Slowly down the MEKONG
• Photo gallery: Mekong
By John Lander
Special to The Advertiser
As your boat cruises farther from Saigon, urban landscapes give way to green as palm trees droop over tin bungalows on the Mekong's riverbanks. Floating islands of water hyacinths drift by granny-powered rowboats, while larger vessels transport cargos of melons, coconuts and bananas piled high. Small boys dive into the water from the bamboo balconies of their riverside homes. Another boat passes by with with "lucky eyes" painted on the bow. Pet dogs, friendly waving kids and even houseplants sit up on deck. The pace of life on the Mekong resembles the rhythms of the 19th century rather than the 21st, and there lies its charm. To travel in boats here is to experience Asia at its most atmospheric.
Like some kind of agricultural Venice, the Mekong Delta is crisscrossed with countless channels, tributaries and canals. Boats of every description are the main mode of transport in these parts, carrying people and the bountiful produce of the region to and from villages, farms and floating markets.
The well-irrigated land of the Mekong Delta is some of the most productive in Asia and is referred to by the Vietnamese as the country's rice bowl, though rice is only one of the many things the area grows in abundance.
Eventually your boat pulls into the dock at Can Tho, the heart of the Mekong Delta where all boats big and small eventually stop. The town's riverside market, quay, restaurants and cafes are a pleasant way to catch the cool evening breezes and watch Vietnam slowly pass by and get a glimpse into local life. But as pleasant as it is to observe riverside traffic from onshore for a change, the ever-present Mekong is a reminder to prepare for your next boat trip.
The must-do boat excursion here is to the renowned floating market at nearby Cai Rang. At dawn, floating merchants set up shop and spike tall bamboo poles with a melon, a giant durian or a dragonfruit stuck onto the top of these masts.
This is the local method of advertising the goods on sale at each boat. The bounty of the area soon becomes clear as your sampan approaches — the bustle of the vendors is not just a unique way to shop but it's fun as well. A tiny skiff toot-toots by with a cauldron of soup, ladling out bowls of pho noodles to hungry shoppers in yet other boats. Once the pho man has scooted off, a coffee boat appears with supercharged cups of Vietnamese coffee ready to perk up flagging shoppers.
The Mekong has such a variety of boats and destinations that it's tempting to try and sample them all. Some folks favor heading onto Chau Doc at the Cambodian border, then onward to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor. Beach bums will opt for the jet boat to Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam's tropical island paradise.
IDYLLIC PHU QUOC
After all the riverine activity along the Mekong, why not check out the local salt water for a change of scenery? Phu Quoc is the top destination in this part of Vietnam, and for good reason. The island may have been overlooked by the producers of the movie "The Beach" but not by devoted beach lovers. With year-round sunshine, an average temperature of 30 degrees, fresh seafood, low prices and beaches with sand the texture of powder, it is hard to believe that Phu Quoc was once a place of exile during the French administration.
It's how most people imagine beach life in Southeast Asia: swaying palm trees, seafood barbecues and thatched bungalows where the main event of the day is a cocktail at sunset. For years, travelers overlooked the island largely because it was difficult to get to. Today, you can make the trip on a high-speed ferry from the mainland in just three hours.
Phu Quoc is famous throughout Vietnam for its abundant seafood and top-quality fish sauce — the condiment used throughout Southeast Asia in favor of soy sauce. The island produces 6 million liters of nuoc mam every year, prized as premium grade. Several distilleries dot the island — look for the vast red vats. Visitors are welcome to come inside and taste, as at a winery.
Though tourism is increasingly important to the island's economy, it does not overwhelm. Fishing, pepper farming and the fish sauce industry are still the mainstays for locals who carry on with traditional island ways of life — kids sort the peppercorns while their elders go out fishing. The result is a rich harvest of tuna, crabs, prawns and squid that will grace your table at dinnertime, seasoned with local pepper and nuoc mam, of course. The islanders are happy to share their beautiful island with visitors in this, so far, unspoiled idyll.