Slow boat rides along rivers and canals may well be one of the last leisurely modes of transportation.
Beyond the inviting languid afternoons that pass by at 5mph, this millennia-old form of cruising along the Saigon River guarantees a taste of the local culture – and an up-close view of gorgeous meandering landscapes studded with villas, bamboo shacks, palm trees and the occasional Heineken billboard.
Our group arrives at the floating dock adjoining Thao Dien Village in District 2 and is introduced to Brutus – a riverboat that is the equivalent of a floating convertible Cadillac. It’s a beauty of lacquered wood, upholstered with cushy seating and fitted out with an eight-ball beer tap. Our Captain is Jochem, who tells me Brutus was built in Saigon back in 2010 when he and his girlfriend, director of Tau Saigon, Hanh, came up with the idea of a boating service as a way for their friends to cruise the backwaters around An Phu and its wetland on the weekends. They would sail around Thanh Da Island and find an inviting place to go ashore for a barbeque and a few “coldies”.
We clamber aboard while Jochem readies Brutus for the trip and Hanh pulls us a round of beers. Our route for the day takes us around the curve of Thanh Da Island, under Xa Lo Hanoi and out to the wetlands around An Phu. Also offered are routes to the 18th century floating temple of Phu Chau Mieu, the full circuit of the elephant head-shaped Thanh Da Island, and the gauntlet of Saigon River in District 1, starting from Bach Dang Pier. Each of the routes takes about two hours and catering is also available.
The atmosphere is relaxed in that magical way you usually get only on holiday. Hanh brings out a platter of seafood rice paper rolls and refills our beers. Swallows dart overhead; white cranes lift their necks from the reeds. Out here in the backwaters, noisy Saigon feels far away.
Brutus, though quite young, has already had stints both here in Southeast Asia and in Jochem’s native Holland, where it plied the waterways of Amsterdam for a time.
“You sailed it all the way to Holland?” I ask.
“No,” he replies matter-of-factly. “It was shipped there.” It never occurred to me before that you could ship a ship somewhere.
“And what happened after that?”
“I had it shipped back.”
“What’s the most number of people you’ve managed to fit onto this thing?”
“About 60. It was King’s Day in Holland, the biggest holiday of the year, and all the waterways were crammed with boats and people. Nobody cares on King’s Day how many people you fit on your boat. Everybody’s having too much fun. There were people elbowing their way to the beer tap, and the little roof up there was filled with people dancing”.
Tau Saigon is a new service, launched over a month ago after Brutus returned to Saigon’s waterways. The couple’s first vessel before Brutus was a smaller six-person boat, which Jochem now uses for fishing back in his hometown. Then they upgraded to a larger vessel with an outboard motor.
“That was fun,” he recalls. “We had to have the motor brought over in the plane from Holland because we couldn’t find the right one here.” The image of this amiable Dutchman trying to get an outboard motor through customs I find quite amusing. But Jochem and Hanh wanted something bigger still, something with its own motor and a built-in toilet.
“We discovered it wasn’t exactly practical to have free flow beer on a boat with no toilet,” Hanh says. Enter Brutus.
“What about when it rains?” I ask.
Brutus has a pullover cover for storms and bookings can be cancelled without penalty in the event of bad weather. However, that didn’t stop a group of Vietnamese revelers who, upon encountering a downpour shortly after embarking, opted to dance in the rain, drinks in hand, to Lady Gaga. (You can plug your own music into Brutus’s speaker system.)
I can’t think of a much better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, cruising Saigon’s hidden backwaters, the tips of apartment towers and pagoda spires peeking above the reeds, past barges and fish farms, a Heineken draught in hand, chill tunes rolling out over the sound system.
Tau Saigon’s tours are already popular with the Thao Dien expat community, but Hanh and Jochem want to expand their operations and fleet further. Though a relatively new enterprise, they’ve had a steady flow of bachelor parties, birthday cruises and baby showers. “But ideally,” says Hanh, “we’d like to get a bigger boat; something with a spa.”
Sounds ideal to me!
* Images by Neil Featherstone