I'm taking my family to southern Vietnam for an Eid break and I'm keen to visit the Mekong Delta. I've been told a homestay with a local family is a good way for my children to experience a different side to Vietnam but I have no idea how to arrange it. Can you help?
The Mekong Delta has long been one of the most underrated tourist destinations in Vietnam but, to my mind, is one of the most interesting. Early November is a good time to visit because the monsoon is easing and the vegetation is so green it almost glows, but there are still fewer tourists because it's the start of the high season that runs until March.
A homestay is an excellent way to experience delta life. The town of Vinh Long, about three to four hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City, is a good place to start. The town itself is uninspiring, being dirty, crowded and full of motorcycles, but the exact opposite can be found on An Binh, one of a series of low-lying islands just across a channel of the Mekong.
Here, the focus is on agriculture, and the pace of life follows suit. The streets are quiet tracks barely wide enough for two bicycles to pass and the best way to explore is simply to wander down any interesting alley you see. It's still sufficiently untouristed that the presence of a tay (the Vietnamese word for West and used generically to describe any non-Asian) will have the incredibly friendly local children in paroxysms of delight.
The Cuu Long Hotel (www.cuulongtourist.com; 00 8470 382 3616), located on the Vinh Long waterfront, can arrange a homestay with a family and a boat tour through the quiet waterways bisecting the islands to the floating market at Cai Be.
The price is very modest - about 600,000 Vietnamese dong (Dh106) for dinner, bed and breakfast at a homestay and a similar amount for the boat tour - but one frequent report is that the longer the families have been hosting visitors, the more the experience resembles a hotel service rather than a family interaction.
For that reason, it can be better to stay with a more recent entrant into the homestay market. A good one is Ngoc Sang Homestay (firstname.lastname@example.org; 00 84 909 201 828), run by a family that has been hosting visitors for less than a year and it shows. It's better when there are fewer guests staying (there are six guest rooms) and the conditions are basic, but the food, all caught or grown locally, is excellent and the welcome from three generations of the family (ranging from toddlers to grandparents) is warm and genuine. It's also about half the price of a homestay organised by Cuu Long.
Whichever homestay you are at will be able to arrange boat tours which visit the floating market at Cai Be, although the market is definitely less interesting than the journey along the network of narrow waterways criss-crossing the islands, providing an up-close view of ordinary life in the delta.
If you have more time to explore other parts of the delta, you can visit the city of Chau Doc, where a village of Cham people, Vietnam's Muslim minority, are taught Arabic so they can read the Quran in its original form.
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