HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, February 12, 2016

Tet in the Mekong Delta

The annual Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday arrived earlier this week, ushering in the Year of the Monkey. I ended up getting stuck in Saigon for Tet last year and didn't want to repeat that, but thanks in part to a fairly last-minute decision by my better half to go to Perth on her own I had to cobble together something with a couple of other desperate friends. With flights and trains to everywhere either sold out or obscenely expensive, we chose to motorbike around the Mekong Delta for a few days. Even with a combined 15+ years in Saigon between the three of us, none had actually seen much of the region, even though it is practically in our backyard.

On Saturday morning we set off for My Tho, 70 km (45 miles) away and the gateway to the delta. We arrived early in the afternoon, found a hotel and walked down to the riverfront. The area was teeming with activity, as the Tet flower market was in full bloom and hundreds of people were shopping for goods.

 That evening we wandered around most of the city center, and it was booming. Saigon is famously empty during Tet, as a huge chunk of the population heads to their hometowns to be with family. The Mekong Delta is a major feeder region for Saigon, with tens of thousands heading to the big city lights for better economic prospects. Now, all of these people were home, and the delta was packed. It seemed ironic that we had left a massive city for a tiny one, with the latter one being busier.

The next morning we headed out for Vinh Long, crossing the Tien River on the massive Rach Mieu bridge, one of several suspension bridges built with Japanese assistance over the last decade to replace slow ferry crossings and reduce travel time in the region.
 Of course, there are still dozens of ferries operating on the numerous branches of the Mekong River throughout the delta, and we used a wide range of them - from large boats that could carry trucks and buses to tiny motorboats that could barely fit 10 motorbikes.

 We arrived in Vinh Long at mid-day and weren't impressed by the hotel offerings. Some quick Googling brought us an array of 'homestay' options, and we were soon on another ferry heading to An Binh Island, just across the Co Chien River from town.

Another huge bridge in the hazy distance.
 The area around the homestay was a welcome relief from the madness of the pre-Tet delta cities, with gravel footpaths replacing streets and little in the way of traffic.

 And there was a puppy!
 We got drunk on whiskey that night while playing card games and got yelled at by a French couple. The following morning was the Super Bowl, but there was no sign of it even existing. We headed out for Tra Vinh under yet more beautiful blue skies, passing verdant rice paddies and stunning Khmer temples along the way. The delta was originally populated by the Cham empire, which ruled from what is now Cambodia. Before ethnic Vietnamese made their way down from the Red River Delta up north, the Khmer lived here - I knew all of this, but I didn't realize these temples were still here. They are strikingly different from Vietnamese temples, and there happened to be one down the road from our hotel in Tra Vinh.

 That evening we celebrated New Year's Day with a seafood feast, after which we noticed spotlights in another part of town. We drove over and found something completely unexpected: a tourism park home to huge restaurants, lakes, a karaoke hall, a completely over-the-top wedding palace and circular entertainment area replete with Greek arches and a DJ pit in the middle of a fountain. We paid $5 to get into 'The Nightlife', as it was being advertised, and were treated to techno blasted at top volume and a huge crowd of young, well-dressed Vietnamese going insane. This is the type of thing you expect to see in Saigon, not in a small city in the deep south that most people have never heard of. We gawked at this Vegas-on-the-Mekong for a while and then left before our ears started bleeding.

 The following day brought us back to Saigon via a lunch stop in Ben Tre. This was all highway so we got it over with as quickly as possible and were back in the big, quiet city by mid-afternoon with sore butts. It had been a nice getaway, with the evergreen, pancake-flat delta providing easy riding. Back to the grind on Monday. Happy Lunar New Year!

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