Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
We wake up very early, around 7AM. We are in a bungalow made of straw and bamboo in the middle of the jungle. The calls of the animals keep us company all night and in the morning the noise of people preparing their breakfast, the scooters right outside our homestay, the children running and playing and the wooden boats on the river join the chorus.
We left Ho Chi Minh and its urban folly for a couple of days to visit one of those destination that has always been on my top list, one of those places you must visit at least once in a lifetime.
Everything started when I first engaged in travelling literature. I fell in love completely with one of the first books on this long list: “Le Farfalle sul Mekong” (Butterflies on Mekong) written by Corrado Ruggeri. I don’t know why I chose to read this book, perhaps because the colors of the cover were calling my name and without thinking twice I brought it home. In a few hours I finished it. I talked about it to Julien, an evening after work, while sitting on the tiny terrace of our flat in Paris (so tiny that we could only sit there with a leg inside the flat and one leg outside if we both wanted to be on the terrace). On the 6th floor, enjoying two glasses of wine and french fries. We used to do this a lot, in the evening, it was our moment of décompression. Julien told me: “Miki, you should read more books like this”.
And that’s how our library almost entirely dedicated to history left space to an amazing travel literature. Choosing that book was l’élément déclencheur, it triggered our lifetime journey up to this point, when I start writing another story from a bungalow made of straw and bamboo. Who could ever imagine this?
Mekong is an extremely wide area (about 40000 km2), south of Vietnam. It includes 12 provinces, the most known is Can Tho. It’s a labyrinth of canals, rivers, islands, floating markets and villages lost in the middle of immense rice fields. The main means of transport is the boat - the noise of the engine in the background.
We decide to start exploring the area from Ben Tre. We book a homestay in the middle of the jungle. We’re looking for the real experience, into the green. We drive for three hours through rice and coconut fields and we reach Saigon. Vihn, the owner of our homestay, welcomes us. He built the bungalows in straw and bamboo with his own two hands. There are 10 bungalows in total, placed around the main house, where his family lives. We reached the bungalow crossing small bridges on the water, immersed in the nature, among the chickens. The kitchen is openair and women usually take care of meals. We contribute with the dinner preparation, together with the other guests. Dinner is served at 18.30. An incredible fish is served. At the end of the dinner they bring bowls full of warm water, where we can immerse our feet. The light is soft, the sounds of the jungle are all around.
What an unforgettable experience in Mekong. Vihn helps us renting two bikes. Julien and Teo on one, Lia is so tiny she fits in the basket on my bike. She’s so cute in there that everyone we cross smiles at her.
I love Julien because he can turn any moment into magic, even the simplest little things. I’ve always thought about him as a wizard. His attentions and care for detail make me feel like I’m in a movie sometimes. His passion for beauty drives him to be so charming and prodigious. He selects the music on his phone, we start pedaling. It’s only the four of us, the sounds of Mekong, the music. We are completely immersed in the jungle, biking along the river. This is the sparkle you find in a book or in a movie, that sparkle that talks about life.
Vihn’s homestay is a bit isolated in the green. He serves the dinner but not the lunch so we pedal on our bikes during the day looking for something new to eat. We don’t know much about the area. Houses are built in the middle of nothing in a random fashion and sometimes they’re very distant from each other. The view is open countryside. There are just a couple of shops selling primary goods, but nothing we can feed our kids with. So we keep searching. An old lady bikes with us, she’s wearing a pointy hat and pedals with a funny angle of her legs. Wow, with the rice paddies all around I feel like I’m in a painting!
We eventually find a couple of very traditional restaurants, the owners are young and smiley and we decide to stop there. We ask for a menu. There’s none. Here you can only eat Pho for 10.000 dong, the equivalent of 50 cents. So we order two Pho with noodles and veggies, no meat. The broth is probably one of the best we’ve ever eaten in Vietnam. The children are so happy. We eat fast and we’re back on our bikes (the next day we’ll find out that just around the corner there is a city center full of restaurants. God Bless adventure and Pho for 10.000 dong. Amen.)
We head back to our homestay and a boat is waiting for us, this is one of the main reasons why we came all the way to Mekong, this is what we imagined. The commandant doesn’t speak english, he’s 1.60 meter tall and he’s so skinny that his trousers don’t fall just thanks to a good old belt. He’s wearing flip flops and he smiles at us (our only form of communication, the most effective) and he switches on the boat pulling a rope. The crackling of the engine: here we go.
Our first boat trip on Mekong is such a stunning travel postcard. The children can’t stop looking around, Teo is looking for animals. Our boat is the only one. We cross the mangrove forest, slowly navigating through the palms. We stop in the tiny village market, where three kids welcome us. They stare at us, Teo and Lia are super happy and they want to play with them. This is something we appreciate so much about our kids, their openness, that endless smile, that outlook on new friendships. It doesn’t matter if we’re perceived as the common tourists travelling just to take a bunch of curious pictures.
This is not relevant for the children. Black, white, yellow, blu. We’re children and we play together, don’t we? We step in the market respectfully. No, we’re not the same old tourists travelling to portray the diverse. We’re born on the other side of the world and we come here in pure admiration with a real interest of sharing. What is living here about? How does it feel to get up early in the morning to sell bananas and onions to the locals? Julien talks with a woman, the only one around who speaks a bit of English, just enough to understand each other. When we say goodbye in Vietnamese she starts laughing so hard, bringing her hands to her mouth, and she calls her friends. When we leave on our boat they smile at us from afar. The sun goes down. Our commandant with his straw fisherman hat cannot find a place to anchor the boat and decides to show us one of the most incredible places of the trip, and so unexpected! We navigate through the narrowest canal and suddenly the widest delta opens up in front of us. And here it is, shining of all its charm, the sea. it’s a painting. A masterpiece. Cool.
Our second stop it’s 2 hours away from Ben Tre. We’re heading to Can Tho countryside. Once again we booked a homestay in the jungle, but we won’t find the same warm atmosphere. My fault (I booked it). Maybe this time the experience is a bit too wild. During the first night we heard weird noises. In the morning I woke up with Julien’s big face staring at me a bit shocked and saying: “Miki… how can I say this… we won’t spend another night here. We’re going back to Ho Chi Minh”. He’s so firm, I can’t argue with that. The weird noises in the night were other people occupying the apartment, we were absolutely not aware of this situation. No one bothered mentioning. Terrified, I start packing all our stuff and we immediately leave that place that was cute only in photo.
However, we do not give up. Can Tho is one of the best areas of Mekong Delta. We went back after christmas, with Julien’s family. We decide to avoid the jungle and its animals (especially the animals) and we stay in a hotel in the city center. Can Tho is very different from what we imagined. It’s a city, like… a real city. A Vietnamese city, of course, with scooters, lanterns, red signs, markets included. Boats and the sound of their engine is still the main character. They’re magical. We enjoy the view from the window in the morning (we should’ve made a video of the view from all the windows during our trip, would’ve been fantastic). And then we end our stay in relax, enjoying our family in a dreamy place.
We get on the car to the bus station, direction Ho Chi Minh, heading there with the camera in my hands. Mekong is in front of me, the place I’ve been dreaming of since the day I came back home with that travel book and its beautiful colors. I see a boat. I close my eyes. I hear its noise. It’s my personal instax picture, one of those that will mark this journey forever.
We can say goodbye now to our Delta, a double-decker bus is waiting for us, together with all the kids laughters every time we drive on a bump (and shock-absorbers make us jump to the ceiling).
Three hours and we’re back to Saigon.
Ciao Mekong. Grazie.
With a Lot of Love - #miljiansgotovietnam