May 10, 2007|
Vietnam is really a treasure trove of traveler’s delights: Smiling people, cheap, good shopping and, of course, the mouth-watering food. But outside the art galleries of Hanoi and the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh (HCM), there lies a country waiting to be discovered. We went to southern Vietnam and found out what’s beyond the big cities.
About 170km out of HCM is Can Tho, the perfect spot to experience the simple but busy lives of the people of the Mekong Delta. Here everything happens early. The sun rises before 6am, and the folk are up much, much earlier. This is farming region, so by 3am, the farmers are getting ready to ply their wares at the Cai Rang floating market.
It’s worth getting up to see this spectacle. The sound of tens of small boat engines putt-putting along the river driven by sun-tanned people in conical hats is quite enchanting. At the market proper, the boats are bigger, with tall vertical bamboo sticks displaying which vegetables and fruits are available that day, with Vietnamese agilely tossing produce backwards and forwards, chatting loudly all the while.
A good place to stay is the nearby Victoria Can Tho Resort (Cai Khe Ward, Can Tho City, Vietnam, + 84 71-810-111, room rates from US$90 per night). This little haven right on the Mekong offers its residents a lingering breakfast aboard their cruiser, the Victoria Lady Hau, allowing you to adjust to your surrounds before transferring to a smaller boat to really explore all the Delta has to offer. But if you want to check out the markets, you'll still have to get up early, as most of it dissipates by 9am.
Around the Delta, it’s worth taking time to check out some of the smaller tributaries. Tree-lined shores give a glimpse of local life as it’s happening: You’ll drift past women doing their laundry, children bathing in the river, and men constructing buildings or fishing, all in waist-high water.
If you want to get even closer, you can arrange to be dropped off at a rice noodle factory. Here, fresh rice noodles are made fresh and by hand. These are not big teeming warehouses of workers, but rather tiny set-ups in someone’s backyard, where the women pour noodle batter on to hot plates and steam wafer-thin pancakes of noodles one-by-one, before taking them off to dry, cut, package and sell. Watching this painstaking process really helps you appreciate your bowl of pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) the next morning even more.
A walk around the area will also take you closer to the farms proper - small blocks of land where farmers grow just a handful of vegetables to support entire families. The Victoria Can Tho Resort can arrange all-day trips and excursions from the hotel to suit your itinerary.
Most people stay at Can Tho for one night only before heading off elsewhere (it’s a good spot to stop on your way to Cambodia, or to visit other parts of southern Vietnam) and few venture out of their hotels. Since the overland journey is quite lengthy, we suggest you use at least some of your stay to recover a little. The Victoria Can Tho Resort also has a decent spa with massage villas on the water and a pool that’s virtually people-free.
And if you want really authentic Vietnamese fare, complete with traditional Vietnamese musicians, have dinner at Song Que Restaurant (118/119/53B Tran Phu, Tp. Can Tho, Vietnam, +84 71-811- 136). House specials include classic southern fare such as escargot with meat, burned rice with salted fish and, of course, the ubiquitous rice paper roll.
If you prefer sunny beaches and getting active, try Phan Thiet. 200km northeast of HCM, it's home to Mui Ne beach, widely considered to be one of the best kite-surfing spots in the region. The surrounding area has a charming mix of surfer types, other less adventurous tourists and local fishermen. Closer to town is a haven for water sport junkies, while further up the coast, one can see traditional fishing boats bringing in their catches.
For an environmental culture shock after Hong Kong's urban jungle, Phan Thiet has much nature to marvel at. Behind the beach are sand dunes as far as the eye can see, while a walk barefoot along the Fairy Stream reveals tall cliffs of sand, colored a burned red by iron deposits. It's a gorgeous contrast against the green foliage on the canyon's opposite side and the brilliant blue of the sky above.
To feel like Lawrence of Arabia, get in a car to the Lotus Lake 65km from Phan Thiet. The drive across sparse plains reveals a huge enticing lake that is great for swimming. Well, if you don’t mind the algae. The really unusual bit, however, are the endless sand dunes that stretch for kilometers and reach impressive heights. Keep an eye out for kids renting sheets of plastic - great for sliding down the dunes. Don't forget to slap on that sunscreen and bring a hat and sunnies as it can get pretty hot out there.
An ideal base in Phan Thiet is the newly renovated Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort & Spa (Km 9, Phu Hai, Phan Thiet Town, Binh Thuan Province, +84 62-813-000, room rates from US$88 per night). All the villas have large ocean-facing terraces, there are two pools (the newer infinity pool is divine) and a spa, and the seafood at their L’Oceane Restaurant & Bar is fantastic. Better still, they’ll organize all-day excursions and activities for you.
Given Vietnam’s proximity to Hong Kong (flights take under three hours), the trip is more than worth it. Quite apart from the charm and historical significance of the area’s capital, southern Vietnam, with the mighty Mekong’s thriving fishing communities and endless beaches, is a memorable escape from the big city. Get there first before it gets any more discovered.