A Love Story in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Categories Vietnam

“You know,” Maxime said, treading carefully, “I didn’t recognize you when you first showed up here.”

“Really?” I asked, confused. “Why would that be? People seem to think I look like my headshot on my site.”

“Well,” he said pausing, “I really thought you’d be fat. Like, super fat.”

I stared at him, eyebrows raised.

He stared back and lifted and rounded his arms to mimic just how fat he thought I would be.

We looked at each other, at his arms, and then we collapsed into a fit of giggles.

It was my third day in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, in a village near Cai Rang. I was staying at a tiny guesthouse owned by Maxime’s Vietnamese girlfriend Theu, individual bungalows facing a leafy pond, the main building bordering a small offshoot of the Ong Tim river.

Nguyen Shack Mekong Delta

Nguyen Shack’s bungalows

My room at Nguyen Shack

My room.

During my fervent consumption of Theu’s bo la lot, a delicious dish of minced beef wrapped in betel nut leaves and then grilled or fried, Maxime wandered over to scrutinize my eating process. Watching me set aside half of the plate for an afternoon snack, he explained that in reading my blog he thought for sure I would be rotund. Or, at least, rotund-er. I was so passionate about soup and markets and food that he expected it to show.

“But now,” he said triumphantly, pointing at my plate to reinforce his argument, “I know your secret: portion control!”

Mustard leaves & beef at Nguyen Shack

Mustard leaves & sauteed beef at Nguyen Shack, one of Theu’s many great meals.

Green onions

Green onions never looked so good.

* * *

My trip to the Mekong was an impromptu one. Though I had desperately wanted to visit the region, I wasn’t sure that I would find time as my months in Vietnam were winding down quickly. Most tourists take a quick day trip to Ben Tre or a multi-day tour leaving out of Saigon, but I wanted to explore the Delta more deliberately. A month before my original departure date (that is, before I extended it – twice), Maxime sent me a short, unsolicited email from Cai Rang.

“Hi,” it read, “a journalist stayed here and told us about your blog. I am also from Montreal and run a guesthouse with my girlfriend in the Mekong. We cannot give you a free stay, but we would love you to visit and my girlfriend is an incredible chef. You should come to Cai Rang!”

Interest piqued, I explained that I was writing a piece on Vietnamese sweets and asked if Theu be able to sit with me and talk food for some additional research. Many of the sweets I wanted to write about would be found in the Mekong’s morning markets, like banh bo, fluffy tapioca flour cakes smothered in honey, and rice balls filled with sweetened mung bean, smothered in a thick coconut cream.  Maxime and Theu were game, promising to answer any food questions I had and to feed me delicious food from Theu’s kitchen. While it wasn’t a full exploration, it would be a different way of seeing Cai Rang. Maxime explained that while most tourists stayed in Can Tho, the guesthouse’s proximity to Cai Rang meant that morning tours of the floating market would beat the tourist rush. And his boat also stopped at the land market in Cai Rang, something the others had not yet started to incorporate into their tours. Plus, he added for emphasis, their price of lodging included not just the morning tour, but also an evening cruise on the Ong Tim and a bike tour of the village the next day.

I was sold.

Shortly thereafter[1] I found myself on a bus to Can Tho[2]. Upon arrival I got horrendously and hilariously lost with my xe om diver, finally turning up at their doorstop in a cloud of loose gravel and laughing so hard I was almost in tears. The xe om driver, an older gentleman who kept stopping at random houses along the way to ask for directions, shook his head at the whole ordeal and took off muttering to himself. Maxime had said most of the xe oms knew the guesthouse; I picked the one who had no idea it existed.

Gravel path to Nguyen Shack

Gravel path to the guesthouse. Not pictured: confused xe om driver.

I marched straight over to Maxime and introduced myself.

His jaw dropped.

YOU’RE Jodi?”

During the last few days, I had mulled over his strange greeting. Now I knew why he was so incredulous. He had no idea I was Vietnamese-sized.

* * *

This whole exchange was, I learned, typical of Maxime. And as Theu recounted other stories of Maxime wearing his thoughts on his face and speaking frankly, she smiled in her own nostalgia. It was this sense of fun that drew her to him, and it complimented her perfectly. Business-minded and extremely bright, she easily dipped into the playful, teasing Maxime about his English skills (since he is French-Canadian) and joking around with her staff. Given the way they interacted, I could see how they would have originally been unable to ignore their connection, and happily I saw that connection still, well after they had already fallen in love with each other.

Maxime and Theu from Nguyen Shack

Maxime and Theu.

Maxime first arrived at the guesthouse, called Nguyen Shack, just like anybody else. He was on a round-the-world trip of his own, and he booked a room in Cai Rang to explore the Mekong Delta. Having split with a long-term girlfriend in Quebec, he embarked on what he thought would be a year of travel. Like me, it unexpectedly lasted a lot longer. Unlike me, he accumulated a life partner, a cat, two dogs, several rabbits and pigs and a guesthouse in the process.

Nguyen Shack pig

Nguyen Shack pig…

Nguyen Shack pig

Nguyen Shack kitten.

Nguyen Shack rabbit

Nguyen Shack rabbit

Nguyen Shack puppy

Nguyen Shack puppy..

He arrived travelling with a French woman he had met on his travels. Mistakenly thinking they were a couple, Theu put them a double bed room instead of twins. It was high season and with no other rooms available, they did not want to protest. In recounting the story, Theu notes that she could see right away he had a good soul. He treated the animals kindly, he was polite to her staff and he smiled at everyone. When guests came in, he automatically offered to help them with bags and explain the rules of the house. (“Free water and fruit and coffee, free breakfast, don’t drink too much at night because you will fall into the water and we will have to pull you out.”)

When Theu got the news that a family member had died and that she would need to go straight to Saigon, she faced a conundrum. Her guesthouse was full for the coming days and she couldn’t cancel the reservations. So she went with her instincts and leaned on Maxime and the woman she thought was his girlfriend for help, asking them to run Nguyen Shack in her absence.

Theu cooking

Theu cooking

They both told the story to me separately, each with crinkled eyes, lips curled into smiles. He couldn’t speak Vietnamese and her staff had no idea what to make of him, this strange foreigner who was somehow, suddenly, in charge. The boat driver eyed him with suspicion. But the animals loved him, unconditionally and immediately.

Several days later, Theu made it back to the Mekong. Depleted from the funeral and family matters, she found Maxime waiting for her, Nguyen Shack intact and guests loving his easy manner and enthusiasm for life. The woman Maxime was traveling with returned to the city, but Maxime stayed an extra night, then two, then several more.

The rest is, as they say, history.

They fell in love and he cancelled the rest of his trip. They now run the guesthouse together, with Theu managing the kitchen and the bookings and Maxime at the front of the house, chatting with guests in French and English, and taking them on bicycle tours of the area, a fedora on his head and a wide grin for everyone waving at him along the way. The village knows him well, as he’s expanded these bike tours to take guests to places they would otherwise miss, like a local rice liquor distillery[3], a Buddhist temple that doubles as a shelter for abused or abandoned women, a rice factory and more.

Rice from Cai Rang

Rice from Cai Rang

There’s something about Nguyen Shack that keeps you enthralled. I didn’t return to Saigon when I was supposed to either, taking advantage of a cancellation in bookings to squeeze in a few more nights in Cai Rang. Theu sat with me to answer all of my food questions and let me hover over her in the kitchen as she cooked up a storm. The vendors at the market started serving me bun rieu without protest; the boat driver let me negotiate for a longer market stay. Eventually, unlike Maxime, I had to leave. But the story of how this wonderful Vietnamese-Quebecois couple met stayed with me.

* * *

[1] My trip was actually later than anticipated due to the Great Grate Incident of the Year of the Dragon, in which I sliced open my toe on a rusty grate during lunar new year, called Tet. This happened on my friend Hung’s rooftop as I was watching New Years fireworks, and the pain was so severe that I hobbled over to my friend Christian in the darkness to say, “Hey, so I’m pretty sure I just sliced open my foot on that grate over there. I kind of don’t want to see the damage just yet but I also might pass out from the pain so I’m just going to stand next to you until the fireworks are over and then we can figure out what happened, ok? I’m just going to lean a little bit on your arm, ok? Don’t mind me. Just leaning.”

Hung took on a role of translator and transporter, taking me to the hospital on his motorbike for a tetanus shot and then, when the doctor asked why I needed one, ignored my reply (which was “well, I don’t know MAYBE THE RUSTY GRATE I SLICED MY FOOT WITH?”) and politely explained in Vietnamese that it was a necessity.) All this to say: river water + open wound = bad idea, so I delayed my trip.

[2] I took Thanh Buoi as my bus company because my online research made it clear that it would get me there faster. Logically this meant that the bus would be speeding. Illogically, the bus driver decided to drag race with a truck for part of the trip there, prompting me to do something I have never done before: text a friend to say “If I don’t text you in one hour, I died in bus crash somewhere in the outskirts of Saigon.” Please do let the record reflect that the Thanh Buoi staff was the friendliest, most polite bus staff ever. Notwithstanding the cheer, the fear of dying part was my lasting impression. Do yourselves a favour and take the Futa Travel (orange bus) instead. It may take you longer, but safety records indicate that it will get you there in one piece.

[3] I’m not kidding about the local part. The 70 proof fermented rice liquor is then combined with water from the Ong Tim river and poured into old 7-up bottles that the villagers bring to the processing plant. None of the liquor is exported elsewhere; it’s just for supplying the region. Don’t worry, Maxime only had us try the 70-proof, riverwater-free version of the moonshine. Potent rice-y goodness.

-Jodi

Note as of January 2014: Maxime & Theu have now opened a 2nd homestay in Ninh Binh and have rooms available there. For those unfamiliar with the area, it is about 2.5 hours from Hanoi by bus.

Here’s the scene for the new place: 

Ninh Binh Homestay

Ninh Binh Homestay

55 comments to A Love Story in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

  1. That was actually THE sweetest love story I have ever heard. Ever. I would love to go to this guest house if I ever find myself in Vietnam.

    Dannielle

  2. What a cute story. Just another proof that small miracles do happen every day :-)

    P.S. You are indeed Vietnamese sized and not fat at all! :-P

  3. Jodi, I really enjoyed this. Wonderful writing and a lovely story.

  4. Gorgeous story! By rights I should be a cynic, hut I love love stories! and this one feels special.

    Likewise would definitely go there if I make to Vietnam! And I will pass this on to friends too!

    And you do,absolutely, look like your photos. I’d have recognised you anywhere!

  5. Entirely unshockingly, I loved every word (and photo) of how you told this story. Makes me want to experience Vietnam’s Mekong Delta myself… Hugs, Jodi!

  6. Absolutely adorable story! That made me happy. =)

  7. Now I’m usually first to smirk at ‘love stories’ but here I am finding myself smiling and thrilled. What a beautiful story. More power to Nguyen Shack!

  8. I’m surprised you’re not fatter too. “Portion control” you say? Hm, interesting concept. I may try it one day, maybe tonight at the potluck.

    But probably not.

  9. This is just awesome! I admire your ability to dig deep and eloquently tell a great story. I wish I’d known about this place when I was in the Mekong area a few months ago!

  10. Wow, well that is a love story! Your pics of the couple and their story is what traveling and meeting total strangers and connecting is what , exploring is all about. The food images are gorgeous, wish I could sample these cyber wise.

  11. Thanks for sharing this story my wee little friend. Look forward to reading about your upcoming trip.

  12. On July 10, 2013 at 9:26 pm Do Minh Duc said:

    Thanks for the best story on your journey in Vietnam. I love your experiences in Vietnam’s the country. I love your photos and I found out your “Bo la lot” that’s really delicous. “Bo la lot” = Beef wrapped in Piper lolot. “La lot” is for cooking, but Betel = “La trau” is for chewing with lime and areca as a social stimulant. La trau is used in traditional wedding, it’s the icon of the love story. I guarantee you will be a happy camper when take it a short!

    • Hi there! Yes, in the post about the Mekong markets, I mention in the caption to the la lot photo that there are two kinds, the stimulant for chewing and the one you cook with. Thanks for reiterating that here!

  13. so inspiring!! I plan to take work off and travel down south next year and am thrilled to find this post, will definitely try to book a stay here!!!! Love all the food down south! Thank you for a great post!

  14. I didn’t expect you to be fat, but I too was admiringly surprised when you had eaten your fill of fried potatoes and jamón and just…put the fork down. Cannot do it myself. Especially not if there is jamón involved.

  15. Definitely a love story to tell! Thanks Jodi for sharing!

  16. What a beautiful love story!! Wonderfully told. I’d love to discover the Nguyen shack. thanks for a wonderful read:-)

  17. A love story with food! It’s always a winning combination, in my opinion, and this is a lovely story, Jodi.

  18. Such a delightful story, Jodi. Really enjoyed it–and now I’m craving Vietnam even more :)

  19. I wish we had vistied the Mekong like this instead of on one of those bus package tours. I saw enough to know it was a really interesting place, but not enough to really understand it. Maybe next time I’ll get to stop here!

  20. What a beautiful story. I think that’s the best part about traveling, meeting the people and hearing their stories. It also seems that their stories impact you so much more because you have only a brief experience with them.

  21. such beautiful pictures and love story!

  22. On July 11, 2013 at 11:36 pm Danny Delnison said:

    I love this story! I had gone to Vietnam a long time ago. But i didn’t go to Mekong. So simple! I will go back and visit the Mekong river.
    Thank you about story!

  23. Definitely a wonderful love story to share. I really enjoy it. It was very well written.

  24. Thanks for sharing this story Jodi. You never know what you’ll find when you travel – both love and adventure are possible!

  25. I love the story. Love can strike at the most unexpected times in the most unexpected places.

  26. Lovely story and the delta is wonderful – I visited regularly around ten years ago whilst working in Nam. Perhaps you can visit me in Senegal and write my love story!

  27. Jodi

    You are awesome! I wake up on a Saturday morning thinking what new adventures you have to share with us.

    Ana

  28. Was nice to read.

  29. “Don’t mind me, just leaning” – crazy girl! That must have really hurt, but good for you for waiting out the fireworks and trying to enjoy. Oh, the things we do for travel experiences.

  30. Such an adorable story! I’m in love with their love.

  31. Why, yes, you do write narrative. Glad to have found a fellow storyteller at TBEX. (But I am still a dog person.)

  32. Cute, cute, cute!
    I love reading about how couples meet and get together :)

  33. Hi Jodi– I was just browsing some travel blogs and stumbled upon your site. And it’s your fault that I’m getting hooked (j/k). I’m reading obsessively about your stories about Vietnam. I was born and raised here, moved to the States for study and work (New York too), then relocated and worked in HCMC. Now, I’m based in Hanoi where I’m originally from. You mentioned that you will return to Vietnam later this year, and I don’t know if you’re gonna be in HCMC or Hanoi. But if you visit Hanoi, it would be amazing to meet you. I’m more than happy to share any thing I know about my city with you :) I find it fascinating that you and others really feel for my country while I’m having a little bit of trouble readjusting, to be perfectly honest. Anyway, keep up the good work and best wishes.

    • Hi Khoa! I suspect I’ll only make it back to Vietnam in January but I definitely plan to re-visit Hanoi and explore it a little more. I think your feelings of readjustment might mirror mine but when I return to Canada — it’s the same disconnect from what you know vs. what you remember, as if the people and places don’t match up along the edges of memory. I wrote a piece called “Homesickness and Long-term travel” that might be of interest as it goes into that state of in-between-ness: http://www.legalnomads.com/2012/03/homesickness-travel.html Hope to see you in Hanoi!

      • Thanks Jodi. Yes, I think anyone who has been away from home can echo the same sentiment of disconnection. I already bookmarked your site to hear about your travel stories, so will ping you when you update your location in Jan :) Best wishes.

  34. Aawww.. I love the couple’s love story.

  35. On July 30, 2013 at 3:42 pm Christina Trifonov said:

    Such a great post. Can’t remember how I found your site but I’m glad that i did :)

  36. I’m going to echo the sentiments of my fellow readers – GREAT story! I love that it wove in and out of their story, your travels, the food, and the couples’ personalities. Just came across your site and will be coming back for more! Thanks for sharing!

  37. I can see that Theu is very happy (her eyes reflected that) and that both of them are in love with each other. Your photos showed their love. A lovely couple from a lovely place. Such a good story to tell, inspiring. I like Nguyen Shack he does have a good soul even animals like him…This is a good place and a good story. Thanks for the post!

  38. while i was reading the story, i am moved by how you told it that way. for some reasons i keep on bumping travelers on the road that also found love along the way… wish more stories of them be told!

  39. Place as beautiful as heaven. I have traveled to two weeks.

  40. Lovely story which makes me want to visit the Mekong Delta, Nguyen Shack, and to experience people and food the way you described them. Thank You. Lennie

  41. It’s amazing how traveling and trying to find what you are looking for ends up in a beautiful love stories like this, and instead, they found their ‘home’. So sweet.

  42. Great article, I love the detail you go into – makes it really interesting! Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the Mekong Delta, but I’m sure we’ll be back to Vietnam again one day, I would go back purely to have Pho every day.

  43. What a love story with food. Vietnam is my favorite country when having my trip to SE Asia. Amazing people with amazing food.

  44. Great story, brilliantly written.I had only two days in the Mekong but I definitely should have stayed longer

  45. What a beautiful love story!

  46. What a great love story… we were in Vietnam in 2013 and would have found your place if we heard this story !! All the best Ranjit and Kuveni Wijeratne Sri Lanka

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