Friday, 1 February 2013

Homestays, Elephant Ears and The Mekong

Craig Writes: A 7.30am start for our two hour drive to LonGan, the first province in the Mekong Delta. Here we catch our private boat for a four hour trip up the Mekong River. Our destination is Vinh Long, third province and the destination for our home-stay. There were to be various stops along the way. This trip reinforced my understanding of how ingenious these people are. They use every opportunity Mother Nature gives them to feed, house and protect themselves. There isn't a pond, a stream or a lake that doesn't have fish in it. Outside of the Mekong Delta, catfish is the preferred fish of choice. In the Mekong Delta, it's Elephant Ear fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If they don't have a pond to farm a fish they'll dig one in from the nearest source of water. If there's a bit of land they'll plant something on it, rice, bananas, guava, something.
The Mekong River is 4350 kms long. It starts in the Qinghai province in South East China and flows through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam draining into the South China Sea just south of Ho Chi Minh city. It varies in width from 1 to 5 kms and serves the complete needs of the Mekong Delta. A 14,000 sq mile district broken into 13 provinces with a population of 18 million people. They live, bathe, farm, transport their goods and play in it, on it and along the entire length of it. A popular crop along the shore line are water hyacinth. There everywhere. The leaves they use to feed their pigs and the roots are dried to weave into handbags.
Life by the Mekong
Life in the Mekong
Water Hyacinth; hand bags just waiting to be made
Our first stop was an Asian candy store unlike anything you would see at home. First we watched them make rice popcorn. You start with buckets of black sand pulled from the river and super heated in an enormous wok. When its ready they add ladles of rice with the husk freshly removed. Bingo, within seconds it starts popping like a fiend, and like rabbits out of a magicians hat, suddenly appear hundreds of bouncy white rice puffs. It is then sifted to remove the black sand and any remaining husks. They reuse the black sand. Once it's cooled they add honey, sesame seeds and nuts. Brilliant. They use the husk from the rice to fuel the fire. Same when they make the candied coconut. The coconut husk and shell are used to fuel the fire that heats the pans. 
Super heated black sand
From boring  rice to poprice
The finished product with some sweet, sweet tea
They had some large glass jars of snake wine and rice wine brewing. I gave the snake wine a miss and opted for a small thimble of the rice wine. 40 percent proof. Kapow! And what candy store isn't complete without a 10 foot python. Of course you can't walk pass the opportunity when the friendly candy man offers to drape it over your shoulders. Callum went first, tentative, but he did it. Good on ya buddy. When they drape the monster over your shoulders the first thing you realise is how heavy it is. As soon as it lands on you you can feel the first gentle squeeze as it starts to slither and wind itself around your body. You certainly get the impression its feeling you out, positioning itself in case you make to sudden a move. It gave my leg a pretty friendly squeeze. Just enough to give you a bit of an idea of what it could do if it wanted to. 
40 proof snake wine, it's got real bite. (sorry)
This looks one small squeeze away from a curtain call
Careful fella, that's my ticklish spot
Charlie prefers his snake a little off the shoulder
Further up the river it was into a tropical fruit farm for a tasting of Jack fruit, plums (best eaten with chilli salt) tiny bananas the size of your thumb and as sweet as honey, guava, watermelon and papaya . The locals put on a little show here. Three musos and three singers. It wasn't Vegas but they put everything into it. Acting out their roles of the farmer lamenting the late arrival of his tardy wife with his lunch or the two young lovers hunting for crabs and fish. They went for it like it was Simon Cowell sitting in front of them, not just four anonymous tourists from down under. I thought they were brilliant.
Back on the boat and I sat up on the bow for a while. So nice to have a fresh strong breeze in my face and not the steady fug of recycled bike fumes that comes through the minibus aircon. As we turn into a narrow tributary we jump over the corrugated wake of another boat turning in front of us to rejoin the Mighty Mekong. It was packed tight with day tourists. As we were over-nighting we had our boat to ourselves. Once we've turned off the main river we slow to a crawl. The water is only about 50cm deep and littered with debris from the locals who live along it's banks. Our driver negotiates carefully to avoid getting anything wrapped around the propellor, unsuccessfully as it turns out. He has to jump into the muddy and ugly water to pull out metres of colourful plastic from around the propeller. In the meantime we literally get passed by an old man in a Zimmer boat . This ancient fossil of a fella sits bent at the front of his decrepit old vessel. It looks like it may have been a life boat off Noahs Ark. He slowly glides by us with slow, casual strokes of a paddle. Pushing himself off the bottom of the river. He doesn't bother to look at us.
Propeller Food
"Eat my wake people"

With the propellor free we're off but its slow going and the fresh breeze has long gone. The way here is very narrow with relatively steep sides. It must be a significant short cut to go through here. We finally break through the other side onto a more major tributary and the air suddenly clears. Here for lunch and our first taste of Elephant Ear Fish, crispy skinned and delicious. The meat comes off the bones cleanly and you roll in in rice paper with cucumber, mint and lettuce then dip it in a sweet chilli sauce. Mighty fine. The flesh is sweet, flaky and delicious. A most unusual fruit for desert. Its called Longan, or Dragon Eyes. All I can say is check out the photo. Damn freaky.
Apologises for this, it's off.
Elephant Ear fish, very tasty
The homestay was more a B and B or a guest house. We were expecting to schmoose with the locals, have long chats over dinner and a few carafes of rice wine. Find some kind of cross cultural common ground to bond over and leave with fond memories of getting drunk and falling out of a coconut tree. But alas no. We got to make some spring rolls in their kitchen but that was it. Then it was out on our lonesome in the dining pagoda under a ceiling fan sipping on a warm Tiger beer and eating more Elephant Ear fish. The CVW'S still had fun though.
The homestay
Oh, how we laughed
Up early the next morning for a quick trip back down the Mekong to a local brick factory built on the banks of the river. Another step back in time. This must be where Fred and Wilma bought there bricks from. They pull the mud from the river then mould it into whatever kind of brick they want. Its dried for a few days in the sun then placed into these enormous kilns and baked for 10 to 15 days. The kilns are fuelled by nothing more than rice husks. A literal mountain of the stuff. See the photo. 
Bedrock Brick Kilns
He's there to stop the chooks eating the furnace fuel
Thanks for the tour  people
From here it was a trek back to the Family Inn. Early night and off to the the airport the next morning. It was a sad farewell to Vietnam but definitely not goodbye. We'll be back. 

Some Closing Observations;
  • They drive like maniacs
  • They have no fear
  • Their coffee tastes like strong cocoa
  • No one has a beard - they call it "special hair"
  • There are no fat Vietnamese 
  • Their resilient, inventive and very resourceful
  • If you stand still for too long in one spot they'll grow something on you
  • There are more motor bikes than flys
  • Its better to be a pet in the south than the north
  • Saigon is beautiful , Hanoi is not
  • You can run your bike on rice wine if you have to
  • Stuff is cheap
  • Food is fantastic
  • Vietnamese girls can be stunners
  • There is something amazing, bizarre and surprising around every corner
  • There is no malice here
  • There are no slackers here
  • They smile all the time

1 comment:

Sally said...

Ok Craig . I am into your blog. I am loving it. Am discovering memories of things I have seen and places I have been. Regretting some things I have missed. In awe of how your trip was so amazingly planned. Keep the posts coming.