Our first trip outside of Ho Chi Minh City since arriving led us to the Mekong Delta, or Ben Tre to be more specific. Ben Tre is a coastal province, referred to as the ‘home of coconuts’, and famous for its quiet, peaceful waterways, avoiding the tourist hot spots that the delta is unfortunately overrun with. The self-proclaimed ‘off the beaten track’ tour we ended up on was chosen in order to escape the bustling, notoriously touristy destinations such as My Tho, where tourists flock and locals aim to sell their coconut products at inflated rates. In comparison, traditional Mekong life is the norm in Ben Tre and the clean, undisturbed canals and waterways are still very untouched. We couldn’t wait to experience them for ourselves.
It wouldn’t be a dixonandjones blog post without a bit of context and history, so brace yourselves. The Mekong Delta runs through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, finally ending in Vietnam. It flows 2,703 miles into the South China Sea, making it the 12th longest river in the world. The river eventually empties into the sea through a network of distributaries in southwestern Vietnam, making the water appear more muddied and brown. This network of rivulets lie immediately to the west of Ho Chi Minh City, its banks scattered with numerous towns, making for the perfect day or overnight trip from Saigon.
As we all know, coconuts are pretty tremendous. We can eat them and drink them in various forms; that’s a well-known fact. But it’s not until you embark on a voyage of discovery to the Mekong Delta that you truly appreciate how versatile and downright fabulous these fruits are. We (well, Naomi was at least) were already coconut lovers prior to this trip, but it’s safe to say that we’re both now in awe of them. Thanks must go out to all those that grow, pick and then manufacture all the wonderful commodities of which you’re now about to read. Without them, this blog post would be over.
The coconut tree is called the ‘tree of life’ in the Mekong. This fertile patchwork of land and the ageless coconut farming and manufacturing techniques we explored in Ben Tre province are what sustain many of the 17 million local people who reside in the Mekong Delta. Ben Tre specifically accounts for a whopping 45% of coconuts within Vietnam and has more than 25,000 hectares of trees growing. We were very excited to visit this land of coconuts and it’s inhabitants.
We arranged our day trip tour through TNK Travel, who had solid reviews online and a good track record, with Ali and George exploring Cu Chi Tunnels with them a few weeks back. We were picked up from their office in District 1 at 7:30am, by our Vietnamese guide, Tom (his adopted ‘Western’ name), who directed us on to a minibus. As the tour was one of the less popular trips (we’re stumped as to why other people wouldn’t want to opt for an unspoilt and more authentic journey through the Mekong) there was only one other couple joining us for the day: two sisters from Taiwan who were visiting HCMC for three days. Their English was minimal, so we think Tom’s many, many jokes went over their heads, despite his best efforts to pronounce each word with such care and enthusiasm (he was great, even if we were hoping for a nap on the bus ride there).
After one bathroom break at the fanciest rest stop we’d ever seen, resembling a tropical 5 star resort built entirely from toilets that popped up out of nowhere on the National Highway 1, we arrived in Ben Tre town. The journey took just under 2 hours, so we’d reached our drop off point by 10am, where a motorboat awaited us. Our driver coasted along Ham Luong River while we sat back and enjoyed the cool breeze from the river, soaking up the tropical islands lining the riverbank. It was incredible that this secluded and totally exotic part of Vietnam was only a stones throw from the polluted chaos of Saigon. It was good to breath fresh air into our lungs.
The first stop was at an activated charcoal coconut factory, a small family-run business. Tom explained that dried coconut shells are poured by the tonne into the huge brick built ovens that stood before us where they’re burnt for weeks on end until all that’s left are shards of coconut charcoal. These massive vats pumped out clouds of black smoke as the coconuts disintegrated within the scorching furnace. This activated carbon is then sold to other countries such as Japan, China and Russia, who have the resources and techniques to make use of this raw product. It’s used in the production of air filters and also other refined products. For example it can be manufactured into moisturisers, skin whiteners, toothpaste and other cosmetics. It was an industry neither of us had even heard about and was fascinating to see how the humble coconut had been craftily exploited in such a useful way, sustaining this little family we met on their own coconut island.
We hopped back on to the boat and enjoyed a short cruise to our next destination, which initially appeared in the distance to be a small island made entirely from coconuts. As the mounds of shells grew larger we realised there was in fact some solid ground amongst the piles of coconuts, albeit covered in a layer of spongy coconut husks. Tom showed us how the workers split and stripped their coconuts, working in blisteringly hot temperatures to gather together hundreds of coconut shells to be sold on to create a range of products. We were about to see what a handful of these products were.
Another short cruise away were various factories that made a variety of coconut-based products. We saw how the tree trunks from expired and fruitless coconut trees were sliced and used for building; we witnessed women making thick rope from the dried coconut husks; and finally, we popped our heads into a factory creating brooms from stripped coconut tree leaves. It was amazing how versatile this fruit was and clear how vital it was to the livelihoods of these villagers. We will never look at an unassuming broom in the same way again.
After watching the factory workers in awe, grateful we didn’t have to endure this backbreaking work ourselves, we transferred on to a rickety canal boat and an aged, local man paddled us through the scenic narrow canals. We meandered under leafy coconut trees that lined the banks, dappling the waterways in shade and allowing us to escape the brutal midday sun. We were dropped off at a local house, boasting a beautiful fruit orchard. We enjoyed fresh fruit from the owners’ garden, indulging in sweet pineapple, juicy papaya, monkey banana (baby sized bananas) and pomelo. Pomelo is a citrus grapefruit-like fruit, specific to Southern Vietnam. Once it’s thick green exterior is peeled away, the delicious pink flesh is revealed and it tastes much sweeter than the grapefruits we know from home. It has a number of health benefits and is harder to grow than the coconut trees that take over the forests in the Mekong, so it generates a much higher selling price on the market.
Then, we hopped on to a xe lam, a local ‘bus’ or rickshaw that transported us to our lunch spot nestled on the river bank down a winding hidden pathway. There were a handful of other tourists here who were staying overnight in the homestay that served our lunch, but this was pretty much the first time we’d seen anybody else. We feasted on a fish baked in banana leaf, it’s flesh flaked off and wrapped in rice paper with various herbs, pineapple and noodles. It was delicious and so fresh. This was accompanied by spring rolls, fried rice and noodles served with vegetables, and even more pineapple for dessert. We’d gotten our five a day for sure.
After filling our bellies the last thing anyone wanted to do was move, as the views of the Mekong were so peaceful and a welcome escape from the unruly school kids that now fill our days. But it was time to model the fluorescent orange lifejackets and hop on a kayak! We paddled around the milky coffee coloured waters for about half an hour, not really going anywhere in particular but happy to drift along with the current and sun ourselves. Our tour drew to a close here and Tom took us back to our minibus where we napped on the way back to Ho Chi Minh City.
We were back by 5:30pm that evening feeling both relaxed and exhausted after a full day of activities, very content with our choice of company and tour. By this point, ever-helpful Tom had written a huge list of suggested museums and other activities he recommended we explore while we’re in Saigon. Whatababe. We said our farewells to Tom and the timid Taiwanese sisters before ending the day with a couple of beers in District 1.
All hail the coconut!