IN PHOTOS: Vietnam’s Nine Dragons River by boat

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If you are at all interested in Vietnam’s riverside culture — and this only takes a relatively quick half day from the city and then back again — then this is a great way to imbibe that local feel. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Look at any satellite map and the first thing you’ll notice about Vietnam are the many snaking lines indicating rivers and their tributaries. These bodies of water, made up of more than 2,360 rivers, are an inseparable part of Vietnamese culture and folklore. They are especially important to the Mekong Delta and Red River Delta, where the mighty Mekong River that crosses six nations flows.

Because of its nine major tributaries that drain out to the South China Sea, Vietnam’s part of the Mekong is known locally as Song Cuu Long, or the Nine Dragons River. The earthly avatar of the dragon is the serpent. Thus the snake is revered and feared equally round these parts, its meat devoured for various purposes — often magical or totemic. It’s a symbol of male potency. Dishes for the adventurous are made from it, and even its skin is dried and processed for beer.

This photo essay tracks a short tour out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to the nearby Ben Tre region and through a quick boat and walking tour of nearby areas in the Mekong Delta, in what’s known as the nation’s coconut country.

If you are at all interested in Vietnam’s riverside culture — and this only takes a relatively quick half day from the city and then back again — then this is a great way to imbibe that local feel.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Riverside Street View

We arrived in the megacity of Ho Chi Minh on a balmy March morning. Formerly Saigon, this is the financial hub of the nation. The streets are always full and busy, motorbikes and underbike scooters rule the avenues, and traffic flows not through law or rules but with gut and feel, argument, and brag.

The novelist Andrew X. Pham wrote that “Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity, and surrenders.” This is so very true. Having been to three ASEAN countries and raised on the mean streets of Metro Manila, Ho Chi Minh is the only city where I found it difficult to cross the street.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Street Food Feast

Having lunch like a local is one of the traveler’s pleasures. And though I can’t even name half the dishes in this photo, I would definitely recommend the Banh Trang Tron (rice paper salad) and the Bun cha (grilled pork with vermicelli). Note that if you have any food allergies (like me), there’s shrimp and soy in many of the local viands.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Vinh Trang Pagoda Worship

We departed Ho Chi Minh’s borders early the next day and headed for My Tho City in Tien Giang, about an hour and a half south of the capital. Along the way we stopped to see the popular Vinh Trang Pagoda.

Restored many times through the centuries, it now boasts a mix of Asian and European architecture, aside from being the largest temple in Tien Giang province. Plenty of Buddhas abound in different sizes but this national relic of a holy place — where you must remove your shoes when you step foot inside — still attracts the most pilgrims to the intimate altar at the center of the oldest structure you see here. For three centuries prayers, offerings, and devotions have been lavished on the statue of the Buddha you see here.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

My Tho Pier

Our guide launched the river tour by taking us to one of the piers catering to tourists. My Tho City is a modest sized port with about 110,000 residents, where the riverside metro eventually became known for coconut and vegetable production as well as a shipping point from the coastal waterway.

The waters of the Mekong Delta are typically a milky brown. Its health is determined by the silty sedimentary murkiness of its bottom layer. If the water is too clear then the saltwater from the sea gets in, preventing effective farming on the coastlines because of too much salinity. Despite their milk tea color, the waters are not polluted and do not smell bad.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

The Busy Mekong Water Road

At this point, we’ve reached our sampan (boat) trip set for two kilometers of river road. It’s a busy day for tourism on this small waterway off the Ben Tre township. Notice the towering nipa palms on either side.

The canals are usually olive in hue and shade during the summer, but accelerated saline intrusion through the years has been steadily disrupting the water’s chemistry. It’s a mix of climate change and man-made projects like dams upriver made by China, Laos, and Cambodia.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

The Women Navigators of Mekong

Rural life in Ben Tre town and the Mekong Delta revolves around the waterways where both men and women learn the art of navigating the waterways and canals by sampan rigger at an early age.

Usually it takes two people to successfully maneuver — one to row for forward momentum and the other with a long staff to steer, push off, or brake. Whether transporting harvest, the catch of the day, or in our case several boatloads of tourists, these vessels are the lifeblood of transport in “Coconut Land.”

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Fruits at Honey Farm

Aside from coconut and rice farming, one of the lesser industries in Ben Tre is bee farming and the production of honey or royal jelly. At the end of our sampan ride we were treated to honey tea and fresh fruits. Note the dragon fruit on the far left, a popular plant to cultivate in the area.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Traditional Singers

Local singers clad in beautiful ao dai traditional dress serenade visitors with Ho and Ly songs. If you’ve ever heard Canto pop, then Vietnamese folk music sounds similar in rhythm and tempo, except subject-wise, songs are usually about valley life and forlorn love.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Elephant-ear Fish

There is nothing more legitimately Mekong and traditional than a meal of deep-fried elephant-ear fish. Also known as giant gourami, this dish is made from freshwater fish that looks like an elephant’s ear and can weigh up to 1.5 kilograms. It’s common in the ponds and swamps of the Mekong Delta in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.

The way it’s prepped in these parts is that the scales and fins aren’t removed. The cook just has to be skilled enough to fry the whole fish in a big pan at super high temperature. If done right the gourami should come out crispy outside but tender inside. Perfect with vinegar and soy sauce.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Bikes or Hammocks

After exploring a small part of the Mekong Delta, our guide from Vietnam Adventure Tours group took us to a space where you could either take a stock, bike and see the neighborhood or take a nap on one of the hammocks before we returned to the concrete jungle of Ho Chi Minh City.

Being Pinoy, a siesta was of course the way to go. The only fitting way to end the day on one of the tributaries of the nine-tailed dragon.

Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

Saigon by Night

The final night was all about walking and enjoying as much of the city as we could. Confronted with the neon and noise of a new Ho Chi Minh — no longer the Saigon of American movies — it was easy to recall another one of Andrew X. Pham’s lines from his memoir “Catfish and Mandala.” He said, “The perfection of intention. In the end, it is all that matters.”