Ho Chi-Minh City, a place formally known to the world as Saigon, was renamed in 1975 after North Vietnam won the war and changed its name in honour of their Prime Minister Ho Chi-Minh.
Not to far from Ho Chi-Minh city is the wonder that is the Mekong River.
At 7.45am we arrived at the Vietnam Adventure Tour centre in Ly Tu Trong, District 1 of Ho Chi-Minh City. We were greeted by Andy who we would later discover to be one of the most remarkable tour guides any of us had ever had, with a vast amount of knowledge on his country and a huge personality, alongside a sense of humour that kept us entertained all day.
We began the hour and a half journey out of Ho Chi-Minh City towards the city of My Tho, getting to know the four strangers’ that fate had chosen to place us on the tour with that day. All Americans, who were strangers to each other aside from having their nationality in common.
Our first stop was Vinh Trang, home of the biggest Pogoda in the Mekong Delta. The temple is over 170 years old, and every year attracts a large number of tourists who want to appreciate the dazzling scenery and magnificent architecture.
There are three large Buddha statues placed within the vicinity of the temple. The Maitreya Buddha Statue, inaugurated in 2010 and stands at 27 metres long. The Amitabha Buddha Statue stands at 18 metres and was established in 2008. Whilst the Shakyamuni Buddha, a reclining statue, was only designed back in 2013, and is 32 metres in length. The reclining Shakyamuni Buddha lies next to a seven-floor tower which we learnt is the place in which the ashes of Buddhists and monks are safely kept.
Once we had taken in all the incredible sights the Pagoda had to offer, we piled back into the minivan and continued towards My Tho and the river. About half-an-hour later we arrived at the docks and boarded a wooden boat that began our journey along the Mekong.
The breeze of the boat sailing along the river was the only form of air-conditioning we had on the windowless boat, providing the perfect tropical sensation. We passed fish cages, floating houses and many cargo ships and after about 15 minutes of taking in all the wonders, we arrived at a Coconut Island in the Ben Tre district.
We disembark the boat and are all in awe of the tranquil ambience on the island. Walking single file along a cobbled path surrounded by tropical plants and fruit trees, the sound of the river becoming a distant memory being overpowered by crickets resting in amongst the plants and the footsteps of six tourists filled with heavy anticipation for what we were about to experience next.
A stone’s throw away from the where the boat docked lived a family-owned hut-like café surrounded by the islands nature which was also home to a bee farm. We were seated at a table and served homemade honey tea, then given the opportunity to buy their organically farmed honey products. The staff knew how to sell, we were enticed by all the homemade products they had to offer and in support of a small business, we all decided to buy a product as a thank you for allowing us to visit their café.
A short walk from the serene café we were ushered into a small truck, with benches either side and just enough room for the driver and Andy to hop into the front. Sat knee-to-knee in the compact truck, we began driving along a narrow road passing greenery and huts in which the islanders lived.
Fast forward 10 minutes and we stopped at what I understood to be the heart of the island, there were small stalls full of handmade gifts and accessories, a large kabana-style woven roof with rows of tables and benches that we eventually found ourself sat at. We were served freshly-cut fruit grown by the islanders whilst listening to a song performed by one of the locals.
After a brief sit down and recharge we walked single file along the cobbly path surrounded by huts, whilst the owners sat outside on deck chairs lounging in the Viennese heat greeting passers-by with a smile, we passed palm trees, tropical flowers and the odd chicken.
Eventually, we reached a small docking area where we could see other tourists stepping down off the small set of steps onto wooden rowing boats. It was our group’s turn next, three to a boat, sat single file due to the narrowness of the boat. We stepped on with the help of Andy, trying our hardest not to tip the boat and send us all into the Mekong. Once we were all sat comfortably, we set off across the water, rowed by two islanders at each end, both wearing traditional Vietnamese conical hats keeping them sheltered from the beaming sun.
It was as if the world stood still as we fully immersed ourselves in the peaceful cruise along the river, the only sound we could hear was the oars pushing against the water and palm leaves being brushed out the way as the boat passed by. It was an experience that I did not want to end.
After re-joining our group on the boat, we headed to another part of the island further up the Mekong River for lunch. There, we were directed to another kabana-style restaurant. The waiter announced that she would be bringing out a variety of foods for us to taste as we were seated at a circular table, thankful for the four fans that were running above our heads to help us cope with the 30-degree heat.
We tucked in and complimented each dish we tasted, which included beef, rice, freshly prepared spring rolls, steamed vegetables, and a fish with spear-like teeth.
Full and satisfied from lunch, it was time to roam the island via bike. We were led to a bike hut where we each chose a bike that best suited us, placing our belongings in the basket at the front of the bike we set off, Andy our tour guide leading the way, the rest of us following behind like his disciples.
The path was completely surrounded by forest: palm trees, fruit trees and grass as tall as a grown person. To the right we passed houses, huts, farms and islanders whilst to our left was the incredible image of the river in the distance. After about 30 minutes of exploring the island on our bikes, we turned back and cycled towards the boat to head for the last part of our journey.
Arriving back to the boat, Andy cracked open a coconut for each of us to enjoy, picked from a tree on the island itself. We sat appreciating the views of the river, sipping coconut water and feeling grateful for the day we had experienced so far, soon arriving at our final stop of the day.
The boat skipper had strung the boat up on the wooden dock so that we could climb off, walking single file along a footpath. Appearing slowly behind the forest of tropical plants was a large open workshop, roofed by woven materials, we soon learnt that this workshop was where islanders made their coconut candy, selling to tourists who visit when journeying along the Mekong.
Andy gave us a step-by-step demonstration of how the coconuts go from being picked from the trees to being transforming into delicious flavoured candies, all handmade from natural ingredients. Andy moved us to another part of the workshop, where we were all taken back by the vision of a large glass jar, home to a liquid and number of dead snakes. Andy explained how the snakes were being marinated, and the liquid they were being kept in was snake wine.
We were all given the opportunity to try the wine, however only one member of our group was brave enough, the rest of us chose to watch and enjoy the sour look on their face as they took a shot of it.
After a day full of culture and adventure, our time on the Mekong had come to an end. We made our way back to the boat before sailing back to the main dock in My Tho where we got back onto the bus, driving away from the Mekong back to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi-Minh City.
All images by Summer Shannon