Monday, September 25, 2023

A day on the Mekong Delta

A visit to Vietnam would not be complete without a trip to the Mekong Delta. in southern Vietnam. You can spend days, even weeks, visiting the region in southern Vietnam. With only a day to visit from Ho Chi Minh City during our recent cruise, we a second visit to this incredible (and expansive) area would be worthwhile.

Boats take locals and visitors between islands and 
the mainland.

Fifth largest in the world, the Mekong River starts in the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet. The resulting delta is a vast maze of rivers, swamps, and islands. Boats are the main means of transportation, and floating markets are popular among locals and tourists.

Fish lunch prepared by a local lady

Life in the area revolves around water with farming and fishing supporting 20 million Vietnamese. The Delta is renowned as the “rice bowl of Vietnam” because more than half of Vietnam’s rice (and fish) comes from the region. For this reason, the Delta is essential to the Vietnamese economy and diet.

With this background, I will describe our most recent excursion through the small waterways of the Mekong. Upon arriving at the Delta, we took a boat ride to Thoi Son Island, one of several in the area where people live. After disembarking we walked to the village where we planned to interact with and learn more about the unique life of the locals.

Bee pollen tea and fried banana strips

Bee keeping is popular and useful as we learned when we were served a snack of tasty banana strips fried in honey and tea flavored with honey bee pollen. Flowers and fruits were plentiful--among them the durian, a very stinky Asian fruit that people either love or hate.

Dorian is a "love or hate" fruit.

Making coconut candy
Coconuts are a staple food in Vietnam. Every part has a use, from food to lotions to cleaning supplies. Our guide broke open a coconut and showed how the milk is saved and processed into candy and other products. All processing is done by hand—no machines are used. We watched a local lady make coconut candy by flattening the mound of cooked coconut and then cutting it into strips. The result is a sweet, chewy treat that is the consistency of peanut butter. Ultimately other ladies cut the candy strip into pieces which were individually wrapped by hand for sale.

Assortment of tropical fruits

Later a group of locals sang traditional songs for us while we enjoyed pieces of different tropical fruits and jasmine tea. What a treat it was for some of our group to be invited to dance with them.

Typical houses on the island are very basic, possibly with open sides, perhaps a small porch, and equipment for outside chores nearby. Yards as we know them were nonexistent, Stepping stones made paths to keep shoes and feet from getting muddy with frequent rains. Colorful flowers and edible plants seemed to grow wild.

A typical home on the island of Thoi Son

After these experiences, we boarded a sampan (like a canoe) for a journey down the Mekong River. Our boat was paddled by a “little old lady” who sat cross-legged and barefoot as she deftly maneuvered through palm trees lining the banks. For protection from the sun she wore a wide-brimmed had made of rice straw, which we learned was waterproof and would last about two years. We made sure to sit as still as possible in order not to tip the boat (the water was not inviting), even while sampling fresh coconut milk.
Sampan ride down the Mekong River

Ferries transport people and goods from one island to another during the day. However, residents are able to provide for most of their needs on their own island, meaning they live a very simple, almost cloistered,  lifestyle. As we returned to the mainland we passed various fishing boats, many adorned with “eyes” intended to keep evil away.

Fishing boats

Vietnam remains a poor rural country. Farmers and fishermen face many challenges in the Delta these days, including sea level rise, land subsidence, increasing salinity, and shifting water regimes. It’s not an easy life—far from the bustle and hustle of ever-growing cities that may be all some visitors see of the country.

However you arrive in Vietnam, by land or sea, plan to include some time on the Mekong Delta.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


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