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…..



Friday, 14 February 2014

A Sampan through the Mekong Delta: Part 2 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

13/02/2014

After an early breakfast we set off down Highway 1 towards the Mekong delta. This is a densely populated part of a densely populated country and for two and a half hours we passed through continuous ribbon development.
 
Down Highway 1 to the Mekong Delta


Approaching My Tho we turned off the main road, and drove down a lane. Spotting three white coated individuals waiting by the roadside, the driver pulled over. One of them introduced himself as Tai, our new guide, while the other two took charge of our luggage and wheeled it off down one of the concrete cycle/motorcycle tracks that criss-cross rural Vietnam.

We followed and soon arrived at the waterside where the sampan that would be our home for the next two days was moored.

After a brief tour of the boat and an introductory coconut we set off for a stroll round Phu An hamlet.


Introductory coconut aboard our sampan, Phu An

It was 11.30 and most local residents had already eaten lunch and were now swinging in their hammocks, dozing through the heat of the day. All was peaceful, except for the crowing of cocks, the creaking of hammocks and the roar of fluttering butterflies.

The houses were well built and tidy, the people relaxed and friendly, those awake shouting greetings as we passed.


Gardens full of banana trees, Phu An


Fruit grows wild here; cultivating it in gardens merely involves managing its location. Huge jackfruit hung from the trees; there were bananas and papayas, mangoes and star apples (new to us, but not for long), pineapples and mangosteens.....


Pineapple, Phu An

.... coconuts and water coconuts, (a close relative producing smaller nuts but with the same flavour),...


Water coconut, Phu An

... dragon fruit budding from trailing cacti, guava, durian, pomelo and the strange an phuoc plums which had mystified us on our previous visit. There are salad plants and vegetables, too; sweet potatoes, taro, Indian spinach and lemon grass grow beside the path. The first time we visited the Mekong delta it felt like the Garden of Eden; nothing had changed.


The concrete paths through Phu An

Outside her home we found a woman peeling and stoning longans, the flesh destined for drying in a local factory. She worked quickly and deftly, her knife a razor blade mounted on a stick. She told Tai she was paid 5000 Dong (15p) for every kilo of fruit delivered - no wonder she worked quickly. She glanced at this photograph and grinned, her left hand already reaching for the next longan.
 
Peeling and stoning longans

Children on bicycles yelled ‘hello’ as they rattled past. A child on a verandah shouted ‘Hello Americans’, which we are not, but we smiled and waved anyway. Even his parents would have been born since the war.

A small shrine sits outside most homes and incense sticks are lit every morning to ensure good luck. Some homes have tombs in the garden, the ancestors may be dead but they are not forgotten and remain part of the family.


Household shrine, Phu An
At 12.30 – a more appropriate time for lunch in the western mind – we reached Le Longanier (The Longan) a restaurant occupying a colonial mansion on the edge of the village.


Le Longanier, Phu An

 
The spectacular elephant ear fish was the star of the show as it was last time we lunched by the Mekong, but the ‘exotic fruits’ were modest given the wealth of possibilities just outside the door.


Elephant Ear fish, Le Longanier, Phu An
 
We returned to our sampan and set off upstream. Checking our programme with Tai I discovered we had very different ideas about the cruise. I thought we were headed for Chau Doc from where we could cross into Cambodia, Tai thought we finished at Cai Rang, 200km south of the border.


We set off upstream
He phoned head office, and they phoned Phong back in Ho Chi Minh City. I am old enough to still be amazed by what you can do with a mobile phone even in the middle of a river. Calls went backwards and forwards, somebody in the boat company office was delegated to shoulder the blame, and eventually we all agreed on Chau Doc as our destination.

We cruised gently up the Mekong, passing houses and gardens, shacks on stilts, temples and churches. Barges laden with sand and gravel battered their way downriver while patches of water hyacinth drifted gently with the stream.  Water hyacinth is sometimes collected and anchored and the prawns, water snails and eels living among the roots are harvested.
 
Gravel barge, Mekong Delta

At 3.45 Tai brought us a tray of green tea with dragon fruits, rambutans, longans and tiny bananas. I have been unkind about dragonfruit in the past; despite its exotic looks, its flavour, to quote the Rough Guide, is ‘mild, verging on bland.’ I take it all back (well some of it); this fresh and this juicy, dragon fruit too are a delight.
 
Tea and dragon fruit

We moored at An Huu and walked up the narrow concrete path through the bustling market.


An Huu

Everybody wanted to say ‘hello’, but nobody was hustling or thrusting goods at us just because we were foreigners and so, presumably, rich. The market was packed with fruit, vegetable and trays of live chicks and ducklings. Tai bought a watermelon and a pineapple (for 10000 Dong - 30p) and we acquired some incense sticks to take home for Siân.


Rambutans, durians and incense, An Huu market
Beyond An Huu....


Leaving An Huu

.... the river became quieter, the banks wilder and the birdsong louder. The delta has a dense rural population and you cannot avoid people for long and soon we were passing more homes. As dusk fell, swiftly followed by darkness, we pottered between fish farms, or perhaps fish smallholdings, lining both sides of the stream.


The sunsets over the Mekong
Our captain swept the bank with a powerful searchlight, finally selecting what appeared to be a random piece of jungle and after a complicated parking manoeuvre we found ourselves alongside a rough bamboo jetty where a glowing red light indicated the presence of an electricity hook-up.

The boat carried a crew of four. The captain, like Tai was in his early twenties, the other three were teenagers.  Mostly they had little to do, but one of them had been busy in the galley. We dined on thick, tasty yam soup, spring rolls with the inevitable fish dipping sauce, tofu with chilli, prawns and mushrooms in a clay pot and finally the watermelon from An Huu. How it was produced under such cramped conditions, I do not know, but it was excellent. I was less enthusiastic about the complimentary half bottle of Da Lat red. Made from cardinal grapes (a variety widely grown in Europe and California, but only for table grapes) eked out with mulberry juice, it is said to be Vietnam’s best red. It is certainly the best wine to drink when no others are available


Dinner aboard the sampan

14/02/2014

The river is not an easy place to sleep. Boats come past at any time, the sound of their engines bouncing across the still water. Lynne snuffled and suffered with the cold she had picked up on the plane and I fought an endless battle with the mosquito net.
 
The Mekong at dawn

The morning, though, was serene and peaceful. A large red sun rose over the trees across the river and the water hyacinth floated gently upstream on the tide.

 
Sunrise over the Mekong delta
In the darkness we seemed to have moored by an electricity hook-up in the jungle, in the morning light it still looked like that. Tai arrived having spent the night in a nearby house, so civilization must have been close by, if hidden from view.

We set off while I was still in the shower. When I had finished we ate breakfast on the rear deck, the captain sitting on the ‘bridge’ above, navigating us upstream. Finding your way up a river sounds easy, but the Mekong delta has two main streams, which are huge, many dozens of smaller branches, which are still substantial, and thousands of backwaters. We were making for Sa Dec, which meant heading diagonally across the delta.
 

Past fish farms to Sa Dec
The youthful cook had produced a professional looking omelette.  There was the usual regrettable bread, pineapple jam that was more jam than pineapple, yoghurt and, almost unforgivably, synthetic orange juice. All shortcomings were redeemed by the fresh pineapple from An Huu market.

We reached Sa Dec at 8.00. French writer Marguerite Duras spent part of her childhood here and in 1929, at the age of 15, embarked on a doomed love affair with the son of a rich Chinese businessman. She tells the story in The Lover a semi-autobiographical novella published in 1984 and filmed, partly on location in Sa Dec, in 1992.


Arriving in Sa Dec
Our first stop, very near the jetty, was at the ‘Ancient Chinese House’ which, being a 19th century construction, was hardly ‘ancient’, but was once the home of Huynh Thuy Le, the real life lover of the teenage Duras. Both Tai and the guide at the house assumed we had seen the film - unlike most Vietnamese (the authorities consider the sex scenes too graphic). Actually neither of us has, but we have read the book (a self-indulgent analysis of a self-obsessed young woman – I hated it, though others clearly disagree as it won the Prix Goncourt).


The 'Ancient' Chinese House, Sa Dec
It is a pleasant old house, but did not detain us long and we left for a walk through the market, pausing as Tai bought star apples and mangoes. The variety of fruit and vegetables available was, as always, staggering, even aloes can be pressed into culinary service. Morning glory is a popular vegetable and is often sold chopped with banana flowers as a salad. The banana is a versatile plant, not only can the fruit and the flowers be eaten, but the inside of the young shoots is used as a vegetable.


Tai buys star apples, Sa Dec
There was plenty of fish available, but little meat as it was the first full moon after Tet (New Year) which is a time to abstain from meat.


Sa Dec
Leaving the market we turned down the main street, lined with frangipane, and then right again to complete a circuit back to the river. Tai dropped into a temple and made an offering to mark the day, and Lynne followed suit.


The appropriate thing to do on the first full moon after Tet

Back on the boat....


Returning to our boat, Sa Dec

... we continued north through the urban straggle, past a Cao Dai Temple and the ‘flower village’ which supplies the florists of Ho Chi Minh City – though the gardens were out of sight.


Cao Dai temple, Sa Dec

Beyond the houses a series of rice processing plants lined the bank. Conveyor belts churned out sack after sack of polished rice or spewed piles of husks onto waiting barges.


Rice polishing factories, Sa Dec

Brick works line the next section of river and the husks are used as fuel in their kilns.


Brick kilns, Sa Dec
Brick making is almost a cottage industry. The workers, overwhelmingly women, earn 80000 Dong (£2.50) for an 8-hour day. I imagined our daughter’s reaction when we were told they have two hours off at lunchtime to ‘go home and cook a meal for their husbands and children.’


Making bricks, Sa Dec

Back on board we had a cup of tea and ate the star apples. With a texture somewhere between pear and mango, they have an intensely sweet, milk-white juice (they are also called ‘milk apples’), but have no pronounced flavour.
 
Star apples


It took an hour to clear the urban/industrial straggle north of Sa Dec, but eventually we reached a stretch of water bordered by trees. Dwellings lurked among the vegetation, some simple shacks others much grander, though each had its own access to the water.
 
Each house has its own access to the water


For a kilometre or so every house harboured a squadron of pale coloured ducks who enthusiastically paddled out to meet us.


Greeted by ducks

We reached Chau Moi where one of the crew went ashore in the rowing boat to fetch our lunch - slices of barbecued pork in chilli and lemongrass sauce, fried fish in a rather over-salted batter, pak choi and rice.


Floating market, Chau Moi

From Sa Dec we had been following smaller, though still substantial channels. We now emerged into the main western branch of the Mekong, so immensely wide and deep that ocean going ships can dock here.


Ocean going ships, Chau Moi

The local ferries are bigger too, carrying cars as well as motorcycles, reminiscent of the Washington State Ferries.
 
Ferry, Chau Moi


We reached Tiger Island around 4pm. The plan was to row up a side stream, disembark, walk to the museum of Ton Duc Thang, Vietnam’s second president, walk through the village to a house which would provide our dinner, then be rowed back.

Like lunch, dinner would be a takeaway. We could have stayed on the island and dined there, but we were still four hours from our destination and it seemed better to leave at six and end the day’s sailing around 10.

Our plan was thwarted by water hyacinth. The side stream was already densely packed and as we watched, more and more drifted in. After some indecision we climbed into the small boat and set off. One lad stood at the back rowing with two oars in the local scissor-like manner, one sat at the bow clearing the way and a third gave advice. Tai’s job was to translate the advice so Lynne and I could nod sagely.

 

They made a valiant effort but we did not get far. A small barge carrying concrete slabs tried to go up the channel, but even with a powerful outboard it was beaten back.

 
If this couldn't get through, we had no chance

We tried to extricate ourselves by going round the edge of a fish farm, but the last three metres was just too tightly wedged. Other possible exits were barred by a fish trap, a sandbank and a banana trunk tethered across the waterway.


Working our way round a fish farm

We eventually squeezed our way free, then successfully fought through a smaller patch to the end of a long jetty. We disembarked right beside Ton Duc Thang’s museum and wondered why we had been bothering with the blocked channel.

 
Reaching the jetty, Tiger Island

Never had so many people made so much effort to get us to a museum dedicated to somebody we had never heard of.  It was closed by the time we arrived, though we were able to visit his shrine and light an incense stick. Ton Duc Thang became president of North Vietnam on the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969 and then of a united Vietnam from 1976 until his own death, aged 91, in 1980. During his time in office the presidency was largely a ceremonial office and he was never a key policymaker.


Ton Duc Thang's Museum, Tiger Island
 

Tai’s bowing in front of the great man’s bust inevitably reminded us of North Korea and our being required to bow to the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The Vietnamese version is much more modest and there was no pressure on us to bow. Afterwards we walked through the village. Unlike North Korea it was not a show village and was full of normal people, many of whom were the keen to say ‘hello’ and offered us big, beaming smiles.
 
The village, Tiger Island

Having secured the boat the crew caught up with us and we walked along like minor celebrities with a small posse of minders. 

The house that was providing our dinner was a solid wooden construction behind a beautiful garden. We sat on the verandah, drank tea and ate sweets while the crew rounded up our food and took it back to the boat.


The house that provided dinner, Tiger Island
In due course we followed them and found the captain had managed to bring the large boat to the jetty. We hopped aboard and set off.

Our Valentine’s Day dinner was eaten at the stern of the boat as we slid up the now dark Mekong under a full moon. Pumpkin soup with pork balls, stewed pork with pineapple and pork in a clay pot with fish sauce was perhaps an overly piggy feast, but there was also a fish lying on a bed of chopped tomatoes. With papaya to finish there was enough food for four, and we washed it down with a half bottle of Da Lat white, a wine which makes Da Lat red seem classy.

We pottered on for some time in a narrower channel some 50m wide through an urban and then suburban landscape. Karaoke bars are popular throughout Vietnam, and we could hear each one for 200metres either side. The standard of singing plumbed depths even for Karaoke and every time we passed one we hoped the captain would not stop here.

We eventually moored within earshot of, not karaoke, but a live performance of Vietnamese folk music. The music was pleasant, the singing in tune but it finished at 10.30 – early to bed, early to rise is the Vietnamese way.

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