Along the lines of blackwater rafting in New Zealand, I’ve wanted to see the floating market on Vietnam’s Mekong River delta since I read about it more than a decade ago. Vendors live in their boats on the river, selling fruit and vegetables to locals in large quantities. Each vendor erects a bamboo pole at the bow with a fruit or vegetable tied to it showing what she sells. A coconut leaf indicates the boat is for sale.
The easiest way to visit the early morning market is on a tour so we booked a two-day tour out of Ho Chi Minh City with An Travel. We’d read some horror stories about these tours with various companies but damn if I wasn’t willing to try. Jen was kind enough to agree not only to going but to paying an extra $7 each for the “homestay” option. Our expectations were pretty low when we set out and although the extra $14 was not well spent, the tour on the whole wasn’t the comedy of errors we feared.
It was, however, a tour complete with set meals and a guide shepherding us from one spot to the next on a predetermined schedule. Stops included: a pagoda with absurdly large Buddha statues; a coconut candy making shop; a 7-minute ride in the back of a pony-drawn carriage that none of us understood; a bee farm that also had a pet snake or two; a restaurant that offered an alligator-feeding for 20,000 VND (just under $1); a rice noodle maker; a fruit farm with a “monkey bridge;” a quick ride in a small sampan that could have been a lovely experience if we weren’t packed into the river like sardines; and a vocal performance by local women of allegedly traditional folk songs ending with “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”
To reach our “homestay” we took a ride on a small boat from our bus. As the sun was setting, bats swooped by and I was optimistic. Unlike the many experiences we’d read about online, the day hadn’t been a disaster, the lunch hadn’t been terrible, and the stops were actually somewhat fun. Homes lined the river and residents peered out at us, some waved but most just stared. It was, in its own motorboat-soundtracked way, peaceful.
The “homestay” was more akin to staying at a large B&B where the owners have too many guests to bother being social at any time other than arrival. But our room wasn’t the mattress on the floor with mosquito net we half-expected. It was basic but adequate: fan, light, bed, mosquito net, bathroom, electrical outlet, and a bench on which to rest our bags. For a place we’d be staying for 13 hours, I couldn’t complain. Dinner was served family style and we received a demonstration of how to assemble our spring rolls before we were left to our own company. We passed the time with other travelers, chatting and trying to convince ourselves that Vietnamese beer isn’t so bad. Within our group was a Vietnamese woman who spent the afternoon telling us we’d all be getting drunk at the homestay after dinner. She took it upon herself to acquire a few bottles of local rice liquor packaged in water bottles and the minute dinner was done, rounds of shots appeared in front of all the Westerners. As she refused to drink it herself, we wondered if she and her sisters were planning to get us all drunk so they could sneak into our rooms and steal from us or perhaps have their way with the men. We drank enough to be polite but it tasted about as good as you’d expect, so we quickly filled our empty glasses with napkins and fruit peels to prevent additional pours. To her credit, it did facilitate further bonding within the group.
In the morning, the group got a late start so by the time we left for the floating market, we knew we wouldn’t see much. The market was unique but ultimately not so special. Boats overflowing with tourists circled, beverage hawkers practically glued themselves to each boat peddling coffee, water, soda, even beer at 8am. Discarded pineapple greens and cabbage leaves floated regularly by, and we tried not to stare at children entertaining themselves on houseboats while their parents sold produce at the bow. I don’t know if the market would have been more interesting at an earlier hour nor how much the presence of tourists has changed the market over the years. Regardless, it was a disappointing experience. If we hadn’t gone, I’d have always wondered if we missed something truly great. So I’m chalking this one up to yet another reminder of the truth in Mark Twain’s words: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”
Does anyone know if this was a great experience many years ago since ruined by the influx of tour groups? Has anyone had a good experience recently? Comments? Anyone?