‘Meh’-Kong Delta

The Mekong River flows from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before reaching Vietnam. In Vietnam, it becomes a delta, and splits into 9 channels that flow out to sea. Travelling to the delta to ride a small boat down one of the narrow stretches is considered a ‘must do’ while in Ho Chi Minh City, so I decided to book a day trip.
Fortunately I paid only 8 USD, because the tour was pretty underwhelming. After travelling 2 hrs by minibus to My Tho, our group (about 25 people) boarded a mid-sized motor boat and embarked on what was essentially a string of sales pitches.
We went from island to island, learned about ‘local industries’ (coconut candy production, honey bee farming) and were pressured to purchase souvenirs at every stop. We had a mediocre lunch on one of the islands and were given about an hour of hour for activities- bike riding, taunting captive crocodiles by dangling meat above them, crossing a small pond on a 5” wide piece of bamboo…. extremely culturally enriching, I’m sure.
Finally we got to main attraction- the small boats whose rowers would take us down the narrower channel. Four to a boat, we sped along, completely surrounded by other boats and tourists. The experience lasted about 10 minutes, at the end of which I was aggressively poked in the back by the rower behind me who said, in an equally aggressive tone, ‘pay me money’.
After a disappointing day, we got back on the bus at My Tho and started our journey back to Ho Chi Minh City. 10 minutes in, we had a quick stop at the Vinh Trang pagoda. This was, in my opinion, the highlight of the day. Having a quiet walk through the spiritual site and being able to admire the statues, gardens, and structures in peace was actually quite nice.
Anyway, it’s pretty clear by now that I would not recommend doing a day trip to the Mekong Delta (according my research, all 1 day tours are pretty much identical). I have, however, heard good things about 2 day, 1 night home stays. On the 2 day tours you get to see Cai Be floating market, which sounds like it could be fun…

Ha Long Bay- 2 Day, 1 Night Cruise

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site located under 200 km east of Hanoi. We booked with Lemon Cruise company for 80 USD which included transport to and from Hanoi, 4 meals, a private room on board the junk, and 2 guides.

There were 16 of us on the trip. Everything was decent and I’d say we got what we paid for. The activities (cave trip, kayaking, swimming, and visiting a pearl farm) were a bit too structured, although the kayaking was pretty fun. The cave seemed a bit artificial, partly because it had be ‘done up’ for tour groups but also because our guide’s stories weren’t adding any historic value.

The real reason we were there was to see the landscape, and it did not disappoint! Weaving in and out of the rock formations was incredible. At certain points we just sat in silence on the upper deck, completely content in admiring the scenery. People sometimes complain that Ha Long Bay is too ‘touristic’, but when we were anchored in the cove at night, I found it kind of nice to look out at the reflections of all the lights on the water. Plus it’s popular because it’s beautiful, and the cruises make the trip accessible for older, less able-bodied folks.

When it was time to leave, I wished we had opted for the 2nd night on Kappa island, although that may have been because we met a great group of people who were staying that night.

Sapa Homestay - 2 Days, 1 Night

Had an awesome experience on this home stay trip, with Pham of the Red Dzao. Cost 85 USD (booked through Little Hanoi Hostel), which included transportation to and from Hanoi, 5 meals, 1 night accommodation, and 2 days worth of guided trekking.

Pham and her family live just outside the village of Ta Phin (pop. 1000), North of Sapa town. Most people who visit Sa Pa trek south, so we only ended up seeing two other tourist groups throughout our stay.

There were 8 of us on the trip, and we were warmly received. Dinner (prepared by Pham’s husband) was delicious, and it was followed by shots of ‘happy water’ (rice wine? made in the village), as well as plum and apple wines made by Pham… Was slightly hesitant about drinking the home brews, but didn’t want to be rude. Since I’m still alive I’d say it’s a must do.

Day 1 was less strenuous than day 2. Actually, on day 2 a second Pham took over. We trekked along steep, muddy grounds, shimmied along narrow ridges, walked through rice paddies, crossed waterfalls via stepping stones, and ended our journey with two barefoot river crossings in the valley at the foothills of Ta Phin.

The only part of the trip that was a bit scary was the night bus. Getting from Hanoi to Sapa town was fine. It took 10 hours and was comfortable enough (since I’m short and could fit in the sleeping cubby). The trip back to Hanoi, however, was done at breakneck speeds and took only 7 hours. We arrived at 3 a.m. and were rudely awoken and kicked off the bus. Pham had also told us that a bill is under review to ban the bus trip for safety reasons. A couple of weeks ago, one of the busses went over the cliffside and killed 14 people. We took the bus to cut costs, but the night train may be a better option for less budget-conscious travellers.

Pham’s Page- She’s a good businesswoman and apparently she learned English through tourists

Life in Sapa

The Sa Pa district in Lào Cai province, Vietnam is located approx. 300 km NW of Hanoi. It is home to around 140,000 people, many of whom belong to hill tribe ethnic minorities.

Up until the early 21 century, the region’s primary industry was agriculture- mostly in rice and corn. Due to small village populations, lack of capital, the nature of the land, and the unreliability of the weather, this industry was and still is self contained. Many people also raise pigs and chickens for food, and keep bulls to help plough the fields. Essentially, the farmers produce only enough to feed their families. They make little money, but do not go hungry.

In the early 2000s, tourism to Sa Pa picked up rapidly. Now, many tribespeople work in this new industry, leading treks, operating restaurants and hostels, and bringing crops and handicrafts to sell at the market in Sapa town. People have begun to earn more, and infrastructure (especially in and around the town) has been developing gradually.

There are schools in most of Sapa’s small villages. School is free as an incentive to encourage attendance, but this does not always work. Many students stay home after lunch to work or play, and those who do attend regularly may not be pushed to do their homework. Some families send their children to live with relatives in larger towns to give them a better education.

In the villages, houses are simple and spread out. Most are made from plank wood, and substitute rock beds for floors. Cooking is done over fire pits indoors, and laundry is hung out to dry. What I don’t understand is how the locals make it through the (sometimes snowy) winter without insulation.

Although life in Sa Pa has traditionally been simple and self-sustaining, the area is not completely removed from modern trends and technology. While some wear traditional garb (perhaps for tourist benefit), many others would not look out of place in the streets of Hanoi. Plus, is not uncommon to be passed by locals on motor bikes while trekking through the hills, and even village homes have electric lighting and television sets.

Tikal was one of the largest, most powerful Mayan City. Evidence shows activity at the site as early as 1000 B.C. and it is estimated to have peaked at a population around 100,000.

It takes about 2.5 hours to reach the ruins (located in NE Guatemala) when travelling from San Ignacio, Belize. We had a private tour with Max adventures, including transport, lunch, and a local guide (Louis).

We ate lunch at the driver (Daniel)’s wife’s tamale stand. It was essentially a picnic table under a thatched overhang, with a sign that read ‘hay tamales’.

Tikal- UNESCO World Heritage Site

Croc Watch, San Pedro

Allll the way back on New Years Eve 2013, we went on a 3 hour crocodile ‘hunt’ just outside of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize. It was run by American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES), an organization dedicated to relocating stray crocodiles from busier residential areas to safer areas for the benefit of both the animals and local residents.

We paid $40 USD each for a 3 hour educational boat ride through the mangroves on the island’s west side, where we would get to see some wild crocs… if we were lucky.

Our tour was lead by Chris (an enthusiastic Aussie) and Santiago, a guide-in-training. As our group (approx. 10 tourists) boarded the low-lying motor boat I looked around for a seat, and Chris suggested, I sit ‘next to the croc.’ I laughed at his joke and sat down where he’d motioned, at which point he lifted the edge of the tarp at my feet to reveal a 3 foot crocodile tail…. Cool.

Turns out this was a special trip. Instead of scouring the waters for 3 hours, we’d be heading out to a bank to release one of the female crocs. It ended up being a really interesting experience. We had a mini lesson on shore and even got to name the croc for the ACES records. After getting back on the boat, we watched Chris and Santiago unbind Eve-Beyonce in a swift, high-intensity manoeuvre. I will neither confirm nor deny that my family is the reason there is a crocodile out there rocking the ultimate diva name.

Eve-Beyonce, as fierce as her namesake.

Santiago in training.

American Crocodile Education Sanctuary

Took a 2-2.5 hour snorkel trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and “Shark and Ray Alley”. We paid 50 USD/person and ended up having a private trip after a group of 11 cancelled last minute.

There was lots to see at the first stop (the Reserve was about a 15 minute motor boat ride off the coast of Ambergris at San Pedro), including 7 other tour boats. Highlights = nurse sharks, sting rays, sea turtles, birds diving for lunch, and schools of various types of fish. The coral reef is quite beautiful and bustling with life thanks to protection by the Trust Fund Committee, financed using our tourist dollars.

After about 45 minutes at the first stop, we headed over to Shark and Ray Alley which took about 4 minutes. We only ended up staying there for about 10 minutes, as we’d already seen sharks and rays. The only real difference was the sheer number of them circling the boat. I think it’s because some guides feed them from the boats. We saw one boat chucking meat into the water, and the nurse sharks were just swarming.

The comfort level of the animals made me a bit wary. There have apparently been some incidents (though very few) where nurse sharks have suctioned on to people in their bottom-feeder-y way, and done some serious damage.

All in all, the reserve had exciting snorkelling, though I wouldn’t say  the Alley is a must-see.

Hol Chan Marine Reserve