Exploring the Mekong Delta. The “rice bowl” of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is a tapestry of rice paddies and farms slashed with waterways, large and small and life here is very much about farming and fishing. Our first stop is Ben Tre. This particular area of the delta is most famous for its coconut industry. The waterways are both beautiful and interesting.
Not many tourists stop at Ben Tre as it is a step beyond My Tho which, being closer, attracts most of the visitors on day trips from Saigon.
We are in a rural spot, over the river from the town, so we set off to explore food options as delta cuisine is different we are told. Crossing over the river we found a very decent noodle place near the top end of the night market. A very good bowl of squid, prawn and fish noodle soup, the local speciality and we felt we had arrived in the delta. We stuck around a little longer just to watch the lady of the house making her wonton dumplings. Moving at an incredible pace she created perfectly formed wontons stuffed with pork and shrimp and arranging them artistically in perfect circles on a plate. I had always assume that they were made by machine!
Next day we join an Aussie family, Suzanne, Simon and their two children, Jonno and Georgia for a boat trip around the canals of Ben Tre. Accompanied by Hong, the hotel manager who is also an excellent guide, we took off in a boat along the rivers and canals.
Along the Mekong, we stop to visit a coconut factory. The place was in full swing with men unloading sacks of coconuts from a large boat. Inside the compound there were men removing the outer husks of coconut with wicked looking spikes (nearly got hit by a flying coconut whilst photographing these guys!). In another area just one woman was wielding a cleaver to chop all the coconuts in half before they were passed on to another two guys who would then separate the flesh from the shell with another odd shaped implement. Othher women were carefully shaving off the brown skins with razor sharp knives. All this was done at incredible speed. Amazingly, all the workers seemed to have all their fingers intact.
One thought that occurred to me at the time was what was going through the mind of that one single woman chopping the coconuts in half when she arrived at the beginning of the day. A fifty foot boat loaded to the brim with maybe 10,000 coconuts! I would have just turned around and gone home.
Every part of the coconut gets used. After this factory has finished with their food extraction techniques, the remaining parts go elsewhere to make doormats, cooking oil, fish food, coconut wine and candy amongst many other things. Even the leaves get used for roofing.
Further along these beautiful waterways is at a brick factory. The brick are made in the old style. i.e. entirely by hand. The kilns are fired by rice husks ( again, nothing is wasted) using an ingenious, automatic hopper system to keep the fire burning. The work is incredibly labour intensive with the women seeming to do all the heavy work. Our guide explains that they get paid for the number of bricks they produce and work up to 15 hours a day for 250k dong, (about $12 a day). No holiday, no sick pay, no safety’s standards and if anything does go wrong and they are sick or injured – no money! An incredibly hard life. It is very hot and humid anyway in the delta but working near these kilns is unbelievably hot. I really don’t know how they do it day in day out, but apparently it is a sought after job here.
I am reasonably fit and pretty strong but I doubt that I could last more than 30 minutes at this job! Somebody is getting rich but it not the workers here.
We get to see inside an empty brick kiln. Apparently it is good luck to have your photo taken inside one so every couple getting married will come here for photos before their weddings. The Vietnamese tradition seems to be to have all your wedding photos taken BEFORE the wedding so they can be shown at the reception. We have seen couples posing all over the country in some truly bizarre places!
We leave our boat at a home that is making coconut candy try some out and have some tea (whilst sitting next to their pet giant Python!). We then jump on the back of a truck and head off to a small shack in the middle of nowhere for a a nice lunch of elephant ear fish. Fed and refreshed, we head back to the hotel for some air-con. It is getting really, really hot by now.
Ben Tre : Need to Know
Getting to Ben Tre from Saigon
On the advice of the lovely Ms Yang from our home-stay in Saigon, we got the unusually named “Thinh Phat” bus to Ben Tre in the middle of the Mekong Delta. Three hours later, in reasonable comfort we arrived at Ben Tre. A quick change to a minibus and we were delivered right to the door of our hotel on the banks of the river – a bargain at 75k Dong or $3.50 (from centre of HCMC to your front door in Ben Tre)
Where to stay in Ben Tre
We stayed at the Oasis Guesthouse, which is a good 20 minute walk to town. It has a small pool and staff can arrange boat trips and bicycles but they offer no evening meals and it is a long walk into town along an unlit road. There are smaller guesthouses and some larger hotels on the town side of the river, nearer the restaurants and market, which are very reasonably priced.
What to eat in Ben Tre
You simply have to try the fabulous fish noodle soup, a speciality of Ben Tre. Can be found everywhere but does vary in quality. Elephant Ear fish is a celebration dish and a little harder to find.