Grassy shades of green drift past my window like colors from a box of Crayola 64 crayons. Workers appear in the distance, up to their knees and waists in the fields, their conical hats bobbing as they move. Deep green coconut palm trees and golden wispy plants partially submerged in marshy water frame the scene along this drive through the Mekong Delta.
“This is the rice basket of Vietnam,” our guide Ken is quick to explain. “Farmers in the Mekong Delta produce more than half of the country’s rice and 90 percent of our rice exports.”
And then he pauses. “There is something else these fields are known for – graveyards.”
Vietnamese families, Ken says, often bury their family members on the land where they have lived. They believe in keeping their ancestors close by. Mausoleum-type markers appear randomly in the rice fields. Some are simple white structures; others are more elaborate and painted in shades of red and orange, a noticeable contrast to the nature surrounding them.
We still had a long drive ahead to reach our destination on the Mekong River, but already I was intrigued.
Vinh Trang Temple
After about an hour-and-a-half, we stop at Vinh Trang Temple near the city of My Tho. Constructed in 1850 on two acres of gardens and fruit trees, Vinh Trang is the oldest and largest temple in the Mekong Delta. The architecture is elegant and more elaborate than other Buddhist temples we’ve visited – a combination of Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and French design, Ken tells us. The larger-than-life Buddha statues, he says, represent the present and the future.
The Mekong River
The Mekong River’s 2,700 -mile journey from the Tibetan Plateau in China to the South China Sea near Ho Chi Minh City is an arduous one. The Upper Mekong cuts through a rugged landscape comprising rough and sometimes inaccessible terrain. The Lower Mekong is home to 65 million people who depend upon the river for their livelihoods. It’s a rich area of biodiversity, with more than 20,000 plant species and 850 fish species.
The world’s twelfth-longest river flows through six countries – China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong’s name is derived from the combined forms of its Thai and Lao names – Mae Nam – which translates to “Mother of Water.” In Vietnam, the Mekong is known as the “River of Nine Dragons.”
We arrive at a landing and board a small wooden boat to Unicorn Island, one of four Mekong Islands that also includes Dragon, Turtle and Phoenix – all named after animals that are considered to bring good luck in Vietnamese culture. On the way, Ken hands out coconuts with straws inserted into small holes – a refreshing treat of fresh coconut water, Herb says. I politely decline, knowing my dislike of anything coconut is not going to be easy in this part of the world!
Unicorn Island is part tourist business and part residence for the people who live and work in the Mekong Delta. Humidity hangs in the air like a heavy veil as we walk down a lane lined with coconut and banana trees and fruit orchards. We turn off the main road into a forest, where vegetation is thick and dense. It’s quiet except for the sound of roosters along the route.
With a thriving honey production business on Unicorn Island, it’s no surprise that our first stop is a honey tasting. We are seated at tables set with glasses of a honey tea and a platter of local fruit to share. A group of young women entertain us with Vietnamese songs – tips are expected, Ken tells us – and jars of honey are offered for sale. The stop is orchestrated with the same rote-ness as our experiences in Nha Trang, but for some reason it seems more authentic to me. This is life in the Mekong Delta, and it makes me wonder how the people here would survive without tourism.
A Sampan Ride
Our next stop was definitely touristy, but something I’ve really wanted to experience. Sampan boats are an integral part of life in the Mekong Delta – from fishing to floating markets to simply getting around. Unicorn Island offers a short ride for visitors through groves of water coconut trees. It’s a lovely little route, with overhanging palms creating tunnels through tropical scenery that in a brief moment transport you to another world.
The Candy Factory
Candy making – coconut candy, that is – also thrives on Unicorn Island. Before heading out for lunch, we stop to see a demonstration. The room resembles a small kitchen, and the entire process is done by hand, from creating the candy to wrapping the finished products.
Phoenix Island and Elephant Ear Fish
Our day in the Mekong Delta ends with lunch on Phoenix Island. The pre-set menu includes rice, salad, fruit and the island’s specialty, Elephant Ear Fish. The fish is displayed like a centerpiece, propped up as if it were swimming along the table. Servers wearing plastic gloves pull off pieces of the fish with their fingers and plop them onto our plates. I didn’t particularly enjoy looking at the poor creature as we ate our lunch, but I understood that it’s part of the culture.
Our trip back to the port was a two-hour journey in reverse. A boat to the mainland, a bus ride on the highway, past endless miles of rice fields and coconut palms and gravestones. This was our last day in Vietnam, and I was happy we’d had the chance to experience both urban and the rural areas. Although they’re only separated by a couple of hours, Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta seem like they belong to different times and places – one trying to move forward in a modern world; the other holding on to a tradition-filled past and simpler way of life.