Our Indochina Specialist Paul has adventured far and wide but his specialty is Vietnam. Having spent three months travelling the length of the country before settling in Hanoi to teach English, Paul lives and breaths Vietnam. On this occasion, Paul tells us all about one of his most treasured memories – a Vietnamese homestay in the Mekong Delta filled with welcoming smiles, floating markets, cycling and boat trips plus delicious home-cooked food.
From bustling Saigon to our homestay
After spending a few days in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), I headed off on my first real foray into the traditional Vietnamese way of life, venturing deep into the heart of Vietnam’s ‘rice bowl’ for a Mekong Delta homestay. En route, I’d meander through five of the Delta’s 13 provinces by bus, boat, bike, and any other means necessary. Aboard the bus bright and early with my fellow travellers who I’d be spending the next few days with, we drove from Saigon through to Ben Tre Province where the first large-scale military action of the Viet Cong occurred during the Vietnam War.
En route: Tasting the tipple behind Nam’s baby boom
Swiftly aboard a small wooden boat, we cantered off along the Hau River for a wonderful insight into the manual industrial world that many of the locals worked in, day in day out. Along the way, we dropped in on a local brick factory, a tiny honey farm to be treated to honey tea and traditional folk music – performed by four of the villagers that lived here – and a coconut candy farm. Here we were given the opportunity to indulge in coconut wine, a mix of vodka and Kahlua and enough to knock anyone off their perch. According to our guide, it was solely responsible for the Mekong Delta’s baby boom.
The depths of the Delta were constructed by beautiful waterways lined with lush, green foliage – broken only by odd wooden shacks and coconut farms dotted along the edge. Old, weathered Vietnamese men fished from their tiny, battered boats whilst young children played freely along the riverbank.
En route: Traditional woven hats and paddle boats
Off the water, we were hustled onto the back of two open-top tuk-tuks and raced through the bumpy back roads to a small stream. We boarded a very slender paddle boat and had our first chance to try for size a Non Quai Thao, the traditional woven hats seen everywhere and feast on the old (spring rolls), the new (seasoned fish), and the unknown (which turned out to be catfish).
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Our arrival: From chaos to magical calm
We were greeted and whisked off to our homestay through the busy traffic by Tin, the young son of the family we would be staying with. He effortlessly navigated us through the chaos of motorbikes, trucks, buses, and people that littered the streets – whilst I held on tight, eyes narrowed to avoid the dust and heart pumping faster than Usain Bolt with the wind behind him.
Ten minutes later and we’d arrived at our homestay in the village of Minh Viet. Banked up along the river, it was poetically magical. The whole place was a small getaway resort – with hammocks, dining areas, beer on ice, and fresh juices aplenty.
Do bear in mind all homestays are different, my experience was a little less basic than Rickshaw’s A Taste of Life on the Mekong trip but the activities and the general feel were similar. If you wanted something a bit more comfy it’s possible to upgrade and stay in an eco-lodge which can only be reached by boat – a truly off-the-beaten-path experience of sleepy Mekong life.
Homestay antics: Cycling trips and friendly faces
There was just enough time to drop our bags off before being led to the local market by Tin, this time by bicycle. Away from the madness of the city, we bumped our way through the narrow streets down to the village market. Most of the stalls were closing up for the day at this point, but promises were made to return in the morning. We carried on, taking all the tiny, winding paths that swathed their way through the dense forestry and along the river that the people of Minh Viet relied on so heavily.
Everywhere we turned, we were greeted by the friendliest of smiles and a chorus of ‘HELLO!’ from every man, woman, and especially child that was in our path. For these people, the sight of Westerners right outside their front door was as exhilarating for them as it was for us. The children, half donned in fake football jerseys, rushed to see us from every angle, eyes illuminating on sight of this tall, hairy guy on a bike waving frantically at them.
Homestay dining: home-cooking under the stars
Upon arriving back, dinner was awaiting us. A feast of prawn cracker rolls, soup, and seasoned fish cooked in a claypot was on offer. Delicious and delightful – nothing beats mum’s cooking, even if it’s someone else’s. Check out our guide to the delicacies of Vietnam for a bit of background reading on the culinary delights of this part of the world.
As the locals are so driven to make use of every last drip of sunlight each day, the entire family packed themselves off to bed by 8pm and we were left to drink and chat the night away. Perched along the river’s edge and under a blanket of stars was a fitting way to end what had been the most sensational of days.
Homestay day trip: Bustling markets and local delights
It was 5.45am and the alarm was going off. Despite this ungodly hour, the rest of the village had already been up and running for some time and it was straight on the bicycles and back to the market. The place was buzzing with the sound of locals trading everything under the sun – from jumping fish and pig’s heads to an array of fruit and veg like you’ve never seen. Again we were greeted with a vociferous welcoming, with beaming smiles and waving hands everywhere. I felt alive. We forayed around the small stands, heaving with goods, as the sun pierced through the canopy above before heading off for another cycle around town.
End of our homestay: Tackling the traffic and local loo!
We were led straight into the early morning traffic to tackle the many motorbikes zipping around. Surprisingly though, it was a breeze. No doubt the locals could spot me a mile off and gave me a wide berth. As we moved from the beaten track and back along the river, Viet women wove rugs from grass, whilst a shop operated a pulley-system across the river for money/goods trade. The ‘public’ toilet was an open wooden shack perched precariously over the edge of a deep swamp, with which to do your business. And yes, it had neighbours.
There was just enough time for a quick bite before heading back to Can Tho. Whizzed back on the motorbikes, we waved goodbye to Tin and his beautiful family that had taken us in as their own for a day. They had been fantastic and the decision to choose the homestay had really paid off.
Back to Saigon: The ebb and flow of the floating market
On our way back to Saigon we visited the Cai Rang Floating Market, 30 minutes boat ride from Can Tho. The floating market here is one of the largest in the world, with hundreds of boats descending on to the river to trade the many products of the Mekong Delta. The market begins at the crack of dawn, with wholesale sellers arriving in their droves to purchase huge quantities of stock from farmers and tradesmen alike. The chain of events then begins, with smaller retailers arriving to buy from the wholesale sellers – who in turn either return to their homes to sell at the market/in their shop or to even smaller buyers arriving by boat later in the morning. The entire morning is a continuous procession of buy and sell, trade and swap – conducted entirely by boat.
Endearing, charming and dominating – the Mekong Delta
Following a welcome pit-stop at a tropical fruit farm to re-hydrate from the near-unbearable midday sun, we were soon on a boat heading back to Can Tho, ready to then board the bus back to the city. There was still one last stop on the way – at Vinh Long Market – and another three hours later we were back to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh ready for the next adventure.
If you’re thinking of spending time here be sure to read our guide for 24 hours in Ho Chi Min for tips on what to see and do.
A Mekong Delta homestay isn’t for everyone but to gain an incredible insight into Vietnamese life outside of the major cities I cannot recommend it enough. The people are endearing, the land charming, and the Mekong sincerely dominating.
It is a hard but beautiful world out there.