22. Tra Vinh – experiencing Khmer culture in Vietnam

07/01 – 09/01

During my last night in Cho Lach I decided to head to Tra Vinh next. Speaking to Tan I realised quickly I had to change several busses and a ferry – but I was sure I could manage that…

The journey that had a total of four parts started back on the dusty main road around 10am and took around 4 hours:

Part 1 – Getting to the Mekong
Back to the same local bus I used to arrive at the homestay. Through hand signs I was able to tell the conductor where I wanted to go – and this time I didn’t have to pay for my bag. Clearly different conductors make it up every time. The journey only took around 30 minutes, passing some little villages and one suspicious looking bridge.

Part 2 – Crossing the Mekong
Arrived at the final station, as usual I ignored the Moto drivers who instantly approached me. Instead I turned towards the small ferry point – which was a 2 minute walk. Buying a ticket for a few Dong (I think it was 5,000) was easy, enough, and as two ferries cross the Mekong here, you really don’t have to wait too long. Crossing the river I once again realised how large and impressive the Mekong is.

Part 3 – Getting to the bus stop in Vinh Long
No idea how far the bus station was, I looking for a taxi. Instead I saw a bus coming off the ferry. Waving it stopped immediately – and once again I somehow managed to explain where I wanted to go – the bus station in Vinh Long, and I got the approving nod. I found some space between rice bags and lots of fruits, and only 10 minutes later I was told that we were at the bus station.

Part 4 – Getting finally to Tra Vinh
Arriving at the bus station I managed to find the right ticket booth (there are a few…) and got a ticket for 36,000 Dong to Tra Vinh. Instead of a bus I got the first seat at the minibus – with my bags at the front row as well (without paying any extra). I had to wait a bit, and got to know the driver over a drink. I also learned that in addition to Western and Vietnamese style toilets that some houses have a third version of a toilet – a little hole next in the kitchen wall (I obviously didn’t get any food there).
After that experience the bus finally left, and it was actually a nice journey. We picked up more people and the minibus was quickly full. I tried to squeeze my bag around – but the passengers and driver ensured me that everything is ok -even when two locals were sharing one seat. One of my fellow passenger, a young woman who travelled with her mum, was very keen to practise her English as well – so in addition of finally seeing lots of rice paddies passing by I had an interesting conversation. This all helped making the two hour journey a pleasant trip.

My idea about staying at another homestay was dropped, and decided to check the room at Duy Tong (Van Thanh), a hotel I read about on travelfish. When I mentioned to the driver where I wanted to go he was happy to drop me by – for an additional 50,000 Dong (more than 1 1/2 time of the price for the ticket to Tra Vinh). Thankfully the woman I spoke to during the journey told me to get off with her and her mother in town, as the hotel was nearby. And she was right. She pointed me into the direction of the market, and after a little detour I was standing in front of Duy Tong.
The owner, Mr. Phat, told me what rooms were available (well, nearly all…) and the prices, and offered me to check out he rooms. The first two were a bit dark, the single room not having a window. When I mentioned that, he instantly offered me the large room for only 200,000 Dong. Considering it was a large room with three beds and a balcony I couldn’t decline that offer.
It even had a small fridge, and A/C, and was clean. I really couldn’t ask for more. A good price for a nice room in the middle of Tra Vinh.

It was then time to explore Tra Vinh a bit. Once again without a map I just started to walk around, and found myself on the riverfront, with a nice bustling market. In addition of the usual vegetables and meat stalls, there was a lot of fish available. In some little shops I could even see locals sorting the fish, preparing the crabs, and put out fish to dry – in a very structured way (I didn’t even want to know how long it takes to put the fish in that order…it looked far too organised, and that’s coming from a German!!!). Seeing all the locals I also instantly realised that there really is a big Khmer influence, as locals looked either Vietnamese or from Cambodia.I also realised that a day later when I visited some temples.

 

Obviously the locals were as friendly as in the previous places I visited, smiling and waving at me. One elderly women who saw me taking a few pictures earlier was taking my arm to bring me next to the river where some men were off loading a boat. I am still not sure if she was hoping I could caught one of the men falling into the water….
After the market I walked some of the little streets, and stopped at a little eating place, where they served me some delicious soup. Their child was very keen to watch me while I was eating, and while they see some tourist in this place, not many seem to stop in this little street.  I really started to enjoy this laidback friendly atmosphere.


I continued my walk, and really enjoyed the lovely streets with the colonial buildings, the little temples and the parks I saw there. And for the first time I also saw a mosque in Vietnam, a little, but nice looking one.
It was then time for my afternoon ice coffee. Goc Pho café looked quite nice, and it quickly became my main coffee place in Tra Vinh. During my first visit the three waitresses had a conversation who was brave enough to take my order – I didn’t know that I look that scary. But they were very friendly and the coffee was good

They recognised me straight away during my second, third and fourth visit – well, not many tourist might return that often I guess.

After getting a very good impression of Tra Vinh, it was already time for a little break, and then for dinner. I saw quite a few places offering duck, but instead of going to one of the little restaurants I sat down at a little food stall serving something I had in HCMC before – Bahn Cuon. In addition I also got some kind of deep fried potatoes buns. It was actually better than the one I had in HCMC. This was followed by one of the little steamed white buns  – not realising that some of them had no filling. Well – I can only say that they are nicer with a filling.

One interesting point of Tra Vinh was that I didn’t see any bars. Instead I saw that suddenly chairs and little tables were put out on a little square near the market, and was able to enjoy a lovely ice coffee and some mint tee. I just loved sitting there, having a drink, watching locals walking pass and  kids playing, and enjoying a warm summer evening with the moon rising slowly. And except of 5 tourists I saw earlier on the street there were no foreigner. Talking about being off the tourist path.

The next day I aimed to explore the surrounding area. I was tempted to hire a scooter to do so, but instead decided to do the legal bit and hired a bicycle. Unfortunately, that wasn’t as easy as you think. The hotels there don’t have bikes, so I went to a travel agent, and had to pay 100,000 for the bike (map extra) and had to be back by 5pm. Well – there is always the downside of a less touristy bit. At least I found out that there is lots to see – but on a bicycle I had to limit the places I wanted to visit.

So I made kind of a plan what to do (which I obviously didn’t follow), and was off soon to head out of town. With the temperature rising in the morning I was really questioning my decision not getting a scooter when I was cycling a main road towards the Uncle Ho Temple. After 30 minutes I finally arrived, and surprisingly I wasn’t charged to leave my bike at the entrance (with all the other bikes and scooters). Uncle Ho temple consist of a lovely little park with a lake and lots of shade thanks to the trees, a little temple and a memorial for Ho Chi Minh. According to my map it is considered as the work of heart of the people of Tra Vinh to Uncle Ho. And it is a nice little place to visit.

After a short stay there I was nearly on the road back, when I saw a little path that led away from the street. Curious where it goes I followed that path, and found myself passing green rice fields, small coconut plantations, some houses and farms. And thankfully there was lots of shade. The little path led to another main road which I followed, passing some villages, charming houses and shrimp & fish farms. At one point I was actually tempted to turn left to one of the ferry points to cross one of the many arms of the Mekong in that region to maybe see some of the larger coconut plantations. Instead I continued to cycle on that road, but soon enough crossed a river instead of heading back to Tra Vinh – and it was a good decision. The road became smaller, and I passed more and more rice paddies, and whenever I stopped to take a picture, some kids came out of the houses, waving and smiling at me. They were rather intrigued by this strange looking guy with his camera. It all felt so unspoiled. I really was in a real rural area of Vietnam that wasn’t filled with tourists.

Surely enough it was time for lunch, and I stopped at a little food stall on that little road. Obviously it had no English menu, so as usual I just pointed at the pans, not knowing what I get served this time. Instead, the two kids of the owner and one kid from next door joined me at the table, and soon enough they had fun posing at the camera, laughing when they saw the pictures. And once again I had to teach some English words. The older daughter was clearly proud to be able to count to 5, and it was lots of fun to help them to count up to 10. I had a great time there, and the food (which turned out to be noodle soup with chicken and beef or pork blood as well something deep fried) was very good as well. When I left even the neighbours came out to say goodbye. It always amaze me how friendly the locals are.

I continued to cycle along the road (still no idea where it led to), and when I saw another little path I couldn’t resist and turned there as well, and ended up in front of a never ending rice field, surrounded by some palm trees. The sight was just amazing. You could literally just sit down there for ages and soak this view. When I was ready to leave one of the local woman started to talk to me  – her English was very good, and seeing her daughter I was guessing that her husband was maybe a foreigner. She just advised to me to return here for sun set, as the view from here would be great. While I was walking with her back to the road some other locals were joining us. They then pointed out to some of the local men, who were just in the process to walk into the little canal to check the fisher net. They found it rather entertaining when I started to take some pictures, diving into the water. It really was a good laugh. Unfortunately I didn’t stay longer for a coffee, and instead was off again – hoping to find my way back into town.
Following another little path (which was far more interesting than the cycling on the main road) I was suddenly back on a road – and somehow I found my way back into Tra Vinh. As it was only 3pm (well – I needed a quick ice coffee break), I decided to head to the other side of town, and was soon enough out of Tra Vinh, heading to one of the main temple in this area – Kompong Chray Pagoda. On my way I was actually impressed when I saw a good quality artificial football pitch, where locals where playing 5 v. 5. It was fun watching them play, and it was a bit tempting to actually join them. But I am sure in that heat (it really got warm) I would have survived 5 minutes on the pitch…).
Instead I followed the road and was soon enough arrived at the pagoda (well – it was only 5 km out of town). It was strange to see a Khmer temple instead of the more Chinese looking temples I saw throughout Vietnam so far. It constantly reminded me of my time in Cambodia a few years ago. Both the outside and the inside of the pagoda was just beautiful. I was glad that I managed to stop at one of the many Khmer temples in that area.

As it got a little bit late, I was on my back to Tra Vinh soon enough, and after a quick stop at a Cao Dai temple (much smaller than the one I visited outside of HCMC) I was back in Tra Vinh. I still had a bit time before returning the bike, so I briefly visited Luong Xuyen  Pagoda near the market. In addition of the little pagoda you can also see a rather impressive building that houses now the office of the Provincial Buddhism  Association of Vietnam in Tra Vinh. Worth a brief stop. Unfortunately the gate towards the catholic church next door was closed,  so I thought it was time to hand back the bike.

When I was back at the hotel I had a conversation with the Phat abut the next part of my journey. He mentioned to me the day before that he could drive me to Can Tho by bike, but I was actually tempted to see a bit more than just the straight way to Can Tho. Instead, he offered a three day trip that would end with a boat trip to the floating markets. It sounded far better than taking a bus, and would give me another chance to see more of rural Vietnam. So at least now I had arrangement for the next day in place.

I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon walking a bit more around, visiting the coffee place for a third time, and this time having a rice soup outside a little temple next to the market (I just love having dinner while sitting on these tiny red plastic chair). Some of the locals walking pass couldn’t help smiling or laughing at me. It just sums up the great atmosphere you can experience in Tra Vinh – it is just so laid back. Besides, all the food they offer along the road is just delicious – great for late night snacks.
I finished a lovely evening back at the café at the square that only opens in the evening. Sitting in one of the comfy chairs, having a lovely ice coffee in front of me, listening to the locals sitting around me, watching the people, and just relax – this is amazing, and it is one of the favourite things I have doe in Vietnam. This was one of the times where I realised what a great coffee culture Vietnam has – I think Italy or France cannot offer anything like that. I think this was a great finish of a short, but absolute lovely stay.

Overall I loved Tra Vinh. It is not touristy, the people here are so welcoming, friendly, and just lovely. Tra Vinh is also slightly unique in a way thanks to the huge Kmer influence you can find here. Add to that the great scenery (green and yellow rice fields) and nice temples to visit, and great street food. I only saw 5 other tourists in town (they were there as part of a bicycle tour)  – considering it really isn’t that easy to get there on your own it shouldn’t be a surprise. But personally I think the hassle is worth it, as this is a place to really experience rural Vietnam, and shows what the Mekong Delta can offer.

Accommodation:
There are not a lot of places to stay. The one I stayed at, Duy Tong (it was also called Van Than Hotel) has some nice rooms available (well – the single one has no window, I wouldn’t like to stay there), and the big room I had was fantastic value for money. large, clean, with A/C, fridge and a nice balcony with not a bad view. It is perfectly located (across the market) and you can find easily fantastic street food around. Phat is actually staying in Ben Tre, and his cousin is looking after that place – but he hardly speaks any English – so this could be a slight problem. But overall it is a good place to stay at in Tra Vinh

Recommendation
The main recommendation would be to go to Tra Vinh. There is so much to do. I could have hired a scooter to visit some of the temples a bit further away, but it was great to soak in the views and experience of this lovely area by cycling around. Also, do not miss the market. And try the various food offered along the main road – it is delicious. Especially the one next to the temple near the market is highly recommend – the Banh Cuon is great. And have a late night coffee at the square north of the market – it is only there in the evening. A wonderful way to finish a night there.

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