Expansion on the Mekong

Wily entrepreneurs along the Mekong rapidly adapt to the influx of tourism, in a very similar manner to which Kampot plans its long term expansion. There is nothing quite so large as Bokor Hill to rebrand, but on smaller scales scattered along the islands of the Mekong and particular clustered down by the southern end of the delta, things are being rebuilt.

Whether its Vinh Long, Cantho or My Tho, and likely even further north at Chau Doc the sounds of construction fill the air on the islands of the Mekong. Formerly farmers and fisherman, the people of these floating jungle-scapes eagerly welcome tourists down from Saigon who want to spend a night sleeping on the Mekong.

After a few hectic days (or hours) in Saigon, the subsequent quiet that descends after the sun sets helps soothe the frazzled nerves of even the most laconic of travellers. And trust me, after a visit to Saigon, a person is wired! It’s a frantic, frenetic place, a constant cacophony of life and motorbikes. An amazing place, and one that is even better appreciated relaxing as the sky fades through deep blues and purples and the stars start shine down from above.

The people on these islands know this, and after generations of fishing the muddy waters or harvesting bananas, coconuts or mangoes they’ve opened their homes to invite people for homestays. Staying overnight with a family. Already in the past two and a half years this has changed, my first visit there were a smattering of places to stay, now however the number and luxury level offered at these homestays continues to increase.

The veranda and main entrance to a Mekong homestay near Vinh Long.

The place I stayed at on my most recent trip had four bedrooms for visitors, it wasn’t on the official map, was across the main channel from Vinh Long and happened to be a few dollars cheaper than the others. Overnight for one person, with a succulent local meal; of farmed fish, soup, chicken, do-it-yourself rice wraps (with accompanying filler) and fresh fruit for desert included costs $15 US.

Dinner! Estonian Elephant Fish. Peel back the skin, flake off the meat and wrap in rice paper.

It’s a deal and a steal.

And the owners know this, and after the initial forays into mini-tourism, they have much loftier goals in mind. The place we stayed at (and I didn’t write down the name) currently offers four rooms for visitors. All at the same. Basic double bed with mosquito netting, a fan, a light and that’s about it. It’s all that is required.

Typical room in a typical homestay on the Mekong.

Dinner is communal at a set time, so seven of us sat down to enjoy the Estonian Elephant Fish (a super-lux in-joke from the trip) and the rest of the meal. The family ate around us. 

During the morning, before we set off to visit a floating market and tour the smaller streams that weave through (and make) the islands on the Mekong I fell into a conversation with the owner.

He pointed out how high his house now stood, the bottom step to the entry to their homestay sits at 2 metres (about 6 feet) above the waterline… during the dry season. During the wet season, when the river courses much faster and the tourists disappear the river will casually lap against the bottom step.

Expansion plans.

But he has big plans. He informed me he will sink 600 000 000 Dong into the expansion of his homestay. (And no, I convert that for my readers). Six to eight more rooms will be added as well as a four to six stall shower and bathroom block. By the time it is finished, this sleepy homestay should sleep nearly 20 people per night comfortably, at $15 per night it will take him a while to recoup his investment, but much like Kampot, it seems pretty clear this entrepreneur’s vision is long term.

And I suspect he will succeed.

And expand again.

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