Monday, July 5, 2010

Mekong Delta - My Pet Giant Snake Is Really Friendly, Honest!

Jenni and I had not actually planned to see the Mekong delta during our trip to Vietnam. When lack of transport to one of our planned destinations threw a spanner in the works, the best option for us was to take a 2 day tour of the Mekong delta as this essentially dropped us off where we wanted to get to in the first place.

We left early in the morning and jumped in a rather cramped mini bus with 5 French people, 2 Japanese and an English girl. After a 2 hour bus ride, with a break at a very fancy pit stop along the way, we arrived at a dock at My Tho where we all piled into a boat. The boat took us along the bottom Mekong river where we could get a good view of the hustle and bustle of other boats on the river. We could see house boats with dogs running around on them, kids swimming in the dirty water, large trawlers straining to keep afloat due to the excessive amount of mineral sands on board and petrol stations set up right in the middle of the river. 

Our boat took a short trip down one of the many natural canals on the river where our tour guide pointed out the fruits growing on both banks of the canal. We all disembarked from our boat at one of the islands to go to a small village for lunch. When we heard the tour guide mention "small village" and "lunch", Jenni and I gave each other a look as if to say "this doesn't sound promising", but we were surprised to be lead to very well run restaurant (well run by Vietnamese standards) and fancy looking outdoor dining area. Before we sat down for lunch, some of the waitresses chased off some of the family dogs while brandishing sticks. At the sight of the sticks, the dogs yelped and, very quickly, made themselves scarce. With this sort of regular treatment, it is no wonder that most of the dogs we have met here in Vietnam are very timid, shy away from strangers and rarely wag their tails. Around the restaurant our guide pointed out dragon fruit trees, jack fruit trees and banana trees that were being grown by the villagers. Our guide was very knowledgeable, telling us all about the fruit harvesting process, the way it is brought to market and all of the ways that the fruit (even the leaves of the tree) is used in various Vietnamese dishes. 

After lunch we all got back on the boat to take us to our next stop, a small village where we would see coconut candy made. When we got there, demonstrating by using the various machines, our guide explained how the villagers shred coconuts, then press the shreds to squeeze out the coconut milk. Using the leftover coconut husks for the fire's fuel, they cook the coconut milk with caramel to get the candy mix. Once cooled they take the candy, cut it into strips and then individual pieces, which are wrapped by hand in rice paper, then in the paper packaging. Nothing in the process was left to waste as the coconut shreds were used as chicken feed and the ashes from the burnt coconut husks were used as fertiliser. The tiny family kitten and cheeky dog enjoyed the whole process and we all had a giggle at the "coconut cat" licking some of the excess coconut milk off the bottom of one the machines, while the "coconut dog" stole a large dollop of the cooled candy mixture and enjoyed the chewy goodness while lazing on the floor. The family made 5 different candy flavours including plain coconut, coconut and nuts, coconut and durian, coconut and chocolate and coconut and pandan leaves. Impressed by the various samples we were given, Jenni and I couldn't resist buying a packet of each flavour. Because we bought so many, the lady gave us another packet of plain coconut candy for free.

The family that ran the coconut candy business also farmed bees for honey. Each person in the group was given the opportunity to hold a hive, covered with hundreds of busy bees.  We all got to dip a finger into the hive to sample the pure honey. I am not really that keen on honey, but the fresh honey was delicious. We were all treated to a cup of tea with fresh honey in it too.

After our cup of tea, we all got into small row boats and we were taken through a narrow natural canal to another village. Here we were all treated to a bowl each of fresh fruit that was grown around the river. We also all had the opportunity to hold and pet the large family pet python, not something you would normally get to do in your local fruit n' veg shop! The python's owner exclaimed that he seemed be in a "very affectionate" mood, although this did not exactly put us all to ease as she also told us he only eats one chicken every 4 weeks and he must be getting hungry as he was due for another one soon.

That marked the end of the first day of our tour, so we all made our way to the bus, which took is to the town of Can Tho where everyone in our tour would all be staying overnight. That evening, Jenni, myself and the English girl, Susanne, went out for dinner. We walked toward the town centre and saw an ominous looking building in the distance. One block away from this building, the three of us decided to turn left onto one of the main streets as we all thought that it looked like the sort of street we would find food on. After getting ourselves miserably lost while roaming around for nearly 45 minutes in the drizzling rain, myself and Susanne rather wet as we we're sharing a single umbrella, we finally found a restaurant. When we saw that it was right next to the ominous looking building that we saw in the first place we all cursed ourselves for not just walking that way to begin with.

The following day we all had to be up bright and early so we could get down to the Can Tho docks and catch a boat to go and visit the floating markets. As per the day before, along the way to the floating markets we could see that life was busy on the river. The floating markets was comprised of about 100 boats of various sizes with people trading mostly fruit and vegetables. Each boat had a tall vertical bamboo pole attached and hanging off the end of it were sample items that the boat was trading. This is how you knew which boat to go to in order to buy particular products. There was even a mobile convenience store that came past our boat, pestering us to buy something as soon as we came in the vicinity of the markets. I was rather confused to why people chose to trade their goods on the floating market instead of trading them on the ground markets (the street markets; named ground markets because people sit on the ground and lay out their goods on a blanket in front of them) as this style of market would surely attract a larger amount of customers. Our guide explained that the majority of the people trading goods at the floating market come from further up river and take a boat with all of their village's ready for market goods down the river to the market to trade. They do not return to their village until all of the goods are sold, so they stay on the boat, often bringing along all of their family, belongings and even their pet dogs, cats and chickens. Sure enough we could see boats with whole families working hard to trade their goods, along with dogs and chickens running amok.

From the market, the boat took us down one of the natural canals to a dock where we got off and walked a short way to a small village where we saw people creating rice noodles. Just like the day before, our guide showed us the whole process while demonstrating on the various machines. They first thrashed the rice grains from the rice husks, then ground the rice. The ground rice was then cooked with ground down tapioca, using the rice husks for fuel. They rolled a cylindrical straw mat in the cooked mixture to lift a very thin layer of mix, which was then unraveled off the cylindrical mat, onto a flat straw mat. At this stage it looked like a really big thin pancake. They took the thin rice pancake on the mat out into the sun to dry over the next 4 hours. Once dried, the rice pancake was put through a shredder to produce the noodles, which were then placed in large hessian bags and sold at the market.

Our guide took us on a short walk from the village to an orchard to show us a large variety of fruits being grown. We saw lime, guava, jack fruit, pineapple, mango and durian. Each guava had a plastic bag wrapped around it to prevent it from being eaten by insects. We also got to cross a couple of "monkey bridges", small bridges consisting only of a single thin log with a bamboo hand rail to balance while crossing. A large monkey bridge was set up over a pond which housed the village fish farm. After taking a couple of photos on the big monkey bridge and watching the fish fight over some fish food, we went to the village restaurant where we could buy some of the fresh fruit. We bought some mangostenes (a purple fruit grown in this area of the world that has a very sweet white flesh within) and a green mango each. The fruit was absolutely delicious.

We all then took a short boat trip to lead us back to the bus which took us back to town. Jenni and I were to separate from the group at this point as we were due to catch a bus to Rach Gia where we were due to catch the ferry to Phu Quoc island the following morning. We had enough time to squeeze in lunch, so Jenni and I returned to the same restaurant that we went to the previous evening. As soon as we entered the restaurant, the heavens opened and soaked anyone that was not under decent cover. While taking a photo of the downpour, I managed to snap a shot of a couple riding their bike through the torrential rain.  You can see from photo how heavy the rain was and how very wet the people riding the bike were. The girl hitching a ride on the back of the bike didn't seem to mind being completely drenched, laughing and smiling the whole way down the street.

Fortunately for us, the rain eased just as we finished our lunch. We headed back to the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon on the bus to Rach Gia. The bus we were escorted to was more like a large minivan, completely chockers with Vietnamese people. Because the bus was so small and there were not many seats, Jenni and I were half expecting to have to sit next to another person on our 3 person seat. For some strange reason, all of the Vietnamese people elected to cram into the front two seats, children on their laps, leaving a seat free next to us and the entire back seat completely empty. Our bus trip got even weirder when about half way to Rach Gia, the guy sitting in the seat in front of us started arguing with the woman next to him. We were quite worried as the argument got rather heated with the guy pretty much yelling at the top of his lungs at her as well as her friend who was sitting on the other side of him. Even the driver got caught up in the argument, swerving all over the busy road. To our relief, the driver pulled over and the irate guy jumped out of his seat, turned and said something nasty to the woman and then got into the front passenger seat alongside the driver. I would love to know what they were yelling at each other about, but alas I will never know. All I do know is that the guy had his knickers in a right bunch and was certainly not happy about something. After that, the guy and the woman didn't make another peep and we got to Rach Gia safe and sound.


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