When you travel to Vietnam, one of those “must see places” is the Mekong Delta. This lush and fertile land where the Mekong River spreads into a whole network of channels as it nears the ocean, is almost completely used for agriculture, and the people who work this land live on the islands between all of the waterways. It is a unique place, where you can wander through villages and among orchards and rice fields, paddle through natural canals and float around in busy floating markets.
Travelling the Mekong Delta independently isn’t easy. It can be done, but it is far easier to take a tour. The problem is, finding a good tour company is difficult. When I searched online, I found that there was very little information on which tour operators are good and which aren’t so good. Even my Lonely Planet guide couldn’t provide much help; so, like most people, we just had to turn up in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and book a tour and hope that it worked out.
We booked a 3 day/2 night tour which would take us through the Mekong Delta and onto Phnom Penh in Cambodia, as this was our next destination. The tour agency was Sapphire Travel and the actual tour company turned out to be An Travel.
We were picked up at the tour office and walked through the streets of Pham Ngu Lao with about 20 other tourists. It turned out that we would join the 1 day and 2 day tour groups for the first and second days. We were crammed onto a tiny bus that was mostly taken up by domestic Vietnamese tourists who had about 5000 kids who were allowed to run a muck. Our guide therefore spoke Vietnamese to them and said little to the rest of us in English, so I had no real idea what we were doing and or where we were going.
After a short break at a very overpriced rest stop, we were taken to a pagoda, but on the way there I noticed that our guide wasn’t even on the bus. I can’t tell you what the name of the pagoda is as there was no one to tell me. We were given 15 minutes to look around before we had to get back on the bus.
On the way to our next destination we stopped to pick up our guide again and were taken to My Tho, which is basically the gateway to the Mekong Delta. This is where we boarded a boat on the Mekong River. Once again, our guide preferred to speak to the Vietnamese tourists, but I did find out that one of the islands that we would be visiting is called “Unicorn Island”. I don’t know which one.
As we pulled up at an island, the guide announced that we are stopping there to see how they make coconut candy. When we got off the boat, we were joined by another tourist boat that apparently was also part of our tour. There must have been about 50 tourists all up crowding around our guide as he showed us how to grind the coconut up for the first stage of the candy making process. I can’t tell you anything about how they make coconut candy as I couldn’t see or hear anything about it. We were allowed to taste some candy, but it was a major push and shove affair to get any, so I just waited until everyone wandered off to get some. Yes, it was delicious. I wish I knew how they made it!
When I caught up with the group again, I found that we were all lining up for a horse and carriage ride through the village. The horses were tiny and scrawny and had to pull a cart with six people on it. This wasn’t in the tour itinerary and we weren’t interested at all, but I didn’t know if we would come back to the same location, so we had to jump on for the ride. The poor horses had to fly through the village (which looked really interesting by the way, but none of my photos turned out from the speed we were travelling across the rough road), and at one point we collided with the cart in front of us. As I was sitting at the back of the cart, it was all I could do not to fall out, and I ended up with a nice bruise on my back and losing my water bottle in the process. There was no time to pick it up as we were off flying through the village again before I could compose myself.
After about 10 minutes we were back at the coconut candy factory and being herded back onto the boat.
From here we were taken to another island where we would stop for lunch. We had the option of meat with vegetables and rice or egg with vegetables and rice for the vegetarians. The meat was rat meat. Yes, rat meat. Honestly, I am quite open when it comes to eating food in different countries. Rat meat is quite normal in Vietnam, and they are caught in the rice fields, so there is nothing wrong with them. It is fine if you are an adventurous eater and like trying new things. Still, shouldn’t we have been told about this when we booked the tour? It seems like an important thing to mention to me, though maybe I am making too much of it. Either way, I was suddenly a vegetarian on this particular trip. I’m sure the rat would have been very tasty, but I just wasn’t up for it. I’m also quite certain that several of the other tourists had no idea that rat was being served.
After lunch we had a little free time to look around, and we went straight for the free bicycles and began cycling around the island. This was the first time on the tour that we were actually enjoying ourselves, but we only had half an hour and had to turn around and head back. I would have skipped everything that we had done so far to just spend more time cycling around the island.
The next stop on the tour was a “honey farm” where we could try some honey tea. Again, I can’t tell you much about the farm as I couldn’t really hear the guide amongst the crowd, but here is a photo of him with some bees.
The honey tea was actually very nice and has a little squeeze of lemon in it, but before I was able to get a second cup, we were being herded back onto the boat.
This time, the guide announced that we were going to view a traditional folk music performance. This was something that I was very interested in; however once again I was disappointed. The musicians were very good, from what I could hear; but that wasn’t much as the 5000 kids among the Vietnamese tourists were running around screaming the whole time, and I could barely hear the beautiful singing of the female vocalist or the soft strumming of the musician’s string instruments.
By this point I had well and truly had enough, but we had one more stop on today’s tour which was a paddle boat ride through a natural canal on the island. This was something that I was really looking forward to before the tour, but now I just wanted the tour to end.
We moped around at the back of the group as the rest of the tourists shoved to get in front of each other to get on the boats. We ended up riding with our guide as the two paddlers took us along the canal. This area was actually really beautiful, with boats floating along the edges of the narrow palm fringed waterway, and being the last boat along, it was actually quite fun. Unfortunately it was over too quickly and we were back on the boat and heading back to My Tho before I knew it.
The rest of the journey was a long bus ride to Can Tho where we stayed for the night. We were exhausted and cranky and really not looking forward to the rest of the tour. In fact, we were dreading it. Luckily, the next day turned out to be much better, and that post will be a bit more positive than this one.
I hate taking group tours for this very reason. You have no control over what you do and see. I wish I could tell you lots of inspirational stories from the Mekong Delta, but I have very few because of this terrible tour. I really didn’t have the time to take anything in.
Have you ever taken a tour like this? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.