Before I took a two-day guided tour down the Mekong Delta, I was extremely against organized tours. (I still am for the most part, but I’m willing to admit there are exceptions.) Spending hours trapped on a bus full of strangers with an itinerary that allows no room for spontaneity was my version of travel hell. It took a moment of desperation and total lack of a plan (thanks Typhoon Nari!) to get me to sign up.
After a 2-hour bus ride from HCM City, we boarded a small boat at the Ben Tre Tourist Pier (the sign actually said “tourist pier”) alongside a few dozen other tourist boats. We headed off on what I’m sure is a run-of-the-mill tourist day-trip in Ben Tre. We visited a coconut candy factory, a honey shop with a snake photo op, and a large restaurant for tour groups that had a mediocre set lunch.
The highlight was a boat ride on a small canoe through the murky mangrove canals. We ended the trip at a small complex of shops that hosted a Vietnamese concert. It wasn’t terrible, and I was glad I got to see it, but it definitely wasn’t my style. We boarded our boat back to the pier and hopped on another bus for the next leg of our journey.
Only me, my friend Lucy, and a solo traveler from India hesitantly raised our hands when the tour leader asked our jam-packed bus who was doing the homestay. I started to wonder why I hadn’t booked the hotel stay like the rest of the group when the bus dropped us on the side of the highway and we were told our ride would arrive in five minutes. The bus pulled away, and we found ourselves stranded on a semi-busy highway with no phone and no clue where we were going. After five minutes of nervous laughter and scanning the highway, we saw two guys pull up on motorcycles to take us to the homestay. Yes, two motorcycles for three people with three huge backpacks.
Lucy and I somehow managed fit ourselves and our two giant backpacks on one bike and took off down a dirt road lined with abandoned buildings. We took another turn and found ourselves riding through misty pomello orchards and small farmhouses as the sun set. We veered onto a narrow concrete path, and that’s when we got a little worried. Lucy and I like to sing when things get scary, so we asked our driver what his favorite song was. I will forever associate the song “What is Love” with a nail-biting ride on a motorbike through the Mekong Delta.
We were met by a woman, her son, daughter and a neighborhood boy at small concrete house with a large outdoor patio called My Hoa Mekong Homestay. They plopped a huge bowl of fresh pomellos and two beer Saigons on the table. The woman showed us how to make a thin, crispy Vietnamese pancake stuffed with pork and mushrooms called bahn xeo, and we sat down to a delicious and authentic Vietnamese meal.
We spent the rest of the night sipping beer, talking with our guide, and playing with the kids, which, in the 21st century means crowding around our iPhones. As we all did the gangam style dance and showed them pictures of America on my phone, the world felt incredibly small and huge all at once. I was on the other side of the world, in a small town I didn’t know the name of, sharing pictures, dancing around to music, and talking with kids with vastly different lives than my own.
We woke up at 5:00 the next morning to start our trek to the small pier that would take us to a local floating market.
I wore a long skirt, thinking it would be a short hike, but we spent the next 30 minutes with everything we brought on our backs, following an 11-year-old boy down a muddy winding path along idyllic streams, through misty pomello orchards, clusters of tiny houses with confused Vietnamese people, and clusters of chickens.
It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I’ve been to. We were on a tour, but this felt like the least “touristy” thing I’d done.
We made it to the small pier, and hopped on a tiny boat that took us through a maze of rivers until we saw the rest of our tour group waving at us from a large pier. We ended up at the Can Tho floating market—part produce market, part tourist attraction. The sprawling market hosts dozens of small boats selling exotic fruit, vegetables, and other food items. Many of the area’s residents and cooks buy their ingredients here, but there were a fair amount of tourist boats in the water taking in the scene. Local people have definitely caught on to the tourist scene, and as soon as we entered the area, a small boat pulled up next to us and literally attached itself to ours to try to sell drinks.
After we floated around the market, we stopped at a rice noodle shop; we then went further down the river to see how rice wine was made. We sat at a small restaurant for a while, sipping small glasses of rice wine (which tastes more like lighter fluid than wine), when an old Vietnamese man approached our table and asked where we were from. When I said America, he let out a little scream and bounded over to us. I held my breath, expecting the worst, but he said he spent time in the U.S. working for the troops and called us his sisters. Taking a shot of rice wine with him was the perfect way to end this part of the trip.
We arrived in Saigon that night, and the next morning we hopped on a 2-hour flight north to Hanoi, opting to skip over the damage from the typhoon.