Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Floating on the Mekong Delta

I signed up for a guided day trip down to the Mekong Delta with Intrepid Travel, woke up early and took a leisurely walk down to the Opera House in the center of Ho Chi Mingh city to meet my group and get things started. The drive down was comfortable and our friendly guide tried to keep a nice balance between entertaining us and leaving us alone to sleep. We arrived at the docks, boarded our little boat and headed for the islands. 

Our guide showed us how people live and work along these waters, where the main focus is food production and where every scrap of land is used to grow something. They showed us how people dig out makeshift ponds near their homes to keep fish and help irrigate the land, as well as a wide variety of fruit trees that are grown in the area. We also visited a small honey farm where we got to stick our fingers directly into the hives for a taste of the freshest honey possible and where we were treated to a local drink consisting of that honey, a sprinkle of bee pollen, kumquat and green tea. Yum!

One island down we were shown all the different fruit trees and then a lovely spread was set up in front of us so we could try them all. The table below shows the following in counter clockwise order: jackfruit, sapodilla, dragon fruit, lady finger bananas, and pineapple. A dish with regular and spicy salt sits in the middle and you can dip all the fruit into it, just like the locals do. I have to say that these tiny bananas taste a million times better than their full size counterparts back home.

As this was a guided tour, a performance of some sort was inevitable and while we munched on the fruit, a few musicians and singers came out to show off the local instruments and songs about various family members and home. A lot of locals came from somewhere else and songs that reminded them of home were a way to keep the sadness away while toiling in the fields as well as inspired camaraderie. It was interesting how even though we didn't understand a single word of what was sung and despite the fact that this is probably the umpteenth time these women had to sing these songs for tourists, the feelings of longing and hope still came through.

At the next island we learned how coconut candy is made. Shredded coconut gets squeeeeeezed in these massive presses until all the oils and juices are released. This liquid then gets cooked over a fire until it caramelizes, poured onto mats to cool and then quickly cut and wrapped by hand. Everything is done in the same room by a group of workers who gossip and sing songs to make the time go by faster.

Despite the fact that we'd spent the whole morning munching away, there was still room in everyone's tummies by the time lunch rolled around. We were seated family style around the table and a couple of lovely ladies picked apart the garlicky elephant fish into spring rolls, passed around seasoned rice bowls, noodles, corn soup and other finger foods for us to try. The fish was by far my favorite though.

After lunch we made our way down to the rowboats and leisurely floated downriver among the water coconut trees. This felt a little like the boat ride I took a few months prior in New Orleans to see the gators, and I got a bit nostalgic about home.

Back in open waters we swapped our row boat for the motorized version from the start of our trip and began to make our way back, passing the island where Uncle Hai created and practiced the Coconut Religion.

An engineer in his younger years, Uncle Hai constructed several structures on the island, including a floating Christian-Buddha Pagoda and a helipad in hopes that he could invite world leaders to the island and solve the peace problem in Vietnam. No one ever came, but that didn't stop several thousand people from following the monk's preaching. He himself followed a strict coconut-only diet believing that it will keep him pure, and polygamy was practiced by his followers. Sadly the religion itself was dispersed several years after it's inception, but the structures he built remain on the island to this day.

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