The Mekong River flows from China to southern Vietnam, changing its name several times as it flows over four thousand kilometres through diverse environments to the South China Sea. Where exactly this great river starts, no one knows for sure. Between the difficulty navigating both the terrain around its source and portions of violent rapids within the river itself, its absolute beginning is left a mystery. This great river, one of the longest in the world, meanders through China, Myanmar/Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to Vietnam, where my brother and I had a chance to dip our feet in.
Our tour of the Mekong Delta started poorly, mostly because we naively assumed our tour would follow our itinerary, even though we had already run into this problem on this trip. After I argued with the tour guide, and after he laid his hand on my shoulder, sighed, and told me his company said they would—wow—give us what we paid for, things started looking up. We switched tours. The new tour bus bumped its way along the roads, passing many green rice paddies the fertile delta region is known for.
Later in the morning, hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived at a muddy-looking river. We were transferred to a boat that was scheduled to follow our itinerary, and as it turns out, it was the nicest boat there. I bought a traditional cone hat, hoping it would look as charming on me as it did on Vietnamese women (my brother would say it didn’t). With that purchase, I was dressed and ready to begin our three-day journey of the Mekong Delta.
The wider rivers were lined with rickety, pastel-coloured stilt houses, while the smaller rivers were shaded by palm trees and overhanging branches. Along the shores, I saw groups of men chatting together, people bathing with buckets along the riverbanks, women cooking, children standing and waving.
The local people usually ignored our large boat of staring tourists, but once in a while, when we were closer to shore, small groups of men would stop their chatter and watch us go by. We would look each other in the eyes, both sides imagining what the other was thinking. All we could do was communicate with a smile on our lips and in our eyes. We cruised the rivers in both our big wooden tour boat and small canoe-like rowboats that were powered by older women with long oars. I enjoyed running my hands in the lukewarm water as the women propelled us down the narrow canals—that is, I did enjoy it until I saw the garbage that was floating along with us.
But we didn’t just cruise the maze of rivers; frequent touristy stops along the way kept us busy. We watched a woman make rice paper, toured a carpentry shop and rice-husking mill, learned how to make a coconut milk and caramel treat, rowed around a floating village, fed jumpy fish at a fish farm, bicycled a small island village, and visited a Muslim mosque in the Cham village. We climbed the stone steps up Sam Mountain in the town of Chau Doc and saw the colourful, Buddha-filled Cavern Pagoda. The views of extensive, vibrant green rice fields near the Cambodian border highlighted the importance of this fertile region.
A tour of the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam would not be complete without an exploration of a floating market, and our tour certainly didn’t disappoint. We stopped at three: Cai Be, Cai Rang, and Can Tho. Here, dozens of buyers and sellers trade their goods from the comfort of their boats. Food items tied to a bamboo stick on the deck of the boat advertises what’s for sale on that particular boat, including anything from pumpkins to carrots to lettuce to potatoes to pineapples. Farmers come from around the delta to “park” at one of these floating markets and sell their goods. Some families live on the boats permanently, travelling back and forth along the river from the fields to the markets. Others have houses on the mainland and only stay on the boat while they’re selling their goods. While life on the Mekong is inevitably slow-paced, I found the energy in the markets to be livelier and more vibrant, even if the speed of the boats was still slow.
The sienna-brown Mekong River provided a quiet but dramatic backdrop for a colourful voyage through the delta. The “river of nine dragons” ends its long, winding journey from China as it enters the sea from one of nine estuary rivers. We ended our long, winding journey from Ho Chi Minh City as we entered the sea on a ferry heading for Phu Quoq.