May 12, 2020 • 5M

Couchfish Diversion 5: Sa Dec, Vietnam

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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When people want to dip their finger into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho or Can Tho are the first two off the rank. I say go further. Try Sa Dec.

“So it’s during the crossing of a branch of the Mekong, on the ferry that plies between Vinh Long and Sa Dec in the great plain of mud and rice in southern Cochin China. The Plain of the Birds.”

So writes Marguerite Duras about the river crossing in The Lover. Standing on the car ferry taking me across the same body of water, I think things have not changed much.

The novel probably aged better. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

My Tho and Can Tho attract thanks to their floating markets, but Sa Dec isn’t that much farther. Something about it makes it worth the effort. The town’s fame among foreigners may lay with the novel, but the real attraction is elsewhere.

I’m lucky enough to have a local as a guide, Annie. We’d met in Saigon, and when I messaged to say I was in town, we met up and started eating.

Hu Tieu Ba Sam kicked into business in 1968, serving up cheap and delicious bowls of hu tieu to the homeless. Today, three generations later, it still does the same. That said, today the clientele is more cosmopolitan, with no shortage of Vietnamese instagrammers on location.

Hit me. At Hu Tieu Ba Sam. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Its accolades include the best bowl of hu tieu in Southeast Asia—I’m not going to pretend to be able to judge that. But the bowl was as delicious as the plastic stool and general confines of the joint were tiny. Eat on the pavement would be my parting advice!

Famed for its market gardens, Sa Dec is a madhouse just before Valentines Day. Luckily we were well outside that insanity and we had the gardens to ourselves as we scootered around. A few home stays lie out here if the Sa Dec hotel scene (which is not great) isn’t doing it for you. There’s also the house made famous by Duras, but having visited, I’d say swing by for a look, not a sleep.

I’ve not the sweetest tooth on the block, but Annie wanted me to try a local ice cream. The place was closed, so we ducked next door to Mai. It’s an open-air cafe known for its crab soup. What should I order, I ask? Sup cua bach thao, says Annie. So I do.

Melt in your mouth pig brain. Don’t knock it till you try it. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Think crab, shrimp, three types of egg and a delicious melt-in-the-mouth chunk of pig brain in a glutinous soup. Maybe better than it sounds, depending on your penchant for pig brain. 

But there is more to Sa Dec than just stuffing face!

Around 12 kilometres north of town lies Xeo Quyt. I bet if you’ve heard of Cu Chi or Vinh Moc, you haven’t heard of here. It was a secret Viet Cong base hidden in the jungle (well a large swamp), and that’s where I head to the next morning. One day food, one day war history and all that.

Xeo Quyt. I asked my guide if there were snakes—she laughed. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It’s a 30-minute ride north of Sa Dec to Xeo Quyt. Upon arrival I’m dispatched into a sampan for the paddle through. I’ve crawled the Cu Chi and Vinh Moc tunnels but within minutes I’m thinking, how could you fight a war in this?

The boat trip takes me around a circuit for about an hour, and then I’m free to backtrack on a series of pathways. The forest is wild—this is the kind of jungle I’d die in within a day, without anyone even trying to even kill me. At one stage there is a flooded bunker that a sign suggests I crawl in—I pass, but back in the day, I guess you just got wet.

Yeah, no snakes at all. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Afterwards I scoot back into town and call Annie. Let’s eat some more! I say. She’s busy, so I swing by Hu Tieu My Ngoc. I think the food is great, but when I mention it to her later, she says, “Oh, expensive and too many tourists there.”

What tourists!

Last stop is chicken wings by the water. There is something about cold drinks and chicken wings by a canal. Barges bang past, heading out into the great plain of mud and rice in southern Cochin China, as Duras would have called it.