Vietnam, by Boat
To travel by boat offers a unique and unforgettable perspective of a land that exudes resilience, serenity and hope.
Our private boat tour of the Mekong Delta began in Cai Be, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Saigon. Our crew of four greeted us with fresh coconut juice as we took in the scenery—hills of lush green, combined with dark, rich water.
As we floated on the river, cutting through the humidity with our boat, we observed the communities of people who call the riverbank their home. The water is the source of their sustenance—it’s how they cook, drink and bathe. Everyone we passed waved enthusiastically and beamed with bright smiles. Their easy joy was infectious.
We stopped at a small factory and watched as workers cracked open coconuts, shaved out the meat and boiled it down to a paste to make a delectable candy. They also cooked rice over a large fire pit, waiting for the kernels to pop and then mixing them with honey and caramel, resulting in a simple yet elevated Rice Krispies-like treat. We floated past industrial areas, where people—men, women, young and old—labored so intently that they seemed not to notice our passing.
We soon arrived in Sa Dec where we hopped on bikes to explore the village and its long stretches of street markets, which featured all sorts of local products, from meats and vegetables to live frogs and snakes. The area was teeming with villagers buying their food for the day, and it was fascinating to get this glimpse at everyday life in Vietnam.
Our last stop before sunset was an ancient house dating back to the 19th century. The owner offered us an enthusiastic tour of her property, using gestures and smiles when her English was insufficient. The boat crew helped prepare the meal, which was served by candlelight. When we boarded again, we were pleasantly tired and perfectly full.
We were tired during the days, but there was enough adventure to take our minds off that. We visited the famous Cai Rang Floating Market, which consists of hundreds of boats selling all types of products. Each vessel displays a tall piece of bamboo affixed with an example of whatever they’re peddling—a sort of makeshift billboard.
We concluded our river tour in Can Tho, where we stayed in Victoria, a French colonial hotel with great service and a relaxing atmosphere. That evening in town, we dined on snake, which tasted similar to chicken but spicier. We celebrated our sojourn on solid ground at a local club, where we bought a bottle of vodka for $40 USD, a welcome reprieve from Manhattan nightlife prices. The DJs were fantastic, and the hours went by quickly as we danced and drank with the locals. The only Westerners in the club, we attracted a lot of attention. People were curious and unabashed about approaching us. They were happy, friendly and exhibited the same genuine hospitality that we admired in the area’s hotels.
Our home in in Ho Chi Minh City was the brand new high-rise hotel, The Reverie Saigon. Leading Italian furniture designers outfitted the establishment. It is a sea of crystal accented with gold and purple hints and over-the-top extravagance mixed with whimsical, floral designs. Our room granted an incredible view of the river and the city, including the rusty tin shack roofs that encompass the more humble areas of town.
Saigon is busy. It seems everyone has a scooter, perhaps because the country charges a high tax on cars. It wasn’t uncommon to see six passengers piled on a single Vespa. Masses of people somehow manage to navigate the crowded streets, sans stop signs or traffic lights.
That night, we shared a lovely Vietnamese dinner with some industry colleagues who happened to be in town from Zurich. A cover band played Western songs that they almost knew, and we laughed at the innocent lyrical gaffes. We impressed our friends with tales from our boat ride and talked animatedly about Vietnamese food, people and culture. We marveled over the coffee, the country’s second-largest export after rice. It is thick, strong and aromatic, almost chocolate in flavor. I loved sipping it over ice with sweetened condensed milk. We agreed the meal standouts were pho, a flavorful noodle broth eaten with all different types of toppings, and Banh Mi sandwiches, baguettes (a remnant of the country’s French occupation) filled with authentic Vietnamese ingredients like thin slices of steak, cilantro and cucumber.
We were struck by the spirit of the people. We were moved by their optimism and grace, and the way even those with very little seemed satisfied and thankful. It was another pinch-yourself moment: dining in Vietnam with friends from Switzerland, reflecting on the unique perspective provided by our boat tour and feeling grateful for not just what we have but what we’ve seen.
Ready to plan your own one-of-a-kind Vietnamese adventure? Contact The Accomplished Traveler today by calling 212.586.2020
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