One of the many reasons I love Vietnam is the
motorbike culture. Give me a motorbike over a car any day. Ask anyone that’s
read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and they’ll tell you, it’s the
simple joy of traveling without viewing the scenery through a windscreen that
makes motorcycling anywhere fantastic. But when the scenery is as good as deep
in the Mekong Delta the experience is epic.
The road to Dong Thap Province is fairly wide and in good condition. Once out of
the tangled tapestry of the Saigon traffic and the industrial satellite towns,
the road opens up and you can afford to glance more than momentarily at the
world going past. But it’s still extremely random out there so don’t get too
But still the highway is the highway and it presents a fairly homogenous culture
anywhere you go with limited offerings of coffee, coke and soups. So I decided
to dive down some narrow tracks whenever I needed some food, drink or time to
refresh. The results were heart warming. Less than 50 meters off the noisy
arteries of this country, life goes on as though the locals don’t know that
trucks and buses and foreigners exist.
One such place was a hut in the fields that specialized in selling wine and
grilled rats. While at first skeptical I was soon sold on the tasty little
creatures that were no doubt fresh from the back door.
Dong Thap is divided by a river. On one side is Sa Dec, a historic little town
that would do well to convert some of its French colonial buildings into
comfortable guesthouses. While the limited range of hotels in town are clean and
comfortable they do little to evoke the town’s romantic history. Sa Dec is known
for a famous love affair between French writer Marguerite Duras and the son of a
rich Chinese family there in the 1920s, which was the subject of her 1984 book
On the other side of the river is a much newer town forged out of the low lying
delta wetlands. Cao Lanh does not have the nostalgia or the old Chinese temples
that Sa Dec has, but it is a great jumping point for some of Dong Thap’s main
wetland attractions, which are home to Vietnam’s rare red-headed cranes.
Gao Giong is one of these bird sanctuaries. Off the beaten track, the roads get
pretty narrow before you get there, and if you dare it’s easy to get lost among
the maze of narrow waterways and narrow concrete tracks that service the
thousands that live in little houses along them. The wetlands have flat bottomed
skiffs for tourists that take you even deeper into the delta – into a bird
society. The cranes are noisy and everywhere you look. There is also an
incredible tower that presents a panoramic view of Gao Giong and a rambling
stilted restaurant above the marsh that serves the freshest grilled eels and
catfish you have ever tasted
Also within an hour’s ride from Cao Lanh, Xeo Quyt is another story. Another
maze of canals barely a shoulders breadth wide, it was planted by the
revolutionists before the war to create a hiding place for the top brass. The
fascinating tours here with English speaking guides create a very vivid
impression of the war time, and the very wet comfortless conditions and bombings
that the people endured for years.
I left Dong Thap with that wonderful sense that I had discovered something. Much
more than the coconut candy factories of My Tho or the floating markets of Can
Tho, I was satisfied that I had done more than just scratch the surface of the
enigmatic Mekong Delta.