Friday, March 19, 2010

A day in the Mekong Delta

The tour company van picked us up at the hotel in District 3 of Saigon at 0730. The van then proceeded all over District 1 picking up other tourists who would be joining us for the day. We thought the day trip would be in that van, but soon we were transferred into a larger tour bus with even more tourists. Three hours later we arrived in the Mekong Delta. There are all kinds of technical information I could provide about the Mekong River, but I will try to keep it short. The area we visited is called Ben Tre and consists of 3 islands.

The Mekong River separates into 9 large rivers when it reaches the delta. When high tide occurs on the local Pacific sea, the rivers literally back up and cause high tides on the rivers. We transferred from the tour bus to a large river boat and motored off down the river to where it branched off into yet another river. There we found the local floating market. The floating markets in Thailand are government operated, but the floating markets in Vietnam are individually owned and operated. Each family lives on their boat and has no home ashore. Whatever they have available to sell is placed on top of the boat each day. We saw pumpkins, lots of watermelons, pineapples, bananas, eggplants and other vegetables, and lots of rice. They also sell non-food items. Quite an interesting market.

On one boat a toddler was waiving madly to us. How cute.

Bill got a chuckle out of all the TV antennas on one of the islands. Our guide said that all those televisions and antennas had to be purchased off a boat at the floating televisions or antennas are sold in the village on the island; you can only buy them at the floating market.

The river boat stopped at an island and we trooped ashore for a complimentary treat of jasmine tea with local honey and coconut and ginger candy snacks. We re-boarded the boat and motored back to another island for a very interesting tour of a family-owned operation that displayed all the different things that can be made from rice. And rice is a very versatile plant. They showed us how to pop the rice in an enormous wok. Rice hulls are used to fuel the ovens and burners. The popped rice looked and tasted exactly the rice cakes sold in the US -- basically flavorless. Personally, the only way Bill and I think rice cakes are edible are if smeared with peanut butter and strawberry preserves. So much for being diet food.

We watched the production of different rice cakes that are flavored with sesame and local honey.....and those tasted very good. Another version of rice cake or rice cake candy is made by crushing the sesame flavored rice cakes into a coconut candy base. When it is all broken into tiny pieces and mixed with the liquid coconut candy, the sticky mixture is poured and pressed into a large square base and allowed to cool for just a few minutes. Then it is quickly cut into bars. When completely cooled, the small bars are sealed into individual small plastic bags. This family had a regular assembly line going on with these popular bars. Quite the Mom & Pop operation. Each small plastic bag was sealed by holding it over a tiny open-flame lantern. This was probably the most popular item sold in their small candy shop.

Next there was a demonstration of making rice paper. Rice paper is not paper like used with writing instruments. Rice paper is a food item. The rice is soaked for up to 2 days to get it very soft. It is then crushed and mixed with tapioca and water and sesame seeds and possibly other spices. The resulting liquid is spread over a hot stove surface into a large circle and covered with a bamboo "hat basket" for 40 seconds. The circle is then removed from the hot cooking surface and laid on a woven bamboo tray to cool and harden. The hardened circle of rice paper is now ready to be cooked. The best way to cook rice paper is to place it on a hot grill for a few moments or you can also cook over a hot stone oven or on a charcoal or gas grill. This tastes darn good and is much healthier than potato chips or fried corn chips. If it wouldn't cause packing problems for the airplane trip home, we would have bought some to cook on the grill on the boat later. Rice paper is also used in its pliable form to make spring rolls, which can be either eaten raw or fried or steamed.

The last demonstration was how to make a coconut candy that looked and tasted like caramel. Would have loved to buy some of that; but, again, getting it home would be a chore so we passed. Our tour group was again served complimentary jasmine tea and samples of all the various rice products. We were also offered the opportunity to taste rice wine, but Bill and I declined. Rice wine is placed in a glass jar or bottle with a cobra snake and various plants for "flavoring." The locals said it was okay to drink a thimble-sized cup of the rice wine, but warned everyone not to drink 2 thimbles of the wine or we wouldn't be able to walk back to the boat. Most of the other tourists sampled the rice wine, but my stomach is too closely associated with my eyes because there was no way I was drinking any liquid that had a dead snake soaking in it. There were smaller bottles of rice wine available for purchase, but we knew that would just be a problem with Customs. Besides, a dead snake in a bottle is not appealing on any level.

Back to the big river boat and motored up the main Mekong River a short distance to a third island. After an hour slowly moving up the narrow shallow waterway between the mainland and the island we reached a branch-off and were transferred to several smaller boats. Each boat was rowed by a man or woman standing on the rear of the boat and using 2 vertical oars in a circular motion. (Don't you just love my 50-cent hat!) This creek was very shallow, but it was obvious that the water level had very recently been several feet higher because the exposed sides were very wet and muddy. The only explanation was that it was low tide. Several times we met on-coming boats and thought there was no way we would be able to pass in the shallow, narrow creek; but each time was successful. Yep, our little boat was able to pass the guy in the photo on the right in that very narrow waterway.

Eventually we reached the disembarking point and hiked a short distance through the jungle to a road and found the restaurant for lunch. A fruit was served for desert. It tasted okay until I got a whiff of the smell. It was durian!!! And I really had no intentions of eating durians because they stink so dang much. The yellow edible part had been cut with straight edges so I didn't recognize it right away because it looked so different from what is sold in the supermarket in Malaysia. But that smell is unmistakable.

After lunch we rode bicycles back down a very narrow asphalt road to where the big river boat was waiting. By the time we made it back to the big river boat it was high tide. What a difference! The water was several feet deeper and flowing rapidly. An hour later we arrived back at the mainland and found the tour bus for the 3-hour drive back to Saigon. The bus dropped us off at the tour company office and we hailed a taxi. Three blocks later we bailed out of that taxi because it was apparent the driver had no idea how to find our hotel. We walked back to the tour company office and got them to get us a taxi driver who knew the location of our hotel. This taxi stuff is not always easy because many of the taxi drivers do not speak English.

We walked a few blocks and ate dinner in the Texas Bar and Restaurant. Tex-Mex and barbeque in Saigon; who would have thought? The food wasn't anything like home but not bad. At least in this bar the people spoke English. We were tired and although we would have preferred another Vietnamese meal we did not feel up to dealing with the language problem this evening. This was a very enjoyable day. I think it is kind of cool that we got to see the northern limit of the Mekong River when we visited Tongle Sap lake in northern Cambodia last month, and we got to see the southern limit of the Mekong River here in Vietnam. Plus, we got to see it in the Mekong Delta at both low tide and high tide conditions.

The next morning we flew to Hue.

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