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…..

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Mekong Delta (2) To Vinh Long and Can Tho: Part 15 of Vietnam North to South

Back to part 14
Mekong Delta (1) Can Bei, Cambodians and a Cornucopia of Fruit
On to part 16

We breakfasted on omelette and French bread – colonialism had the occasional advantage – and yet more fruit, and then said farewell to our hosts.

About to leave our hosts, Mekong Delta

It had not occurred to me that the Mekong was tidal, but it is here and there was insufficient water for our boat, so Trang found a man who would row us to a larger stream where we could make a rendezvous.

Although it was early, the sun was strong and boatman lent us local conical hats which, he insisted, would be far more effective than our own. I looked and felt a bit of a fake, but he had a point; they are made for the climate and are amazingly light and cool.

Floating through the Mekong Delta in the right sort of hat
It seemed the moment to forget about a war which had finished almost forty years ago and just enjoy the sunshine and the sensation of moving almost silently along the waterway, surrounded by the life of the river and the dense vegetation.

Life in the Mekong Delta
As our boat nosed its way through the rafts of floating water hyacinth we thought we heard the ooh-ooh noise of a monkey. ‘It’s not a monkey,’ Trang told us, ‘it’s a bird, a coucal’. He scanned the vegetation just above the waterline and then pointed. We were moving and wildlife rarely stays still for long, so I saw nothing but Lynne glimpsed a bird the size of a large magpie with a blue-green head, a brown body and a long blue-green tail (for a YouTube video of a coucal, click here). It is, I learn, a non-parasitic cuckoo which is quite common from India eastwards, though not always easy to spot.

We eventually reached a larger stream after a pleasant and restful journey - at least for those not providing the motive power. Our boatman from yesterday was waiting to meet us.

We reach a larger stream, Mekong Delta
After a short trip up river we dropped in on a fruit garden. We saw all the fruits we had eaten the day before and some extras - star fruit, which we have encountered before, and mangosteens, which we have not and look nothing like mangoes; they will not be ripe for a month or two. And then there were durians. A ripe durian smells like a badly maintained chemical toilet; it is reputedly illegal to carry one on public transport in Malaysia, and if that is not true it ought to be. There is a school of thought that says that once you have got past the smell they are wonderful. Lynne and I disagree. We each ate a durian pastry once – we bought them in a dim sum restaurant without knowing quite what we were ordering (we do this a lot). We ate it, but it repeated all afternoon with a flavour we would have dearly loved to flush away.
Lynne under a jackfruit tree, Mekong Delta
We crossed an even larger branch of the river, busy with fishing boats and rice barges, to reach a brickworks.

Rice barge on the Mekong

Being Easter Sunday the factory was quiet – only 10% of Vietnamese are Christians, but the French legacy includes a proper respect for ‘le weekend’. Bricks were being made, a labour intensive process requiring the clay to be thrown in at one end, and the bricks to be manually separated from the excess clay at the other.

Brick making in the Mekong Delta

The kilns were also loaded and unloaded by hand, which at least allowed for a quality control process.

There's something happening in this kiln and I'm looking into it

They did not just make bricks; other earthenware products could be found in the kilns – I always wondered where those wretched gnomes came from, now I know.

Bloody gnomes
The original owner of the factory became rich, and when he died he had himself buried on the factory floor so he could continue to keep an eye on the workers.

The boss (retired)
Another short potter up the river brought us to a garden house rather like those in Hue. We sat in front of the ancestor altar – an impressive cabinet inlaid with mother of pearl - and were treated to tea and fruit.

Cabinet inlaid with mother of pearl
We were entertained by two musicians, one on guitar, the other playing a variety of traditional instrument, and a singer. It was less traditional Vietnamese folk than the Quang Ho musicians we had seen near Hanoi, and their songs dealt with contemporary themes. This was clearly Trang’s sort of music and several times he was invited to join in. ‘This music’, he said regretfully, ‘is too sad for the new generation of young people.’ They seem to prefer their sounds Gangnam style.

Folk musicians who resolutely ensured all photographs would be taken into the sun
Forty minutes sailing brought us to the city of Vinh Long where we said ‘goodbye’ to our boatman and ‘hello again’ to our driver.

Dodging the motorbikes with his customary skill, he quickly drove us to Can Tho, the largest city in the delta and, with 1.2 million people, the fifth biggest in Vietnam. The Vinh Long to Can Tho journey time has been much reduced by the Can Tho bridge which opened in April 2010. At 2.75Km it is the longest cable span bridge in South East Asia.

Approaching Can Tho bridge
Once we had arrived, lunch became our first priority. Trang took us to a large restaurant packed with local families and, we were pleased to note, no other foreigners. They did, though, find an English menu and we chose spicy frog, squid in oyster sauce and soup with pork, squid and prawns along with assorted vegetables and the inevitable rice. And excellent they all were, too.

It was an excellent meal and that look on my face is supposed to be a smile. Oh well,
Well fed we checked into our hotel and, once the hottest part of the day was past, took a walk along Can Tho’s very posh corniche. They have a statue of Ho Chi Minh, who like the musicians, was looking at us out of the sun. Unlike the musicians, though, we had an opportunity to return next morning when the problem had solved itself to take this picture...
Lynne and Ho Chi Minh on the corniche at Can Tho
After buying some clothes for our grandson in the smart little market we wandered back to the hotel thinking that the roof bar might be good spot for a coffee. It was closed, but the roof did give us a fine view across to the bridge and demonstrate just how much water and how little land there is in the delta country.
The Can Tho Bridge
Back out on the street we found a café and were brought two small cups with metal filters on top - the usual arrangement, at least in the south. We sat for a while watching Can Tho pass by. Then, as there was no coffee in my cup despite repeated fiddling with the filter, I sent it back; its replacement worked only a little better.

Following the ‘safety in numbers’ rule a group of four foreigners spied us from the far side of the park, made a bee line for our café and sat at the next table. We should have asked for commission.

We walked back to the hotel passing these two men playing Chinese chess (for more street chess in more countries, click here) and beside them a sugar cane crusher. Drinking crushed sugar cane on a hot afternoon is always refreshing, although Lynne is a little squeamish about the juice flowing over ice presumably made from tap water. Not letting this put us off we exchanged a few thousand dong for a couple of glasses. The drink did us some good and no harm.

Street chess, Can Tho
In the evening we went with Trang to a street restaurant. Metal tables and plastic stools were set out beside the road and food appeared from a small kitchen in a hole in the wall. We had hot pot, a cook-it-yourself arrangement with a lot of green vegetables, some buffalo meat and buffalo liver. We never did manage to cook the buffalo to a reasonably degree of tenderness, but the liver was good, though Lynne thought it a little more strongly flavoured than she would have liked. There was also a huge plate of roasted chicken, so there was plenty to eat, beer to drink and remarkably little to pay.
Lynne, Trang and a hot pot, Can Tho

Back to part 14
Mekong Delta (1) Can Bei, Cambodians and a Cornucopia of Fruit
On to part 16

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