Experience the end of Southeast Asia’s throbbing artery in a diffferent, rewarding way — through the backroads of southern Vietnam!
By Marco Ferrarese.
Green fields extending in all directions besides canals so narrow only a dingy could navigate them. A river so fractured that it becomes a shattered world of silent waterways that spread as the capillaries of a gigantic, quiet creature. The bustling chaos of central Ho Chi Minh City, particularly the bar and guesthouse-infested side roads of Phạm Ngũ Lão, would suggest a different pulse to southern Vietnam, one backed by a constant soundtrack of motorbike engine noise.
But that’s the necessary starting point to rent those wheels that can whiz travelers through the best that the Mekong Delta has to offer, especially avoiding the congested traffic of National Route 1A – a cross-country bonanza of honking trucks, reckless driving, and hair-raising overtaking. The trick to enjoying a road trip in the Delta is to get out of that highway to hell as soon as road QL50 whizzes south of Ho Chi Minh City’s center in the direction of Gò Công town.
After a mandatory hour of the capital’s traffic, the landscape opens up, leaving green spaces between construction and concrete, and the first views of the water. The first bridge over a bend of the Mekong makes continuing to the bustling town of Mỹ Tho an easy ride, but we want something quieter to spend the night. Bến Tre is just another half hour south across a second, longer bridge that passes over the biggest of four riverine islands floating between the sides of the Mekong.
Using road QL60 until it bifurcates in TL884, we take keys off the dashboards at Bến Tre’s quaint waterfront. Traditional Southern Vietnamese boats with eyes painted on their bows wait here, their outlines glowing in a majestic sunset that changes the river’s colors to dark purple. Popular tradition has it that the painted eyes are “protective devices” drawn to scare away dangers such as storms, pirates, and crocodiles. A boat with no eyes holds no protection for itself or its occupants.
In the center of town there’s a quiet lake guarded by the very communist-looking statue of a young fellow with his raised fist. The evening is extremely quiet: good enough to slurp a hearty bowl of pho, and make the acquaintance of an old couple of Cantonese ancestry who, besides speaking the language, have adorned their hole-in-the-wall shop as if it were a southern Chinese home.
The next day, after a crunchy Bánh mì, iconic French bread garnished with ham, greens, cucumber, cilantro and pâté, we roll out of town and onto QL60 again in direction of Trà Vinh. This province has a sizeable Khmer population and is dotted by temples that resemble those found in nearby Cambodia.
Right after the another long bridge that crosses the Mekong once again, we turn left taking a small country road that follows the river bend. It’s here that at last, a totalizing green engulfs us. A pit stop at a riverside café is a great opportunity to see how commerce unfolds along the waters: boats float towards the open sea a few kilometers farther down West.
The road unfolds like a lazy, sun-soaking snake through paddy fields and gracious homes all the way to the center of Trà Vinh, which is a pretty and orderly town in itself. It’s impossible not to stop at a colonial house that doubles as restaurant. Three women prepare traditional Vietnamese spring rolls by hand on the porch, attracting us. Served with fresh vegetables, pork or prawns, these transparent rolls are simply delicious.
The center of town sports a market dominated by a monument to Uncle Ho, an evergreen national superstar. Women in straw hats peddle their goods with nonchalance while motorbikes buzz all around in quiet ways that are the opposite of Saigon’s stressing traffic.
Which is why, instead of proceeding to Cần Thơ–the fourth largest city in Vietnam–we prefer to zoom east on QL53 until we reach Vĩnh Long, another famous river settlement on the delta. But the place looks overdeveloped, and it seems hard to find a place to stay that will accept foreigners. A boon in disguise, because looking at the map, the nearby town of Sa Đéc seems the perfect alternative. It’s a charming colonial hamlet and the setting of Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover.
Thirty years after the book’s release, Sa Đéc maintains the vibe of a place lost in time. The fish market, a gruesome affair of wriggling and dying scales and crabs tied by their chelipeds, it’s one of liveliest I’ve ever seen. There’s a cordial composure in the act of sacking life from the mighty river and put it on display for other beings to buy. The atmosphere is made dreamier by the colorful flowers, Sa Đéc’s other main export.
Here where we stand, lost in the whims of river life, and Ho Chi Minh City is a long ride back. Which, I’m afraid, is going to wait for another day… or maybe two.