During my week in Saigon, I decided to head southwest towards the Mighty Mekong delta for a few days. The sun beat down harder, humidity hovered around 100%, and the smiles were even brighter. Also known as the “Nine Dragon River Delta,” the Mekong Delta is where the river feeds into the Pacific. A network of distributaries command the landscape here and the people of the area depend on the waterways as much as they do on the land.
After connecting via two buses, I found a motorbike taxi willing to take me across a large distributary via barge boat. I was on my way to a homestay in the village of Vinh Long. Homestays here offer the opportunity to stay with a local family, eat dinner with them, and really get a feel for how the locals live. Rule of thumb is: the smaller it is, the better. Otherwise, it’s been homogenized into a hostel. The Ngoc Sang hostel featured a place to sleep, dinner, breakfast, and use of their bicycle for $12 a night.
The view from the terrace-entrance of the homestay.
The minute I arrived to Ngoc Sang homestay, I was shown my room complete with a bed and mosquito net, and greeted with a freshly dripping ca phe sua (hot coffee with condensed milk). Coffee here is a big part of the culture, and it’s much stronger than a typical americano. If you’re lucky, it also has a chocolate finish. Later on, I met a French couple also staying at the homestay and spoke for a while with Guillaume while relaxing on the hammocks. We spoke about the resilience of the people and how they embrace all tourists. Being French and American, we both sympathized for the Vietnamese people for what our respective countries did.
The next day, I took advantage of the available bicycles and rode around the various isles and bridges of the village. The land had narrow streets while the remainder was rich with fauna and farms growing fruits like lychees, bananas, and coconuts.
Waterways meandered through the gardens of the locals’ property. I continued riding for about an hour until I reached another barge port and decided to turn around. I was covered in sweat and on the hunt for some cooling coconut and lunch. After slapping high-fives to some locals on the way back, I found my lunch spot.
The small restaurant featured vegetarian pho and freshly cut coconut, all for $1.75. The hot pho had me sweating profusely, but the endothermic effect soon cooled me off as I hopped back on the bike.
That afternoon I took the invite of the French couple, Guillaume and Laura, to head further south to Can Tho where one of the largest floating markets in Southeast Asia can be witnessed in the early morning.
The Cai Rang market literally does take place on the water, where vendors and merchants all trade goods between boats. Farmers from as far as Cambodia come to the market and sell their fresh harvest from large barge-like boats. Smaller boats, which are primarily local restaurants, wade through and buy all their grocery here. In essence, it’s a large scale farmer’s market.
A farmer with his watermelons calling out his price. Boats advertise what they’re selling by hanging their produce at the top of a pole (upper left of picture above).
A local business woman collecting her weekly grocery.
The age old tradition of eyes at the head of the boat are still used by the farmers here. The eyes were thought to ward off evil sea monsters & spirits of the sea. The colors used represent the origins of the farmers. The red color scheme above is representative of the Khmer people (Cambodia). Today, the eyes are still used for good fortune. Although, dogs and roosters may be the new protectors…
Making Rice Noodles
The next part of the tour was one I was looking forward to the most, being shown how rice noodles are made at a local plant near the floating market. The workers here start at the early hour of 3am.
First, rice that has been separated from its hull is put into a grinder.
The rice is blended with water and potato starch (helps it bind). The ratio is 70% rice and 30% potato starch.
Next, the blended batter is poured onto a hot pan.
Interestingly, the ovens used to heat the pans are fueled by the leftover rice hulls. Nothing goes to waste.
After it is semi-cured, the circular rice cake is taken off the pan…
And set on straw mats made of bamboo. The thin rice cakes are still delicate and moist at this point.
In order for them to dry completely, the rice cakes are set outside to cure under the sun for a few hours.
Once cured, each thin rice cake is driven through a shredder of sorts which creates the final product – rice noodles. Finally, Laura, Guillaume, and I had some fried rice noodle cakes topped with scallions and peppers for breakfast. We then went back on the boat and needed something to help with the heat…
We hopped onto another boat of a local merchant with fresh pineapples. She happily cut up a few into a spiral-like popsicle for us in a matter of minutes. Being witness to the entire process, it was quite possibly the sweetest pineapple I’ve had.