Thursday, December 21, 2006

Day 05 - Mekong II

A pig greets us at the rice paper producing plant. Might not be kosher then...

Mother and child in the market at Vinh Long

Quite what the story in the HIV sign picture was we didn't really want to know...

Boy in Mekong Delta market town

The largest floating market on the Mekong was our destination this morning: barges, boats, floating homes, skiffs, paddling boats, rowing boats, boats laden with wares, sinking under loads of pineapples or rice or melons or people moving to and fro in an aquatic reflection of Vietnamese roads, but without the constant blaring of horns. Replacing the horns was the put-put-put of the long-tailed motors all the boats have and which many people control with their legs, leaving their hands free to sell, to buy, to pick their nose.
An unlikely place to film a pop video but that's what they were doing. Note that from a health and safety point of view, having lifejackets seems to be equivalent to wearing them.

Our boat stopped in the midst of this and a smaller boat drew alongside to take us off around the market. It was only big enough for half of our group so we waited while the first group went round. We had no shortage of entertainment as little boats constantly drew alongside: "Mister you want buy something." "I give you good price." Some had even roped their children into the game and it was hard to resist some of their charms.

But all we did buy in the end was a pineapple, deftly cut and halved for us by the vendor. He must have sold a good twenty or so to our boat alone. The rest of the boats we repelled until it was our time to browse.

Boats come here to sell goods and to buy others from villages further up the Mekong. What they have for sale, be it garlic, melons or rice, they hang from long bamboo poles erected on deck. These act as flags of a sort, enabling you to take in from a distance what each boat sells without having to pull alongside and run the risk of a hard sell. As elsewhere in the country, there was little variety with many boats selling almost exactly what the boat alongside was selling. How they make a living is beyond us in the face of such competetion.

As per the pole, these guys are selling pretty much every item of veg under the sun.
The boats remain here for a few days hopefully selling out and then loading produce to trade on their return to their villages. While they remain, the family lives on them sleeping in hammocks, eating on board and defecating who knows where. It seemed a confined and monotonous life although the guides do their best to romanticise the whole affair. We enjoyed the atmosphere but it didn't seem half as crowded and colourful as we'd imagined. The guides were also quick to dismiss anything Thailand had to offer in the way of floating markets. Perhaps they're too crowded and colourful.

Back on the boat we headed to a rice husking plant. The process of husking rice is hardly new to us. Sheena had after all grown her own rice in a field in Japan and was no stranger to the grain. But it was amazing to see the machinery that they currently use to do it. The machinery was antiquated, ramshackle and downright dangerous but fascinating all the same. If anyone is familiar with the work of Heath Robinson you'll have recognised it immediately. If not, shame on you. Get to Google right now.

We also visited a local market and this was one of the most interesting things we did. We wandered around the sights and sounds and even sampled some roasted banana. What we didn't touch though were the various bits of duck left lying around...

Later we visited a place where they make rice paper. This would have been interesting had we not already been shown this process the day before by a different guide. Thick rice water is ladled onto a cloth stretched over a pan of boiling water. No more than 30 seconds later, this is peeled back and lifted off as a film of translucent rice paper. In case you wondered, it is this that holds the spring in your spring rolls. In Vietnam you can eat your spring rolls deep fried or fresh. If it's fresh, it's wrapped in rice paper just as it comes from this process allowing the vegetables to be crisp and fully flavoured.

We were surprisingly tired when we finally were dropped back into the madness of Saigon. Back at the hotel, Sheena checked email and availed herself of the free offer of coffee too.

Sheena checks email at the Buddha-laden reception in Madame Cuc's.

Vietnamese coffee is served like this with a metal filter over your cup/glass. The water filters into this. Finish this off by adding from the tin of condensed milk on the left. Hard to find "fresh" milk (as normal milk is called here) and Sheena can't say she enjoyed the coffee here until she got to Hanoi and it more resembled French coffee.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Day 04 - Mekong I

Rice turns to popcorn as it meets heated sand. This was then used to make honeyed sweets. No Mekong Delta tour is complete without visits to several local craft-making sites.

Baaaa Baaaa Baaaaa: this was some of the language we needed as we were herded from street to bus to boat to shop to local craft industry to boat to bus and finally installed in the cheapest hotel they could find in Can Tho today.

We rarely touch organised tours. But it's very hard to beat two days with a guide in the Mekong Delta plus a night's hotel accommodation for $15 each. It's worth it just to avoid the hassle of arranging your own transport in this region, veined as it is with the Mekong's fingers reaching finally for the sea after a journey from Tibet.

If you're into rice, or water or both, this is the place for you. I like boats and rice isn't bad, so it wasn't a bad place to be. Looking back though, I think we both agree that one day would have been fine. Difficult to think what we would have done with a whole day in Saigon though so probably best we stayed in the Delta another day.

In fact, if we hadn't, we would have missed the best bit: a morning market on the river. But my fingers are ahead of our feet at the moment...

We got into our minibus around 7:30. Shortly thereafter, four hundred other tourists, many of them with rucksacks big enough for transporting a small cow also got on. Once we were all crammed in, the driver took the bus and aimed it southwest. We bounced and beeped our way gradually along route 1A towards Vinh Long where we would board a boat. It was a hot day and I was sitting on the sunny side of the bus. The AC did it's best but failed valiantly. I boiled silently for the 3 hours it took to get there. I offered to serve myself with the orange sauce I'd been making for lunch but they turned me down.

On the way, our guide filled us in with tidbits about the delta, it's history and it's place in the economy of modern Vietnam. All very tourguide-like but I don't think it really enhanced the journey. You could've enjoyed it just as well without any info.

Children loved to greet the boats of tourists. We guess these two were twins.

Once onto the boat, things got much more interesting. We were taken to see a floating market, shown how they tie items they have for sail on long poles above the boat (hanging poles of veg!) and got a glimpse of how they trade boat to boat and live on them. But the market was pretty dead actually and we were promised more the next day. For those who had only the one day, they must have got very different impression of what it was all about.

Sheena enjoys some coconut juice on the Mekong

The scenery was nice. The river was a dark murky green with lots of water hyacinth in places. Sometimes, we were in waterways metres wide, other times miles wide. Shipping varied from little skiffs being rode by old ladies to full blown ships with loads of gravel and sand. It was heaving with activity and life everywhere we went. The riverbanks were lined continuously with palms and houses among them. People waved and kids went wild shouting hello and waving like crazy. We waved and shouted hello back - for the uninitiated, this is how you know backpackers are having a good time.

Boats are rowed standing up in many cases and facing forward. Very different from back home.

Suddenly the boat stopped. We were told we were going to a local house for lunch. Sounded good to our naive little ears. They gave us mountain bikes and we had a fun ride 20 mins through the undergrowth until we stopped not at a house but at a restaurant obviously set up to cater for the likes of us. After a nice lunch Sheena and I decided to ride off and explore on our own. Everywhere people were welcoming and friendly, obviously curious about us, the children especially so. There were so many different kinds of fruit trees everywhere too.

The afternoon carried on back on the boat and we eventually arrived late afternoon at the town of Can Tho where we were to spend the night. As we followed the guide through the town, we kept seeing hotels and hoping they were ours. They weren't. Down a dark dingy alley, next to a building site where they were noisily digging foundations, we were taken into our place: functional, basic and obviously where all the boat trips take their sheep to fleece them. "$5 if you want airconditioning." Those who didn't cough up heard their AC go off shortly after they arrived in their room. We paid but it was a ridiculous amount of money for a country where you can eat dinner locally for less than $1. Still, in retrospect, it may actually have been worth it as the hotel promised "Warm Service - Elegant in performance" on its advertising. Hmmmm...

Nokia cornering an emerging market

The guide took us to a restaurant which was, again, obviously one set up for the purpose. We didn't care. We'd got to know some of the other couples on the tour and were happy to sit on a balcony overlooking the river and talk the night away. We didn't need the help of the snake alcohol they offered us though...

Ho Chi Minh himself stands sentinel in central Can Tho.
That has to be the coolest communist fencing we've ever seen.

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