Lucy Casley bravely tastes snake wine but her stomach turns as a whole bird is pulled out of the jar of brown liquid.
If you want a slice of the real Vietnam, you need to head for the busy waterways of the Mekong River. Almost like a highway, the river embraces a stream of traffic of locals and tourists, there for business and pleasure.
And the traffic has a unique feel. You'd never find a riverboat like the Cai Be Princess in New Zealand. Made from native bamboo, wood and rattan, such vessels are a common sight in Southeast Asia, and are a handy means of reaching isolated river communities through the region.
These days, they're also a way for visitors to experience the river. We were on the Princess for a day cruise that took in some of the attractions around Cai Be, just over 100km from Ho Chi Minh City, and for a taste of the rich history for which the Mekong is renowned.
After a warm welcome from the small crew, we plonked ourselves on loungers on the deck to take in the sleepy riverside scenes as we slowly pulled out of port, enjoying a cup of tea and a colourful platter of dragonfruit, bananas, watermelon and rambutan (known as chom chom in Vietnamese). The chom chom's pink, spiky outsides looked a little daunting but the fruit was sweet and moreish and I ate the lot.
We visited during the wet season, meaning sand and sewage gave the Mekong's water an unappealing brown tinge — tour guide Khang assured us that in the dry season it becomes blue again. As we made our way toward the canal I noticed barges digging up sand to make the river deeper for boats.
The Western world could take a page out of the Vietnamese peoples' book on reusing the resources we have available to us.
Once we reached the entrance to the canal we were met by a five-person canoe. A petite Vietnamese lady in a blue uniform stood on the back, paddle in hand. We were also joined by an Asian man who told me his passion is travelling throughout Asia taking spectacular photos.
It had me wishing I had a camera equally as savvy to capture the essence of my time in Vietnam rather than the one on my iPhone.
We drifted slowly down the 5m-wide river canal, happy to be swallowed into the thick forest as branches dense with heavy fruit hung limply over us on either side of the bank.
It was deathly quiet, the only sound the soothing paddle pushing through the water at our backs.
Well, that's how it was when we weren't being passed by motor-driven canoes as the local workers went about their business, transporting tropical fruits from Dan Bhong to the main island. Tourists are so common that they're part of the scenery.
Still, life moves slowly here. In the dappled light coming through a copse of trees were some children cycling along the riverbanks. We cruised slowly past houses made of loose wood and sticks and the markings of village life: fences, washing lines, and jetties.
After 30 minutes we popped back out on to the main river where the Cai Be Princess was waiting for us. We passed through a water village, where wrecked houses on stilts lined the riverbank. At the floating markets, locals trade fruit and vegetables every morning from their boats. We visited a large house built in 1858 by the Phan family using a mix of Western and Vietnamese architecture, its lush garden laden with tropical fruit. The owner waved us in with a smile; Khang told us he enjoyed the company of foreigners.
The cottage industries were the most intriguing aspect of the itinerary. We pulled up at a jetty leading to one of the area's many small-scale factories, where we watched coconut candy, a popular local snack, being made. This particular factory provided a living for a team of 10 hardworking locals. The candy was delicious, I took home two large packets of different flavours.
But we weren't too keen on the next local product we tried — snake wine. This is something I would rather have stayed clear of. We eyed up the long snake coiled inside a huge jar full of a dirty brown liquid as Khang filled us in on the supposed health benefits of snake wine. It's said to be a natural medicine that can help with back pain and other health conditions or, as our tour guide said, "It make you big and strong. Very manly!"
We bravely took a shot glass of the wine, which had a potent taste and set the throat on fire. I told our tour guide the snake wine was more like hardcore liquor, and they laughed.
Just when we thought the horror was over, Khang took a pair of tongs and sunk them deep into the jar. The worry in the pit of my stomach soon turned to nausea when he pulled out a bird. A whole, boned, fully feathered bird! The look of horror on our faces only served to drive him into hysterics. I almost thought he was joking. Again, he listed the "health benefits", but I was sceptical and sick to my stomach after drinking from a glass jar of dead bird.
Very manly, indeed.
Lunch couldn't come soon enough. We were led down a long stone path at a village and greeted at a grand gate by a lady in a long white dress with a sun umbrella covering her face. She sported the biggest smile I have ever seen and escorted us to an exquisite French colonial-style villa set in a lush tropical garden not far from the river where we found Le Longanier Restaurant.
The six-course lunch was superb: a whole pineapple with four skewered spring rolls coated with a net of rice noodles; caramelised pork fried in a tasty soy-based sauce and served in a hot clay pot; a monkfish served whole, standing upright with sticks on either side and a vibrant orange flower blooming from its mouth.
We wrapped up the meat from the river fish in lettuce cups.
It was a beautiful experience and the perfect way to top off our exploration of this tiny section of the Mekong River. We headed back to Ho Chi Minh City ready to take on our next adventure.
For bookings or further information on Mekong River cruises, go to activeasia.co.nz