The prospect of spending more than a day or two in Ho Che Minh City…again…held no appeal this time around so I opted to make a quick trip back to the Mekong Delta specifically to experience life on a Homestay.
Homestays are cropping up like flies all over this part of Viet Nam notably on the numerous canals that meander through this fertile and densely populated part of the country. They offer tourists a break from the fast paced life of the cities and a chance to see and experience how life and the commerce of the delta region is conducted.
I booked myself into the Minh Viet Homestay about 12 km outside the largest city in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho. However, getting there was not as easy as I had anticipated. After two bus rides from where I was staying in HCMC to the bus station where I would get the bus to Can Tho, I then faced a three hour ride. This was fine as I had a sleeper bus so could recline leisurely as we travelled along a fairly straight highway. I must add that the highways I travelled while in Viet Nam were in good shape. The trouble began when my bus left me off in what seemed like the middle of no where on the outskirts of the city. The driver’s assistant spoke no English so pointed that I could get to my destination by going over to the left where there were lots of buses but no station, or to the right which appeared to be a huge department store. Neither looked promising and there were no taxis in sight except for a couple of men wanting to take me on their rather dilapidated motor bikes. The only thing to do was to solicit some help from someone who could speak a little English. Luckily I found a young chap with a phone who called my Homestay. I was hoping they had got my message on the time I would be arriving and would be able to meet me. No such luck! They advised me to grab a taxi. I had the choice of a motor bike or an auto taxi which had miraculously appeared. I took the car and showed the address to the driver who nodded he knew where to go. However, I soon realized he didn’t have a clue where he was going. Several stops for directions, a few phone calls, a couple of back tracks, and we finally found the correct address. All this time I am watching the meter creeping upward to a point well beyond what I paid for my bus trip. I guess I should have taken that motor bike after all!
Arrival at a homestay isn’t anything like that of a hotel or guest house. There is no desk and there may or may not be someone there to greet you. In my case, there was a woman who I later found out was the mother of this family. She spoke no English but was smiley and kind. She showed me my room and that was it. My room was small and rustic…rustic meaning it had just the bare essentials: a bed with a mosquito net, a small wooden table, and a cabinet for putting clothes in. At least I didn’t have to share a bathroom as I did at my place in HCMC. Although my room was small and dark, it did face on the canal so I had a view.
Feeling somewhat marooned and very hot and thirsty after my long journey to get there, I spied a cooler with cold water and drinks so grabbed a water and sat down at one of the tables in the open air dining room to get my bearings. I had no sooner sat down wondering if I had made a mistake coming here when out of the blue an older couple who spoke English arrived. I was starved to have a conversation in English with anyone who was willing to do so, and like all Dutch people who are very much at ease with our language, they were more than happy to sit down for a chat. We soon found out we had lots in common on the subjects of travel and the political and other problems facing our respective countries. For the duration of my stay they were my meal time companions and bicycle tour guides.
We started out the next day after breakfast, on free bikes from our homestay, to explore our surroundings. Unfortunately, free bicycles often means they aren’t always in the best condition. Out of the two that were left, I chose what looked to be the best and off we went. We hadn’t gone very far before one of my bike’s brakes gave me some trouble. We tried fixing it to no avail since we didn’t have the right tools. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go too far before we spied a house which looked like it might have what we were looking for and sure enough it did. One of the men quickly had it fixed, and we were once again up and running.
Could there be anything more peaceful and uplifting than this, I wondered? Seeing the homes… some fancy, others not…having the children greet us with their smiling faces, waves, and chirpy “hellos”, along with the proliferation of colourful flowers and greenery, was a wonderful treat. I must add that the motor bike traffic wasn’t a problem. The only time we had to get off our bikes and walk them was when we came to a village with a market. The land is flat so we had no hills to climb. However, the weather was hot and humid so we stopped often to keep ourselves hydrated with drinks.
Early on we came across a family party for their grandson’s 1st birthday and were invited in to celebrate. Not wanting to intrude, we didn’t stay too long. However, the Viet Namese don’t look at such a visit as an intrusion. For them it is more an honour to have us help them celebrate such an occassion so they immediately provided us with drinks and plates of food. The only way to return the favour was to take some pictures of the family which I was able to share with them and later send along via email.
One of the main attractions for visiting Can Tho and its environs is to witness the early morning floating markets. The one which draws the most crowds is the largest and most colourful: the Cai Rang. After speaking to the one member of this family who spoke fairly good English, the son, Minh, about his tour to the floating markets, we decided to forego it. For me it was the expense of doing it on my own since my Dutch friends opted to do it on another day. Furthermore, I was not keen on having to be up at four in the morning. I needed to rest up after the trip down. I only had one full day at the Homestay before heading back to HCMC so couldn’t do it all. For me it was either the all day tour visiting not just the Cai Rang market but a smaller one, the Phong Dien, in the other direction which would have meant more boat travel rather than actual sight-seeing, or taking the leisurely tour on bicycles on our own which would cost nothing and be just as stimulating. If I ever do another homestay in the Mekong Delta, I will plan for at least two if not three full days to really have enough time for both.
The one thing that Mien Viet Homestay excelled in was the fabulous meals that the women of this family produced. My room fee included both breakfast and dinner at $20 a day. You can’t beat that. The breakfasts were fairly standard with a banana to start, followed by eggs (any style), bacon, a crusty bun or baguette with jam, and good Vietnamese coffee. Freshly squeezed orange juice was available for an additional cost. For both dinners, we had appetizers, a main meat or fish dish with rice and vegetables, ending up with fruit. Every plate was tasty and there was always something different…with the exception of rice which accompanies every meal. I would see the women washing, cutting and preparing food throughout the day. They took their craft seriously making sure their guests were happy and well fed.
I don’t think it’s really possible to sleep in while you are at a homestay if it fronts a canal. Canals play a big part in the Delta’s transportation system and are the life source for the people who live along them. Boats of all shapes and sizes laden with just about anything and everything seem to be constantly plying the dirty brown waters of the canals. Business usually starts about the time the sun rises and doesn’t cease until it sets, if not later. Add to this the proliferation of boats transporting tourists and you have a constant stream of activity.
My two nights and a day at the homestay allowed me to observe first hand how families live and work in this vast delta, dubbed “the bread basket of Viet Nam”. There is a noticeable hustle and bustle as the inhabitants go about their personal and commercial business. The people are friendly and appear to want to share their lives with all the visitors who seem to be coming in droves. There are many homestays to choose from. The one I stayed at was fairly basic but some offer more amenities and are better run. They will cost more but are more suited to those who want a little more comfort. If a homestay of any kind is not your preference, you can stay in one of the many hotels available in Can Tho. Tours to the floating markets and canals are available from there. Whatever choice you make, you are bound to enjoy all that this driving force of Viet Nam has to offer. I know I did and am glad I went.