Taking dusty backroads and tiny ferries, Brett Davis experiences the people, wildlife and landscape of the Mekong Delta up close from the seat of a classic Vespa. Photos by Brett Davis and Ruben Luong.
It’s not yet 9am but the sun is beating down and it’s already fiercely hot as we wait for the first of several ferry crossings we will make over the next two days. The small wooden vessel chugs up to the dock and disgourges its cargo of people, motorbikes, produce and livestock. Then it is our turn and we maneuver the old Vespas that are our transport onto the increasingly cramped deck.
Only an hour or so before, we had ridden out through Nha Be district and into Long An province as part of Vietnam Vespa Adventure’s two-day tour in the Mekong Delta. I had spent some time in the Delta at a friends’ family home, but had always shied away from tours because of what I had heard about the standard fare. Tales of being loaded onto buses and paraded through a series of handicraft workshops and coconut candy factories did not do a lot for me.
The Mekong Delta covers some 39,000 square kilometres, and its northeastern point begins on Ho Chi Minh City’s doorstep. From the city’s western fringes it stretches across to An Giang province on the Cambodian border and then to Ca Mau province at the southernmost tip of the country, forming a great triangle of incredible biodiversity and unique landscapes.
The promise of heading off the beaten path with the Vespa tour was much more appealing, and judging by the tiny village our little vessel was heading towards on the other side of a wide swath of river, that was certainly going to be the case. After man-handling the bikes up the gangplank we set off through open country dotted with shrimp ponds and salt pans, arriving a little while, and a few dirt roads later, at Vam Sat ecological reserve.
The reserve lies in the lower reaches of the Dong Nai River system and contains a wealth of wildlife. Climbing an observation tower above the tree line of the mangrove forest we could observe countless bird species. While riding along the path through the forest we encountered a troop of monkeys, including mothers with infants clutched in their arms. On a slow boat ride through the narrow waterways we also came across a colony of fruit bats.
There is also a large lagoon in the park where you can get up close to the legendary Mekong crocodile. Casting off on a small boat with a high wire mesh guard rail, we are soon surrounded by half a dozen of the ominous-looking creatures, their cold reptilian eyes staring back from only a few feet away. There is the chance to feed the crocs with meat tied on a line that is attached to a long stick. The animals leap out of the water and snatch the food with a terrifying whump.
Cruising away from the park there are other stops to talk to people working on shrimp farms and making incense. It is these moments of interaction with the people who call the Mekong Delta their home that are some of the most satisfying of the two days.
Another ferry crossing brings us to the rural district of Can Giuoc, where we pull up dusty and sweaty at a restaurant on the river bank. The cold beer tastes exceptionally good after a long day. Then we are off to the hotel to freshen up before returning to the same venue for the evening’s main activity.
This was a cooking class where the guests prepared several dishes under the tutelage of a local instructor. It was a lot of fun to make bok choy and pepper shrimp, as well as fried rice in a pineapple boat, among other things. It was also another example of how this tour gives you a chance to experience something of the local culture beyond where most go.
The next morning commenced amid the bustle and noise of Can Giuoc’s wet market. The group had a breakfast nearby of some of the best bun thit nuong I’d ever had, washed down with rich, sweet ca-phe sua da.
With the sun still slanting low across the horizon, we set off out of town and were immediately on back country roads, riding on the high berms between rice fields. The tracks were precarious in parts, but with experienced local riders in control of the Vespas, the only thing for us guests to do was settle back in the pillion seat and take in the majesty of the countryside.
As we moved into Tien Giang province, the landscape became a postcard vision of Vietnam: verdant green rice fields, coconut palms, stands of bananas and farmers tilling the fields.
Along the way there were numerous stops that gave us a chance to experience a slice of local life. Early on was a small farm that was a model of sustainability. Here, farmers grew pigs and rice, and the manure from the pigs was used to fire the stills that turned the rice into rice wine. The leftover mash was then used as feed for the pigs.
Further along the road was a magnificent 130-year-old house, which was a little bit of Hue in the Delta. The intricate carvings and many Chinese motifs of the 100-pillar house were explained to us by the very accommodating current owners, who are the fourth generation of custodians in this special place.
We finally arrived at Tan Thanh, on the coast of Tien Giang province, near where some of the many tributaries of the Mekong empty into the sea. The group had lunch in the most extraordinary of places, a series of wooden pavilions built on stilts over the ocean and connected by narrow walkways.
It seemed remarkable that the whole rambling structure had not fallen into the ocean, but instead remains perched above the largest natural clam bed in the country and looking over the East Sea. With a gentle breeze cooling our sweaty brows, it was the perfect place to end a great adventure.
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