Into the setting of Apocalypse Now, the Mekong Delta

Cai Be Travel Blog

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This is one of the many graves in the fields, ancestor worshipping is still common in Vietnam.

It is time to say goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City, pity, because I’ve grown rather fond of it. The city feels the same way and doesn’t want to let us go, holding us tight in the morning traffic jams during rush hour. We have to take a short detour, some fellow travelers have ordered sheet sleeping bags at Benh Tam market, that they have not picked up yet. All in all this costs us an extra fifteen minutes to leave town.

We drive for about an hour and then make a short stop to stretch our legs a bit. From the roadside we see lots of monuments in the fields, looking like gravestones.

The Vinh Trang pagoda, near My Tho.
Michel tells us that they are. The Vietnamese government is trying to convince the people to bury their dead in central cemeteries, but this is a slow process. Since the Vietnamese worship their ancestors, they prefer to keep their relatives close and bury them on their own land, where it is easy to visit and consult them.

Around ten we arrive at the Vinh Trang temple near My Tho. The two gates look spectacular, not because of their size, but because of the detail. The building of the Buddhist temple was started in 1849. The monk who ordered the build had been to Angkor Wat for three months, and here and there influences of the famous Cambodian temple complex can be found. Though colourful, Vinh Trang is no match for the Cao Dai cathedral we saw yesterday. It’s beautiful in a different way, it has a nice square with flowerpots with bonsai trees in them.

Monks chanting, completely ignoring our presence.
It has a pond and a patio, and there’s peace and quiet. From the patio, where we sit on a bench to take off our shoes, we can enter the actual holy part of the temple. Except for the altar with the Buddha (with a horrific modern day halo of neon light) and a couple of statues spread throughout the room, decoration is humble. When we are outside putting on our shoes again, three monks enter the room we just came from. Quietly we follow them in and we observe them from the back of the room. The monks start chanting, sounding a bell every now and then. It is a mystical, almost enchanting sound that goes on seemingly without an end. When we’ve heard enough we leave the monks to their prayers and go out again to have another look around.

We leave the temple at 10.40 am, driving to Cai Be, where we take the boat to the island where we will be spending the night.

The eyes on the hull prevent protect ships against crocodile attacks.
Half along the way we anchor near a makeshift factory where local sweets are produced. First we see the process of making caramel rice crackers (popping rice in a large wok with heated river sand, putting the popped rice in another wok with hot caramel and blending them, and finally pressing the goo in a rectangular mold and cutting it into small portions). In the same building the sheets of rice paper are made from which the locals make there spring rolls. The sheets are dried outside in the sun, next to a boat someone seems to be building. The last part of the tour is the tasting, which is always nice. Some things are really good, like the freshly dried coconut, the caramel with tea extract and the spicy little crackers. Others make my taste buds moan in agony, like the ginger candy, uugghh!!! We buy two bags of the good stuff and set sail again.

Lots of things can be seen on the Mekong river, people work and live on and next to the water.

This Elephant Ear fish was very tasty, but it's not an advisable dish when in a hurry.
All kinds of goods are transported on boats in all sizes. The large boats have fierce looking eyes painted on their bows, to scare off the crocodiles. When I ask why the small boats don’t have eyes, the answer is simple: Crocs don’t attack the small boats.

We anchor once more, for lunch this time. It’s quite a stroll to the restaurant and on the way we pass a lumber mill, but here too, it’s lunch break. A little further along the way a proud father is playing with his little daughter in a hammock. When the baby sees us (we do not even come close), she starts to cry and can’t be comforted. The parents, however, think this is very funny.

It is nearly half past one when we have a seat in the beautifully restored traditional wooden house, that has been turned into a restaurant.

This man is sawing a coffin lid to the right size.
Amongst others there’s Elephant Ear Fish on the menu, this is a flat fish, fried with scales and everything, then to be served upright in a little rack on a plate. We have to scrape off the now curled scales (that look a bit like fingernails), then pluck off a little of the “meat” and roll it into a sheet of wet rice paper, together with some vegetables. It tastes very good, but it takes a long time to get something in your stomach when your wrapping skills are as good as mine. I should have paid more attention in kindergarten...

Before getting on the boat again we visit a company that makes coffins by hand. The lids alone must weigh a ton, they’re tree trunks sawed in half and then sanded down. A solid wooden lid like this prevents any man from rising from the dead.

It’s not quite four when we get to the homestay that we call home tonight.

The landing stage near our homestay.
Our travel agent said we would be sleeping with the locals in this town, therefore I had not expected a covered row of bunks in the back of a rather big house. But let’s not complain, it ís back to basic, a blanket is our mattress and the pillows are hard as a rock. Mosquito nets are present, that’s a big plus, because there’s so much water around, this place must be swarming with hungry bugs as soon as it gets dark. Trudy’s mosquito net has some holes in it and to prevent the mosquitoes crawling through them, she rubs some bug repellent around them.

Before dinner we go for a cycling tour. Right in front of the homestay lies a tarmac path, about a metre wide, that meanders over the island. Cor, with his 73 years of age the eldest of our group, quits after 200 metres, when he drives his bike full frontal into a hedge for the third time.

One of the beautiful flowers we saw in the garden on our cycling trip.
He can’t maintain his balance on a mountain bike, he says, and he walks back to where we came from. We pause in an establishment with a beautiful garden in the back that has bonsais and glorious flowers. A good chance for some experimenting with my camera. Before we know it, everyone is drinking cool drinks and eating fresh jackfruit except for Caroline, Trudy and myself. We join the rest and for the first time in our lives we taste the strangely shaped, sweet, yellow fruit. We go get our steel horses and ride back to the homestay, where we chat with Cor and Janny for a while.

There’s still time before dinner and it’s not dark yet, so we go for a little walk to scout the area. We go through the tiny village and then cross the bridge over a branch of the Mekong river. On the bridge we meet three children who are determined to have their picture taken when they see my camera, fortunately we live in the digital era.

Is this a shot from Apocalypse Now?
A little further on somebody is doing laundry, by hand of course. The light is fading now, so we start walking back to the homestay, where dinner is served shortly.

After dinner a show with traditional music is put on, but, let’s say, most of us have a slightly different taste than the old Vietnamese. But we are having fun, that’s what matters.

When the clock strikes ten, Trudy and I hit the showers, but it is still so hot and damp outside, that I am already sticky again before I have settled myself on my bunk.

The bunk is short, narrow and hard, but it is fantastic to lie in bed and hear the crickets doing their utmost to make more noise than everything else in the nightly Mekong Delta.

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This is one of the many graves in …
This is one of the many graves in…
The Vinh Trang pagoda, near My Tho.
The Vinh Trang pagoda, near My Tho.
Monks chanting, completely ignorin…
Monks chanting, completely ignori…
The eyes on the hull prevent prote…
The eyes on the hull prevent prot…
This Elephant Ear fish was very ta…
This Elephant Ear fish was very t…
This man is sawing a coffin lid to…
This man is sawing a coffin lid t…
The landing stage near our homesta…
The landing stage near our homest…
One of the beautiful flowers we sa…
One of the beautiful flowers we s…
Is this a shot from Apocalypse Now?
Is this a shot from Apocalypse Now?
One of the two gates to the Vinh T…
One of the two gates to the Vinh …
The patio inside the Vinh Trang pa…
The patio inside the Vinh Trang p…
This statue stands inside the actu…
This statue stands inside the act…
To me the face of this Buddha repr…
To me the face of this Buddha rep…
The mixing of the popped rice with…
The mixing of the popped rice wit…
Drying the ricepaper sheets in the…
Drying the ricepaper sheets in th…
The smaller boats dont have eyes,…
The smaller boats don't have eyes…
Life on the banks of the Mekong.
Life on the banks of the Mekong.
Our bedroom for tonight.
Our bedroom for tonight.
When dusk sets in, the surrounding…
When dusk sets in, the surroundin…
Cai Be
photo by: esvobod