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…..

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Mekong Delta (3) Cai Rang and My Tho: Part 16 of Vietnam North to South

Back to part 15
The Mekong Delta (2) To Vinh Long and Can Tho
On to part 17

Cai Rang, some 7 km upstream from Can Tho, is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta. We were up bright and early and at the landing stage before 8 o’clock. Trang hired a boat and we chugged up the river, grateful for the cooling breeze as the morning sun was already hot.

A barge load of sand goes down the Mekong
The trip to the market took us forty minutes and the river was already busy. There was activity in the stilt houses along the waterfront and we passed barges carrying sand, a floating petrol station, rice barges and fishing boats, some - presumably Christian owned – with a cross prominently displayed on the roof of the wheelhouse.

A floating petrol station near Cai Rang

At Cai Rang the river was packed with boats piled high with fruit and vegetables.

Vegetable stall, Cai Rang

Larger boats had their produce in the hold, only a turnip or a papaya tied to the mast indicated what the sold, while smaller boats with long tailed outboard motors scooted amongst them and men and women in conical hats rowed heavily laden sampans, standing up and straining on oars crossed scissor-like in front of them.

Rowing a sampan, Cai Rang

We floated around peering at this and that in a boat far too large for three passengers.

The boatman may be smiling, but the boat is far too large for three passengers

Eventually we bumped up against a boat load of pineapples. I clambered onto the deck and watched a woman peeling a pineapple with a machete, trimming off the skin and then slicing a spiral groove round the fruit to removing the rest of the outer parts.

Sculpting a pineapple, Cai Rang

When she had finished she hacked it in four, giving a piece each to Lynne, Trang, the boatman and me. Holding it by the stalk, I ate it like a lollipop. I am on record as saying that the pineapples of Kerala are the finest in the world. This lacked their faint coconut-y flavour, but was the softest, sweetest, juiciest pineapple I have ever eaten. The central woody core we cut out of pineapples in England, did not exist, there was only soft luscious fruit right through to its heart.

As fine a piece of fruit as this world can supply
Cai Rang

As we left they started hauling up more pineapples from below.

Pineapple porn

I have long held the view that if some bizarre turn of events meant I could only eat one fruit for the rest of eternity, I would chose pineapples; now I know which pineapples and where to get them.

Spurned mangoes slink away
Pottering back downstream we diverted into a side channel and stopped off at a rice processing plant. We stepped onto the jetty, removed our shoes and walked, very gingerly across a ceramic tiled floor made as slippery as ice by a coating of rice dust.

Some types of rice are sold as grain, some ground into flour, but all are treated to the same process of husking and polishing. The venerable machinery rattled away as Trang described how the stalks and some of the husks are sold as fuel to the brickworks we had seen the day before, the softer husks are turned into cattle food and the grains are polished for human consumption.

Ancient rice polishing machine, or perhaps it's a dehusker - who knows?
Cai Rang

Impressive as this use of the whole plant is, the health and safety aspects of the factory were troubling. Apart from the hard, slippery floor, the moving machinery was unguarded and workers wore no masks though the air was thick with floating particles. To my untrained eye the conditions also looked right for a dust explosion should there be an unexpected spark in the wrong place. To call the working conditions Dickensian might be a slur on Victorian industrial practices.

We returned to Can Tho and watched a group embarking on a long decorated boat. It was, Trang told us, a betrothal party, a stage between engagement and marriage, and was traditionally attended by the groom’s family only. The bride-to-be wore a red dress of embroidered silk (well, I noticed it was red, Lynne recorded the other details), and the groom a white suit. Everybody, the future bride and groom included, wore beaming smiles and all seemed unfeasably happy.

Returning to the hotel we packed up, checked out and set off on the long journey back across the bridge to Vinh Long and then to My Tho where the main road from Saigon reaches the delta.

At My Tho we stopped in a scruffy street beside a set of iron gates which were opened by a man in a saffron robe. Trang had arranged lunch, he told us, at the Phuoc Long nunnery, but as all the people we saw there were men (though none except the be-robed door opener were monks) he may have meant monastery

Places had been laid for us at a long table in a room stuffed with heavy wooden furniture, old vases and Buddhist statues. At one end was a thangka in an ornate wooden frame, at the other a painting of a venerated Buddhist priest and an enormous decorated bell.

A framed thangka and Chinese vases, Phuoc Long
My Tho

As we were in a monastery the food was, naturally, vegetarian, but none the worse for that. We ate rice paper rolled round herbs and vegetables, fried spring rolls with bean sprouts, crispy yellow pancakes like those we had enjoyed at Hue, but here stuffed with beansprouts rather than pork and prawns, a mushroom dish that looked – and even tasted – like chicken’s feet, salad, fried rice, soup and dips. There was an enormous mountain of food, but we made a creditable dent in it and were careful to try everything.
Lynne, lunch, a venerated monk and a large bell, Phuoc Long
My Tho
Four places had been laid at the other end of the table and while we were eating a French speaking family – parents and a teenage son and daughter – arrived. The youngsters, particularly the daughter, were being sullen and difficult, poking at bits of food but eating almost nothing and rolling their eyes in horror at what they were being offered. I would like to say their parents were different, but they were not. The soup went untouched, the cling film was not even taken off the salad, and they picked at a spring roll and a rice paper wrap as though they were probably poisonous. It seemed so rude. ‘If that’s your attitude,’ I thought,’ best stay at home next year.’

After lunch a young man who lived there, though he was not actually a monk, showed us the rooms upstairs. He taught music, he said, and some English, and was also taking English lessons. He was preparing, as so many overseas students do, for examinations set by UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate – though this is an unusual application of the word ‘local’) and complained that he was hampered by having an American teacher who did not quite speak the language the way UCLES thought was appropriate. We sympathised.
Dark, heavy furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory
Phuoc Long, My Tho

The rooms were a treasure trove of Chinese pottery and old furniture, much of it inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory. One spectacular vase from the Ming dynasty was decorated with 11000 Chinese characters, all hand painted before firing. The artefacts had come from the royal palace in Hue when the monarchy was dissolved in the 1940s.

Vase with 11000 Chinese characters

In the small shrine we were invited to light a joss stick and ask for a blessing. We respectfully approached the Buddha and his two rows of supporters with incense sticks in hand. I always try to take these things seriously, but looking at the statue of Buddha and seeing Julian Clary staring back at me did not make that easy. (Non-British readers may find this link helpful).

Venerating Julian Clary
My Tho

There is, we presume, more of Phuoc Long and we only saw the ‘guest rooms’ but it is not a show monastery (or possibly nunnery). The same cannot be said of the Vinh Trang Pagoda nearer the city centre.

Where Phuoc Long was full of dark, almost sombre, furniture in curtained rooms, Vinh Trang was bright colourful and out in the full glare of the sun.

Originally completed in 1850, it was seriously damaged ten years later during fighting between French colonial forces and the army of Emperor Tu Duc, whose mausoleum we had seen in Hue. There was more major rebuilding in 1907 after a tropical storm.

The style is variously described as ‘like a rajah’s palace’ or ‘blending classical European and Asian architecture’ while others talk of Cambodian influences. To me it looked like a typical piece of southern Vietnamese exuberance, not entirely in the best of taste but always vigorous, even flamboyant.

Vinh Trang Pagoda behind its luxuriant garden
My Tho

In front of the façade is a garden of tropical profusion, while to the left sits an enormous ‘Happy Buddha’. I had been frequently greeted with the phrase ‘Happy Buddha’ when sitting down in restaurants, I have even had my stomach patted. The first time I was offended but I learned to go with the flow and even take it as a compliment. The Vietnamese consider being well-nourished a sign of prosperity; they do not (yet) live in our strange inverted world where obesity and poverty walk hand in hand.

Two Happy Buddhas
Vinh Trang Pagoda, My Tho

The temple also has a small artificial mountain (a touch of the Disney) and a courtyard lined with monks' cells beyond which are more courtyards, more statues and a hall, but Vinh Trang is not about inside, it is a place to be enjoyed outside.

We spent the rest of the afternoon driving back to Ho Cho Minh City where we checked into the Vien Dong Hotel for the third time. The doorman greeted us like old friends, which either indicates our tipping had been too generous, or not generous enough and he was hoping for more when we finally left for good. We shall never know.

That evening Lynne disappointed me by eating fish and chips; the fish may have been Vietnamese river cobbler, but it was still fish and chips. I am not sure exactly which part of Asia my chicken curry originated from, but at least it was Asia.

Back to part 15
The Mekong Delta (2) To Vinh Long and Can Tho

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