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Oarswoman on the Mekong

We had an early start today for our trip down through the Mekong Delta and across into Cambodia. We have had a really good few days with Tim and Erica. They have truly made us feel at home and their hospitality has been superb. We said our farewells to Erica and then set off into town with Tim. Cuong dropped Tim off at work and then took us round to the Sinh Café. We both chuckled at the irony of being dropped off at a cheap backpackers tour agency in a chauffer driven expat car. We tried to persuade Cuong to come with us through Cambodia and down to Malaysia but he declined. It did though break a smile across his face and almost got him talking, something he doesn’t really do.

There were about thirty people on the bus so it was pretty full when we left. Our guide Trung was very friendly and professional and chatted away as we left HCMC pointing out local sights. Tim and Erica had told us that HCMC was a sprawling city that stretched out for miles and they weren’t joking.

Our first stop was at Cai Be where there is a small floating market. Our boat to see it was an old cargo ship now converted for tourists with bench seats inside. There were lots of other tourist boats around and soon we were waving at each other across the water. The market here was now winding down because it was late in the morning but it is a small taster in advance of the main floating market at Cai Rang which we will see tomorrow.

The market boats are very heavily laden with wares and with some the water was close to pouring in over the sides of the boat. Most boats had a large pole, similar to a flag pole, hoisted in the middle of their boats with a sample of their wares flying rather than a flag. This makes it easy for people to pick out who they want to go to. The locals use land based analogies to describe the boats here. We were in a “bus”, the cargo boats were “trucks” and the small boats that darted in and out everywhere were either “bikes” if they had no engine or “motorcycles” if they did have an engine. Most of the larger boats had eyes painted onto the front, a good luck omen as they extra set of eyes were good for fishing. The bikes were propelled along by an oarsman (actually usually a woman) standing at the back and using two long oars in a very ungainly way to propel them forward. As with land based traffic the boats here all seemed to be heavily laden with people and their wares.

We toured around the river for a while and then pulled up at the first real touristy stop on the “tour” and hence the first of many retail opportunities. A local speciality here is coconut candy. The coconut flesh is grated and then crushed to extract the juice. This is boiled until it makes a toffee like candy. Bananas, cocoa, coffee and other ingredients can be added to give the sweets a different flavour. The toffee paste is spread out onto a board which has channels cut into it that makes strips of candy. The strips are cut up into individual pieces which are then wrapped up first in edible rice paper and then in a coloured paper wrapping. The lady wrapping the sweets had incredibly dextrous fingers and she was speedily wrapping away. Tasters were handed out all around in the hope that at least some people would buy some of the sweets. It was pretty sweet stuff but actually not too bad.

The next stop was at a place making rice paper. I suppose I hadn’t really thought about it much but rice paper comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, thicknesses and tastes. Again tasters were handed out and we tried some that were very sweet, almost like crunchy crepes, and others that had slices of banana mixed in (a rice based version of that backpacker speciality the “banana pancake”).

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Traditional music

Around the corner we then saw how they made popped rice, like the stuff you get in Rice Krispies cereals. Sand is taken from the bottom of the Mekong River and is heated through in a big wok until it has turned black and is very hot (killing off any bugs and harmful stuff along the way). Rice is thrown into the wok and is mixed in with the sand. The heat of the sand then makes the rice pop which only takes a few seconds. The rice is then sifted over the wok to separate out the sand and it then sifted again to separate the rice husks from the popped grains.

The rice grains are then used to make sweets. Coconut milk, chopped fresh ginger, caramel and Vietnamese sugar are heated together in a large wok until it makes a runny toffee type consistency. The popped rice is then added in to the pan and mixed around until it is all coated with the toffee. A wooden mold stands on a table next to the wok and the mixture is poured in and rolled out until it fills the mold. A large cutter is then used to cut the mix into strips and then smaller squares which are packed up and shipped of to market to be sold. Both of the fires were fuelled by the shells of Logan nuts. These are a cheap and abundant source of fuel and create good heat. The ashes make good fertiliser and are used around the local trees.

It was then back in the boat for a forty five minute trip down river to where we stopped for lunch. The river bank was a mix of large open spaces with tropical greenery and small villages. The village houses are built on stilts on the river and they flood during the rainy season and at high tides. All the houses have mains electricity, and from the look of the number of aerials they all have TV’s also, but they don’t have running water. All of their water is pulled directly from the river and is boiled before it is used for cooking. Not great considering that there are no sewers either apart from the river.

For lunch we stopped at a place in a small canal off the main river. It was totally geared to tourists with one menu option which was whatever they were dishing out that day. The food was all dished out in the kitchen and you simply had a plate plonked down in front of you. It was spring rolls, rice, vegetables and pork but with very little flavour and a long way removed from the “typical" lunch we were expecting. Soup was served up at the same time and a huge plate of fruit turned up for dessert. Stef had an added bonus in his lunch – a nice juicy maggot!

After lunch the people running the restaurant put on a brief performance of local music. It was very similar to the music we had heard in China and the north of Vietnam. Two guys were playing instruments. One was like a guitar but with only five strings and frets carved like steps in the neck. The other had a banjo like instrument. A woman and a young girl, she could have been no more than eight years old, provided the vocals.

After lunch we had another fifteen minutes on the boat before we were herded back onto the bus. We drove for about forty five minutes to somewhere where we had to get a ferry. We all had to troop off the bus and sit in a waiting room for our crossing. The room was open sided and had dry ice blowing out with the fans but as it was also the waiting area for the scooters, none of whom turned off their engine, it was a pretty noisy and smelly place to be. The wait wasn’t really too long and we trooped down to sit on the ferry for the short river crossing to Can Tho our destination for the night.

At Can Tho it was a short hop by bus to the hotel, which seemed to be outside of the main part of town. We divided and conquered with me hitting the front of the queue for check in while Stef got our bags. It turned out to be a good ploy as we got a room at the front of the hotel which had a window whereas we later found out that most rooms were windowless. Even though we didn’t really stand and look out of it, a room without a view, no matter how good or bad the view is, is just not the same.

The hotel is our first one star hotel and it is very different to the luxury we have had over the last week or so in Hoi An and with Tim and Erica. Our room was very simple but it was clean and comfortable. The only downside was that it was on the 4th floor and there was no lift. It’s amazing how heavy our bags start to feel after a few stairs. Hot and tired we had a cooling shower and then chilled for a while before heading out to find somewhere to eat.

Trung had offered to show people a few options for dinner but by the time we made it downstairs he was long gone so we were left to our own devices. We weren’t entirely sure where we were in town but set out with me making careful mental notes of where we’d gone so that we could find our way back. After a couple of left turns at main roads we came across a large restaurant that looked very hopeful as it was a choice of this or dodgy looking street food. We had a very tasty meal and I think the staff had a bit of a chuckle at having a couple of foreigners in for the night, we were the only non locals there.

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Peekaboo - little girl hiding under a big hat

We were up and out early for a 7:30am start. To me it still felt like we had had a lie in because Vietnam national radio was blasted out onto the streets from 5:00am. It seems to be used as a sort of national alarm clock and it worked very well. We were back on the bus for a short drive down to yet another boat. Yesterday our guide Trung had sat it was a small boat and we would have to sit two to a bench. I’m not great with small boats and I have been apprehensive for the last twenty four hours. It was bigger than I expected but as you walked up and down the narrow wooden plank to get on and off it wobbled quite a bit. I was sure I was going to fall in but I didn’t.

We cruised around the Cai Rang floating market, similar to yesterday’s but on a much larger scale and still teeming with life. IT was very bust with big boats all heavily laden with their wares and again with poles on top hanging out samples of what they are selling. It was mainly fruit and vegetables – pineapples, pears, cabbage, turnips, carrots. People live and work on the boats so whole families were there from little kids up to granny. Washing was hanging out to dry and flowers and trees from Tet were still in evidence.

It looks like a colourful life but I reckon it must be a hard existence. The people here look like they have little spare cash and they are living in what from the outside seem to be pretty foul conditions. As soon as we reached the market the “corner shop” arrived, a small boat run by an enterprising couple selling drinks. In another a lady was cooking bowls of noodle soup although she and her husband seemed to be the only people eating it so I’m not sure if it was for sale.

We cruised around the market for about an hour and then headed on down the river. We stopped at a small factory making rice vermicelli. Good quality rice is used but because it is cheaper they use grains that have been broken rather than whole grains. The rice is ground up with tapioca and mixed with water to form a paste. The paste is spread out onto large round bits of material stretched over a hot fire to make large pancakes. A lid is put over the top to steam the rice for a minute or so and the resultant rice paper is then lifted onto a bamboo rack to dry in the sun. From 4:00am to about 9:00am the sheets of rice paper are made. By noon they are then dry and are put through a machine which shreds them into noodles. The noodles are bagged up and taken to market to be sold. It’s a long day for the family working here and it’s also very hot with the fires raging.

As we left another group were coming in. There were four German mean and what we reckon were their girlfriends. The men were all dressed up in costumes similar to those of Morris Dancers in the UK. Some German people in our group explained that they are Zimmermänner auf der Walz (Carpenters on the Walk), from a craftsmen’s guild in Germany who focus on building roofs. As part of their apprenticeship they must travel the world for a couple of years and are not allowed to come within a specified distance from their home town during that time. The idea is that they get to see different styles and influences that they can then incorporate into their work. They certainly did not like having their photo taken and Stef got a very gruff answer when he asked them where they were from.

Our next stop was a house on the river bank where they have a fruit orchard. There was not much fruit growing when we were there but they had milk apples, bananas and pineapples. Basically we had a walk around the garden behind the house and then had the opportunity to sit and relax in the garden waiting for the next move on while enjoying free samples of tropical fruits (bananas and pineapples). In practice it was a bit of a contrived stop with everyone sitting around for forty five minutes getting bored! Stef went off to have a morning snooze in one of the hammocks (it was only 10:00am!).

The villages along the river reminded me of those we had seen in Kerala in India. Water dominates people’s lives here being their main source of transport and a key source of their livelihood. The shifting water levels throughout they year also greatly shape their lives. Local people were walking up and down the riverbank just at the water’s edge scooping up large shrimps into a basket.

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Comfy hammock
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Drying rice "pancakes", to make noodles

From the village we made it back out onto the main river and to our next stop, a rice husking mill. Big old machines were whirring away to grind the rice husk from the grain. The grains start their life brown and are then polished to create the white rice. Husks and other debris from the process seem to be used as pig fodder. The rice was bagged up into huge sacks and small wiry men heaved them onto their shoulders, took them to the scales to check their weight before lugging them out to boats on the river.

From here we were taken back to Can Tho for lunch. It was a typical place laid on for foreign tourists with no locals in sight other than the staff. We shared a table with a couple from Newcastle who must have been in their fifties. He had a boozers face and was suffering slightly from one too many brandies last night. She was a home economics teacher picking up lots of new ideas for lessons back home. We were soon back on the bus and across the river again on the ferry. At Vinh Long our group split up and we changed onto a different bus to continue the journey on to Cambodia.

The next bus was also pretty full. Here our guide was called Qui who was not very good and no where near as professional as Trung. His English was also difficult to understand. We had about an hour’s drive over rough and bumpy road (a new one is in the process of being constructed) before we reached yet another ferry. The road on the other side of the river was better and we completed our journey to Chao Doc faster than expected.

We did the same divide and conquer routine at the hotel which again ensured we had a room with a window. This hotel was a little more basic that yesterday’s but still clean and tidy. The frame of our bed was totally knackered and we had little confidence that it would be fixed while we went out to eat but it was. Despite the windows not shutting properly we came back to a mosquito free room (amazing as the streets were swarming with clouds of mosquitos) with just a couple of geckos to keep us company.

Having learned from last night we made sure that we were downstairs at 7:00pm s that the guide could show us where to go to eat. We had expected to see lots of people from the bus but there was only one other couple, until we got to the restaurant where half of the bus were already sitting and chomping away. A good sign was that there were also a lot of local people here and the food lived up to expectation and was very tasty, all washed down with a bottle of Tiger beer.