Tuesday 27 January 2015

Days 248-9: The Mekong Delta - The real deal

Buyer at the floating market 
Water, water everywhere.  And I'm not just talking about the rain (typhoon Hagupit hasn't joined us after all and Saigon remains warm and sunny).  Yet Vietnam is very much a land of water: rice paddies, rain storms, colossal rivers.  Here, a few hours' drive south of Saigon, the Mekong River finally tips the waters of the Tibetan plateau (and China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) into the South China Sea.

We took sporadic boat rides to a series of 'points of interest': the place where they make honey and visitors can hold the bee hive, the place where they manufacture peanut sweets, the place where they play traditional instruments and you discover that Auld Lang Syne is an authentic Vietnamese tune (!), the place where they serve local fruits and warn you not to eat the poisonous black seeds in the jack fruit (then fall about laughing at the look on your face), the place where they manufacture rice noodles and rice paper.  The stops are very artificial; on the pre-fabricated tourist motorway, deviations (and authenticity?) are not permitted.  As in Sapa, every stop seems like a mimicry of itself not its self at all.  That said, the peanut cookie manufacturers are genuinely making peanut cookies for sale on the market, not just showing visitors how they do it; the honey too is real and so is the rice paper.  When it came to it, the cruise was pretty enjoyable after all.

Fish seller
There were two highlights.  Actually three.  One was the company - a Swiss couple and a pair of German-English friends from a school exchange twelve years before (a very lucky exchange pairing!).  The second was the homestay cum picturesque bungalow alongside a river thick with fish.  Insects throbbed; lizards wailed at night; snakes crawled through my imagination.  Before we faced them for the night, we were taught to wrap and fry spring rolls while chatting to some French travellers (including fellow Paris marathon veterans - more good company) then fed a delicious meal.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the homestay was the transport.  As only Guy and I were staying there, from our tour group, we were picked up by motorbike and so learned an important lesson; you may try to avoid Vietnamese motorbikes - and the integrity of all your limbs as well - but the bikes are coming to get you and will pounce at the least likely moments.  There was nothing for it.  I placed the adult-sized helmet on my child-sized head, where it flopped around uselessly for the next half hour, and sat back to enjoy the ride.  And with the exception of road junctions, 'enjoyable' really wasn't a bad description.

The third highlight arrived the next morning.  While waiting for the hotel party, Guy and I wandered around a market where Guy let out the squeal of the decade when a catfish launched itself from its cramped bucket in his direction.  Giving other catfish (and heaps of live frogs) a wide berth, we eventually boarded our boat which took us into the flow of the river.  It passed between wooden barges; a pole rose above each with a type of fruit or vegetable suspended from it.  This was the 'shop' sign telling you what that boat was selling.

Live "jumping" catfish at the market
Meanwhile, smaller boats, manoeuvred by standing oarsmen and women, flitted between them to make their purchases.  The scene was nothing like the floating market I visited in Bangkok (with its fake Louis Vuitton handbags and tourist tat); this was the real thing.  It was where the home owners and restaurateurs of the Mekong delta come to buy their groceries.  It was picturesque and strange and full of pineapples and cabbages and bananas and Vietnamese hats and tea and boats and beauty.  It really was one of the most photogenic places I have ever been.

Bees making delta honey
Boat trip through the palms
... gave Susan an opportunity to don a traditional hat!
Wrapping coconut sweets
A buffalo cools down in the waters of the Mekong
Dead fish don't jump!
Buyers at the floating market
Boats of all sizes
Buyer (small boat) meets seller (large boat)
This guy has sold nearly all of his pineapples
Boats against the backdrop of traditional houses on stilts
Sellers signify their wares by placing them on sticks above their boats
Hauling anchor 
Making rice noodles
Guy trying his hand at noodle making
Cutting the dried sheets into ribbons of noodles
The ribbons get caught as they come out of the shredder
The different types of rice and rice-derived products produced in Vietnam

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