Guavas: Good for Boom-Boom

29 12 2010

We got up early, had breakfast with the rest of the tour group, and then set off in the boat once more to what I hoped would be the highlight of the trip – the floating markets. We motored past shanty towns alongside the river before we reached a busy junction where hordes of boats pressed together in a traffic jam. By the looks of it, most of them were tourist vessels and not really part of the market.

Houses along the river

Unlike the floating markets of Thailand, this one wasn’t really designed to sell to tourists. Instead it was more of a wholesale market – market traders would come here early to pick up supplies for their stalls. Most of the boats just sold one fruit or vegetable: as advertised by a sample vegetable mounted on a stick of bamboo at the back of the boat. Some boats were more diverse in their offerings – they might have carrots, onions and garlic for example. My camera (which seems to be progressively getting more unreliable with the focus – perhaps the repair in Taganga, Colombia wasn’t quite as good as I thought or maybe it’s just been overused) seemed to pick the most inopportune moments to stop focussing.

Floating markets

Overall, however, it wasn’t the photographic opportunity that I expected and although it was nice to see a real, working floating market in action I was quite disappointed.

Prepping cabbage to sell

After the floating markets we stopped off so that people could go to the happy place and get some much needed refreshments. I had my second iced coffee of the day to make up for the ungodly start. We also got to see them making rice paper and noodles but since I’d seen similar sights in Cambodia it no longer held much interest for me. There was a little boy there playing with a gun – I think it was a toy but it looked quite authentic from a distance.

Boy with gun

Somehow, as we left there, we managed to leave Audrey, Carol and a Canadian guy behind – luckily some other boat gave them a lift to our next stop: a tropical fruit farm. Here Cung treated us to another one of his sage comments: “This is guava tree. Guava is good for boom boom.” There was also a monkey bridge there – I expected this to either have monkeys or a monkey motif but it was just a bridge that allegedly makes you look like a monkey when you walk across it. I don’t think I looked particularly simian as I crossed it but I’ll leave that for you to judge.

Monkey bridge

After wandering around the tropical fruit farm for a while we headed back to Cantho for lunch. I decided to get a mani-pedi from a woman in one of the alleys (once again inviting a healthy dose of mickey-taking from Becky for using the term “mani-pedi”) – I think I managed to get it done for $1 and it only took about 10 minutes.

Pineapple plant

After lunch we all clambered back onto the bus for our long trip back to Saigon. Cung treated us to a few more gems of wisdom where he told us about how Vietnam was going to the number 1 rice producer in the world shortly because China had just dammed a river that was going to limit Thailand’s ability to grow rice. This was followed by one of his standard retorts “Sorry, Thailand. Thank you, China”. As we got off the bus, Audrey came over to us. Apparently her and Carol had fallen out so we said she was welcome to join us for a drink later in the Go2 bar where we’d most likely end up.

After checking back into what was fast becoming our home-from-home – the Beautiful Saigon hotel – we met up with Becky’s friend, Rohit, who’d just flown in from India that day. We pretty much camped out in the Go2 bar for most of the evening – Audrey joined us briefly and decided to come with us to Mui Ne the next day – and managed to rack up a bill of 1.6million dong. It’s not often that you can say you spent more than a million in a bar in one night (even if it is only $80). Rohit was a good laugh – although there were a couple of times during the evening I felt completely excluded from the conversation. Rohit and Becky hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years and were catching up on all the gossip about people from their MBA course. I was glad they got most of it out of their system on the first night!





Crocodiles Like Americans

28 12 2010

I had a burning desire to see the Mekong Delta – in my imagination it represented the true Vietnam. I envisaged boatloads of Vietnamese in conical hats plying their trade along the murky brown waters of the Mekong; their boats brimming full of colourful exotic fruits; and strange birds flitting across the river from their perches in the verdant jungle. In some ways my mental picture wasn’t that wrong – there were conical hats aplenty and there were boats full of fruits and vegetables but often just one of a kind in each boat and the colours were muted by the gloomy skies. The trees too were devoid of any fauna whatsoever, probably due to the densely packed shanties clustered around the river and the Vietnamese habit of eating literally anything that moves.

Menu in Cantho

We were once more on a big tour bus – the Lying Planet had recommended this as the best way to get around the remote areas – and I really do loathe being part of a big tour group. Fortunately our guide Cung was very amusing, although his Vietnamese accent was quite thick so it sometimes hard to understand what he was saying. “Now we stop at a red room if you wan’ pee pee.” The red room was also often referred to as the “happy place”.

It took us a long time to leave the congested streets of HCMC behind and we kept making additional stops at hotels along the way to pick up more passengers. At one stop I saw the crazy preacher man who had assailed Becky the day before with his impromptu sermon. In his black suit, a copy of the Bible ensconced under his arm and a candle in hand, he would approach random victims in the street and spew forth of torrent of biblical quotes – “We come from dust and we return to dust.” I doubt that his sermons converted any people to his cause, but it was another fine example of the quirky folk who throng the streets of Saigon.

 

The Preacher man

We finally got outside the city and, after a few hours driving, arrived in the Mekong Delta. Our first port of call was a stop for some tea whilst we listened to a traditional Vietnamese folk music band. They actually weren’t that bad and seemed to be putting their heart and soul into it: I still wasn’t going to buy the CD though. We met Audrey (French) and Carol (American) here when they joined Becky and me at the table. It seemed quite an odd-pairing so I wasn’t surprised to hear that they’d just met travelling – working with elephants in Thailand. Carol was very interested to hear my stories about my volunteer work with lions in Africa and kept making notes.

The highlight of the day was probably the slow boat trip down the Mekong river – but it fell far, far short of my trips down the Amazon or in Borneo. They gave us little conical hats to wear; which I absolutely loved. I’d been threatening Becky for days that I was going to buy one myself and wear it everywhere. At least now I got my conical hat fix without looking like an embarrassing tourist for weeks. As Carol stepped onto the boat she dropped her sunglasses over the side and watched them sink into the turbid depths, but we heeded Cung’s instructions not to put our hands over the side of the boat: “Crocodiles like Americans but when crocodile hungry he’ll eat anyone.” I doubt that there were really many crocodiles left: most of them have probably found their way onto a restaurant menu somewhere.

 

Me on the boat trip

It was then time for a stop at a place where they made coconut candy and various honey products. We watched them rolling out the sticky sweets and got to sample one, but I think the hope was that we’d also purchase some to take home as gifts. There was a python there which they handed around for people to put around their necks and, of course, I was once again keen to do it: although I had to wait for some kids to finish with it first. Being a big kid myself, I pouted when they took ages to hand it over.

Me with python

After a bit of a wait, we got a motorised boat to turtle island where we got some lunch. I found the portions a bit small so I also ordered some spring rolls. The menu included something else called pre-made spring rolls – I couldn’t really work out what that meant until mine turned up. I had a pile of rice papers, some meat, some noodles and bushes of various herbs and had to assemble them myself. They were very tasty and it was fun picking random combinations of herbs to give each roll a different flavour.

We got back on a boat and got dropped off to pick up the bus. The bus wasn’t there yet so I fed my Vietnamese coffee addiction with another iced coffee before it turned up. We then had a short drive to a pagoda; where a huge fat laughing Buddha gazed down from on high. I couldn’t go in the pagoda itself – there was a big sign saying “no shorts”; although I noticed quite a few of the other tourists ignored it. From there it was a long bus journey to Cantho where we would be spending the night; we spent most of the time slumbering. At one point Cung woke Becky up so she could help him with his wordsearch puzzle – he’d found all the words but there was another word that could be made up out all the uncrossed words that related to the TV show, Jersey Shore. We gave up in the end and handed it to Carol and Audrey who solved it in a few minutes – helped by Becky’s knowledge of the show. Our efforts had been impeded by the fact that Cung hadn’t written down all the letters correctly so we couldn’t get the anagram at all.

 

Fat Buddha

 

After we’d checked into our basic hotel for the night Becky and I wandered around town and then went to a local restaurant just next to our hotel. I decided to order my food in Vietnamese and requested Bò Lúc Lắc which, according to the English translation next to it, was beef rolls. I was appalled when I got a plate of diced steak with chips – Becky laughed and said that they hadn’t understood me and had just given me the Western default. I found out a few days later that the menu was actually translated incorrectly and they had transposed the translation of beef rolls with the translation of beef with chips – which the Vietnamese actually do eat. So I had got what I ordered in Vietnamese after all.

We had quite a few beers there – Cung even bought us a Tiger for our help with the wordsearch – and Cung kept coming around feeding us multiple shots of banana wine. We also had a long chat to a Vietnamese guy who had been in the marines fighting alongside the Americans during the war and chatted briefly to an English couple who sat down much later. We both had food envy: they’d ordered a big hot pot of food where you cooked the beef yourself in a hot vinegar – it looked a gazillion times more interesting than my beef and chips. Finally we turned in, ready for our extremely early start the next day.