We decided to stay in Saigon for the five day weekend because, quite frankly, I was sick of booking vacations. And with Owen's hurt foot, I'm really glad we did not have any big plans for the long weekend.
That being said, I didn't want to "waste" the weekend by doing nothing but hanging around District 2, so I booked a tour of the Can Gio Mangrove Forest Biosphere through a tour company called "Les Rives." I figured a boat tour would be a good way to go because the Mekong Delta is a side of Vietnam that we hadn't seen yet. (Note: I booked this tour prior to the Bicycle Foot disaster. Derek had to carry Owen a lot for this trip, and Owen definitely didn't enjoy it as much as he would have had he been healthy.)
We started the day right at 7:30 with a large, air-conditioned van picking us up right at our apartment complex. It took us downtown to the same place the Riverside Boat docks. We paid the fee, covered ourselves with sunscreen and bug spray, and boarded the boat. The boat was a 14 seater with an additional four guys leading the tour: a captain, a mechanic, a tour guide, and a host. They were prepared with beverages and snacks to start the trip. We were joined on the tour by some friends who have a son in Owen's grade and a daughter who is a bit older, a Filipino lady, and a Vietnamese couple. It was great to be able to go on the tour with some friends, and Owen loved having a buddy with.
As we were heading out of the downtown area, it was astounding to watch the different boats go past as well as see the local housing. I can't think of a word besides "slums" to describe the dwellings we saw along the river. There are a lot of people who live in their boats too. We stopped on the river to purchase coconuts off a coconut boat that happened to have a rooster on board. Apparently the rooster is used for cock-fighting when the boat owners need a little entertainment. The losing roster becomes dinner. Our guide told us several times that cock-fighting is illegal in Vietnam. Then again, so is peeing on the side of the road, but that doesn't seem to stop anybody...
Our first real stop was a market right off the river in District 8. I suppose it would have been very interesting if you had never spent a great deal of time in Vietnam, but it was really very similar to the market just down the street from our apartment... only a bit larger. Since Owen can't walk right now, Derek had to carry him, and I carried Oliver. The market was crowded, hot, and, quite frankly, felt like filler material to the actual tour. We did enjoy seeing the different fresh foods available, but Oliver did not enjoy all the Vietnamese people trying to touch his blonde head. He's started shouting "No! Get back!" when he sees people coming for him. Poor little dude.
After the market, we loaded back on to the boat an sped toward the biosphere reserve. We pulled up to a little dock and unloaded. A little foot path twisted through some mangroves to a lagoon. Here, we boarded small, narrow, wooden boats driven by a guy standing on the back with a long stick. We sat four to a boat and were taken on a brief tour of a bat sanctuary. We floated up to a very tall tree in which a colony of large flying fox bats were sleeping the day away. They were breathtaking. Huge. With amazingly large wing spans (they were stretching in their sleep). I have a special place in my heart for bats after giving a tour to kindergartners while working as a tour guide in a cave in Colorado. I consider myself very lucky to have seen a real life flying fox bat!
After the bat boat ride, we were grouped with all the other tourists by some crab ponds where there were "fishing" poles to do some crab fishing. Really, they were sticks with fish guts tied to the end of some string. I'm pretty sure there were zero crabs in there, but there were some cool looking yellow fish with black spots. The kids all had fun "fishing" even though no one caught a single thing. This was another instance on the tour where i thought the guides were just trying to kill some time. I would much rather have spent longer out on the little boat staring up at those marvelous bats.
Once we finished crab fishing, we got onto the boat again to go to the bird sanctuary/lunch area/monkey island/crocodile feeding area. The last stop was a lot of different things. First, we took a little bus to a trail where we hiked over a bamboo bridge and then up an observation tower to look out over the biosphere reserve. From that vantage, we could see hundreds of birds and a wide variety of different plants. It was a very beautiful view.
The observation deck itself was more than a little sketchy. I had Oliver in the carrier on my back, so taking him up wasn't a big deal, but with Owen's messed up foot, there was no way to get him up the rickety, old, rusted out stairs. Too steep, too narrow, too dangerous. No worries though. He was perfectly content to miss bird watching and instead chomp away on a snack of goldfish and dried cranberries. (Thanks Radulys!)
Actually, all four of the kiddos enjoyed the little snack...
Lunch was a fairly standard Vietnamese meal: pho, hot pot, spring rolls. The tour company was kind enough to make sure we had vegetarian food to eat. Dessert was dragon fruit, which is pretty much all Owen and Oliver ate.
The highlight of the meal was observing the local wild life. There was a gibbon that was the happy recipient of many fruit donations, a deer that was enjoying a clump of basil, a few goats, and, of course, some rats. (I hate the rats, but they are everywhere in Vietnam. I suppose they are actually everywhere in the world, but being from a high altitude, cold, dry climate, I am still not used to the idea of them. They really freak me out. This is one of the reasons we won't be moving into a villa any time soon.)
The boys enjoyed seeing the animals (though I don't think they noticed the rats). Oliver especially thought the goats and deer were hilarious, but he was very nervous of getting too close.
Our final event of the day was feeding crocodiles. Oliver was super excited to see the crocs, but Owen was really nervous. Owen was so nervous, in fact, that he actually told us that he did not even want to go on the tour. We talked him up, and watched other people going first, so he was feeling a little better by the time it was our turn. The guides usher the guests onto a "secure" boat that has two layers of metal fencing around the craft to protect against the crocs.
Then the guides hand you another stick with some more fish guts on the string. They instruct you to dangle the guts in the water and then flip up the stick when the crocs get close to get them to jump out of the water. I don't really like this kind of "tourism" because it just seems cruel to the animals. The poor things probably ingest a ridiculous amount of fishing line and are tormented all day long. I did not realize that this was what we would be doing.
The good news is that Owen got over his fear of crocodiles. And, at least, the crocs are in their natural habitat eating their natural foods.
The trip was a success and a great way to spend one of the days of our long weekend. I'm bummed Owen didn't get the chance to enjoy it to it's fullest, but there will be another Mekong Delta trip in our future, I am sure.
Even with being carried around all day, Owen fell promptly asleep on the ride back to District 1. Actually, all four kids in our group were sound asleep within a few minutes.