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LEAVING HO CHI MINH CITY

 

I stood with our suitcases and watched as Mo walked up and down and back up the street again searching for the bus station in Ho Chi Minh City. We were hoping to head to Ben Tre, a small town along the Mekong Delta, by way of a two hour bus ride, after which we would be dropped off in front of a hotel and supposedly picked up by he owner of a homestay we had set up. But, we couldn’t find the bus station.

 

“It says…..but I looked and the address and it is a hair salon, not a bus station…” said Mo when he finally came back from his search.

 

At that point we decided to maybe just wander around for a few more blocks noting if we saw anything that resembled the bus we might need, and if not, well, give up….

 

As we walked down the street for a final time, dragging our suitcases noisily, a man in everyday clothes jumped out in front of us and handed us a card. He seemed to be asking if we were looking for the bus.

 

“Yes, yes!” we said and he motioned for us to sit and wait under the umbrella at his roadside snack stand. This did not look like a bus station and we couldn’t really understand him, but we were out of options so we waited.

 

Minutes later, two motorbike drivers pulled up and whisked us and our luggage off to….well, we don’t really know where yet. Before I get on the motorbike, a Vietnamese woman sitting next to me at the snack stand motions several times to my pockets and warns me to “be careful”–seriously, what have we gotten ourselves into??

 

To our relief the drivers basically only go around the block and drop us off in front of the real address for the bus station, a little hole in the wall that we never would have noticed. Whether these people were just being nice, or this is standard operating procedure, we were not sure, but we were feeling reassured that we were on track, and feeling a lot better when we realized that our bus ride for two would only cost us about $6 total!

 

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The ACTUAL address of the bus station needed to get from Ho Chi Minh to Ben Tre

 

ARRIVING IN BEN TRE

 

Two hours later, we’re in the town of Ben Tre. After being dropped off at what we thought was our final stop, we were met by another unknown man and our luggage was once again whisked off on a motorbike, this time without us, to a destination that we were hoping would be the homestay that we had previously booked.

 

We were put on a small boat and taken along the Mekong Delta to our homestay – a place only accessible by boat or bike. If there was ever a time that you felt like you were in the movie Apocalypse Now (or maybe Tropic Thunder), it was this day. It was cloudy and pouring rain as our boat slowly moved along the river, turning into and gliding through various tiny tributaries of the muddy Mekong, brushing past enormous green palm branches and other plants that made you very well aware that you were in the jungle. At one point, the path got so narrow that we had to transfer to a smaller canoe that was rowed by an old woman. She took us to a restaurant near our homestay, where we dined on the local fish caught in the river (Elephant Ear Fish).

 

The Muddy Mekong

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Elephant Ear Fish: fish of the Mekong

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OUR HOMESTAY

 

We then hopped on a couple bicycles and rode to our homestay, where (to our relief!) we were finally reunited with our luggage.

 

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Although the accommodations were extremely modest, we had the most amazing time there and highly recommend it to anyone who would enjoy a truly “rural Vietnam” experience. The host’s name is Phuoc, who lives with his wife and 5 year old son. His wife cooked wonderful meals and we enjoyed the opportunity to help prepare the dinners. The whole family was so friendly and Phuoc spoke pretty good English so we could talk to him a bit about life in the Mekong. Over dinner, he told us a story of when he led a tour of the Mekong for an American veteran who fought in the Vietnam War. The veteran wanted Phuoc to take him to a certain village. Apparently, it was there that the veteran remembers being involved in a gun battle with his unit against the Viet Cong. When Phuoc took him to the village, they met one of the villagers who also fought in that area but for the Viet Congs. Phuoc did the translating between the two men and realized that they both fought there around the same time. They then traded stories about what each side’s battle strategy was at that village, where they thought the enemy was hiding, where they actually hid, etc. After telling their tales, the men both shook hands and Phuoc and the American veteran left. We thought that was such an amazing story and illustrated what Phuoc told us about the Vietnamese – people here tend not to hold grudges and have done there best to move on.

 

 

EXPLORING BEN TRE

 

A great perk about this homestay was that it included a wonderful, almost 24/7 personal guide, Yen, who had a whole itinerary planned for us for the three days we were there. He was invaluable to us as the town of Ben Tre is (fortunately) not yet a a big tourist destination and therefore it’s pretty difficult to get around when a lot of roads (and smaller paths) are unmarked.

 

Yen took us on bike rides through the countryside, pointing out all the vegetation that grew along the way, giving us samples to eat of things like vietnamese cherries that grew wildly along the bike paths, and stopping at various breathtaking scenery spots and suggesting silly photos for us to pose in.

 

exploring the rice fields

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Attempting to cross a makeshift bridge…..

 

He took us to the markets and showed us the “dry” parts where rice and staples for the home are sold and the “wet” parts where meat, fish and vegetables are displayed.

 

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He also took us to a very funny man’s house where we looked through old family pictures, watched the man climb a tree to pick coconuts, had tea, learned about the plants in his yard and engaged in rural Vietnamese “games”. We thought when we left here we would be asked to buy or pay for something but we were not….I think the guy just liked showing off his home to visitors…and might have been just a little bit off his rocker….

 

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On our last venture we were taken on a boat ride up the river to tour various businesses of the Mekong. First we stopped at a brick making factory where we learned that they cooked the bricks using the shaft from rice as kindling.

 

The buildings where the bricks are cooked.

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And all the rice shaft

 

Next a mattress making shop where I learned a bit about the loom. These women threaded “rope” made from palm leaves through the loom so fast!! Working together, the pair of women make about three large mats each day.

 

 

Last a coconut candy factory where each piece is made by hand, giving local girls legitimate employment.

 

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When we left, we almost felt as if Yen had become a friend. We were sad to go but excited to take the bus back to Ho Chi Minh and then jump on a plane to our next Vietnamese destination: the beach town of Nah Trang. This time, the return bus stop was much easier to find :)

 

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***Info on Phuoc’s homestay: duaxanhnambo@yahoo.com.vn (in case anyone Visits the Mekong!)