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A slow meander through the Mekong delta.

sunny 31 °C
View Somewhere Over The Urals. on stuartfinch's travel map.

Getting off the well-beaten track is not so easy in Vietnam - the number of foreign tourists here, unsurprisingly, far exceeds the density found anywhere we have previously visited on this trip - but these last few days in the Mekong delta have provided such an opportunity. After an aborted attempt to get to the Con Dao islands by ferry we chose instead to use the time to travel through the languid backwaters from Ben Tre to Tra Vinh.

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Ben Tre is only two bumpy hours by public bus from Ho Chi Minh City’s Mein Tay bus station, this small Mekong province is sandwiched between two arms of the river and until recently only linked to the rest of the delta via ferries. Although just one short step further than the popular day trip destination of My Tho, we saw just a handful of other tourists here. A perfect place to lose yourself along the quiet country roads, paddy fields and coconut groves on bicycle. Travelling farther into the delta by cargo boat seemed like a suitable next step.

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We climbed aboard and nestled our bags amongst the boxes of eggs, piles of baskets, large bags of vegetables and what looked like a large quantity of beer. As we set off we claimed a spot on the pitch tar roof, leaning against a stack of brushes, as the place to watch the riverside action and catch a refreshing breeze in the morning heat. The slow pace of the boat meant that this was going to be leisurely travel.

The Mekong and its related tributaries and canals are largely still a working river with vessels ranging in size from gargantuan container ships and RoRo ferries to one person canoes used for fishing and personal transport. Most boats were similar in size to ours, a deep-hulled wooden construction with a pair of eyes painted on the bow to ward off evil, and often loaded to the point that their skippers could barely see their way over the top of the cargo despite being perched on a high platform at the back.

After crossing one of the main arms of the Mekong, we estimated at least a mile wide at this point, we headed south through smaller channels flanked by tropical jungle on both sides so dense that the ‘put-put’ of the boat’s engine echoed back at us. At quieter moments you could hear the noise of birds in the trees or the occasional cockerel crowing from the houses hidden on the banks, it felt like our own journey into ‘the heart of darkness’ (just without the horror).

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We made one short stop at the market town Mo Cay, to load up some sugar products, where we managed to grab an ice cold drink and some fruit from a café in the lanes nearby. The riverbanks surrounding the town provided plenty of moorings for boats to load and unload coconuts for processing. Teams of people, working by hand alone, could be seen sorting coconuts by weight, removing the husks and cracking the coconuts to cook and sugar the flesh into coconut candy. In other places swathes of the banks were covered in a layer of drying husks slowly being baked and raked into bales of coir fibres. This province truly has a coconut economy.

Five and a half hours after we had departed we approached the small quay in Tra Vinh where we were allowed to disembark before the cargo. Having covered just over 40 miles on a journey that would have taken a couple of hours by bus and ferry, this was certainly slow travelling. There are even fewer tourists in Tra Vinh and little do except wander the markets and pagodas of this Khmer influenced town which can only be described as off the beaten track.

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Posted by stuartfinch 07:11 Archived in Vietnam

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Not sure we went to Tra Vinh. I know we went from Rach Gia to Can Tho and got on the river there. Not sure what happened from there to Saigon. Glad you escaped Vietnam's crowd - the crowdedness of the country is part of its appeal, but the tourists less so. Won't bore you with how much that has changed over the last 20 years. Still a great place, though

Enjoy Cambodj. Another great place...

by Alex Bicknell

I'm sure Vietnam's changed a lot (so several others we've met have suggested) but it's still one great place - just a few more Russians than you'd probably expect. Looking forward to Cambodia and Laos and especially the Philippines! x

by stuartfinch

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