Monday we arranged for a guided tour of the Mekong Delta. It was a wonderful excursion. It was just the five of us plus a guide and driver in a van. The two hour drive from Saigon to Cai Be, which passed through emerald green rice fields dotted with sarcophagi (above ground tombs), was made all the more interesting because of the many Saigoners who were loaded up on their motorcycles to return home for Tet (New Year). The road was jam packed with scooters heavily laden with 1-4 passengers with luggage and gifts tucked in-between. Tet is the one time during the year for many workers in Vietnam when they get a week off from work. It reminded me of pre-Thanksgiving or Christmas travel in the US or returning home (mudik) in Indonesia for family gatherings at the end of Ramadan.
We boarded a long boat that took us through the waterways of Cai Be. Our first stop was a water side complex that highlighted local food production. We saw how rice wine was made, how rice wine can be flavored by adding snake carcasses, scorpions or fruits, how rice paper (for delicious spring rolls) is made, how rice is puffed, and how grated coconut is turned into candy and caramels. Then we got to sample some of these treats including some jasmine herb tea.
We then passed through a floating market where boasts were laden with fruits and vegetables for sale. Then as we crossed out into one of the Mekong’s nine main distributaries (called the nine dragons) the kids all got a turn at driving the boat. We then boarded two smaller paddle boats (like gondolas in Venice), donned protective Vietnamese cone shaped hats and then cruised through the canals of one of the many Mekong islands. The water was more than six feet lower than the high water marks of docks and roots. When I asked the guide if this was just the result of it being the dry season he explain that the water level is lower that usual this time of year and he explained that dams upstream in China are the cause.
After our island canal float we walked a path through many fruit gardens—the main product of the island. I was in heaven. We saw durian blossoms and ripening durian fruit (this fruit smells to high heavens and is either loved or hated), papaya, jack fruit, red guava, longan, banana, and bread fruit. We then stopped at a patio of one of the farm houses to sample some of the local fruits. Yum!
We then boarded our original boat to traverse another Mekong channel to another island where we had a delicious lunch of grilled elephant ear fish (from the river) that was then rolled along with basil, lettuce and cucumber in rice paper to make a delicious spring roll. We all liked it. This was followed by rice with curry and stir fry and then pineapple and jack fruit for desert.
We then headed back to the van for the drive back to Saigon. Our guide was uncertain how holiday traffic would be so our day in the delta was a bit abbreviated from most tours to ensure we had enough time to be back on board well before the 18:00 deadline. We lucked out with very light traffic—everyone was headed out of the city not to it. Our only delay was being pulled over by a motorcycle cop. The driver knew exactly why—the cop wanted some money for new year’s, which he got. Corruption knows no boundaries.
Back in town we passed a government billboard that looked to me like it was Spratly Island related. We were just a few blocks from our port berth and so I set out with my camera. Next day in class, my Vietnamese student confirmed what I suspected. The woman’s heart are the Spratly islands—with oil derricks and protective ships and sailors to defend them (from the Chinese). Good stuff for my classes.
The plan was to set sail early the next morning, but strong river currents delayed our departure until 11:00. After my 11:00 class and lunch I head up to the very windy top fore deck to watch the remainder of our four hour sail down the Saigon River. It was a busy day. We passed two container ships along the way. More than once I wondered if passing big ships would collide or if small fishing boats would be plowed under, but no collisions happened. At one point the ship’s photographer mentioned that it sounded like we were passing a bird preserve. I could hear the birds but not see them. Then further down stream I noticed tall cement buildings with no doors and only tine openings. I wondered what they were. Then I heard the bird sounds and remembered once reading about such structures built for swift birds to build their nests of saliva These nest are then gathered and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine and in expensive bird’s nest soup. Once upon a time these nests were only harvested from large caves in Borneo, but increasing demand has led to innovative ideas and new jobs for Vietnamese villagers.
That night there was a nice sunset on the South China Sea followed by the bedtime appearance of dozen of fishing boats.