Monday, 19 March 2012

Mekong Delta Serenity

Singed by our introduction to the madness of Mekong Delta highways, we decided to stick to the much calmer pace of the vast network of rivers and canals that make the delta the agricultural haven that it is known for.

Sunrise over the canals - Can Tho

Mekong Delta Barge overflowing with rice husks

We teamed up with our new friend Jason to hire a small boat and tour the river and canals around Can Tho. Our boatman didn't speak much English, but he had many other skills, such as driving a boat with one leg (a common sight among Mekong Delta boatmen) removing streamers of plastic tangled around his boat's propellor (sadly, another common sight), while discreetly fashioning increasingly elaborate origami-like decorations out of young palm leaves, to our surprise and delight.

One Leg Steering - Mekong Delta

Littered - Rubbish strewn throughout the Mekong River

Palm Leaf Cricket made by our multi-skilled boatman - Can Tho

We visited the floating markets of Cai Rang and Phong Dien, arriving at the break of dawn to witness the morning trade. Seasonal fruits and vegetables, direct from orchards and farms, filled the holds and piled high across the deck of many a boat, with samples of the cargo on display atop tall wooden poles to indicate what goods were on offer.

Wooden pole displaying goods on boat selling vegetables - Cai Rang Floating Market

We visited a workshop that made fresh rice noodles by hand, which was fascinating as I had no idea how these things were done. With the smoothness of cream, circles of thick rice flour water were steamed over cloth using the heat from burning rice husks. These were then rolled off and laid upon bamboo trays and then left to dry in the sun. When ready, the circular sheets were then passed through the cutter to make long thin noodles, fresh for the day's noodle soup vendors.

Steamy - Rice Noodle Making, Can Tho

Sundried - Rice Noodle Making, Can Tho

We next travelled to Vinh Long, finding a chilled out home stay (complete with swinging hammocks to simply melt into) on the Mekong River island of An Binh. We explored the bumpy roads and bridges of the village on a couple of rickety bicycles (flat tyres included), finding a relaxed sunset over river boats on the western shore. Some of the local villagers were also appreciating the views, while children were being fed dinner.

Sunset Over the Mekong Delta - An Binh

Sunset Dinner Smiles - An Binh

Well, some of them were being good; others much preferred playing games like sneak-up-on-the-foreigner-with-a-camera before running away squealing with laughter when Ben turned around, only to try and sneak up again.

Children trying to sneak by the camera - An Binh

Sunset Smiles - An Binh Island

The next morning we visited the Cai Be floating market, overlooked by a picturesque Catholic church. Despite arriving early enough, the activity here was a rather subdued. We later learned that only at certain periods of the year does the market become the colourful scene shown in brochures.

Catholic Church overlooking Cai Be Floating Market

Despite the disappointing market, we relished the journey through the orchard nurseries and coconut candy workshops, tasting a range of local fruits such as juicy longan, crunchy guavas, refreshing waterapples, creamy star apple (aka milk fruit), bittersweet pomelo, and of course freshly cut pineapples. We also sat down to try the intense fruity-flowery flavours of the local honey, chased down with a few shots of flavoured
ruou, Vietnamese rice wine.

Green Bananas

Freshly cut pineapple - Cai Be Floating Market

Busy Honey Bees - Mekong Delta

Returning to the homestay, we asked our host Thanh if we could help make dinner, hoping to score a little lesson in Vietnamese home cooking. However, we realised our chopping skills were severely lacking due to the fact that we hadn't really cooked for ourselves for two months (save one Thai cooking class where everything was mostly chopped for you), and with the strange cutting implements used in the Vietnamese kitchen we felt like total newbies.

Sawing Wood - Can Tho

The look Thanh gave us after butchering one set of vegies said it all, as she politely asked to just sit down and relax; in other words, she sacked from the kitchen. Crooked-cut veggies aside, home-cooked dinner was just what we needed after months of decadent restaurants and street food; healthy steamed fresh vegetables, winter melon soup, chicken stewed in a rich, dark broth, and fresh-from-the-river elephant fish rice paper rolls dipped in tasty nuoc cham. Yum!

Elephant Fish Rice Paper Rolls - Homestay in An Binh

We stayed up late chatting with our fellow homestayers, Jacques and Marianne, seasoned travellers who inspired us with stories of the Vietnam to come. So excited about this country.

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