Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I knew there would be lots of emails concerning my decision to stay onboard; so I set the alarm for 6 am. It’s like playing telephone tag on land; I write, they write back. But thanks to friends & associates, details are starting to fall into place.
The highlight of today’s 7 hour tour was to be a cruise down the Mekong River Delta (HCM-GW1) that departed at 7:15. James had saved a (handicapped) seat for Celeste & Bill in van #2; so I stuck with them. Each van carried 6 guests plus the driver (Luk) & guide (Khan). Husband & wife, Phyllis & Mickey, were in our van; as was Joanna (another single lady). It was already sweltering hot; & we had slathered ourselves down with sunscreen & bug spray (prepared for just about anything).
During our hour long drive, Khan gave us a lot of historical & economical information. We’d pass through farming areas, medium sized towns & several villages as we crossed the Mekong River over small bridges. At this early hour, the Vietnamese were just getting out starting their daily activities. I saw many impromptu roadside ‘kitchens’ serving breakfast. Some were just setting up their ‘lean-tos’ & laying out their fresh produce for sale. I noticed some had created their own ‘fly swatter’ out of a long pole with a plastic bag tied on the end. It was more to shoo them away than to actually kill anything.
We’d pass fields of beans, soybeans & rice in various stages of growth. In the middle of those rice fields, you occasionally saw burial sites. Some were very elaborate, always on the family property & always facing the same general direction.
At the halfway point we made a ‘happy stop’ at a roadside stand. Lacking a ‘western style’ toilet, it was an adventure within itself. I don’t think any of the ladies would have consider using these facilities had it not been for the fact that we were about to board a long boat for a few hours cruising down the Mekong River. At least it was a very modern, squat over, ‘hole in the floor’. There is no such thing as flushing. You had to dip a plastic scoop in a pail of water & pour it into the porcelain hole, gravity supposedly did the rest. Sometimes you gotta do, what you gotta do to survive!
After that stop, we passed through an interesting looking town of Cai Lay. One thing that was hard to overlook was the amount of garbage that was piled up on the sidewalks, along the sides of the roads & floating in the waterways. Putting that aside, being able to watch the Vietnamese go about their normal daily routine (through a speeding bus window) felt so exotic & strangely entertaining. They have the same ‘stuff’ to get done that we do. They just go about it in sometimes primitive ways. I wonder just how much their lives would change if they had some of ‘our’ modern conveniences available to them. They do not appear to be unhappy with their lot. Are they even aware of what’s missing in their lives? Could it be better, their way?
We soon arrived in the town of Cai Be, where we were to board ‘long boats’ for our river journey. All the vans arrived at the same time; & we were left in a holding pattern on a concrete platform until the boats were lined up. When I saw those steep steps with no hand railing, I wasn’t very happy; & I know Celeste was worried since she uses a cane. We were baking in the sun; & already swatting mosquitos. Oh, boy…
The boats were flat bottom, open sided, with woven roofs & seating was on 6 standard wooden ladder back type chairs. The chairs were not attached to anything, could be moved easily & once you sat down you didn’t dare move. If you got up & swapped seats to take photos on the other side, you were likely to tip over. And from the looks of the water, nobody wanted to end up in it.
You could tell it was very shallow; vegetation that was growing from the bottom was floating on the surface. Some people live on larger versions of these long boats tied up next to the shoreline. Others live in veritable shacks on stilts. We were able to peek into some of them with our telephoto lenses.
Vendors pile their wares & produce on boats; & travel up & down the river making stops to sell to whomever was looking to buy. You would see people squatting down on their back porches washing clothes in dish pans, and then laying them out to dry over a railing or an oar or something similar.
The first stop we made along the river was at a ‘candy’ factory. I was curious to see; but not exactly thrilled to have to climb steeper & even narrower concrete steps without hand railings. I could just see me losing my balance & falling in. For that reason, Celeste chose to stay on the boat.
This ‘factory’ took rice; & made it into so many different food products. They took some rice & stirred it into a huge wok-type vessel with black sand; & it turned into puffed rice. From that puffed rice, they made rice cakes. Take the puffed rice & add caramelized sugar; & it became logs of yummy candy.
They took rice cooked to nearly mush, spread it out very thinly on a griddle, cooked it until it looked like rice ‘paper’. They rolled it up on a dowel; lay it out on a drying rack; & it became rice chips.
They took rice; boiled it in a ‘still’ & out comes rice wine. Sometimes that rice is ‘seasoned’ with scorpions or snakes. Khan coerced a few into tasting the snake wine. One commented that it tasted like bad tequila. I’ll take their word on that. I was getting nauseated just looking at the bottles.
Another area of this ‘factory’ was taking grated coconut & the milk within; boiling it down; & making the most awesome caramel candies. And young women would sit there for hours on end, legs crossed; & hand roll each individual piece.
Once we made it through all of the assembly lines, we were treated to hot jasmine tea & samples of everything we saw being made. I would have killed for a few ice cubes (if I knew the water in those cubes wouldn’t kill me first).
Back down those scary steps; & we chugged down river to the next stop which was to visit a local farmer’s home. This time I chose to stay on the boat with Celeste (those steps were looking more & more deadly in my book). I turned my camera over to Khan; & asked if he would take a few photos for me.
The group made a short walk up the ‘road’ (more like a path for local traffic). I don’t know the circumstances of this ‘famer’; but his house looks like a mansion. They were able to see his groves surrounding this ‘mansion’. And they were treated to tea, pineapple, watermelon, jack fruit & baby bananas on some rather nice looking china. Khan was nice enough to bring back some jack fruit & banana for us to taste. My first taste of jack fruit; & I like it. The bananas, although ripe, weren’t that sweet; tasting more like a plantain.
We continued our river journey to a very exclusive resort, Mekong Riverside Resort, for a lovely buffet lunch. A very enterprising Australian woman came to Vietnam in 1994; & started the resort with only a few overwater type bungalows. It is completely self-sustaining. They process their own water, garbage, catch their own fish & grow their own vegetables. She’s slowly adding more bungalows; & from the looks of the restaurant, I’m assuming that the room rates are very expensive. It would be ideal for someone who wants to escape from the modern world. It is so far up the river; it’s in the middle of NOWHERE!
Our waiter made a big production out of taking the ‘meat’ from a whole fish (using chopsticks no less), adding vegetables & rolling the cutest rice paper rolls. Then he used scissors to cut off the heads & remove the shells from the most gigantic prawns; & presented them to us.
We then served ourselves from a luscious buffet of tropical fruits, exotic stir fried dishes & desserts.
We had a few extra minutes after lunch to take a look around at the grounds, which were ‘other-worldly’. The (thank God, western style) bathroom was super plush with the scent of tropical flowers floating in large bowls of water on the counters.
We boarded the long boats for the return trip back to Cai Be. Now that I had gotten over the culture shock of life on the river, I found myself looking more closely to what was going on in those structures on stilts along the river’s edge.
Things like grease-monkeys working on boat motors…….casket builders……people tending ‘gardens’ on their porches….people pulling up pails of river water to use for God knows what. I was experiencing so many emotions. These people had their basic needs met, but nothing more. The heat was certainly oppressive; the stench of garbage & muddy, fishy water was unsettling. It was slightly depressing; but somehow beautiful in the most simple way.
Every now & then, one would catch me taking a photo of them; & they would flash these big smiles. I wonder if they even gave a thought to what I must be thinking. Do they realize how ‘brutal’ this life appears to a Westerner? Life on the Mekong River seems to be stuck in a time warp of 100 years ago (maybe even centuries ago); & it was slightly disorienting getting back on a modern expressway heading to Ho Chi Minh City.
It was approaching the hottest part of the day; & we’d see people stretched out in the shade, resting. So many of the roadside eating establishments have no exterior walls; & you can see dozens of make-shift hammocks strung between the support posts. We passed several rice fields that were being burned off. We pulled into the port right at 2:30, just as the crew was taking down the ‘welcome home’ tent at the bottom of the gangway. We were the last tour coming ‘home’.
I went up to the cabin to finish filling out the Chinese visa application; & then took it down to the Reception Desk. Then up to the C.U. to talk with Jessie about adding to my internet package using the special rate plan they had offered to the other world cruisers. I grabbed the camera & then went out on deck 8 aft to watch as we sailed back down the Saigon River.We passed lots of fishing boats, fish farms, tankers & barges working their way up river. The sun was getting lower in the sky; & it was interesting watching the shape of the ship’s shadow change on the murky waters (sometimes, I’m so easily amused).
I came in & did some computer work; & Liz brought dinner at 8:30. I started with a salad of Boston lettuce, avocado & tomatoes with blue cheese dressing.
My main course was cod wrapped in prosciutto with creamy dill cucumbers & buttered potatoes.
For dessert, I had bittersweet chocolate mousse on a crisp chocolate rice cake with citrus segments.
I thought I’d transfer today’s photos to the computer before going to bed. I must have been running on ‘auto pilot’ because without thinking I disconnected the camera; & hit the erase button BEFORE I saved the photo files to the hard drive. Oh shit!!! 522 photos of life on the river……..gone. I thought to myself….Jessie was able to retrieve one photo that got erased at the start of the trip; could he work his magic & retrieve hundreds of them? It was just after 11pm; & everyone was gone from the C.U. It would have to wait until morning. Don’t panic. Take slow relaxing breaths……& then take half a sleeping pill!