There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Mekong Delta (1) Cai Be and a Cornucopia of Fruit: Part 14 of Vietnam North to South

Back to part 13: Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

The next morning we left Ho Chi Minh City and drove south west into the Mekong Delta.

We were crossing one of the most densely populated parts of a densely populated country, so even after escaping the urban sprawl we remained in continuous ribbon development. According to the map we passed through several towns, but as in the drive from Hanoi to Ha Long, it was impossible to tell where the ribbon development widened into unmarked towns.

Most of the way we stayed in the outside lane of the dual carriageway, leaving the inside lane to the motorcycles. To overtake our driver pulled right, hoping the shoal of bikes would make space for us – it was in their interest to do so.

Driving from Hi Chi Minh City towards the Mekong Delta
At first the land was merely flat, but as we crossed into Tien Giang Province we passed over several canals, indicating we had reached the delta area.

Entering the Mekong Delta region
 Approaching My Tho we turned right to drive a few miles parallel to one of the delta’s main branches, then left to reach the waterside at a small jetty behind a large car park.

Boarding a local ferry
We said goodbye to our driver, at least for the day, rounded a milling group of French tourists and reached the jetty. After watched people boarding a local ferry, we boarded our own boat. It was large enough for twenty, but for the next 24 hours it would only carry the two of us and Trang.

All this boat just for us
We cast off and pottered upstream on a section of river separated from the main branch by a long, low island surrounded by mangroves. We reached Cai Be 15 minutes later. The delta is densely populated but with few nucleated settlements outside the main cities; Cai Be is one of the rare villages.

The village stands at the mouth of a large side-stream. Turning into it, we chugged past a floating market which, at 11.30, was finishing for the day. Markets are always interesting, floating markets doubly so, but we were planning to visit the larger Cai Rang market later so did not mind missing this one.

Going home from market, Cai Be
Passing a church bedecked with Easter bunting.....

Cai Be church
.... we entered a smaller stream and moored at a jetty. We were to walk through part of the village, but not before we had waved goodbye to our all our earthly possessions – at least those in the same continent as we were – as we left in them in the care of a boatman we had met barely 20 minutes before.

Our boat departs
Spring rolls are ubiquitous in Vietnam and as most of them are wrapped in rice paper, its production is an important, albeit cottage, industry.

We dropped into a one room factory to watch the manufacture of lattice rice paper. The process is simple. Using cans with holes in the bottom, a rice flour and water mixture is drizzled into a lightly greased pan with a circular sweep of the wrist. In seconds the liquid is transformed into a papery lattice which is quickly flicked over. Seconds later it is done and must be removed from the pan before it starts to brown.

The four or five girls working here are paid according to the quantity they produce. The relentless pace of the work - each girl operates two or even three woks - and the utter tedium of the task meant there were few smiles. I could think of no better argument to persuade a girl to stay on at school.

Making lattice rice paper, Cai Be
Further down the road we found a fish sauce factory where nothing seemed to be happening. Given the importance of fish sauce in Vietnamese cooking this was a little disappointing.
Idle fish sauce factory, Cai Be
From there on it was difficult to know if we were seeing different parts of one factory, or several different concerns in adjacent huts.

We passed this young man using a rotating machine to rip the flesh from coconuts.

Stripping the flesh from coconuts, Cai Be
In the next room coconut syrup was being boiled up. The resulting slab of toffee was cooled before being cut and packed by hand.

Boiling up the cocnut syrup, Cai Be
Next door was a still producing rice ‘wine’….

Distilling rice 'wine', Cai Be
… and next door to that a manufacturer of the more usual design of rice paper…..

Making traditional rice paper, Cai Be
The door from the yard where the rice paper was drying…..
Drying rice paper, Cai Be
…led us into another, larger confectionary factory where popped rice sweets were being produced. Black sand was brought to a high temperature in a large wok, then rice was mixed into the hot sand causing the grains to ‘pop’.
The rice goes into the hot black sand
Cai Bei
The rice and sand mixture was dropped into a sieve, the fine grained sand passing through leaving the popped rice completely clean.
The popped rice was next pounded into hot syrup.....
Pounding the rice into the syrup
Cai Be
 and the resulting mixture emptied into a wooden frame where it was cooled and rolled.
Rolling out the rice/syrup mixture, Cai Be
The 'packing department' is sitting at the table behind
The rollers, as Trang shows, are shell casings filled with concrete. Inventive recycling is a local speciality.
Trang with the shell casing rollers, Cai Be
The sweets were then cut up using an ordinary school ruler to get the blocks the right size, before being passed on to the next table to be wrapped and packed.
We sat at a small table with a pot of tea and a tray of mixed sweets. I particularly like the coconut toffee and the strips of dried ginger, but they were all very more-ish, as sweets tend to be, and we sat there nibbling long enough to drink several cups of tea (well, they are small cups).
Tea and sweeties, Cai Be
By now one o’clock was approaching and lunch was three quarters of an hour away, so we reluctantly dragged ourselves from the sweets, walked across the road and down to a jetty where, as if by magic, our boat was waiting.
We sailed back through Cai Be, turned upstream when we approached the mangrove island and shortly afterwards emerged onto the Tien Giang, the main eastern branch of the Mekong after which the province is named. The Tien Giang is about a mile wide here and we crossed it angling slightly downstream, apparently aiming at the endless line of mangroves on the far side.
Cai Be
Eventually we could make out our destination, a wooden structure on stilts over the mangroves with a jetty leading out over the water hyacinth that had collected at the river’s edge.
The jetty over the water hyacinths
We landed and walked up into the restaurant, its sides open to the cooling breeze – although electric fans were helping nature along.
We started with fried elephant’s ear fish, pulling the fresh, white flesh from a fish mounted in a swimming position. There was, perhaps inevitably, rice paper to wrap round mint and lettuce, prawns, pork and rice, vegetable soup and, definitely inevitably, spring rolls. European convention demands that soup must be served first. This does not hold in East Asia, where soup can, and will, turn up any time during the meal. Then there was jackfruit and pineapple. As breakfast had finished with banana, papaya, and water melon that made our fruit count five for the day. It was to climb higher.
Elephant's Ear fish mounted in a swimming position
We shared the restaurant with ten Canadians and their guide. Orders have to be placed in advance here, and there had been some mix up. The guide, who may or may not have been deprived of a fish – I could not be bothered working out the exact problem – kept mithering at the restaurant owner; being rude and obnoxious, largely in English and always in a loud voice. Trang went quiet, eventually he said, ‘He’s Cambodian. I met too many like him when I was there.’
Trang seemed rattled. With his eyes on the Cambodian he gave us his opinion of the Khmer Rouge which I might paraphrase as ‘inhuman, murderous bastards’. This is, of course, the received wisdom, but Trang’s opinion came with the force of personal experience, not from newspaper reports. In defence of this particular Cambodian who was certainly boorish but hardly murderous, Trang himself pointed out that he would not have been born when the Khmer Rouge were on the rampage.
When the Canadians had gone, the owner’s young son came and stood by our table. Trang started teasing him in a good-natured way and the child responded by bursting into tears. It had not been a good lunchtime for Trang, and this seemed the moment to move on.
We pottered upstream for a while and then turned into one of the many small waterways that criss-cross the islands of the delta. It was pleasant floating down the channel, surrounded by the dense vegetation and with the boat nosing its way through the water hyacinth. We passed a few moored boats, their owners, who probably lived on them, going about their daily business.

Pottering along the waterways of the Mekong Delta
There are hundreds, more probably thousands, of these channels. Our boatman had lived here all his life and knew his way around, but to us every waterway looked like every other waterway and alone we would have been hopelessly lost within minutes. As at My Son I started imagining what it would have been like if there were hostile eyes watching me from the jungle as I struggled, without the benefit of our amiable and knowledgeable boatman, through a totally alien environment. It was a scary thought.

I was dragged back to reality by coconuts. I am not sure where they came from, but Trang was chopping the tops off and soon we were sucking up the sweet and refreshing coconut water; fruit number 6.

Lynne and a coconut, Mekong Delta
We bumped into the bank by a tiny landing stage; it seemed that we had reached our destination.
Crossing a footpath, we went through a brick arch and found ourselves in the garden of a large wooden house, at least there was a thatched roof and a floor and lots of pillars; in this climate walls are not a high priority. At the front was the ancestor shrine, in the corner of the patio was a brick kitchen, while round the back was a separate shower and toilet block. Along one side a series of bedrooms had been built with rough planks and an external wall with open latticework where the windows might be in cooler climes.
The ancestor's shrine
 After we had been introduced to our hosts and selected a bedroom, Trang suggested we rest during the hottest part of the day, and take a walk when it was cooler.
After making appropriate use of the shower block Lynne demonstrated how to relax in the Mekong Delta. She may look comfortable, but she did not stay long in the hammock, soon wearying of the continual struggle to avoid being tipped out onto the floor. I opted out, unconvinced that my weight would not topple the whole building.
Lynne secure in her hammock
An hour or so later Trang roused himself from his hammock in which he looked only slightly more secure than Lynne, went into the kitchen and returned with a huge mango and some rambutans. Lynne is not a great fan of the mango (she says they taste like swede!) but even she had to admit this one was magnificent. We halved it, removed the stone and scooped out the soft, sweet, perfectly ripe flesh. Rambutans were new to me; a relative of the lychee and longan they have a spiny skin which you peel off to reveal the glistening white sphere within. That brought our fruit count to 8 for the day.
Those who have read Hue(1) will know about the mystery fruit we encountered in the market and later in the fruit bowl in our hotel room. We had decided, with no great conviction, that it was probably some sort of apple. The garden here contained a number of trees from which the mystery fruit hung in profusion. Clearly they were not highly prized - left unharvested they were dropping onto the paths – and, equally clearly, they were  not apples. It was time to ask Trang.
An Phuoc plums
I still find it difficult to believe they are actually plums. A decade ago longans were the fruit of the moment and farmers across the delta rushed to plant longan trees. Then the price plummeted. Five years ago An Phuoc plums, for such they are, were fetching a high price, so the farmers chopped down their longans to plant plums, and did so in such quantity they the price of plums collapsed and is currently below the cost of harvesting them. Many small farmers lost money, first on longans then on plums.

It was time for a stroll, so we went back out to the waterway and walked along the path between the papaya trees and banana plants.

Trang and I walk between the papayas and the banaas
Turning right we followed a well-made path away from the water. On either side were large houses surrounded by fruit trees groaning under the weight of jackfruit, papaya, pomelo, and mango to name but four. With such a variety of fruit hanging within easy reach of anybody who wanted it, we felt as if we were walking in the Garden of Eden.

Large houses amid the fruit trees

The houses could only be reached down the narrow lane by bicycle or motorbike, and occasionally we had to step aside to let them pass, but that hardly spoiled the idyll. Eventually we reached a road wide enough for four wheeled vehicles. There was a fruit stall on the corner and Trang paused to make some purchases.

Trang buys some fruit
We walked along the road a little way, then turned down another cycle path back towards the waterway. Trang pointed out two small mounds in a garden; the graves of two villagers killed in the war. What appeared to be rubbish strewn around were cards, cigarettes, money and other bits and pieces required to keep their spirits happy. To entirely dismantle the aura of paradise, Trang pointed out that the chicken wire fences were made from rolls of wire left behind after American bridge building operations, and the barbed wire on top had been recycled from defensive positions. Et in Arcadio ego as somebody, possibly Virgil, observed – I (Death) am even in Arcadia.

Graves in a garden
We ate on the patio while Trang joined the family at a table near the kitchen. Our hostess produced an excellent meal of fried perch, lettuce and herbs with rice paper to wrap round them, spring rolls with prawns and beansprouts, chicken soup and duck in a clay pot with rice. It is ‘working duck’ she said, not farmed for the table. By the time we had finished, its working days were over. Dessert was jackfruit, a fruit we had already eaten so could not count again, but Trang also brought us a pomelo and a guava. The pomelo was magnificent, the individual segments required peeling but the flesh inside was juicy and sweet, exactly what a grapefruit would be if it had a less acid temperament. The guava was sadly under-ripe but as it was our tenth different fruit for the day and the only one that was less than perfection, we felt we had done well.

We played cards while Trang and the family watched television, the man of the house lounging in a hammock and occasionally swishing the air with what looked like a stringless badminton racquet. The sharp cracks and occasional flashes coming from it indicated another insect meeting their doom.

Retiring to our wooden box of a bedroom, we discovered the mosquitoes had ambitions to be as well fed as we were. After smearing antihistamine cream on the bigger lumps we ensured our mosquito nets were well tucked in. With plenty of fresh air and cooled by electric fans we slept well - at least I did; Lynne was less convinced.
Back to part 13: Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

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