Weekend on the Mekong, Part 1

The Mekong is one mother of a river. I had no idea just how big until we crammed an entire journey to Can Tho, Vietnam into 48 hours over a weekend. I wouldn’t advise this — getting to Can Tho is slightly arduous, and it would be waaaaaay more enjoyable to have three or four days to make the journey. But you know us — go, go, go until the very last minute, then return home exhausted and wonder what just happened.

We arrived in Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City) on Friday night. Have you been? It’s got a great vibe — very busy, packed with buzzing motorcycles and a youthful pulse that can make you feel like the world you come from moves in slow motion. Rather than pre-book anything other than flights, we had decided to find our way to the Mekong upon landing in Vietnam. To some, I’m sure this sounds like insanity. But in a country like Vietnam people are really helpful and resourceful, and rarely do you find yourself at a dead end.

The Cinnamon Hotel (super friendly, great rooms, affordable, breakfast included) fastidiously arranged a few bus tickets for Saturday morning, so we enjoyed Friday night with beers and food in downtown Saigon.

The next morning, we did a quick walk around Saigon and then caught a local bus to the big bus station where the longer journey began. It was around noon when our ride to Can Tho finally got underway. I will spare you most of the remarkably boring details of the next four hours, other than saying we were in a hot tour van with about a dozen people, three per row. With his slow and shifty habits, our driver probably added 45 minutes to our journey as other buses and vans honked at us, flew past us and generally wished we would get out of the fast lane. We arrived Can Tho just after 4:00 p.m. and bargained with a taxi driver who finally got us to our hotel.

After a quick refresh, we caught a boat to the main part of Can Tho and were finally introduced to life on the river. Coincidentally, while making this trip to Can Tho I was reading The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future by Milton Osborne. It’s a great read if you’re interested in the history of one of the world’s largest rivers — a river whose source was not exactly pinpointed until 1994  (in eastern Tibet). The Mekong touches seven countries (free Tibet!) as it flows south to the South China Sea: Tibet, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It cannot be navigated by boat from start to finish (though many have tried and many have portaged) — there are several sections rendered impassable due to extreme rocks and rapids. This factor alone may be responsible for helping some of the Mekong’s upper stretches remain in relatively good shape. More on that later.

Life in Can Tho is similar to life pretty much anywhere else in southeast Asia — great street food, fun markets, families out dining together and long days in the sun. Then at sunset, the lights come on and the buzz becomes louder as plans for the night take form. Great to see the polka dot jersey in Vietnam!

We sauntered the streets in search of dinner, and finally returned to a side street with a lot of families hanging out and an outdoor restaurant called Sil My where you could cook your own dinner over an open flame.

This would most definitely not be legal in the United States, and too bad! What a delicious meal! Our waiter guided us to a fantastic entree of thinly sliced beef cooked over the flame, added to rice noodles, mint, thin strips of pineapple and cucumber all rolled up in rice paper with a little hot chili sauce. Holy wraps Batman! What a wonderful mix of flavors. These are the rewards for striking out onto the streets of Vietnam. I’ll file that recipe away for the days when my yearning for Asian food can’t be satisfied by walking out my front door.

And tomorrow… off to the floating market.


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