Ben Tre: Into the Mekong
Our friends suggested we get out in the Mekong Delta region for a few days, so we connected with a guide they knew and headed out to Ben Tre. The rivers and canals we went to explore were the same ones war boats traveled through at the start of the Vietnam war. The trip was definitely an adventure and we learned some valuable lessons along the way.
It started off interestingly enough as we were the only foreigners on a small 8 person local bus. After about 1.5 hours we got dropped off on a street corner in the middle of the countryside. We looked around nervously trying not to panic until we found a toll keeper who was able to call our guide to come get us. Fortunately he showed up shortly, just as another guide was trying to poach us, and motorbiked us to our guest house. It was a nice spot right on the Mekong River. Our room was a little grimy though as it looked like a prison cell with squished mosquitoes and dead roaches on the floor.
After checking everything out, we sat on the porch for lunch and booked 2 boat tours for the day. The first tour led us through the rivers with stops at a coconut candy factory, bee farm, and a few other islands, including one where a monk lived who only ate coconuts every day to protest the war. The stops were a little touristy, but the views along the way were picturesque. After cruising around for a while we came back to the guest house for a nap.
The next tour was drifting down the canals at night looking for fireflies. Even though the moon was bright they lit up the trees like Christmas lights. It was amazing how the boatman was able to navigate the canals in the pitch black. Can’t imagine getting lost in there. That night, we sat down for dinner in pitch black since the power was still out from their 3 times a week blackouts. Dinner was DIY spring rolls of fried Elephant Ear Fish that were really delicious once we mastered rolling our own. Our guide helped us until we got the hang of it, and then went into town for an errand.
Once we were left to our own devices we were soon joined by an old grandfather who started enthusiastically pouring us shots of coconut liqueur. We soon had a group of 4 as other elders joined us, and were being laughed at by the young waiter as we forced down shot after shot. When our guide came back with dessert for us he angrily chased off the older men to bed. Luckily the power came on soon after that and we called it a night as well.
The next day we had a leisurely afternoon biking around the countryside before getting on the bus back to Saigon. We cut through rice fields and passed tons of school kids on bikes waving hello. These moments turned out to be some of our favorites when you aren’t being led on a structured tour and can just meander around on your own.
Overall, the trip was a welcome jaunt out of the city, but was also where we started learning a vital lesson about Vietnam: No matter how nice your guide is, or how well recommended they came, they are still trying to squeeze the most money possible out of you. Another tip – if a guide ever says this is what the price might be, but could be less depending on what you do, don’t ever listen. The key is to negotiate the price and trip you want right from the beginning, because at the end, it will always be the most expensive price they mentioned, and then it will be too late to fix it. Don’t think we’ll ever master the fine art of negotiating in Vietnam!