The lunacy of Ho Chi Minh City’s streets behind us, the occupants and driver of our mini bus were able to relax as we headed south into the countryside, en route to Southern Vietnam’s agricultural hub and the river that gives it life.
Originating in Tibet, the Mekong River flows its way through China, Laos, borders Thailand and cuts through Cambodia before finally entering Vietnam on its final approach to the sea. It is here that life rolls at a different tempo and the agricultural labor force chugs away producing food that is not only consumed in Vietnam but exported to several corners of the world.
The Mekong Delta, which is a large network of channels formed by the Mekong River, is effectively the lifeblood of Vietnam and is home to the country’s rice basket. Producing three rice crops a year, the Mekong allows Vietnam to be third largest producer of rice in the world, behind only India and Thailand. The Mekong’s life-sustaining waters are not only home to an abundance of rice paddies but also to fish farms, a cornucopia of produce, regional specialties and vibrant floating markets.
After our laid back two-hour drive through the picturesque countryside we switched modes of transportation and got out on the water. The Mekong Delta is unremarkably flat and covered in lush green vegetation divided by the brown meandering waters that make up its huge network of channels.
Crossing one of the major canals, our group was divided up and placed into smaller wooden boats for a leisurely paddle up a quiet waterway lined with small farming villages surrounded by banana groves and palm trees baring an abundance of coconuts.
It was here that we made our first stop, at a regional candy factory producing the famed coconut candies of the Mekong Delta. Nothing goes to waste at this efficient operation. The coconut juice is extracted from the fibre and mixed with sugar, natural flavourings and tapioca and then reduced to the desired consistency before being shaped and cut for setting. None of the coconut goes to waste; the fibre is fed to livestock and the shell is used to fuel the fire that reduces the coconut mixture.
Our sweet fix would continue up stream at our second stop, where we sat and sampled an array of regional fruits with a cup of local tea while listening to live traditional music and witnessing an indigenous dance ceremony. Laid out on the table were mini plantation bananas, mangos, papaya, rambutan and luscious mangosteen, freshly picked off the surrounding tropical evergreen trees.
Following another short stint down the brown waters of the Mekong we returned to the confines of our mini bus, where we spied a ferry silhouetted in the vibrant dusk sky. The countryside slowly grew urban as we neared our final stop for the day in Cantho, a city of a few hundred-thousand and gateway to Cai Rang, which is the largest floating market on the Mekong Delta.