Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Sat April 23 2016

Opinion Home | Tales From the Leap

  • Shannon Wolf | April 23, 2016 11:00 PM ET

    Being a Mekong Local For the Day

    Being a Mekong Local For the Day

    PHOTO: Walking through the local market was an experience in itself seeing all the different types of unusual items available to eat. (photos by Shannon Wolf)

    I like to experience culture as best as I can from a local’s perspective.  After a friend recommended I check out Water Buffalo Tours, I jumped on board for a private tour called “Mekong Local For A Day.”

    On my first day in Saigon, I woke at 6 a.m. and was picked up by Queng, a local from the Mekong area whose family represents generations of farmers. Queng promised me an experience to be remembered, far off the beaten path from other tourists.

    After a quick stop off for a mouthwatering Bahn Mi sandwich and iced coffee, we headed to our first stop at a Cao Dai temple (which translates to "High Tower”), a sanctuary revered by the Southern Vietnamese people.

    READ MORE: 6 Amazing Things To See on AmaWaterways’ Mekong River Tour

    As we walked around the brightly colored temple, Queng relayed that the Cao Dai movement was established in 1926 and comprised a blending of four distinct religions: Tao, Confucianism, Catholicism and Buddhism. The symbol of the left eye was also adopted as it was the one closest to the heart and represented the eye of all the gods watching over you.  The movement’s flag consists of three colors: Blue, representing Tao and Confucius; red for Catholicism and yellow for Buddhism. 

    Cao Dai temples are breathtakingly intricate and colorful, and built in a style that mimics those found in Catholicism. The interesting part of this religion is that it is only based in Southern Vietnam and four million people still follow it today.

    We then drove to Go Cong Town and explored the massive local market where I was very clearly the only foreigner around.

    As we wandered around, we were warmly greeted by all of the locals and I absorbed the market’s sights, sounds and smells. I was astonished to see the kinds of items they sold — from standard produce to custard apples and sapote, frogs, eels, sting rays, betel nuts and ereca leaves for chewing tobacco — to name only a few. Even by 10 a.m., there were still a slew of locals on foot attending the market and zooming by on their motorbikes. 

    We watched a miniature parade of boys banging on drums while a dragon-like creature did a traditional "unicorn dance" to celebrate the first day of the lunar new year, offering good luck to all shop owners.

    We made another pit stop for iced coffee since I have a coffee addiction — especially in Vietnam, which has some of the best coffee I have ever tasted.  We then drove four miles away to Tien Giang to meet Queng’s mother, who lived in a small village in the Mekong delta.

    After meeting her, we drove two hours by bicycle in the glowing sun through their village, full of brilliant green and yellow rice fields and dirt paths laced with palm trees, while stopping off to meet locals along the way.

    Driving through this serene countryside was by far one of the highlights for me as it was everything I had hoped Bali would be like when I was there (but wasn’t). We came full circle and concluded our bike ride at Queng’s mother’s home, where we enjoyed nuoc mia — fresh sugar cane juice mixed with pineapple and lime, before heading onwards to Tan Thanh beach for a well deserved seafood lunch!

    Out of all the seafood dishes I've eaten around the world, this was by far the freshest, most flavorsome and of the highest quality, leaving me nothing but impressed!

    PHOTO: The mouthwatering lunch was as good as it looks!

    We were served a small mountain of freshly caught steamed clams with lemongrass; tiger prawns the size of a dinner plate, accompanied by an aromatic dipping sauce consisting of sea salt, black pepper, lime juice and a few small hot chilies; a giant portion of sweet and sour soup made with shrimp, tomatoes, pineapple, okra and water spinach; a clay pot of stewed catfish nestled in a concoction of fish sauce, green onion, chili and sugar that rocketed my taste buds to new levels. Lastly, for dessert (which I admittedly couldn't finish) were the juiciest, fresh mangos and custard apples, which I got to try for the first time!

    By 2 p.m., I practically had to roll myself out of the beachfront restaurant.  We drove for about an hour to a port in My Tho City, where we boarded our own large, private motorboat for a cruise through the impressively vast upper Mekong River. Having the vessel all to myself, I felt like a queen as I took in the sights on this crystal clear day.

    We came upon brightly colored fishing boats, passed by Dragon Island, floating fish farms, Unicorn Island, Turtle Island and Phoenix Island. We then boarded our own private sampan, and took a leisurely cruise through Tan Thach Creek, which felt reminiscent of the Amazon and was yet another highlight I happily checked off my bucket list!

    PHOTO: From biking through the countryside to my private boat ride, I was the only foreigner in sight.

    Even the 45-minute drive back to town was eventful as I people-watched out the window. It was the last day of the lunar New Year holiday, and the streets were flooded with hundreds of locals headed back to the city.

    There were scooters with bags of roosters and chickens, families of four sharing one motorbike with stacks of backpacks; ladies with stacks of fruit-filled bags and teenagers who backpacked giant speakers while riding their bikes as they drove the final stretch home on Highway 1.

    READ MORE: Hai Van Pass by Motorcycle: Pushing Boundaries in a Cinematic Landscape

    We arrived back at my hostel at 5 p.m. sharp and I thanked Queng for providing me with a true grass roots experience as promised. I truly had an enriching day, far beyond (and far better than) the typical well-worn tourist path. Queng’s tour far exceeded my initial expectation and is going down as one of the best tours in which I have ever participated.

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Shannon Wolf Tales From the Leap

Shannon Wolf Shannon Wolf is a freelance photographer and writer, traveling across the globe with an open itinerary and no intent of stopping. Originally from Toronto, Canada, she left behind a fast paced life to truly live and not just exist in an attempt to inspire others to follow their bliss. At age 26, Shannon has visited 20+ countries on four continents around the world. She has travelled overland by chicken-bus and tuk-tuks, hitchhiked by fruit trucks and through islands on horse and buggy. She has slept in the jungles of Nicaragua, on benches in London, secluded hidden beaches and she’s only getting started.
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