brick house for the owner, some very comfortable looking chairs, and a seating area for the meals. The bedrooms were in the back – simple rooms containing nothing more than a bed, a desk, chair and fan. Shared toilets and showers were outside. All was very simple, but the set-up was lovely.

After freshen up I was already called for lunch – all meals were included in the $20 per night. They served me some nice curry and rice and fruits. Good start. After lunch I had a few question – but here was a slight problem, no one could speak English. Tan was away till the next day on a cycle trip with some tourists – so we started the procedure that his father was calling him, I spoke to Tan, and he then spoke again to his father. It all worked out – but it was strange nonetheless

Strengthened I tried to find out where this middle of nowhere actually was – it was clearly not Ben Tre. It turned out I was 30km west of Ben Tre, on the road towards Vinh Long. So instead of enjoying a visit to a nice city I was in a rural area without the tourist traffic…awesome. Though – it meant no day trip to Ben Tre…

So after a short rest I decided to explore the area by foot. The little paved paths were a little maze that lead through a wider area with several little villages, little canals, boats packed with coconuts, plantation growing different fruits, and people looking slightly surprised to see me walking around. Apparently this area is a popular place for cyclists travelling through the Mekong Delta – so seeing a strange white person walking around was something different. People were smiling at me, or looking intrigued at me, or just waving at me. For a short while a few kids where following at me, chuckling the whole time. I really enjoyed this wee walk. It was different to the other places I visited so far – maybe my trip to Ninh Binh closest to explore the real Vietnam. I easily forgot that I was actually in the wrong place, but I was sure that this was nicer than walking in another city – besides if I am not in Ben Tre that place really cannot be that great, right????

In the evening I had another chance trying the great food cooked – and there was plenty of food for one person – spring rolls, some fish, a local potato curry, noodles, salad, rips – well, just a lot. I was half expecting to see more guests arriving when I saw the amount of food – but it was just me. I tried my best to eat as much as possible – I don’t want to be rude by not eating the delicious food …

The remaining evening I tried to speak to Tan’s father who showed me a little English for beginner book so he could practise some English.  His granddaughter was joining us as well, and it was fun to point at pictures and saying either the English or Vietnamese words for the remaining evening.

After a good night sleep I got a basic but sufficient breakfast containing baguettes and eggs. Via the telephone translation system I was able to communicate that I would like to cycle around – and just got Tan’s father’s bike. Not really considering it, I was just advised to be back for 1:30 for lunch. So I had only 3 ½ hours time to cycle around. I realised later that in the heat (it was much warmer and more humid than the other places I visited so far) it was plenty of time.

Without a map or any direction I just started to cycle around, following different small paths, crossed some bridges and just enjoyed the relaxing and beautiful area. I stopped a few times for some sights: like a little shrine with a little nativity scene next to it, some nice views of the surrounding area etc. At one point I passed a little football pitch, where kids were playing 5 v. 5. They had nets around the field to ensure that the ball wasn’t flying all over the fields. As soon they spotted me they tried to show off some skills, and every goal was extensively celebrated. It was entertaining to watch the game – while I was watched by the real ‘spectators’.

After cycling on the little path I came to the main road, and followed it a bit. After a short stop at a church I suddenly got a craving for an ice coffee – the heat probably caused it, and not my love for the refreshingly cold beverage. But before I found a café I just saw turns into different little paved paths, and headed that way. Similar to the area of my homestay I spotted some lovely canals, some nice buildings, and got a big cheer from a wedding party when I cycled past them. I did my best to wave graciously back without falling flat on my face…


Overall, cycling in these areas was fun, and the trees provided some nice cover from the sun. After completing the loop and arriving back on the main road I cycled towards Cao Lach for a bit. After crossing a main bridge and seeing a rather big roundabout I decided that this was enough civilisations for me, and headed back to a very comfy looking cafe for a break.  I was welcomed by some big smiles from the locals sitting there, and the owner was happy to offer me a little area with hammocks and a table where I could relax. Obviously he couldn’t speak any English, and the language expert I am I still couldn’t remember the Vietnamese word for ice coffee with milk (apparently it is Ca phe da). So instead I went to the counter and pointed at the coffee, some ice and the milk. That was obviously quite clear, and very soon I was lying in a hammock, drinking another lovely ice coffee and getting some rest from the heat. I really got used to that I must admit. But too soon it was time to leave, as lunch would have been ready an hour later – and so I cycled back to the homestay. I made one last stop at a local war cemetery – the last resting place for those who have perished during the war. It is sad to see so many of such cemeteries throughout Vietnam.

Being able to cycle around the area without getting lost, I managed NOT to find the homestay straight away. One reason could have been the rather aggressive dog who was barking when you passed the house, and that animal even managed to get underneath the fence to block the road after I passed it. Well – after dealing with that scenario twice, and managed to arrive safely back to the homestay – on time for another tasty lunch.

In the afternoon I was far too lazy to do anything – instead I made myself comfortable in one of the wooden loungers, and just read a bit and slept. Sometimes you need to be lazy and switch off from all the sightseeing and hard day work…

Later that afternoon I finally managed to meet Tan, who arrived at the homestay with a German couple. They were cycling from Rach Gia to HCMC. They did not cycle the whole trip, but had a van with them to give them a lift for part of the journey. It was nice to share stories during the evening. Dinner was once again great – I think the amount of food was only largely larger than the night before –only this time it was for four. It was once again delicious.

I also used the chance to speak to Tan about where to go next. My initial plan was to visit Ben Tre and then head to Anh Binh, an island in the Mekong. However, apparently Anh Binh was not so different to the area I stayed here, so instead I looked for alternatives, and decided to head to Tra Vinh to finally see more green and yellow rice fields. And I also got information how to get there. Overall it was another lovely evening.

Next morning we had some additional entertainment during breakfast. The following day was the wedding for Tan’s brother, and everything was set up that day for the celebration. Chairs and tables got delivered (I still wonder how the van made it through the little path), and they started to erect the big tent. A chainsaw was also used  to remove some parts of a tree – missing the electrical cable by a couple of cm a few times. After watching the spectacle for a while it was then time to say goodbye to everyone. One of the family friends gave me a quick ride to the main road, where I was able to get the first bus to Tra Vinh….

This part of my journey turned out to be different than expected. Ending up in a tiny rural village instead of Ben Tre was something I have planned, but in the end it turned out to be a good thing. The two nights at the homestay were great, walking and cycling around to explore this area was a lovely experience – especially as I only saw 5 more foreigners during that time. It was an unexpected experience of seeing the real rural Vietnam. It also led to some further changes to my itinerary – and I am so happy it did. So this area is unlikely to be on most itineraries of tourists, but staying in such remote home stays is a great way to experience Vietnam. I am glad I did.

Accommodation:
The Mekong Cycle Rest homestay is pretty remote, but this makes it a very nice place to stay. It is simple, with shared bathroom – but with lots of charm and situated in a nice area. The family running it is lovely, even though only Tan can speak English. The food served (Lunch, dinner breakfast) is delicious, and you can have a peaceful stay to rest. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get off-the beaten track.

Recommendation:
You either enjoy staying away from the touristy places – then this is a nice area to visit. Or you don’t like such places, then you better head to Ben Tre or My Tho. If you do, enjoy walking and cycling around this area. It is a great experience – even if you arrive here because you couldn’t bother checking a map – but sometimes this leads to the best experiences.

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