The last leg of my Vietnam journey culminated with a trip to Cai Be, a river-based town a three hour drive outside of Ho Chi Minh City.
The day started at 5 AM with a trip to the tour guide office to pick up my ticket. The night before, I had discovered the tour last minute, so I quickly contacted one of the guides by Skype, and was told that if I arrived early enough I’d probably be able to score a spot, which I did.
Our guide was a hilarious guy named Viet who allocated 40% of his tour guide banter to describe how marriage was an awful institution (“Who here’s not married yet? Good, don’t do it and make the same mistake I did.”) and giving us rundowns on how to say his name correctly (“It’s Viet, not Vit. Vit means ‘duck’ in Vietnamese!”) I’m not usually one for tours, but I can see how a good tour guide can make or break a trip. He never ran out of things to say and was quite informative. The tour seemed to be half Yuk Yuk’s and another half Vietnamese cultural lessons.
On the way to Cai Be, there seemed to be tons happening along the highway. There were farmers tending to their rice fields, random, distinguished temples and people chatting and having coffee at local, neighbourhood stalls. Many times in North America when you travel one city to another, there’s absolutely nothing to see along the way except perhaps a scary Motel 6. Vietnamese farmland sits right along the highway, and seems to have a very warm, community feel to it, teeming with life and action.
We arrived at a small dock and got in our boat, which was very picturesque, surrounded by pastel-coloured shanty towns. The boat took us around a small section of the Mekong Delta and also to the Cai Be floating market, our main destination.
The floating market was very interesting. I bet they probably spent more time on the water in a couple months than I probably will in my entire life. It was surreal to see people chilling on their boats, while hauling around tons of fruits and vegetables. Viet told us that the Vietnamese that live on the river have a special bond with their boats. Many had eyes painted on them, and the boats are given names and statuses more similar to pets than inanimate objects. Each boat serves as a specialty store for the surrounding village. On the boat, there is a long pole that has a sample of the goods tied to it. If there are onions tied to the top of the pole, then that indicates to potential customers that it’s an onion boat and that’s all they’ll usually sell. It’s rare to see a boat that deals in several different items.
We then stopped off at a local village where they specialized in making rice paper and coconut goods. It was incredible to see such ingenuity at work, sort of like watching someone make fire without a match. With a few very simple tools, some physical feats of strength and one or two useful machines, it was possible to transform rice and coconuts into dozens of different products. Coconut water, candies, coconut flesh, the oils, decorations and even clothing was created by using the coconut’s husk filaments as a thread. Even the bits that were unusable were burned to keep people warm in the winters, ensuring there was essentially no waste. After sampling and buying some of the candies and having a scorpion liquor shot (which actually tasted pretty good, like a mellow whiskey) we continued on.
Dinner was down the river, which we arrived at via a scenic rowboat tour. The paddle boats were different from normal Western ones in that they were extremely narrow, with a female paddler sitting at the back rowing the boat facing to the front. I can imagine it being a pretty good back workout. Dinner consisted of a few fish dishes with some rice and chicken – pretty simple stuff but very delicious. We sat around and exchanged some travel stories, did some biking and lounged around in hammocks. It was nice to kick up our feet and relax, while the biking also allowed us to see some of the villagers attending to their normal daily lives. Some houses looked incredibly dilapidated, yet many times we would see a crowd of people singing Karaoke on what looked and sounded like a very expensive speaker system. Very strange.
We then went to another village area were we had some seasonal fruit and saw performances of some local traditional folk songs while they accompanied the singers with traditional Vietnamese instruments I had never heard or seen before. It was incredibly inspiring and made me wonder if I should be trying to incorporate some more global sounds into my music.
Viet told us that many of the people that we met that day live on just $5 USD a day. During my time in Vietnam, I’d never seen more smiling faces in one place before. In a place like Hong Kong where it seems work and the pace of life is non-stop, we feel we never have enough and where everyone always seems to have something to gripe about, I think Vietnam demonstrated the importance of focusing on the present and appreciating the things that we already have. It’s sometimes difficult to really internalize this way of thinking until you see it for yourself.
I spent the last couple hours of my time in Vietnam sipping on an incredible $0.80 cent coffee while I people watched and thought about my own life next to a busy street, taking in the best bowl of pho I’ve ever had, at a mere $1.50 USD a bowl.
I couldn’t have imagined a more fulfilling meal or a better way to end my trip.