“When the taxi drops you off at the bridge, call us and we’ll send the boat to pick you up.”
I would have my doubts with these instructions in North America, let alone traveling by myself in Vietnam. But when you travel, you really have to take a leap of faith that everything will work out. And really, that’s the fun part! After Cambodia, I was headed to Vietnam and my first stop was a stay in the Mekong Delta along the Ong Tim River in Cai Rang which is in the district of Can Tho. In simple terms, it’s about 4 hours outside of Saigon but that entailed my own Vietnamese version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. In my case, it was a bus, a taxi and a meeting spot along the side of the road to be picked up by a boat.
Although this wasn’t part of my initial itinerary, it quickly became part of it. I knew I needed to visit after I read about this magical place. A place where you’re transported to a simpler time with your bed overlooking the river, a visit to a floating market and locals getting around by boat. I discovered the Nguyen Shack Homestay through a love story told by Jodi of Legal Nomads and had to check it out for myself. After contacting the owners and inquiring about a room, I was informed they had a couple of nights available, so I immediately scooped it up. After learning that I was gathering up material for my blog, they offered me 50% off my stay. And when you’re traveling for two months, you jump at those offers and trust me, free, 50% off or full rate, my time here was incredible and you’ll see why.
So back to the bridge. I was pretty skeptical of someone coming to get me in the middle of nowhere, but poof someone showed up and he spoke no English. But since I was the only one there, I assumed he had come for me. Thankfully that was soon confirmed when he grabbed my big backpack which happened to be as big as him. I followed him along the path to an 8-seater boat and we were on our way. I pretty quickly got a sense of where I was when we started passing by people doing their laundry in the river and getting from point A to point B.
The next couple of days were just one adventure after another. I envisioned laying in the hammock in my room and just taking in the tranquility of the paddle boats passing by and the ducks quacking away. But with a morning floating market, a bike ride around the nearby village and a really fun common area to chat with other guests, I was constantly on the go.
I had heard of these floating markets in both Vietnam and Thailand and it was definitely something I was looking forward to checking out! The floating market was a very early wake-up call, as in 5am early. Thankfully, I didn’t have much to do other than take photos as we made our way to the market.
Once we arrived, thankfully I was awake enough to spot a woman floating by on her own boat selling banh mi sandwiches! I had to do a double-take because that was probably one of the best things I’ve ever seen. After indicating to the driver of our boat that I wanted a sandwich, we pulled right beside her complete with an entire set-up to make the best banh mi I’ve ever had. As good as the sandwich was, the highlight was the concern this older French gentleman had for me. As the banh mi was being prepared, he tapped me on the shoulder and said “tu es très courageux!” Translation, you are very courageous to which I replied, “you just have to have faith.”
When I say floating market, it’s a floating market. Sandwiches and Vietnamese coffee were available (I missed out on floating pho!) but of course so were fruits and vegetables. And like any good grocery store, it was all organized. When we first approached the area, all the boats had watermelons, so that was the watermelon “aisle.” Further along, there was the jackfruit section and on and on until there was the general grocer area who had a little bit of everything. You can even see the fellow on the boat chopping up the produce!
In addition to the floating market, we also made a stop at the “land” market in Cai Rang. If the floating market was noteworthy for its uniqueness, I would say the land market stood out for its authenticity. Anything you could ever want in a market was there, plus so much more. What really stood out for me at the market was the people and was how this was their way of life. Judging from what the amounts they were selling, no one was getting rich, but it was enough to live. Working and selling their goods was as much about making money as it was about socializing and being part of the community.
Of course, there were those who took matters very seriously.
After loading up on banh mi’s and pork belly all before 10am, it was time to head out for a bike ride around the village. Truth be told, I was really tired but part of the visit includes a school that I wanted to check out and since it was Friday, I knew I had to muster up the energy to pedal on! It was my own personal tour as I was the only guest going on the ride, so away I went with the co-owner, Maxime.
As it turns out, it was the right decision! We got to the school with the students in class, but as soon as they saw us they ran out. The teacher just smiled so I was pretty relieved we weren’t in trouble for disrupting the class. All this little girl wanted to do was hold my hand.
After the school visit, we passed by the blacksmith. I was crossing my fingers he’d be there since I was told it was a hit or miss if he’s around. I had been told ahead of time that I could buy a knife from him and when we walked in, I knew I was going to buy something! Like everything about the area, it was just so authentic and real. I wanted to buy something because it’d forever connect me to that moment I walked in. He was sharpening the blade like his life depended on it. His wife was the one who greeted us and showed us the selection and when I finally settled on the one I wanted, that’s when he went to work.
He took the knife and proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes sharpening and cleaning it. Once he was done, that’s when he finally looked up.
I paid $2.50 for the knife and I’d say the experience and the photos alone were priceless, let alone that I got a knife as well! The polished and very sharp finished product even came with a little reading material.
Along the bike tour, we also visited a local rice liquor distillery. I was shown the process of how it’s produced from start to finish. I also met the pigs who are fed the fermented rice and because of that are pretty much constantly drunk. More proof that nothing goes to waste around here! As for the rice liquor itself, whoa. It’s 70-proof and packs a punch! A very hot day was made much warmer after taking a shot of it, but when in Vietnam, right? As for the sanitary conditions of the jugs in which the liquor was being held, I had to take another leap of faith that I wouldn’t go blind from it.
Oh yea, and a baby was swinging in a hammock while everyone was working. No big deal.
We also hit up a medicine man, a women’s Buddhist temple that prepared us a little snack and a rice production facility. All these stops are part of the bike tour that the Nguyen Shack offers and Maxime sees them daily, so we were always welcomed with open arms.
After a long day of floating and land market with a long bike ride, it was time to head back and relax. I was told that a free massage as offered. Free massage, sign me up! Well, it was actually a free Fire Cupping Massage. I posted it on Instagram at the time and I think the photo and the comments pretty much say everything that needs to be said.
This also happened. I was told it wasn’t an actual cockfight, but more like they were just playing around. Neither of them got hurt (it seemed) but I’ll be honest, this did not sit well with me at all. The way the kids and adults were all hooting and hollering, it was definitely a reminder that I was not a local!
After a jam-packed couple of days, it was time to pack-up and head to Saigon for my long-awaited bowls of pho and street food. But not before one final smiling face said peace to me on my boat-ride back to the bridge.
Thanks again to Maxime and the staff for the wonderful hospitality and memories. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Maxime’s fiancee Theu as she was up north in Ninh Binh (about 3 hours by bus from Hanoi) opening up their second homestay. It’s now open and cannot wait to head up north for my next visit!
*Disclosure – As mentioned above, I received 50% off my stay for writing about my time at the Nguyen Shack Homestay. I didn’t have to write anything positive, but I think we can all agree that my experiences were positively amazing!