A Trip Down the Mekong River

Our trip down the Mekong began on this boat

The inside of our launch

The one day trip that we did take while staying in Ho Chi Minh City was down the famous  Mekong River. We were picked up by a bus at the hotel and driven to the small town of My Tho, were we boarded a launch to cruise the river. We were joined on our trip by a gentleman from Norway, and a Vietnamese American who was returning for a visit. The photo to the left shows the larger launch that we took to and from My Tho, while the photo to the right shows the two other people on the tour and the launch operator flashing the ubiquitous "peace" sign.




A boatload of sugar cane on the Mekong RiverDisembarking at Unicorn IslandThe Mekong River is a major thoroughfare in this region where roads are difficult to build and always congested and slow. If it is used by people in the cities, chances are you can find it being transported on the Mekong's muddy waterway. In many respects the Mekong river reminded me of the Mississippi River around New Orleans, always bustling with commerce and tourism. After about 30 minutes on the launch, we disembarked at Dragon Island. From there we would tour villages on these islands on foot and by sampan. The photo to the left shows a load of sugar can being transported on the Mekong River, while the photo to the right shows the woman ready with the bowline as we ease into the landing at Dragon Island.



Heating the rice with a mixture of sand is the first stepWeighing and bagging coconut confectionsWinding our way up a narrow and muddy path, we came to our first stop, a small village about 200 meters inland from the river. The main livelihood of this village was creating treats, mainly of the sweet or spicy variety, from rice. The first step in this process is shown in the photo to the left, essentially popping the rice in a wok. To ensure uniform heat, the rice is mixed with the sand, then the sand is sifted out, leaving the hot rice. It is then bonded into sticks, using combinations of molasses, honey, and spices. Some bars are just sweetened rice (like Rice Krispy bars), while some are spicy, and others are mixed with nuts. They were tasty treats, which we enjoyed the remainder of our trip. The photo to the right shows a women weighing and bagging one of the finished products, in this case a coconut treat.




Sampans have one person in front and one in back paddlingThe way to Unicorn IslandAfter enjoying a rice treat, we boarded sampans to go a bit deeper into the interior of this complex of islands in the Mekong River. The only way to travel is by sampan, a small boat with gunwales like a canoe, but beamier, like a small rowboat. They have a paddler in the front, one in the back, and can take about 3-6 people, depending upon their size. The sampans do share another characteristic with canoes--they are very tippy, and the first few minutes are a bit uneasy, until one becomes accustomed to the motion and learns never to react suddenly. We were paddled to Unicorn island via a narrow waterway filled with overhanging vegetation. The photo to the right shows one of the paddlers, while a view of the channel we were negotiating is shown in the photo to the right.





A villager's house on Unicorn IslandSmall shrine outside the small houseOn Unicorn Island we encountered larger and more diverse settlements. Walking up a small path, we soon found ourselves at a small family compound surrounded by fruit trees. The photo to the left shows one of the houses in the compound, room for a family, while the photo to the right shows the small shrine outside the house, replete with offerings for the gods. At the center of the compound was a pavilion, where visitors were served the fresh fruit grown by the family. We got the impression that it is more profitable running the family business as a tourist site than it is to simply rely on the sale of fruit. After being served a variety of tasty fruits, other family members then entertained us with traditional village songs, using homemade instruments. The photo to the left shows us being served fresh fruit in the pavilion, while the photo to the right shows
Fruit and tea is served in the pavilionthe family performing traditional Vietnamese Music is a family affair on Unicorn Islandsongs.









The remnants of our tea party!The Bee Keeper and his little friendsFollowing our visit to Unicorn Island we returned to Dragon Island to sample a bit more of local culture. The next village that we visited specialized in the making of honey. We were treated to a sip of the local liqueur, plus tea with honey; the remnants of our tea party is shown in the photo to the right. In the tropics honey consumption carries with it inherent risks, as we were constantly bombarded by bees as we sat at the table. The guides and villagers always insisted the bees were of whichever sex does not sting, but I doubt their eyes were keen enough to make such anatomical distinctions at a glance! After sampling the tea, we visited the hives. The photo to the left shows a confident beekeeper hoisting an entire hive of bees in casual conversation, while we maintain a respectful distance.


Click here for a close-up of the jar-o-snake!A Vietnamese long houseHoney was not the only treat that we encountered in the village. As we made our way to the main pavilion, a man beckoned us toward a large glass container. Inside the container were three cobras, neatly coiled on top of one another. The liquid inside the jar was saki, aged three years in the cobra carcasses. What do you do with this? Yes, that's right--you drink it. Urged on by the dreaded "triple dog dare," and heartened with the promise that you will "look and feel five years younger," I quickly downed a shot of the miracle substance, to Tracy's horror. And the taste? Exactly the same as when you siphoned gas from a car as a kid and got a mouthful (what, you didn't do that?). But it got worse: the only foodstuff available to cut the taste turned out to be very spicy. I left the pavilion with a mouth on fire. The photo at the upper right shows the dreaded cobra cocktail. By clicking on the picture you can see a close-up of the jar. The photo to the right shows a typical Vietnamese house, which holds the extended family. Three generations live under one roof, and when sons marry, they just tack on another addition. The 
house pictured above had a large kitchen at the near end (the large opening in the photo), while the remainder of the area was devoted to sleeping quarters. Two other crafts that were in evidence in the village were Weaving in the open air pavilionweaving, shown in the photo at the middle left, and candy-making. Everything is done by hand, and out of doors. These small out of the way villages are rather remarkable for the volume of crafts they produce (including footwear, wooden carvings, and textiles) as well as remaining remarkably self-sufficient when it comes to their own basic needs.






The dining pavilion on Dragon IslandTracy overlooking our fishFollowing our tour of these arts, we returned to the main center for a delicious fish lunch (we eschewed some of the local delicacies, although our guide assured us that the rat and the snake was delicious). Following our leisurely lunch (which also included a chicken and prawns, we boarded the launch for the trip back to the bus, and from the bus to our hotel. The photo at the lower left offers a view of the dining pavilion on Dragon Island. Below is a video tour of this trip, made some years later by Alison Linh. It provides a nice overview of the experience.


Video of Mekong River Cruise by Alison Linh


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