After spending a few days traversing the bustling streets of Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC, I was ready to get out of town and visit the Mekong Delta. As there are numerous tours that take guests down to the mighty Mekong for the day I was wary of getting sucked into a trap that would exploit locals rather than showcase their traditional crafts, business, and way of life. Here’s how to get an authentic glimpse at life along the Mekong Delta.
The scenic day trip took us along the massive Mekong Delta in a small traditional wooden boat called sampan. The Mekong Delta comprises of over 15,000 sq miles of rivers that eventually lead to the ocean. We cruised down the main course of the river past massive ships pilled impossibly high with coconuts. Smaller canoes made from the trunk of a tree competed with the larger vessels for space on the waterway as fisherman tossed cylinder nets into the river in hopes of seeking the catch of the day.
Regardless of size, all of the boats have eyes in the Mekong Delta. The eyes make the boats look like something out of a fairytale but are more properly attributed to a nightmare. Their purpose was to scare away the monsters that lurked in the Mekong Delta which is known as Nine Dragon River. This includes fantasy monsters that were believed to exist as a part of ancient folklore but also the crocodiles that used to infest the waters.
Sadly, after the tragedy of the continuous bombing during the Vietnam War not many crocodiles still exist in the area. I came across many locals bathing in the murky water, clearly not phased by the possibility of a potential attack by the monsters. In fact, superstitions are beginning to shift and some fisherman are removing the eyes from their boats as they think they may be scaring away more than just monsters but also the fish they’re trying to catch!
Our first stop is at a traditional brickwork factory that’s owned by a local family and has been operating right of the shores of the Mekong River for a hundred years. Our local guide, Hue, who also took me to the Cao Dai temple, guided us through the workplace as he explained the importance of brick manufacturing as a major contribution to the local economy. I’d never given much thought to how brick are made and was astonished to learn about the strenuous and timely process.
Along the Mekong Delta bricks are made from local soil, mostly from surrounding rice fields. Once the bricks are formed they lay in the sun to dry before baking in the kiln. The brick kilns reminded me of the ancient pagodas I witnessed in Bagan. The kiln heats up to a deadly 1,800°F. During the heating process the bricks change shades into the brick red color we’re all familiar with due to iron. The bricks have been made this way for centuries and still use the same sustainable process. The kiln is fed by dried rice skin that has no other use for rice farmers. To complete the cycle the ash from the kiln is then used as an organic fertilizer. I’m amazed by how full-circle this community-based business is.
We traveled through the small tributaries of the Mekong Delta to reach other hidden gems to learn about daily life along the river and common handicrafts. The area we explored is the Be Tri region, which is locally known as coconut city, and for good reason–the entire area is super lush and extremely dense with coconut palms! We slowly made our way through the canals of the coconut jungle en route to a family-owned and operated coconut candy workshop.
Coconut candy is just as delicious it sounds. It’s a sweet chewy treat that’s also sustainable. The entire process of making coconut candy takes places at this locally owned and operated workshop that employs local villagers. The process is surprisingly quick to make the sweet, or perhaps the workers are just exceptionally skillful and quick. To make coconut candy the first step is to husk an old coconut to retrieve the meat which is peeled out by hand and then pressed into coconut milk which is then boiled with malt and sugar to create a caramel.
After the caramel is formed it takes less than a minute for the women who work here to craft the artisanal toffee–it’s rolled out, chopped into long sections, then into smaller pieces that are individually wrapped in rice paper instead of plastic! Coconut candy flavors include peanut, chocolate, pandan, or if you dare, durian! An assortment of other products are available for sale at the workshop including handmade coconut bowls, cutlery, and all-natural conditioning eyelash mascara made from coconut oil.
As we snacked on our freshly-made coconut delicacies we were treated to an equally sweet musical performance. The musicians played traditional string instruments as a singer introduced us to songs that are performed to welcome guests, and even one to honor the moon. The beautiful guitar-like instrument is intentionally round in order to replicate the shape of a flower and can only play 5 notes.
We continued to float by massive mangrove forests as we made our way down narrow backwaters through the that are inaccessible except for the waterway. This day-trip to supports local sustainable businesses as they’ve established meaningful relationships in order to make the culture-centric tour a way for foreigners to have a unique experience along the Mekong Delta that benefits the local community.
We visited a family that makes a living weaving straw mats for sleeping and tasted exotic fruits at their homestead. To reach the last destination we were beckoned inside a colorful tuk-tuk that took us over bumpy roads to a quaint restaurant near a canal for a delightful lunch. After we ate we gathered inside a tiny rowboat for one last cruise along the palm-tree lined canals–I even spotted one of my favorite birds, a tiny blue Kingfisher!