There is so much that I can say about my week in Vietnam, but only one experience stands out.
Maja, Ammie, Case and I shared the same feelings about spending more time in another city. Ho Chi Minh is less industrialized than Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but it caters to foreigners and economically feeds off of tourists. We wanted to get away from the tall buildings and fancy shops and see something, anything else.
We found an agency and booked a two-day homestay in Can Tho, a village in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. It was a great decision even though it didn’t turn out to be what we had in mind. It was a structured tour of the small villages in My Tho where a guide showed us and other tourists where and how coconut candies and rice noodles are made. They provided us with honey tea, snacks and lunch. And we got the chance to ride rusty bikes around the village before heading to Can Tho.
The neighborhood in which our hosts live in Can Tho appeared relatively affluent. The houses were of decent size and in good shape. I noticed that many homes in Vietnam are open and without doors or screened windows, so I was able to see right into the houses as we passed by. It was amazing to see the sparkling embellishments, shrines and big screen televisions in plain sight. We were warned about the prevalence of theft before coming to Vietnam, but I wonder if this only applies to tourists or if the Vietnamese steal from each other as well.
Fortunately, I am practicing an open mind because that is the best way to travel. With that said, I did have a preconceived idea of what our homestay would be like. I imagined that the four of us would be meeting and staying with a family and sharing a close dinner together. Instead, it was more of a communal homestay. Our hosts Mr. and Mrs. Hung’s home is set up similar to a campground or a hostel with little bungalows and a main dining area to serve guests.
And they didn’t eat dinner with us. We were able to help stuff and fry sweet potato and mung bean spring rolls, but they already prepared a big meal before we arrived. It included rice, steamed elephant fish, seasoned green beans, fried tofu and goi cuon (fresh salad rolls). Despite my unmet expectations, it was still a great experience. The food and company were beyond amazing. I underestimated the impact that the other travelers whom I met would have on me.
Jamie, Lauren and Jay were on the tour in My Tho. Jamie and Lauren are from Australia and were traveling from North Vietnam to South Vietnam when they met and picked up Jay along the way. He’s a boxer living in Thailand. He gets several months off from training during which he indulges in cake, his ultimate kryptonite.
I also had the pleasure of meeting our bus driver, his wife Nga and their son Lao. They live in Ho Chi Minh City. It was Nga and Lao’s first time in the Mekong Delta. Nga works as an accountant. Lao is around 7 years old and quite rambunctious. He has a spunky personality and loves making faces.
I had an experience with an older Vietnamese woman while listening to traditional Vietnamese music and eating fruit during our tour. She was astonished to find out that I was 22 years old. She couldn’t speak English, but Nga translated for me. Not only did the woman peg me as about 10 years old, but she thought Maja was my mother…
When I arrived to the Hung’s home, I met two girls from Lithuania who study and work as English tutors in China. And Andrea is from northern Italy. She is studying for her masters in international relations, but took her couple of weeks of vacation time to travel independently from North to South Vietnam. Her next stop is the Philippines. I had the privilege to get to know Andrea on the bus ride to Can Tho. We talked about school, the Semester at Sea program, our families, our friends and our life philosophies.
The girls, Case and I enjoyed eating, talking and laughing together that evening. We had a few shots of rice wine, and laid in hammocks underneath the clear night sky. The stars burned as bright as the moon. It was breathtaking. After stargazing, I passed out in a comfortable bed protected with a pink mosquito net.
We headed to the floating market the next morning. Along the way, we passed through a street market where there were fresh fruits, vegetables and meat being sold. Many vendors keep their stock of fish alive. Upon purchase, they knock the fish over the head with a rock and proceed to descale it. This wasn’t a pleasant sight, but it was interesting to watch as the women skillfully went about the daily task. Most of the vendors are women because it’s common for them to be the “business brains” who make the money and cook for the family while most of the men lay around in hammocks and play cards. There are exceptions, of course.
The floating market is comprised of many boats selling produce, coffee and even bowls of pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup dish with rice noodles, vegetables and beef or chicken in a broth spiced with cilantro, Thai basil and chili pepper.
After the floating market, we had lunch at a local cafe in Can Tho as we waited for our bus to bring us back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Overall, my experience in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam was exactly what I needed. I successfully traveled outside of the city with a few good friends. I met people from other countries and I got to see the more rural culture in South Vietnam.