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6 June 2017
I may well be unoriginal and repeat what I’ve said before, but I will say it again: what’s particularly nice about breakfasts in Asian hotels is that apart from the usual boring cheeses/sausages/croissants/toasts you can get stir-fried veggies, noodles, dim sum and even pho! Which is exactly what we did before heading down to the reception at 8 am, where our tour guide Phuoc was already waiting for us, ready for the Mekong Delta excursion.
First of all, we took a two-hour drive in a comfortable SUV to the town of Cai Be in the Mekong Delta region. As we were driving out of Ho Chi Minh City, and also afterwards, I was thinking of my impressions about the surroundings. There are places which make you say “so beautiful that it takes my breath away”. This is not the case. The Vietnam, which we have seen so far, is best described by the epithet “charming”. And in many respects, it’s charming precisely by its imperfection, including chaos on the roads; assemblages of narrow buildings, sometimes shabby, not wider than a single window; street vendors on the sidewalks, and so on.
On the way, Phuoc was telling us how people live in country – about low salaries, about taxes and cases of tax evasion, about how, with the emergence of a free market economy, many are striving to own a business, even if a very small one, and that often all family members, including the elderly, need to work as it’s very difficult to make ends meet otherwise.
At some point, we started talking about dogs and the fact that in Northern Vietnam people still eat them despite the government’s attempts to ban this. In 1945, a terrible famine raged in the north of the country and it were dogs that helped many people survive (not by their own will though!), so some still believe that eating a dog brings good luck. At the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Vietnamese from treating the dog as a man’s best friend and even to welcome stray dogs in their shops or cafes – it turns out that dog barking somehow sounds similar to the Vietnamese word meaning wealth, so again it’s believed that dogs bring good luck, even without being eaten. As for cats, the situation is exactly the opposite, since their ‘meow’ is consonant with the word meaning poverty.
On the way, we stopped to visit the “happy room” (that’s the euphemism used here for toilet, which is quite logical for travellers) in some interesting place, looking like either a garden or a restaurant. Through Phuoc’s efforts, the stop turned for us into something like a botanical lecture: she basically showed us every plant and explained how and for what purposes it’s used. We really got the impression that the Vietnamese eat almost any stems, leaves, fruits and roots (well, except for poisonous ones obviously), including banana tree stems, and literally every part of the lotus. Then, already back in the car, she showed us some books about tropical plants, flowers and fruits.
Another fifteen minutes’ drive – and we arrived at Cai Be, where we had to get on a boat and continue the journey on it. The boat was big – like a sampan – enough for 10 people, but it was just for our mini-group. First, we headed off to see the famous fruit and vegetable floating market. The population in the Mekong Delta area is mainly engaged in farming, and growing fruit is a very profitable business. The local climate and fertile land definitely help. But as for rice, for example, growing it is not that financially rewarding – the market price of one tonne barely covers the labour costs of the workers involved in producing this very tonne. Coming back to our floating market, we were told that in the early morning there are particularly many boats selling goods, and by 10 am (which is the time when we arrived), mostly everything is already sold out with only a few boats remaining. That is, to enjoy the floating market in all its glory, we would have had to spend a night in Cai Be.
Our first stop is a local village with several family businesses. Here, for example, they make coconut candy by boiling coconut milk with sugar and sometimes flavour additives like coffee and chocolate. Coconuts, by the way, are used very extensively here – pulp and milk are used for food, and the shell is used as fuel, for crafts or even for activated charcoal production.
And here there’s clearly a rice business. A woman is making edible rice paper on a brazier. Not far away, rice alcohol is being produced and there are big jars of alcohol infused on bananas, lychees and even venomous snakes. Rice is also used for making pictures – every rice grain gets painted in the appropriate colour and used for the kind of mosaic as in one of the pictures below.
And a little bit further they are making puffed rice, frying it on a hot pan with hot black sand. Further on, this rice is mixed with various additives – sugar, salt or ginger, and even pieces of pork or beef – and pressed into something similar to the rice cakes that we know.
I have to say, all these braziers and pans make me feel like in hell in this not-very-cool weather, I sweat a ton, but finally we are sat under fans for a cup of jasmine tea with different sweets made of banana, ginger, sesame and peanuts. Jasmine tea here is very special, much more fragrant than, say, in China or elsewhere. Phuoc explains this by a higher proportion of jasmine flowers relative to tea. Enjoying the tea, we look around and notice that they sell all sorts of things here – coconut oil, crafts made of coconut and other trees, some ointment with cobra venom and even the famous Tiger Balm, although not in the familiar little red tin.
After the tea break, we again board the boat and drive on to the An Binh island, where we are supposed to enjoy fresh fruit and local music. Just as we take a step off the boat and onto the ground, we immediately feel knocked down by the smell of durian, and in a minute, we understand why: right in front of us there are durian trees, laden with large “fragrant” fruits.
Fortunately, we aren’t offered any, instead on our plate we have pieces of ordinary watermelon, exotic but familiar pineapple and mango and quite unusual guava (something like feijoa and, as it turned out, closely related to it) and jackfruit (similar to durian, a bit smelly too, but, oddly enough, belongs to the mulberry family, and the pulp is bright orange, slippery and sugary-sweet, tasting like either melon or bubble-gum). At the same time, several performers entertain us with Vietnamese songs accompanied by guitar and some kind of folk instrument, and even with small performances.
The next item on our schedule is a ride on a traditional flat-bottomed rowing boat along a narrow canal. There are cork trees growing right in the water, which, according to Phuoc, protect the soil from erosion. Generally all the vegetation around is pretty luxuriant, often covered with unfamiliar fruits. Behind the plants one can see houses on stilts. Some of them look better – obviously, the owners are making good money by growing durians – and some are pretty shabby. And yet, as I already said above, there is a particular charm to all of this, especially when you pass by a house where a nice-looking middle-aged lady is sweeping her terrace to the sound of some Vietnamese song playing at full blast.
Not counting the Vietnamese song, there is a peaceful silence around, broken only by the splash of water under the oars and by boats occasionally passing by.
Meanwhile, the helmsman on our sampan is already waiting with young coconuts for us. Once again, so far we are very impressed with our tour, everything seems to be arranged at the highest level! And so, sipping refreshing coconut water, we headed back to the island, moored and walked to an eco-tourism complex with an orchard, where we were served lunch. The lunch was home-cooked and pretty tasty, consisting of fish that had to be wrapped with vegetables in rice paper and dipped into fish sauce, deep-fried spring rolls, grilled shrimps, vegetable soup (we liked it the least) and pork with rice. Fish sauce, I must say, is an extremely smelly substance, but it tastes a lot better than it smells. Phuoc said that the Vietnamese fish sauce is much better than the Thai one, because it is made of anchovies, while in Thailand it’s made of mackerel.
We washed it all down with Vietnamese coffee, stronger than many varieties of coffee, but less strong than Turkish coffee. That’s when Phuoc told us that the tradition of drinking coffee is a French colonial heritage, as well as colonial architecture and baguettes, and this, in her opinion apparently shared by many Vietnamese, exhausts the list of positive effects of colonisation, absolutely not offsetting the complete plundering of royal treasures.
We also starting talking about the Vietnam War – how Saigon was much more developed, more or less in step with Singapore and Hong Kong, and then, destroyed by the war and the communist regime, fell hopelessly behind – and about relations with China, which are much better than in the 80s, but, according to Phuoc, quite dangerous and could potentially lead to the occupation of Vietnam by China.
Actually, we went into these lengthy conversations for one simple reason: while we were having lunch (luckily, under a canopy), a heavy downpour started. I have to say that we’d been lucky with the rain from the very beginning – all weather websites I know were forecasting it right in the morning and for the whole day. And it only started when we’d already finished sightseeing.
After lunch, the only thing left was a boat ride to the town of Vinh Long, where our driver should have already been waiting for us. The rain kept pouring. Fortunately, the boat also had a canopy (unlike the flat rowing boat we were on literally a couple of hours ago), but at some point a wind broke out forcing us to put on raincoats so as not to get wet. Because of the rain, we didn’t stop at the Vinh Long market, and headed straight to the pier. As there were only a few metres remaining to the pier, the waves became so strong, making the boat reel so much that I seriously feared that it would scoop up water and capsize. But thank God, it didn’t, and we drove off back to Ho Chi Minh City. The rain was pouring non-stop throughout the whole two-and-a-half-hour drive, but not as intensely as before.
Today we decided to have dinner at the Ngon restaurant, recommended by Phuoc, which turned out to be a good choice. The restaurant is a ten minute walk from our hotel and is located in that fancier area we didn’t reach yesterday. The interior is very pretty with palm trees everywhere. The menu has several sections: Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, and of course we went for the latter – aren’t we in Vietnam after all? I had bun bo hue (spicy beef soup with rice vermicelli and greens – more precisely, it is the chili pepper served separately that makes it spicy), chicken thighs barbecue and for dessert, something like banana cake with coconut milk – not sweet at all, which I really liked. Generally, I’m enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and finding it somewhat less intrusive compared to, say, Chinese (which I like as well but tend to have had enough of soon) – mainly because dishes taste precisely like their ingredients and all sorts of sauces and spices are served separately: you can add/dip/sprinkle if you want, but you don’t have to. It all cost us twice as much as yesterday’s dinner (almost 30 USD) – it’s a fancy restaurant after all, but we also ate a lot more.