October 2nd, 2016, 8:00am. Michael and I somehow found ourselves wandering the local market in Cái Bè, a small river district in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam about 70 miles southwest from Saigon. Despite the early hour, the market was alive and bustling with energy. Beneath the colorful fabric awnings that provided shade from the merciless heat, friendly Vietnamese people donning the traditional Asian conical hats were busy at work- hacking fresh fish from the river, peddling local fruit, or serving up the most unusual (if not revolting) of produce including porcupines, mice, and snakes. “This has got to be the most unhappy place for animals,” Michael observed as we passed by a stall selling living frogs with their heads chopped off, still ribbiting (a sight I will never forget).
Our guide soon ushered us towards the Mekong river where we boarded a small speedboat. The Mekong is one of the largest rivers in Asia, flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before reaching Vietnam. We sped off toward the floating market, where we were fascinated by the sheer amount of activity from boats of all shapes and sizes. We saw rustic canoes with farmers selling herbs, speedboats filled to the brim with fruit, and large barge ships so packed with rice and dirt they looked like they might sink at any moment. All the boats have a pair of eyes painted onto their bow- the Eye of Horus which is meant to protect sailors at sea. At one point the guide pulled over next to a boat where he bought us fresh coconuts to sip on.
The Venice of Southeast Asia, the river delta is surrounded by ramshackle homes where the local people actually live. During the wet season, it’s not uncommon for their homes to be flooded for weeks on end- but they are happy because this also means fish is plentiful. Sadly, a dam will soon be built at this part of the river which means the floating market will no longer be able to operate, and I fear what this means for the local people’s livelihood, as the floating market seems to be the lifeblood of the Mekong Delta.
As we approached a small tributary of sorts, we were transferred to a traditional rowboat and were leisurely steered through peaceful, palm-shaded canals. Everything was so verdantly green, not to mention still and quiet, save for the small children that yelled and waved to us from jungle-clad path next to the canal. I asked our guide who grew up in the area if he misses “delta life” now that he lives in Saigon, and he said it’s a great place to return to when he needs a little bit of tranquility.
Soon our rowboat approached a small island where we found a tiny restaurant waiting to serve us delicious tea. The owners of the restaurant, a husband and wife, treated us to a short performance of singing and playing the đàn bầu, a monochord instrument that looks easy to play, but it’s not (we tried). The songs mainly focused on everyday life for the people of the delta, but one in particular told the story of a young couple in love who were torn apart when the man had to go away to war. Many years later he returned to find his love waiting for him. This was honestly the first time in all my travels that I nearly had a tear in my eye because of how beautiful it all was – being in a small island in Vietnam, a world away from home, seeing how these people who live a very different life still possess the same emotions as me- despair, longing, and love. It was true testament to the human condition.
After the performance, it was back on the speedboat and off to a local workshop where local people make coconut candy and rice paper, among other handicrafts. Our guide handed us each a shot glass of a murky, suspicious-looking liquid and instructed us to try it. I immediately refused but Michael insisted because “we’re in Vietnam!” After we both took the shot, the guide opened the container where the liquid came from to reveal what the it was infused with: a dead cobra, sea snake, and even a bird’s head, all soaking in the liquid we had just consumed! Apparently it’s quite the delicacy in parts of Southeast Asia (they had it in Cambodia too) because snake venom is known to have a myriad of health benefits . The alcohol supposedly cancels out the poison, but I did end up getting a throat infection a few days later… something tells me the two incidents were related.
The trauma made us work up quite an appetite so the next stop was a villager’s home where we partook in a cooking class and made the traditional Vietnamese dish bánh xèo, which is essentially a rice flour pancake stuffed with a savory filling. It’s delicately fried in a huge wok, almost like a crepe, and wrapped in lettuce to eat. To be honest, half the reason I came to Vietnam was to try delicious authentic pho, but I think that barely scratches the surface when it comes to Vietnamese food, which is nothing short of amazing!!! Michael was also given a deep fried elephant earfish which is what the Mekong is known for.
We ended our day on the delta by cruising around on bikes beside the river, which really gave us a peak inside daily life for the people who call this place home. It was one of the most memorable days of my entire life.