The Mekong River is the 12th largest river in the world. Its source waters lie in the Himalayas, and it runs through six countries by the time it empties into the ocean. Just after flowing into Vietnam it becomes alluvial spreading out into many branches, bringing with it the soil and by-products from the many countries before it.
In our brief time we spread out as much as possible to get flavors live in the Mekong Delta.
|The Buddha of the Past||The Buddha of the Present||The Buddha of the Future|
We entered the Vinh Trang Pagoda complex with three massive Buddha statues. The Buddha of the past, present and the future. “Why does the Buddha’s have long ear lobs?” “To demonstrate longevity. This was the first time we had seen all three representations of Buddha. After we removed our shoes we entered the temple. The central alter also showed all three Buddhas. Along the walls were statues of arhats, each demonstrating different hand gestures and holding symbolic artifacts such as a book, a staff, a pen, etc.
Touring Ben Tre was quaint; however it felt more like a show. We tasted local honey and saw performers. A handout showed all the miraculous cure-all properties of this honey ranging cures for cancer, diabetes, hepatitis A,B,C, and D, to helping with infertility and menopause.
After the tasting and show we had the opportunity to purchase this miraculous product. While mulling over our decision we were treated to a show with traditional folk music and instruments.
We then hustled along the narrow pathways between farms to a canal where we got a 15 minutes sampan ride through a coconut forest to our next destination: The Coconut Candy Factory.
The coconut candy process
|Dehusk a coconut, crack the shell, and pouring the coconut water into bin|
|Put the flesh into a shredder|
|Press the flesh to harvest the coconut milk|
|Mix the coconut milt together with rice four and malt while heating.|
|Shape the caramel-like substance into long strips. Chop into bite size pieces. Wrap with 1 rice paper and regular paper.|
The entire process was done by hand. The samples were good (all 6 flavors: Plain, Coffee, Chocolate, Cassava leaf, Durian, and Eucalyptus)
We boated over to Turtle Island for an elephant ear fish lunch.
Homestays have been rewarding on this trip and staying at Hung’s Homestay was no different. Chao, our host, included all the guests in the cooking process. We made Bun Xeo (rice pancakes) with vegetable fillings and freshly wrapped spring rolls and steamed red tilapia. Even though we already had a cooking class, we still had technical difficulties.
After dinner they shared local rice wine from a plastic bag with the group. We had a great discussion with five Polish people, one Australian, and our host Chao. Meeting other people, locals and travelers alike provides great perspective and is one of the joys of homestays.
I took a 5:30 am walk along the dirt road in front of our homestay. The town was already alive with activity. I watched a small family refresh its alter and give a prayer to the ancestors. This is a common practice in Vietnam. Even though tour guides and statistics alike say most people don’t believe or are non-affiliated, almost everyone lights incense and stocks an alter. It may be for luck, for the ancestors, for exercising mindfulness about the day. Business owners bless their building, street cart pushers light an incense before starting to sell, even taxi drivers will have a small alter on their dashboard.
After a quick breakfast we headed by boat down a small tributary to meet up with our group. Along the way we could see how close and intertwined everyone’s life was with this river. Houses hung over the side just inches above the water level. Kitchens dipped down into the water for washing and food preparation. Water from showers gushed into the river. Fishermen, already back from their work, bathed. Barges went up and down carrying sand, bricks, and stone.
Our group headed towards the floating market. Our boat was as wide a bus, and half as along. As we approached, small sampans pulled along side to offer coconuts, soda, beer, coffee, fruit. Each sampan had a driver and another to collect money and sell goods. Sometimes they held on to our boat while it pushed towards the market, other times they had a boarding hook and just latched on. The closer to the market we got, the more sampans swarmed us. At any given time we had 3-4 sampans attempting to sell their wares to us. We caved and got two coconuts as we heard they were a different variety (and how could we go wrong with a little electrolytes).
This wholesale floating market opens at four each morning. Larger boats were loaded with supplies. A tall bamboo poll showing their products could be seen from a distance. Smaller boats traveled to and from the larger boats buying those items. It was mostly fruits and vegetables, but some housewares and grains were for sale as well. Along the side of the marker were floating restaurants. Sampans pulled up for coffee, pho, and bun minh. Our group got the privilege of boarding a pineapple boat to see what life was like. Each boat was an all purpose vessel. It served as home, storefront, and transport. We even saw dogs on board.
Since we started at 7am, it was still early so our guide took us to a rice noodle factory. Not all vendors sold their items on the floating market. Quite a few vendors lined the path we took to the noodle factory.
|Mixing rice flour water and tapioca starch|
|According to our guide only women spread the mix on the plate and steam. She said it was too difficult for the men to do.|
|Sharleen rolled up the pancake like noodle from the steamer with a bamboo rolling pin and then unrolled it onto a bamboo drying rack|
|The drying racks then dry in the sun|
|After they are dry, they are are collected and put through a shredder. One person feeds and the other has to catch the noodle at the right moment.|
|The noodle is twisted once and placed upon a scale to get the right amount into each package.|
|Packaged for sale. According to our guide, this is the 4th generation to own this factory. Moreover, Ms Tram said they have been making noodles this way in the Mekong for over a 100 years.|
After the market we visited a “Tropical Garden”. This was a place to try local delicacies: frog, bird, rat, snail, and snake, as well smoothies. Sharleen and Kylie tried frog, but couldn’t bring themselves to eat the snake after witnessing how the live snake got whacked on the table and thrown into the fire pit. Declining the country rat was easy. Alyssa and I opted for a bicycle ride through local pathways.
The area was a labyrinth of paths, rivers, and small foot bridges. We coasted through duck and chickens, small gardens, and family construction projects. Fruit trees were everywhere. Eventually we came to our destination – a Ficus Micropola, a Vietnamese heritage tree. Vietnam’s department of conservation and environment labels trees over 150 years of age as heritage trees. This particular tree (a variety of banyan) looked marvelous. There were alters and warning about damaging the tree. Apparently a few years back someone cut the tree for wood and received a healthy dose of bad luck. The way back was not clear, our guide got lost six times and had to ask for directions.
We piled back in the boat and headed for lunch and to our next stop.