Water world: Afloat on the Mekong Delta
The beauty of being in a hand-rowed boat is the near silence - only the gentle dip of the oar – and a bonus is the closeness of the intensely green vegetation that lines the canal. Palms lean out and fronds touch overhead. The canoe-like boats are propelled by people standing at the aft-end paddling, in sure strokes, with a long oar. It's a joy to be in one.
We pass fishermen laying finely woven, cane, fish traps, people paddling home, houses on stilts with verandas over the water and other water taxis rowed by people wearing conical sunhats.
The delta water is cappuccino coloured and that is just how it should be. It's loaded with silt which provides the nutrients and minerals that make the Mekong Delta immensely productive. Half of Vietnam's rice comes from the delta, a huge variety of fruit and vegetables grow in these damp, fertile soils and fish, both farmed and wild, thrive in the myriads of watery tendrils.
The mighty Mekong River, the world's twelfth largest, started its 2350 kilometre journey in the high Tibetan Plateau and whittled its way through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to Vietnam. Vietnam is the end of its journey and, before it enters the sea, it splits into nine branches; nine dragons is its local name. Those nine dragons divide into millions of tendrils, like the intertwined ends of frayed old rope, making a massive delta.
Here, through the maze of rivers, streams and islands, boats are supreme. Big chugging boats are loaded with bricks and coconuts, smaller fast boats are driven by propellers on long shafts and, my favourite, the slender hand-rowed back-water boats.
In this water world life revolves around what the delta provides and that is considerable.
I'm initially ho-hum about the visit to a brick factory but when our guide, Khoi, explains what's going on I'm impressed. The clay to make the bricks comes from river banks. It's mixed to a suitably firm but flexible consistency in something like a large cake-mixing bowl the bottom of which extrudes the bricks. Three people are involved; a muscular man fills the mixing bowl with clay and water, a woman stacks the new bricks on a board on top of a wheelbarrow and a man wheels them away and stacks them in a drying shed.
When they're dry, and when there are 70,000 of them, the bricks are cured in traditional conical kilns fired by coconut shells and the husks from the rice crop; everything is local, except, probably, the electricity to drive the clay mixer.
It's a short boat ride to the coconut processing plant. Men do the shucking and women sit scraping away the brown skin that remains. The coconut is then on-processed to become desiccated coconut, coconut cream, oil or a sweet treat created when coconut cream is cooked to the consistency of caramels.
None of the by-products are wasted; the shells go to the brick factory for fuel and the fibrous coir is turned into doormats and geotech mesh which is exported for use as natural, stabilising, ground cover. And the millions of coconut trees, which thrive on this moist low-lying land, keep making coconuts.
Our boat takes us along a tangle of waterways to a market, on a delta island, where women stand smiling behind piles of bright and artfully arranged fruit and vegetables. Pineapples, cabbages, gourds, beans, radish, onions, tomatoes, coriander, bamboo shoots, pomelo, jackfruit and other unidentifiable vegetables wait for buyers; the delta is a vegetarian's heaven.
This island doesn't have roads big enough for trucks and cars but the lanes are perfect for walking. We stroll pass rice fields with palms around the edges, and small wooden houses, tucked coolly under shade trees and surrounded by fecund fruit and vegetable gardens. Fences are flowering hibiscus shrubs and butterflies and dragonflies are plentiful and pretty. Nature has its own noises with the high pitched zing of cicadas, coo of doves and whisper of breeze in palms.
Twangy string music comes from between the greenery. Families relax in gardens, people gently doze on hammocks, waiting for the heat of the day to pass before recommencing the chores.
We stop at an orchard and enjoy a fruit plater. Pomelo is a pink, sweet version of grapefruit and jackfruit, as big a rugby ball with barnacle-like skin, has pungent yellow segments that are sweet and delicious. Dragon fruit, with scarlet scales, is refreshing in a watery way and rambutan has skin with soft spikes; it opens like an egg and looks and tastes like lychees. Longan is a smooth and round fruit with a leathery skin which, when opened, looks like an eyeball and has a juicy, grapey taste.
We are hungry and the fruit is delicious but Khoi warns us that lunch is next. A tangle of paths takes us to the home of a family with a small restaurant. A Mekong elephant ear fish is soon brought to the garden table. It looks creepy to us because it's propped-up vertically on a stand, with head, fins and tail intact, as if it's ready to swim away.
But it's been deep fried to a scale-curling crispness, on the outside, and the waitress deftly opens it and pulls away tender white flesh. She rolls this up in rice paper with fresh pineapple, noodles and herbs. We dip the roll into spicy coriander sauce. The end result is a complex, fresh taste sensation.
This is followed by deep fired banana flowers, steamed shrimp with spicy coconut sauce and rice, of course. The final drama is desert; a big puffed-up orb made from sticky rice. It's full of air but with a crispy and sweet exterior.
The meal is totally unlike any I have had before. It's uniquely delta food, all grown and fish-farmed nearby. And all this deliciousness comes from a palm thatched hut with only two walls and two gas burners.
There is a boat in the canal at the edge of the garden and we are rowed through a labyrinth of waterways to join, eventually, one of the nine dragons. This is a seriously big river and Ben Tre city, all concrete and glass and blaring vehicle-filled roads, is on the other side. As is the car that will take us back to Ho Chi Minh. We've only been in the Mekong backwaters for six hours. It seems longer and it's a quick mind-whirl to adjust from serene and green to the pacey buzz of Ho Chi Minh.
Getting there Cathay Pacific flies from New Zealand to Ho Chi Minh via Hong Kong every day. See cathaypacific.co.nz
On the way Overnight at Hong Kong airport. Regal Hotel is superb and only 100 metres from the terminal building. See regalhotel.com
Staying there World Journeys offers tailor-made itineraries throughout Vietnam and Indochina (worldjourneys.co.nz) The Mekong Delta experience would be impossible to organise without a guide and World Journeys' guides are excellent.
When to go Vietnam is an all season's destination. The temperate in Ho Chi Minh is moderate (22 to 30ºC).
The writer was a guest of World Journeys and Cathay Pacific.