First published January 2018 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Atmospheric homestays in wood-and-thatch structures in scenic locations are something I normally associate with the mountains of northern Vietnam. But, in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, in Vietnam’s southwest, a collection of bamboo and palm-thatch huts on wooden stilts above a sea of lotus flowers and rice paddy, prove me wrong. In the lush and largely forgotten (at least by travellers) district on Thap Muoi, several stilt villages, connected by raised, rickety wooden platforms, offer a night in a hammock or on a futon under a mosquito net in a hut, just a few feet above the frogs, the fish, and the lotus. There’s excellent, locally-sourced food available, plenty of local alcohol, and lots of friendly southern charm to boot. Oh, and it’s dirt cheap too. This is a wonderful way to experience the Mekong, and it’s only a 2-3 hour drive from Saigon.
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REVIEW: LOTUS LAKE HOMESTAYS
Address: Hamlet 4, Tan Kieu Commune, Thap Muoi District, Dong Thap Province [MAP]
Average Price: $5 per night for a hammock or futon
Lotus Lake Homestays, Thap Muoi District, Dong Thap Province
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Dong Thap Province, roughly 120km west of Saigon, is usually overlooked by travellers, who tend to focus on more famous Mekong Delta sights and towns, such as the floating market of Cai Be, and the commercial hub of Can Tho. This has left Dong Thap, a green and, by Mekong Delta standards, quiet and sparsely populated province, relatively unvisited. About halfway along Provincial Road DT845, there’s a turn off for Gò Tháp, down a peaceful, green lane. After crossing a small bridge, a smaller lane turns back on itself, leading through a shady grove of trees and along the edge of a large expanse of flooded fields, full of rice seedlings and lotus flowers. On the edge of this flooded farmland, there are about half a dozen homestays consisting of clusters of wooden huts constructed on raised plank-walkways above the lotus lake.
It’s difficult to know which of the homestays to choose. Personally, I like Hai Lúa, one of the first in the row. But 9 Theo and Hương Sen, further along the lane, are also very good. During the week, it’s quite likely that you’ll have the whole place to yourself, at least in the evenings. The owners tend to go to bed early (around 8pm), after which the lights go out, and you’re left to enjoy the peace and romance of a night suspended above sleeping lotus flowers and croaking frogs. But on weekends and public holidays it’s a very different experience: Vietnamese groups from around the region come to eat, drink and be merry, which involves a lot of great food, loads of rice wine, and lots of noise from the karaoke systems. Of course, this is not the peaceful, rural Mekong Delta experience that you might want/expect, but it can also be a lot of fun. Therefore, before planning a trip to the lotus lake homestays, bear in mind the differences of visiting during the week vs the weekend. Also note that during the week there’s no need to book in advance, but on the weekend there could be limited availability.
As there’s no public transportation, the homestays are best reached by motorbike, bicycle or hired vehicle. If you really want to, you could reach the homestays by a series of connecting public buses from Saigon, but for the purposes of this guide, I am assuming most people will come on their own wheels. Motorbike parking is by the side of the road, opposite the homestays. The owner or staff member will come out to meet you and then punt you across the muddy canal, separating the road from the homestays, on a wooden raft. This alone is a lot of fun, and it sure beats the marbled lobbies of five-star hotels for a theatrical entrance. (During the night, your motorbike is also punted across the water to be kept safe in the homestay).
Your hosts will sit down to discuss prices, sleeping arrangements, and food and drink. In most cases, not much English is spoken, but as people in the Delta tend to be gregarious and outgoing, there’s rarely any problem with communication. Sleeping is between 100,000-150,000vnd ($5-$7) per person. There’s usually a choice of a hammock or a mattress on the floor, both under the thatched roof of one of the wooden huts. (It’s worth noting that, as romantic as a night in a hammock sounds, it’s not that comfortable after a few hours, so if you intend to get some sleep, it’s probably better to opt for the mattress.) The huts have mosquito nets, power sockets, WiFi, and small trash cans.
Dinner is also negotiated on arrival, so that the family can prepare the ingredients for your meal. Most homestays have a full menu with prices. In general, each dish is between 50,000-150,000vnd. The food is all local: indeed, much of it is sourced from the homestay itself. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of lotus dishes on the menu – the lotus plant is famous in Vietnam for every part being edible: the stem, root, seed, flower; even the leaves are used to steam rice inside. In Vietnamese, lotus is sen, so make sure you order something with sen in it. Vegetables, including the ubiquitous and much-loved rau muống (morning glory), are very good, and so are the ‘Mekong meats’, such as rice fields rat (chuột đồng), snake (rắn), eel (lươn), frog (ếch), and snakehead fish (cá lóc). I know some of this might some too ‘weird’, but trust me, it’s all delicious, especially the rat and the eel and the fish. If you’re not feeling adventurous, there’s plenty of free-range chicken (gà) dishes to choose from too. Alcohol options include the usual insipid Vietnamese beers, but much more interesting are the liquors (rượu). Try the rượu sen (29% proof lotus liquor), which is dry and slightly bitter. Depending on how many guests there are, your host may dine (and drink) with you.
Most of the homestays are arranged in similar fashion: the host’s living quarters, dining area, and communal bathrooms are at the front, on a dyke between the canal and the flooded lotus fields, then a network of wooden platforms and walkways extend out over the lotus lake for about 50 metres, with a dozen or so thatched huts every few metres. The bathrooms are kept very clean but do not feature familiar Western-style conveniences, such as flush toilets and showers. Instead, a large amphora is filled with water, and a plastic scoop-bucket used to self-flush toilets and to shower. There’s running water from the taps in the sinks outside for brushing your teeth or washing your hands.
The most atmospheric times of day at the lotus lake homestays are dusk, night, and early morning. At dusk, as the temperatures cool, the homestay families work the lotus fields: checking the plants, catching fish and frogs (which live in the flooded fields), making repairs to the wooden plankways, and preparing dinner. At night, the chorus of cicadas and frogs is hypnotic and romantic: this is a good time to sit out on the walkways staring out over the dark fields. However, mosquitoes are a constant irritation, so make sure you cover up and bring good repellent. Also, remember to bring a flashlight, because there are many potentially dangerous wires and obstacles on the wooden walkways. The mornings start early, with motorized canoes on the canal, cockerels calling, and dogs barking. The lotus flowers are in full bloom during the first few hours of the day; they close from midday onwards.
Close to the homestays is the historical site of Gò Tháp/Tháp Mười. Recently excavated and restored, this is the site of several ancient towers, which were places of worship during the time of the Funan Kingdom. The towers, which are now little more than brick foundations, were active places of Hindu and Buddhist worship between the 4th-12th centuries CE. While there isn’t much to see here, there is a certain ‘sense of history’, and the area is also a nice, green, shady place to walk around.
*Please support Vietnam Coracle: I never write a review for money: all my content is free & my reviews are independent. You can support the work I do by booking your hotels via the Agoda links & search boxes on my site. If you make a booking, I receive a small commission. Any money I make goes straight back into this site. Thank you.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this review because I want to: I like this homestay and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here