A Love Story in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

“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