Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Vietnam Day Three: The Mekong Delta!

Bryan and I showed up at the tour office a little early on the morning of our Mekong Delta tour, so we went across the street to a little cafe for breakfast. We sat down at a table next to a table with a couple of men drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. After we ordered our food, the waitress walked over and tapped one of them on the shoulder, and Bryan and I laughed when they got up, walked behind the counter, and started cooking our eggs!

After some delicious coffee we followed an incredibly fast-walking tour guide to a bus in an alley. We hopped on and in a few minutes the bus was lumbering through the early morning chaos of the Saigon streets. Our tour guide began talking and talking and talking, telling us about Vietnam, what we were going to do that day, how he'd learned English, the town he'd grown up in, and lots more. My favorite was when he talked about helping his parents harvest "weasel coffee" when he was a child. Weasel coffee is a Vietnam specialty, and it's about as bizarre a food as I've ever heard of. Coffee beans are fed to weasels, and the weasels digest them and...well, then they crap them out, mostly still whole. Farmers harvest the poo, wash the beans off, and then sell them to make coffee, which is sold at prices that are much, much higher than regular coffee. Our guide said that weasel coffee is best with some chicken fat and fish sauce mixed in. Yikes! He also warned us to be careful that we were getting the real thing, as some enterprising individuals sometimes try to pass off regular coffee as weasel coffee. I was struck by the hilarity of this situation- being duped into paying tons of money for coffee that has not passed through a weasel's digestive tract, and then presumably being angry about this, "I don't know honey...this really doesn't taste like poo to me. THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! I paid good money for coffee that had been crapped out by a weasel, and they try to give me this feces-free concoction! It's absurd!" So funny.

After our tour guide had yammered on for awhile, we stopped at a rest stop with a bunch of cozy hammocks. It was nice to kick back and enjoy the breeze. While we were there, a woman from another bus stood up and slammed her head into a metal sign and started just gushing blood. Despite the fact that her head had just spewed forth a quantity of blood worthy of a horror movie, she seemed to be all right. I felt awful for her though- it's bad enough that she got a head wound, but doing it in front of a bunch of people must have been mortifying.There was lots of nice scenery out the windows during the ride, especially once we got closer to the Delta. I liked these tombs set out in the middle of lush, green fields. They seemed like a peaceful place for a burial site.As we crossed a fancy, newly-built bridge into the Delta, we got a view of what it was like- the way people live and work right on the water reminded me a lot of what we saw on our boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap.The trip from Saigon to Ben Tre, our first stop in the Mekong Delta, was about 2 hours including the stop. Once we got there, we walked a little ways through the wilderness to a pavilion where we were served tea and a sampler of tropical fruit- dragonfruit, pineapple, papaya, and jackfruit. Pineapple's always been one of my favorites so that was good, the papaya tasted a little weird for some reason, the dragonfruit was surprisingly delicious (better than the one I tried in S'pore), and I thought the jackfruit was icky. Apparently I have an aversion to all of the fruits in the durian family. While we snacked we were entertained by some Vietnamese folk music. Some of the instruments they used were familiar, but the one they called the crane was something I'd never seen before. It's being played by the man on the left in the photo below.After the music, we took a very scenic rowboat ride. As we climbed into the boat, we were handed hats to wear to keep the baking hot sun off of us. I felt a little silly wearing the hat, but I was grateful for the protection- that sun can be brutal! Plus it created a great opportunity for me to photograph Bryan wearing a hat with a lovely pink ribbon. (He switched to his own slightly more manly hat within about 5 minutes).Having spent time in HCMC before visiting the Delta made us really appreciative of the serene environment. The river was completely calm and quiet, and the rowboat's slow pace was welcome after a couple days of dodging speeding motorbikes.The rowboat dropped us off on the side of the river, in a place where locals raise bees and also make delicious coconut candies. It was pretty fascinating to watch the women make candy mostly by hand, with occasional assistance from some antiquated machinery. One woman was deftly wrapping candies one by one, over and over. My eyes fixed on her nimble hands, fascinated by her quickness. As I watched, the tour guide said that she's been doing this for 12 years, and she wraps 4000 candies a day! I can't even imagine.The candy was made into long strips that were then chopped into bite-size pieces by a little lady with a mean machete.I felt sorry for the chickens all over the place, trapped under baskets. It didn't look like a very fulfilling life for a bird.
These bees were pretty neat though! There were more adorable puppies roaming around too.After watching the candy-making and trying not to get stung by bees, we browsed some of the things that the locals had for sale-mostly candies and other clever knickknacks crafted from coconuts. We bought a couple packs of candy, so if you're in Ohio or Montana, we'll be bringing some for you to taste! One thing we did not purchase was the so-called snake wine. There were tiny bottles filled with a sickly yellowish liquid. Stuffed into the bottle was a baby cobra, with its heart extracted and floating on top of the liquid. "Gross" doesn't even begin to cover it.

When we were finished with the candy-making portion of the day, we all clambered into larger boats to continue cruising around the Mekong.
I loved the seats on the boat- they were just wooden chairs roped together. The bigger boat took us out onto deeper, more open waters. Out there we saw huge, rickety fishing boats and smaller skiffs that looked like they had people living on them. This lady hand-washed her laundry on her back porch as we floated on by,The ride in the big boat went on for quite awhile before we stopped again to have lunch at a seemingly random spot along the water. We walked back through the trees and to a pavilion in the middle of the woods, where a number of tables had been set up. Drinks were brought to the table, and an ice cold 333 was very refreshing after all the sunshine. Lunch was fried rice with pork for Bryan, and vegetarian fried rice for me. I thought it was delicious, but Bryan was still hungry afterwards, and I think he was already thinking about dinner about an hour after lunch was over. Chickens pecked around our feet as we ate lunch, and eventually I began tossing them my leftover rice bits. Within a few minutes I had this one eating right off of my fork! This little boy was playing right next to our table, struggling with an impossibly long fishing net, dragging it back and forth in the water. I guess they start training them early in the Mekong!At lunch we sat with an Australian couple and a Canadian couple. It was interesting to hear everyone's travel stories- about giant centipedes coming out of the ground while camping in the Australian outback, sleepy fishing villages on the Thai coast, and orangutans swinging through the trees overhead in Borneo. Bryan and I had fun sharing our stories too- hanging out a monk and his English class in Cambodia, food poisoning in Malaysia, and big, goofy proboscis monkeys in Borneo. After lunch and back on the boats, we saw the bridge that we had driven in on.The boats got bigger and bigger as we got closer to My Tho, the place where we were going to dock to meet our bus. We saw a bunch of these barges, which appeared to be hauling mounds of dirt.I became totally transfixed by this boy flying his kite off the front of a boat while his little brother watched his every move with complete, childlike devotion.A stately Ho Chi Minh awaited us in My Tho. The way he kept turning up reminded me a little of seeing Angkor Wat all over the place in Cambodia. In fact, there was a lot of overlap between the two places. Just like Cambodia, Vietnam has its own currency (Vietnamese dong, pictured below), but American money is also widely accepted. And in the Mekong Delta, life revolves around the water to an extent that called to mind the people living along the river in Cambodia.The bus ride back was nice. I was glad it was still daylight so that we could see the countryside passing by all around us. Of course, there was the ever-present swarm of motorbikes. I always feel nervous for the sweet old ladies on bicycles, bravely weaving their way through the faster, more powerful motorbikes, not to mention the cars, trucks, and buses.We saw this colorful temple, but as usual our view was partially obscured by those pesky electrical wires.
As we got closer to Saigon, the sky began filling up with kites, and we saw kids everywhere, running with balls of string in their hands. The kites were all really colorful, and many of them were shaped like animals- lots of them looked like sharks with gaping mouths. I thought it was pretty neat to see so many kids playing outside, and it brought back happy memories of flying kites with my Dad when I was younger (although mine wasn't shaped like a shark- I had a pink Barbie kite!) Bryan and I had trouble getting good photos of the sky all filled up with kites, but we did get a couple of the ones that got snared on the power lines. We also finally managed to snap a shot of a baby on a motorbike. Just watching it made me cringe- I always feel so frightened for these little kids on these bikes! They just look so fragile!As soon as we got off the bus, Bryan and I stopped at the nearby Highlands Coffee to get some coffee and figure out where we were going to go for dinner. We decided that we wanted to get some pho, but after checking at a few places, we were unable to find anywhere that had vegetarian pho for me, so we got Indian instead, at a place called Akbar Ali. I was kind of glad that we hadn't found pho, because the food at this restaurant was outstanding!! I had some of the best palak paneer I've ever had, and Bryan liked his chicken tikka masala too, although he wasn't raving about his food as much as I was gushing about mine. After dinner we spent a relaxing evening at the hotel, packing up our stuff and watching scary movies.

We had one more morning in Vietnam, but it was pretty short- we got up early in the morning (again) and got a taxi to the airport, weaving in and out of the traffic one last time. Once there, we scavenged for some breakfast and ended up at a small restaurant so that Bryan could have beef pho before we left Vietnam. It may sound like a strange choice for so early in the morning, but apparently pho is commonly eaten for breakfast! Here's Bryan with his pho (which he declared not as delicious as the vegetarian pho we had for the cooking class) and his Vietnam visa.

1 comment:

  1. Application for Vietnamese visa at online sites is so simple that you just have to fill in some forms and submit the details and document they ask from you and once you have done they will mail you your visa and you can enjoy your trip with full enthusiasm and relief.