Tourists are drawn to Ho Chi Minh City because of its history and culture, but sometimes the city’s hustle and bustle can be overwhelming.
I can clearly see the Ben Thanh Market’s belfry and clock. It’s across the road, only two lanes of traffic wide. A distance of less than 20 meters separates me and the market’s entrance. But it may as well be the Amazon River I’m considering crossing. Scooters, motorbikes, trucks, cars and cyclos whiz past me in a never ending procession, I’m concerned about stepping into the traffic chaos. There are no pedestrian crossings. But even if there were, I know Vietnamese people don’t stop for pedestrians. Before arriving in Vietnam, I’d received instructions on how to cross busy Vietnamese roads. Step into the traffic without hesitation and the traffic “magically” weaves around you, if you stop that’s when you’ll strike trouble (I was told.) I’d arrived in Hanoi 10 days earlier and remember my heart palpitations when crossing my first Vietnamese road. The nerves, while not as bad, were still present in Ho Chi Minh City, at the end of my Vietnamese holiday .
As the main commercial and economic hub for Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh city is busy and fast paced. Not only is it the capital of the country, over the last decade overseas investors have targeted the city. This injection of capital has resulted in the transformation of a once low rise cityscape, to one with architecturally imposing high rise buildings, international five star hotels and apartments. With nine million people and over six million motorbikes bursting onto the city streets at all hours of the day and night, it appears constantly chaotic. At the tail end of my two week Vietnamese holiday, after a couple of nights in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon the name the locals prefer), it was time for me to escape this historically interesting but chaotically crazy place. Being a Brisbane lass, not fond of large cities, I wanted to leave the chaos in search of a unique Vietnamese experience. My destination: the Nguyen Shack in the Mekong Delta region.
The point of difference
The Nguyen Shack offers a compromise between a hotel and a homestay. The owners, husband Maxime (French Canadian) and wife Theu (Vietnamese local) wanted to create a place where you avoid feeling that disconnect from the country and the environment, as you often do in Hotels and resorts. The Nguyen Shack was built from locally sourced materials using only eco-friendly sustainable products. Ex- Londoner Alexia Hollinshead 33yo, the manager during my stay indicated the owners hoped guests would feel like they’re staying in a home away from home.
Cai Rang is approximately 20 minutes from Can Tho city. If you intend staying at the Nguyen shack make sure to have the address written in Vietnamese. It’s off the beaten track and is not clearly signed. The driver who collected me from my Saigon Hotel had to stop several times in Cai Rang asking for directions. Thank goodness for mobile phones! The shack is also accessible by bus from Saigon, then taxi from Can Tho. Many guests during my stay at the shack, successfully used this mode of transport.
The Nguyen Shack has three individual free standing bungalows over-looking the water. They also offer four bed basic dormitory rooms and rooms with a shared bathroom. Access to these rooms is via a 20 metre long swinging bridge.
My open air tree house bungalow was a comfortable size with double and single bed. Accessible via a steep set of stairs, I was in my own private tree house.
Don’t expect to be able to lock yourself in at night time. There are no doors. The bungalows are fitted with the basics including a bathroom (draw a curtain across for privacy), bar fridge and fans. At the time of my departure security safes were being installed in each room. There is free wifi but no mod cons like a hair dryer or air-con.
The floor fans provide much needed air circulation as the days are hot and humid – this is southern Vietnam after all. The best place to escape the heat was in one of the two silk hammocks on the edge of my balcony overlooking the river. On my first afternoon I ended up laying in one of these hammocks for over two hours with a book and a cool drink relaxing to the sights and sounds of the Mekong River life below me. Perfect way to decompress from the craziness of Saigon. Every now and again the stillness was disturbed by a passing boat making their journey up or down the river.
I would have laid there happily for many hours watching the fireflies light up the evening sky, until I felt something bite my flesh. I’ve been exposed to mosquitoes in my travels but nothing quite prepared me for the viciousness of the variety hovering about the Mekong. Their fangs penetrated my sarong. Forced to unfurl the mosquito net above the bed, I took cover under its protective shroud. I considered staying there for the night, but the pangs of hunger, aroused by the smell of food wafting in from the kitchen next to my bungalow meant I had to leave the net’s protection. Thankfully the communal dining room’s portable fans and a few squirts of Alexia’s insect repellent kept the mosquitoes away. Sipping on their refreshing signature lime juice drink, I perused the extensive menu. I ordered grilled beef rolls in home grown betel leaves. They were devoured with another lime juice. Dining above the river at night, socialising with the guests was relaxing – the mosquitoes a distant memory.
There are no regimented hours for dining and activities are optional at the Nguyen shack. Guests may wander into the dining area at any time hours and request meals. Not following a strict time routine times provides the chance to truly relax. A guest I met in the dining area had succumbed to this relaxation mode. An Australian, living and working in Saigon for the past four years, Sally was in the midst of a solo cycling adventure around the region. I asked her how long she intended to stay at the Shack, “I’m not sure,” was her reply. “I keep extending my departure date.”
The Nguyen Shack offers a number of activities including a floating Market tour ($12USD / person); a Guided Bike Tour ($10US/person) and an afternoon Boat Tour ($6USD per person.) Should you feel inclined to venture out on your own journey of discovery around the side streets and into the neighbouring villages, push bikes are available for guests to use at any time.
Before heading out for a three hour bike ride, I enjoyed a breakfast of Vietnamese pancakes. Forget the Western flat version, these were cups of delicate pastry filled with savoury goodies – the perfect way to carb up for the efforts ahead.
Linh who served my breakfast pancakes was our tour guide. Joining us was a German couple and a family from America (Mum, Dad, 13 and 7 year old sons.) Our first stop was at the small two roomed local village school, followed by a visit to the ironmongers workplace. Both places were empty because it was a Saturday. We were fortunate the ironmonger was not at work as the small space with the thatched roof had no provision for ventilation and felt very claustrophobic and smoky.
“Century old iron mongering traditions are handed down from father to son and are still in use today,” said Linh. “They are not likely to change.”
These traditions are replicated elsewhere. We stop at the village’s medicine man/Chinese herbalist shop. We step at the entrance of a small room lined with timber shelves crammed with boxes filled with indescribable herbs and odd shaped natural items. I doubt this place has changed much over the last 100 years. This wizened old man beckons me to sit and takes my pulse with his fingers gently pressed on my wrist. With the smiling face of Ho Chi Minh looking down from a framed portrait on the wall, the medicine man stares intently into my eyes. He takes my blood pressure with a Western medical device – I smile and he smiles back. Many smiles – so few words. No herbal concoction is suggested, I presume I’m in great health?
At our next stop at the local pagoda, we meet six orphaned local children who are being cared for by the monks. The youngest orphan is only nine months and is sitting on a flat wooden platform near the basic kitchen. An elderly monks sits cross legged spoon feeding the baby from a small bowl.
We meet more of the children outside and they smile shyly at the strangers in their midst. As we go to our bikes, they wave cheekily smiling as we leave, begging for more sweets we shared with them earlier.
A stop at a domestic house gives little indication of what is going on out the back. It’s the local rice wine distillery. An elaborate back yard set up with large vats and numerous pipes leading everywhere. Linh explains the local price for 3 litres of rice wine is about 60,000 dong ($2USD.) The final stop on our bike tour is at a rice factory, where we learn the Vietnamese preference for minimal waste. Linh explains how the leftover components of rice are used on garden beds.
As the humidity crept uncomfortably high, we returned to the Shack where my cold shower never felt so good. Followed by a few hours chilling in the hammock, reflecting on how much I’d learnt about the everyday life of Vietnamese rural people in those three hours.
Floating Markets of Cai Rang
My trip to the Cai Rang region was organised specifically to visit the floating markets. I’d read these markets were more for the locals and less touristy than the floating markets further up the river at Can Tho. The Floating Market tour was on the second morning of my stay. Despite the 5.30am early start I felt excited. A quick 20 minute boat ride up the quiet estuary, past the homes of many river dwellers, brought us out to the main tributary.
The quiet gave way to a hive of activity – a dense conglomeration of boats and people. The markets are where the Mekong river people ply their trade – seven days a week. We pass boats big and small, noticing many specialise in a particular fruit or vegetable. Some boats appear so derelict you wonder how they’re still afloat.
“It is the Vietnamese way to recycle absolutely everything, especially their boats” says Alexia, our tour guide for the morning.
I watch as the crew on larger boats skilfully transfer their cargo of watermelons, tossing them one by one to the crew on the smaller boats. These smaller boats then travel up river to the markets in Saigon. I wonder what the fruit or vegetable impaled on a tall a tall spire a few metres above their vessel signifies. It advertises their boat’s specialty (very effectively!)
Food vendors float past offering noodle soups and bakery products. I ask Alexia about a boat selling banh style bread. She beckons the boat and it pulls over next to ours and rolls of fresh sweet banh bread is handed over by the smiling toothless female vendor. (Less than 50 cents!)
The floating markets are all over by 8am. So we make our way to the land market.
Australian chef and author Luke Nguyen who grew up in Vietnam said the Vietnamese love their produce super-fresh – alive where possible. He wasn’t wrong. We walked past stalls with freshly cut beef lying in the open air, sunshine (and resident flies!)
The young group of Germans on my tour, watched fascinated as a lady cut up frogs (or toads) as they were still kicking. (Now that’s fresh!) I was fascinated by a stall vendor as she cut up long of something white in long rectangular lengths. Alexia told me it was, fresh tofu.
“We buy ours here each morning for our restaurant and it is amazing.”
We tasted rambhutan fruit, picked from the trees that morning. I declined trying the bitter cucumber. These markets were refreshing for their lack of tourists and zero harassment to buy – a pleasant change after my experience at Saigon’s Ben Thanh Markets.
The Mekong Delta is made up of hundreds of waterways. My decision to escape Saigon for a few days and experience life on one of them was a good one. The Nguyen Shack is off the beaten track and the food and accommodation are basic – but if you’re looking for a genuine Vietnamese experience, this is the place to find it. The tofu is amazing – unlike any tofu I’ve tried before. And don’t worry about the mosquitoes – bug spray sorts them out.
Note: I travelled independently and was not paid or sponsored for this post.