The vast Mekong Delta is the heart of southern Vietnam. Here, one of the world’s longest rivers divides into nine channels that run like life-giving veins through a lush landscape. We started the first part of our journey along the Mekong River in the town of My Tho.
Written by Mette / Photo by Martin
Translated from Danish
“Evil eyes protect fishermen from being eaten by crocodiles,” our guide Tuyên explains when we ask why the wooden boats have round eyes painted on the prow? I instinctively lean a little further towards Martin and the middle of the boat and stare for ripples in the surface of the water. We had heard that in some places in the Mekong River you can be lucky to see the rare river dolphins – but crocodiles?!
It is barely nine in the morning, and we have just sailed from the city of My Tho, which is the starting point for one-day trips on the Mekong River if you are in Ho Chi Minh City. Here, as if by magic, every morning the harbour is transformed from a sleepy parking lot into a station of buses full of tourists. With cameras dangling on their bellies, rice hats on their heads, and tired eyes, as they are shoveled aboard covered boats.
Unlike the others, we did not have to roll out of bed at a time that makes even the eyes of the devil look tired. Overall, we like to avoid being part of the tourist hordes. The great travel adventures do very seldom fusion with goose-stepping hordes with selfie sticks. We, therefore, arrived on our own with a local bus from Ho Chi Minh City the day before, so that we could find a local guide to take us on a trip on the Mekong River – and still have half a day to explore the town of My Tho.
A day in My Tho
With 220.000 inhabitants My Tho is one of the largest cities in the lush Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Still, only a few tourists take the time to see the city – which just added an extra plus to our travel book. It was nice to stroll around the old center, observe local life, and soak up the authentic atmosphere.
Especially along the canal, where fishing boats chug past the row of buildings that cling to the riverbank like dilapidated houses of cards. The tin roofs are rusty, and the paint is cracked, but the collage of colors lights up as a contrast to the river-brown water. Here, daily life is undeniably connected to the Mekong. The river supplies the residents with fish. Rice and fresh crops are grown in the catchment area. Food, clothes, and dishes are cleaned in the water – exactly in the same places as the daily trash is thrown out.
Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho is a village. With a large street market where you can buy anything green, crisp, or alive. Fresh fish splashes in silver platters, colorful fruits are stacked in pyramids and unknown scents crawl far up the nose. And when darkness falls, peace descends on the town. The roads become empty of traffic, and the locals gather around plastic tables at small eateries. The city may not win fans for its beauty or exciting attractions, but that night it won us over for its authenticity and off-the-beaten-track feel.
Crocodiles in the Mekong River
“No more, no more,” says our guide when she sees my big eyes and frowns in response to the crocodile story. I hate that I’m sometimes a chicken in the wild, but the fact is that if someone hired Martin and I to make a travel documentary – it would be Martin they cast as Bear Grylls. Not me.
The guide explains that there were once wild crocodiles in the Mekong River, but not anymore. And it feels quite nice to know when you are sitting in a small wooden boat and are surrounded by water that has the same color as black coffee with milk.
Today, crocodiles are only found in captivity, but the deadly attacks on fishermen at the time is the reason why the Vietnamese started painting ‘evil eyes’ on the bow. They had to scare the crocodiles away. Others believe that the tradition is connected with the name of the river – which means “The 9 Dragons” – and that the eyes symbolize a dragon that protects the fishermen.
A tourist assembly line
Well, a dragon would have been useful! At least I wish someone had protected us from the next few hours of experiences. We thought we had booked a peaceful cruise. That the trip would snake through some of the Mekong’s narrow river paths, where broad palm fronds and dense mangroves form an idyllic tunnel of greenery.
Instead, we sail around to four different islands, where we are dragged around to a number of souvenir shops and tourist attractions. Caramel production, honey growers, singing performance, caged crocodiles, pictures of a monk, and hedges cut like animals. And the information is funny enough the same: “Look here, taste it, buy it – and put money in the basket before you leave.” Contrary to the experiences in My Tho, we are now at the epicenter of tourism. We have come ON the beaten track …
Finally, we arrive at the main attraction. After a short walk through an orchard, we stand on a small bridge; on the edge of a narrow river course surrounded by green plants. Here we are helped down into a traditional wooden boat – a so-called sampan, which is a flat-bottomed rowing boat.
An elderly Vietnamese woman sits in the bow. With a rice hat on her head and a body folded in a crouching position, which only Asians and people master. My inner travel romantic is squealing with joy. This is what we’ve been looking forward to! We just have to pass the puzzle of boats waiting for the tourists in the queue behind us AND get away from the boats with all the tourists in front of us. Adventure is out there – we silently agree.
Martin starts to get the camera ready, while the woman bravely tries to paddle in the brown river water. The only problem is that she can barely paddle because of the other boats. We bump into each other’s sides as if we were riding in the radio cars in an amusement park – and if you could see the whole scenario from above, the boat probably looks like a piece in a mud-brown version of the computer game Tetris.
Five minutes and three photos later … the boat trip is over.
“This is the last time we go on a guided tour,” Martin grunts and sends me a resigned look. Our guide has put a rice hat on his head that is tied around his chin with a pink scarf. The hat sits askew, possibly knocked off course by a passing selfie stick. I myself can feel the frustration bubbling inside, but at the same time I can’t hold back the giggles that are pressing in. There’s not much else to do but laugh at the whole absurd scenario.
Fortunately, the Mekong River is large, and we have several days of travel ahead of us. We still have the opportunity to go on the river adventure we set out to find …
OUR TRAVEL TIPS TO MY THO
In hindsight, we should not have booked a boat trip on the Mekong River from My Tho, which is the commercial starting point for all tourists who come pouring in from Ho Chi Minh City for a ‘quicky’. If you want to experience the idyllic part of the Mekong River, you have to go further into the Delta, where the one-day tourists don’t roam.
On the other hand, we were happy to experience a bit of My Tho, which we think is worth spending half a day in if you are in the area and would like to experience a bit of the local city life along the Mekong.
The city’s hotels are worn and have seen better days. But they have everything you need for a single night’s accommodation. Check out, for example, the Song Tien Hotel or the Minh Quan Hotel, located by the canal in the old center. From here you can easily walk to the individual sights and the fresh market.
If you are curious about the local cuisine, it is highly recommended that you try the noodle soup ‘Hu tieu’, for which My Tho is particularly famous. We had a bowl for lunch at the small family restaurant “Hu Tieu 44”, located close to the harbor (44 Nam Ky Khoi Nghai).
There are several travel bloggers who have written informative blog posts about their experiences in My Tho and about the day trip on this stretch of the Mekong River. You can read them below. And at the bottom we have included a simple link to a guide to My Tho:
• “Itchy Feet”: Travel blog with tips for My Tho
• Nomadic Notes: Travel blog about experiences from My Tho and the one-day trip
• My Guide Vietnam: Guide to My Tho