23. The Mekong Delta, a bike, and too much rice wine

09/01 – 11/01

After a lovely stay in Tra Vinh it was time for my next trip on back of a scooter. I booked with Mr Phat, the owner of the Duy Tong hotel. It was slightly more expensive than what I paid for Ninh Binh, and for the $170 I was driven from Tra Vinh to Can Tho via Soc Trang.

Accommodation in Soc Trang wasn’t included, but a overnight at a homestay near Can Tho including dinner was. Otherwise food was extra. In addition it included a private boat to visit some of the floating markets and getting to Can Tho. I think overall it was a reasonable price (and cheaper after some negotiations). In hindsight I must say it was money well spent…

As usual I turned up a bit later than agreed (I am just not a morning person) and Phat was already waiting for, and very quickly my bags were stored in front of his seat , and after I made myself as comfortable as possible on the back of the scooter we were off.

The first stop was not too far away from town – the nicely named Ba Om pond Beauty Spot. It is one of the places around Tra Vin recommended to visit, and consist of pond surrounded by trees, and a little pagoda in the middle of the pond. It is a nice place, and must be great especially in the afternoon when it is quite warm, as the shades would offer good resting places. Near the pond is another popular temple: Angkorajaborey Pagoda (or Ang Pagoda for people too lazy saying the full name). It is a little but still very nice Khmer temple. As an extra I was able to see how the stupas stay so shiny – quite a few monks were hanging on them, cleaning and polishing – one or two still being able to wave at me. Talk about dedication.

As the culture centre was closed were back on the road – making our way towards the Mekong, passing some villages and plantation. Soon we stopped at another little temple. This time Phat took some time to explain the difference between the Buddhism in Cambodia and Vietnam. I didn’t had any idea about it – so it was rather interesting. It was also the first time that I realised that some temples had 5 Naga heads on statues, while others had 7 heads. If no one point even the obvious sights out – I will just miss it. But it shows that having a good guide has its advantages.

Soon enough we were finally on a stretch of road that offered me a view I was really looking forward to – rice paddies everywhere. With the strong green it was a lovely sight. I don’t know why, but I love the sights of yellow or green rice fields – I find it relaxing, especially if you can see a slight breeze going through the fields. And where you can see rice fields, you can also see the locals working very hard. Being on the bike with a nice cool breeze you only realise how hot it is when you stop. It is then when you consider how hot it must be to work on the field while the sun is shining. It really must be hard work – and the locals do it for hours throughout the year.

I really enjoyed the view, and Phat made sure we had regular stops – to give my bum a rest, but also to enjoy the scenery. We stopped at a few other temples, mainly Khmer ones. At Hang Pagoda I was able to see how simple the monks live when they prepared lunch in one of the halls. At another temple I could watch locals working on adding a large lying Buddha statue to the temple. At one point Phat suddenly stopped, and turned immediately. I thought we missed something back at the temple – but he just spotted a little house where rice was prepared. I saw the process done with old fashioned tools during my cooking class in Hoi An, this was with machines – well, a small one. But it was a good contrast. The local workers were all friendly, shaking my hands, smiling, welcoming me to their little working place – and showing me how everything worked – Phat obviously translating.

After a short drive (again, it was just stunning: fields, little villages – everything looked so colourful – and locals waving at us) we arrived at Vietnam’s largest Khmer temple – Vam Ray. It was probably the most impressive one. The temple with all the artwork covering it and statues that reminded me of visiting Angkor Wat was just beautiful – the inside was not bad either. In addition there was a huge lying Buddha – easily over 20 metre long. It was very nice to walk around, and also enjoying the surrounding areas with fields and trees. After all the hard work so far it was time for a break, so Phat and myself made ourselves comfortable on some hammocks, and I had my first sugar cane juice in Vietnam. If you drink it warm, it is not very nice – but drink it ice cold, and it is one great refreshing drink – perfect on a hot summer day. It was great just sitting down, watching the locals dealing with some constructions around the temple, and just have a chat with Phat to learn more about this area.

After this break it was time to head to the Mekong. The plan was getting to Soc Trang via one of the many islands in the Mekong – and he hasn’t been to this one. But before we took the ferry it was time for lunch – finally. We stopped at a little place in the middle of nowhere (well, it was somewhere, near the little ferry point to be precise), ok it was not that small actually as it had a pool table. Despite being a bit of a late lunch, it was rather busy. However, like at previous stops I was welcomed with some curious stares, and the usual smiles. Lunch was also as usual simple but nice. While I found out that the toilet of the place was a tree outside (not sure if there was another tree for female visitors), I realised why the place was rather busy with lcoal men. They were all gathering at the backyard, watching two men preparing two cocks – I was about to witness my first ever cock fight. The locals were actually asking me to join watching, and I had declined an offer for a bet (wasn’t even sure when we had to leave – as the owner of the place would get a call when the little ferry arrives). I understand that cock fighting is banned in many countries, nonetheless it seems to be popular in rural Vietnam. It was actually fascinating to watch the fight, but also to see the locals shouting and cheering for the different cocks. It was definitely not something I would see everyday.

Before the fight was over we were advised that the ferry is arriving shortly, so off we headed to the ferry point – just a 15 minute drive. Actually, calling it a ferry point would be an overstatement. There was a shop that sold the tickets next to the river, and the little ferry was stopping next to the end of the paved road. I understand why you wouldn’t like to miss the ferry by a minute, as it takes a while to offload it, then getting passengers and goods on, and then cross the Mekong (quite large once again). I used the waiting time with one of my favourite activity – watching people. Once again I got the feeling that hardly any tourists get there. Kids and grown up looked curious seeing, asking Phat what I was doing there. I hope he didn’t say anything dodgy…. Away from the house I was watching some locals fishing, and they suddenly got very excited as something big was caught – it took some effort, but everyone was laughing when it became clear that instead of a big fish just some wood and garbage came out of the water. I guess this didn’t end up on a dinner plate.
Soon enough we were able to get onto the little boat – the order was 1) goods 2) bikes (parked neatly next to each other between the seats) 3) passengers 4) followed by late coming bikes.


When we were finally on our way to the other side I just realised how strong the current was – the little boat drifted further down. Also, I think this was one of the widest sections I have seen for the Mekong – it took around 10 – 15 minutes to reach the other side – which was only an island in the middle of the Mekong

We finally arrived the little island Cu Lao Pung, and not surprisingly it took a while to get all the bikes off the boat. While I was waiting for Phat near a little store some of the locals were laughing a bit, pointing at me, and gesturing inside the house. I had no idea what happened, just that it was about me. When he finally joined me he was able to translate – telling me that one of the women would like to introduce me to her daughter, who just came out of the house. I was told that she would be a great wife, and I should take her with me. Clearly everyone around me found it very entertaining to see my confused look. Thankfully no one was offended when I declined another wedding proposal, and a photo was taken with me and the supposed-to-be-my-wife-if-I had-accepted. When I told some friends the story, they politely told me I should have accepted – I might not getting better offers. Maybe I just need to find new friends!!!!!.

From the ferry point we needed to get to the other side of the island, to cross the Mekong for a second time. It was rather entertaining to see Phat asking the various locals which way to go – he really has never been on that island. But I am glad he took me there. It was a rather large island, driving along little paved roads, passing villages, plantations and lots of waving locals. I think it would be nice staying here for a few days (considering no tourist infrastructure it would be very very basic – but that would make it even more appealing).
After a few wrong turns we arrived at the second ferry point – and this was a proper one, busy with cars, lorries and bikes.

The ferry was much larger as well, and the crossing was much faster this time. But it is difficult to imagine how large the Mekong here is – the island wasn’t that narrow and the two sections we crossed weren’t small. Incredible…

Finally back on the main land we continued the ride to Soc Trang – the scenery unchanged with lots of rice fields and villages. In addition we passed a few little canals, where boats loaded with rice and other goods where passing by, palm trees along the river, seeing the sun slowly going down. It all looked quite peaceful.


Around 6pm we finally made it to the town of Soc Trang. It looked much busier than Tra Vinh, but I actually don’t know which place is bigger. As accommodation wasn’t included Phat drove me to Phu Qui hotel, where they showed me a nice room. However, 400,000 was a bit too much. It turned out very quickly that this was the price for Westerner, and after I walked out they agreed quickly to offer me the price for Vietnamese – 250,000 Dong. That was a good price for a room that was spacious with a comfortable bed and with A/C. So overall not bad.

For dinner Phat took to me to one of the food places he knows – and it was situated in a lovely backyard. Once again, the owner and guests were literally staring at me – I really got used to it, and the noodle dish Phat ordered for me was just massive – and delicious.
After dinner we did one of my other favourite activities in Vietnam – stopping at a café situated on the street next to a roundabout with a massive statue there, and enjoying a late evening ice coffee. We spoke to some locals sitting next to us (well, Phat talked to him and translated for me). It was relaxing and another nice way to finish a lovely day.

Another early start for the next day (well – 8pm is early for me), and after a nice Banh Mi next to the hotel (it was kind of a version of a breakfast roll back in Scotland – just Vietnamese style) we were off once again. First we stopped at one very colourful temple in Soc Trang – Chua Dat Set, also called Clay pagoda. You could easily miss the entrance as it looked like a normal entrance to a house, but as soon you enter the pagoda you can how colourful it is, and full of statues build by the family who built and still run by the same family. The other name of the pagoda – Clay Pagoda – is given as the temple if full of clay statues built by a local monk. It also has a lovely backyard – with some quite large fish to be seen. It is worthwhile to stop here, as it is so different to the other temples I have seen in this area.

 

Then it was time to leave Soc Trang to head towards Can Tho – or rather a place 15 miles away from it. The ride was very pleasant once again – as we passed once again quite a few rice paddies. At one point we stopped and Phat took me onto a field where local men, women and even kids were working. But instead of rice they were harvesting little potatoes. Sitting in the sun, getting the potatoes from the ground, hitting the bulks against stone pillars to free them from the soil, and then packing into the bags. After a being a bit unsure at the start, they were smiling at me while I watched them working, some of the kids took it as a welcoming break to come over to watch me with the camera. In this area potatoes are apparently quite important, and I saw quite a few stalls on the street selling boiled potatoes you can eat as little snacks.
The road then became a bit larger and busier road (and slightly dustier), and we stopped at two more temples. The nice thing about the temples were the stupas and some of the lovely statues highlighting parts of Buddha’s life. I think it could be slightly compared to the stations of the cross of catholic churches. I never seen them before, but there were quite a few in the Mekong Delta, and it is quite interesting to take the time to watch them.

 

Our final stop prior to arriving at the homestay was another famous temple near Can Tho – the Thien Vien Truc Lam Pagoda. Arriving there (it is not located inside a town, rather outside next to a dusty road) you can easily understand why it is a popular place to visit by tourists – mainly Vietnamese. The whole complex is just lovely. From the main gate a long paved path, with a pond on each site, leads passing two little towers to the main temple, which has a beautiful shrine inside. Behind there is another little building, connected by some path covered by a wooden roof – where you get some protection against the torching sun. I didn’t see any western tourists here, so not sure if any tours from Can Tho get there, but it would be worthwhile.

We were then off for a final 30 minutes ride to the rural area outside of Can Tho – the An Binh Ward. I am sill not sure where exactly it is, only that is along a canal that gets off from one section of the Mekong. The homestay Sau Hoai is located there, which is owned by Phat’s brother. If you like being away from main tourist area – that’s a good place to be. It is located next to the little canal, and the back garden with the seating arrangements was great. Besides a bar for the locals, a homestay with four rooms it is also producing rice noodles – which I was promised to be shown around later in the evening. Rooms were simple, but every room of the simple bungalows had its own bathroom – I will be very happy about that fact later that night!!!!

Over a late lunch (it was only 3pm when we arrived) I had a final chat with Phat, as he was heading back to Ben Tre to see his family. He ensured that his nephew will look after me as his English was apparently very good, while the English of his brother was a bit limited. I must say I really enjoyed the time with Phat. He is a nice guy, he really explained a lot to me, and made sure I see a lot on the way. The tour over the island was a nice touch, and the need to ask constantly for direction to get from one ferry point to the other was entertaining. So I can only recommend taking him as guide and driver if anyone meets him in at his hotel in Tra Vinh.

After lunch I just took a little break, and decided that it would be a good idea to explore the area a bit. I think I still think that it was a great idea….

I just followed the little path along the canal, seeing some basic local homes, kids playing along the path waving at me, it was a quiet and peaceful place. I then came across a table where three older locals were sitting. They waved at me, and gestured to the empty seat next to them, offering me some tea. Thinking that it would be nice to sit here, I just took the seat. They were all smiling at me, and soon enough two girls joined us  – clearly happy to practise their English. One of them even had her English school book with her. The book contained mainly pictures with the English words of the items below, and some simple phrases. It was entertaining to try to help them pronouncing the words (not sure how helpful it is hearing the pronunciation from a German who has spent far too much time in Scotland!!!). Suddenly some plates appeared on the table, followed by some food, and before I could say something the guy next to me put some food onto the plate in front of me. Next a 500ml bottle with clear liquid were brought to the table – and one glass. Without knowing it then, I was to be introduced about the technique of drinking rice wine…
The procedure was simple. One person pours rice wine into the glass, takes a sip, and give the remaining content to one of the others. Not wanting to look unfriendly I just took the glass whenever it was offered, and drunk the rice wine. The first bottle was soon finished, and a second appeared. And so did more locals – men, women..their kids – maybe wanting to see how a foreigner can deal with rice wine. The atmosphere was absolute lovely and relaxed. One of the newly arrived man spoke a little bit English, and I had a little chat. In addition I had now four young girls sitting in the hammock next to me, wanting to learn more English words. And suddenly the second bottle was emptied. And a third bottle turned up – and this time it was my turn to fill the glass – which meant drinking a bit of every glass.  In hindsight I should have stopped at bottle #2 – but you always know better afterwards. Around 1 1/2 or 2 hours after sitting down the third bottle was empty, and I felt “a bit” drunk. At that point it was time to say goodbye, and head back to the homestay as dinner would be ready. It was a great experience to sit there and enjoying the warm hospitality of the locals (well – maybe except of the amount of rice wine – I am sure if I wouldn’t have got up they would have brought out a 4th bottle – it seems they don’t know to stop!!!),  and to a big cheer I walked back (ok, walking might not be the right phrase).

I can still remember how I left the table, but still not sure how I actually managed the way back to my room – maybe it is good if there is only one path, but still glad I didn’t end up in someone else’s bed. After what felt a short nap, someone knocked at the door telling me that dinner is ready in 30 minutes. Despite saying I will be there, I never did. I actually felt guilty afterwards that they work hard in the kitchen and me not turning up (dinner was included in the price of the room).
Instead I slept till 3am – without the mosquito net. Maybe the alcohol content of my blood prevented me being bitten to death!!!! And after waking up I really was happy that I had my own bathroom (nuff said)

Unfortunately I only was able to sleep till 5am, as I was picked up by a boat at 6am to visit two floating markets. Waking up with a horrendous hangover, I wasn’t sure being on a boat would be a the best idea. But in the end I got somehow ready to get to the next place of my journey – Can Tho.

Overall the motorbike ride from Tra Vinh to outside Can Tho was a great experience. I am glad I did that instead taking a bus, as I would have missed quite a lot. Having a guide who speaks very good English and knows the area is a big plus. And it also showed me more of rural making Delta, something missed by most tourists who head from A to B by bus, staying on the beaten tourist track. Like other places in Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is explored best by bike.
Also, despite a horrendous hangover, the drinking with what felt like a whole village turning up is one experience I will hardly forget. It was entertaining, and showed the warm hospitality (I actually left some money for the food and drinks), and showed once again the difference of Vietnamese in the main tourist areas, and areas with hardly any tourists. I can only recommend taking the time to visit these areas of the Mekong Delta – it is just a beautiful and cultural rich area.

Accommodation:
The hotel in Soc Trang was just a normal hotel – comfortable, and if paying the non-touristy price good value for money. The homestay Sau Hoai is surely a nice place to stay – even though I missed the food, the area feels like the real rural Vietnam. Great place to stay a night or two.

Recommendation:
The main one is taking the time to explore the area between Tra Vinh, Soc Tran and Can Tho. There are so many beautiful Khmer temples, great scenery and friendly locals. I think staying one of these islands with hardly any tourist infrastructure would be a great experience, and something I will consider for future trips. Soc Tran is also a place worth a stay. So if time is no constrain, spending a few more days in the Mekong Delta could be a good idea

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