Mom and I stepped out of our tour bus and onto the gravelly shoulder of the roadway. We watched motorbikes and cars zoom by us as we waited expectantly for our tour guide to join us.
Instead he popped just his head out of the door. Then smiled and waved at us.
“Bye bye!” he shouted and the bus slowly pulled away from us with the folding door closing on his smiling face.
What the — ?
“Did he just leave us on the side of the road?” I asked incredulously. The other six or seven tour participants that had gotten off the bus with us looked as bewildered and confused as we were. “I didn’t realize that this was part of the homestay experience.”
We stood on the side of the dusty road for what seemed like ages, perplexed and pondering what the hell was going on, and what were we going to do.
Then, out of nowhere, a Man that none of us had noticed standing at the back of our group, yelled out, “Follow me!”
Relief washed over all of us as we realized we had not been completely abandoned on the side of some unknown road in the middle of nowhere in the Mekong Delta.
The Man continued to wave at us to follow him. He walked down a slight slope onto a gravelly path and hopped on to a motorbike.
What the — ? One motorbike, 8 people + luggage. Something’s not right with that number.
He motored away, slowly, and we followed on foot as best as we could. We walked down a small path that curved down to a river.
I was back-carrying Wee Scotch in a baby carrier and Mom was literally dragging our small Samsonite suitcase. 360-degree wheels are better suited for smooth airport tiles than rough and rocky terrain. I kept hoping that the wheels would hold up and looked with envy at our fellow travelers with small backpacks. We were only spending one-night away but traveling with a child is never “light packing.”
We reached the river after a short walk and the Man signaled us to wait. As his English was limited, mom asked him a few questions in Vietnamese. She translated that a boat was coming to pick us up and take us to our homestay. So we waited…and worried.
Lonely Planet Vietnam (LPV) claims that “a homestay among the people of the Mekong Delta is an unforgettable experience and can give … unique insight into the day-to-day lives of the local people.”
Well, our homestay had barely started and it was already unforgettable.
Soon, the sound of a motor signaled the arrival of our boat ride. It was a simple wooden boat, narrow but big enough to accommodate all of us. Our luggage was loaded onto the boat with my little Samsonite sitting precariously on the stern with nothing on either side to keep it from falling into the Mekong. Gulp.
As we slowly cruised down the river, we took in the sights and sounds of every day life on this little estuary of the Mekong. Children playing and splashing in the water, men and women bathing in the river alongside their stilt houses, a woman carrying water in a bucket from the stream to her home.
LPV: “The [homestay] morning starts as the first lights flicker across the water. Before breakfast, everyone takes a bath with the family. Splashing around in the muddy Mekong, fully dressed, can leave you feeling dirtier than when you started!”
I told my mom that if I’d rather not bathe for one night than to bathe in that river water.
Mom exchanged some sentences with our boat driver. She told me not to worry, that we would have filtered water at the homestay. Only the very poor bathe in the river as they can’t afford fresh water.
I suddenly felt awful about my earlier comment – ashamed at myself for thinking such spoiled thoughts. When did I ever have to worry about contaminated water? Or worry about not having money for fresh water or food? Never.
Still, as our boat passed one dilapidated-looking stilt house after another, we couldn’t help but look at each other and wonder which one would be ours for the night.
Then I suddenly remembered and related to the group that I had seen photos of our homestay “bungalows” in the tour brochure and that they were nice-looking wooden cabins. Our new Hawaiian friends perked up a bit upon hearing that as they had not been shown any photos of the accommodations at all.
As we approached our quarters for the evening, we breathed a collective sigh of relief upon seeing the rustic and descent-looking bungalows with thatched roofs.
I just want to point out that I wasn’t kidding about my suitcase (that blurry black thing) being perched precariously on the edge of the stern:
An odd-looking fish caught by locals. I don’t know if it is edible or not:
Like the quarters in our Halong Bay overnight cruise, the furnishings were simple but adequate. We had a king bed with mosquito netting, a wall fan, a small wooden table, a bench, and a small separate bathroom (a wet-bath) with plenty of filtered water.
The walls and thatched roof seemed to be made with palm tree leaves. Outside our bungalow was a marble coral-colored bench with a matching round table etched on top with white markings of what looked like some kind of Asian chess board.
As I showered away the grime and perspiration from the day, I wondered how our bungalows constituted as “homestay” since we weren’t spending the night in the actual home of a local family.
We were told that dinner would be across the street from our bungalows and as I led Wee Scotch over, it seemed that the communal areas were our host family’s home. So a semi-homestay program this was. (Whoa, did I just sound like Yoda?)
Settling ourselves on wooden stools, Mom and I made ourselves comfortable at one of the four round tables had been set up outside for dinner. Wee Scotch chased after the house pets and quickly made friends with the local children from the homestay.
And I even found myself a babysitter:
Only one of our hosts spoke English – could he possible be the Hung of “Hung Homestay”?
Hung welcomed all of us to his home and introduced his family and extended family. He explained to us the schedule for the evening. For the next morning, he gave us the option of exploring the town’s market at 6am or breakfast at 6:30am. Either way, an early start.
Our boat captain, server, and bartender:
My Grandma did not travel with Mom and I on this Mekong Delta trip. But she did travel with us to the other parts of Vietnam and being a vegetarian, she was served vegetarian spring rolls that were easily recognized by the distinctive net-like pattern of the outer skin instead of the smooth rice paper that was used for the meat filling.
When our host laid down this packet of net-like rice paper, I was excited to finally see what they were called: Bang Trang Re. And by association from previous experiences, I figured the bowl of filling was vegetarian and I was right.
This is what the spring rolls look like all rolled up:
As part of our homestay experience, we were invited into the kitchen to watch and help with the frying of the spring rolls.
Ready to eat!
When you’ve grown up with the same something all your life, it’s exciting to see new versions of it. Which is why I get excited about all the new ways I have been learning about how to eat the various forms of rice paper (“Bang Trang”) in Vietnam. Remember the pastry-like bang trang, and the bang trang tacos I had in Saigon?
And here was yet another rice paper variation:
You can see how thin and translucent the rice paper is as my fingers are clearly visible underneath it.
Since our hosts’ English was limited, they would come to our tables and wordlessly show us how to assemble these summer rolls.
There wasn’t much technique to it. Just put all the filling in the middle (lettuce, cucumber, herbs, steamed Mekong fish) and roll. No need to tuck in any ends.
Again I have to say that it’s amazing to me that after years of always having to soak rice paper in water to reconstitute them and make them pliable, these in Vietnam were ready to be used just as they were. It’s like they already possessed a perfect balance of moisture for the task.
Dinner was oh-so-simple yet flavorful and filling.
Local beer was dirt cheap. Like 50 cents.
After dessert, our host brought out a bag of clear-ish liquid and shot glasses. There’s always something naughty being served up when shot glasses are present.
LPV: “After dinner some families exchange stories and songs over bottles of rice wine long into the night, while others cluster around the TV.”
The rice wine pouring mechanism was so advanced, we oohed and ahhed the whole time our host poured the rice wine into the shot glasses.
A chopstick was stuck from one end of the bag to the other. When the chopstick was slightly raised, a spout was generated to pour the rice wine into the glasses. When the chopstick was reinserted into the hole, it plugged the spout and the bag could then be left on the table, all jiggly, but with no spillage.
How did it taste? I suppose if I had enjoyed the strong aftertaste of rice wine, I too would have exchanged stories and songs into the night.
But let’s see how Wee Scotch enjoyed it, shall we?
Don’t worry. No babies were served alcohol on my watch. Wee Scotch didn’t want to be left out of all the toasting and the “Cheers,” so I filled up his little glass with water.
Mom and I retired to bed after dinner as we had an early 6am start the next day to see the local market. I probably would have had a peaceful sleep in the quietness of the Mekong river but sleeping with Wee Scotch beside me more often than not means that I get karate-chopped and roundhouse kicked all night.
Bright and early the next day, Hung met us by the dining area and led us to the morning market. As we walked the short distance to “town,” young children would run out and excitedly wave at us.
To reach the market, we had to cross the river by boat.
This wasn’t any ordinary boat crossing.
I’m glad I had left Wee Scotch with my mom.
This sampan, or rowboat, probably would’ve seated four people comfortably. But the benches had been taken out and we were 10 people (maybe more) standing single file. Oh, and there was a bike:
As you can see from the photo above, it was only a short distance from one side of the river to the other.
But when balancing on a shaky boat, clutching my DSLR camera tightly at my side and fearing for its life, and every once in a while needing to reach out and steady myself on the shoulder of the person in front of me, that short distance felt like the longest boat crossing of my life.
Make that two of the longest boat crossings of my life as I would have to re-cross that river to return to the homestay.
We all made it across safe and sound but seemed to have lost our host and market guide, Hung, in the process. As we waited for him to reunite with us, I walked around the market and took a few photos. It was relatively small compared to some of the other markets I had been to as there was only one vendor (maybe two) for each product.
I had never seen purple rice before. At first, I thought the vendor was selling some sort of purple sweet potato dish but our host explained to us that it was glutinous purple rice made into a sweet dish that is a particular favorite for children and that the rice wasn’t dyed but a naturally occurring purple.
After another walk around the market, it was time to gingerly step back onto the balancing act of a boat ride and return to our bungalows.
Back at the homestay, our boat captain from the previous day loaded all of us and our luggage back onto his motor boat and we cruised along the Mekong to rendezvous at the Cai Rang floating market with our tour guide and the rest of our tour group that had stayed inland.
This tour (which we booked in-person in Saigon at TNK Travel), including all the transportation, sights and activities from my previous Mekong post, cost $36 per person ($24 had I not “upgraded” to the homestay) and there was no charge for Wee Scotch. So much of a bargain that I guess there should be no hard feelings for being dumped on the side of the road.