the nothing whatever...

Mekong Delta

The place that we were staying offered their own service for a guided homestay tour of the Mekong Delta, but we instead decided to go with the Lonely Planet recommended “Sinhbalo Adventures”. Although Sinhbalo was double the price and seemed to be offering essentially the same things, we figured that you get what you pay for, and the Lonely Planet was yet to steer us wrong.

We met our guide, Nam, a name that was easy to remember considering where we were. He was about 65 and spoke very good English, even if he was a bit prone to repeating himself. We might have been imagining things, but we both sensed that he still held a mild contempt for those residing in the north of the country. On the bus ride to Ben Tre’ where we were to be boarding our boat, he would say things like “South Vietnamese farmer always happy, they do the fruit farm and the fish farm because of hot climate. North Vietnamese farmer always frowning, never happy. He just work hard in the rice fields, in the rice fields, so he never happy, always frowning, the North Vietnamese farmer”. If he was 65, that would have made him around 14 when the war began, and nearly 30 when it finished, so even if he could not directly address his open sores (any sort of action against the state is likely to see you in prison) I would imagine that there would still be a residual resentment that would be hard to let go of, especially for those who lived through it and perhaps fought in it.

There were four of us taking the tour, Nic and I and two other German backpackers, and our boat was enormous considering it was just the four of us. We lay back in the deckchairs as Nam talked us through the upcoming activities in the next few days, seeing the coconut candy workshop, taking a tour of the fruit farms and fish farms and trying the produce, the homestay and the food we would be eating, and the Mekong Delta floating markets.

Our first port was the coconut candy workshop, which had some interesting moments, but I saw it mainly as a side effect of the tourist trails throughout the area and nothing really telling about the people or the culture. Nam confirmed my suspicions when he said that a few years ago there was nothing in that location except people farming, but then during the off season for fruit and rice production the farmers wanted to earn extra income, so they set up a few stalls selling various forms of their product. The farmers next to them saw what they were doing, and did the same, and before long, the entire town operated on two sources of income, that generated by tourism and also their original farming income, and now the reason for seeing that particular attraction is no longer for traditional farming, more for profits made through referral, and, for some reason, he didn’t seem too impressed about it. How the flow of money changes a place.

We got to try pretty much everything in all of the workshops for free, and then had the option to buy. Nic and I bought some peanut coconut candy as well as an all natural popped rice-crispy square. How they pop the rice is pretty cool, heating up black sand until it is incredibly hot, then pouring the raw grain in with the sand, making it go off like popcorn. As you might expect, it was more effective and less wasteful than popping the rice with oil. It finished a kilo of rice in about twenty seconds, then they sifted the fine sand from the popped grain, put the sand back in the giant upside-down bell thing that they used to heat it, and it was ready for another batch. For what it was, it was impressive.

There was one particular product that Nam was most fond of, saying that it had been a silent contributor to Vietnam’s rebuilding and rapid growth over the last twenty years. In the corner of the coconut candy workshop there were a few clear plastic containers containing various shades of yellow liquid, and also another container that looked like some sort of reptilian preservation tank, and a few shot glasses laid out on a tray. Nam spoke about how after the war, the farmers would work hard all day in the rice fields, and then when darkness would fall they would have nothing to do as there was no power, no tourism and such a sparse population resulting from all the casualties. So they would drink wine and then go to bed early with their wives, and (Nam nudging me with his elbow) “grow da population”.

Nam poured us glasses of both the rice wine and the fruit wine, saying that they were about 30% alcohol (even though they tasted about 100%) before telling us about the science experiment in the next container. Snake wine is made by brewing rice wine or fruit wine, then catching a live Cobra in the rice fields and throwing it in the wine to get it drunk. Snakes are very angry drunks, Nam informed us, so while they are ingesting all the alcohol, they spit out their venom into the wine. Bunches of Chinese herbs that are used for flavor, joint aches and pains (from working in the rice fields) and virility are thrown in also, before the snake eventually drowns, and the container has a lid applied to it. It is buried underground, the snakes gradual decomposition adding an additional smokey element to its flavor, then, after two years, it is unearthed, and the entire concoction has a tap applied to it and it is drunk.

I struggled to fathom what sound of mind individual would go about such a process with the intention to eventually consume their creation, and I wondered the age of the first person to do this. It seemed to me something that you would do playing in the garden or at the beach when you were 5 years old, slapping together a mud-pie or a dead fish soup, leaving it in the sun for an hour, and then taking a mouthful just to confirm that you haven’t created the next culinary revolution. But, despite my suspicions, I said when in Rome and sent it down the hatch. Now this is not saying much, but it actually tasted better than the original rice wine and fruit wine. Mildly better, but definitely better. Turns out that when it comes to brewing rice wine, the line between insanity and genius is about as blurry as it gets.

We boarded again, this time on a much smaller boat, and we were off to roam the streams and canals of the delta, with the next stop being one of the many fruit farms that has taken advantage of the rich soil quality. The Mekong breaks up into nine main rivers that run their way through the South of the country like 9 highways, each with their own little side streets and dead ends. The water streams quicker the closer you are to one of these central rivers, so there is no stagnation and limited pollution and dead vegetation. However, as you diverge into the surrounding streams and canals, the force of the flow subsides, and you begin to see the cumulative effects of such a rapid growth in “prosperity” for the area. The further we went away from the main waterway, the more plastic bags and bottles were caught in the contours of the shoreline and snagged on dead logs and branches, and there was a growing scent of rotting organic matter. For many of the residents that live alongside it, the river is their livelihood. They were washing their clothes and their dishes in the water and there were groups of children swimming and laughing and waving as we motored past, and we waved back. Although they seemed happy enough, Nic and I couldn’t help but feel a little sad.

We eventually docked at a random point along the river and exited the boat. It looked as if we were just walking through tropical jungle, but Nam pointed out all the trees that were crops, banana trees and pineapple trees and cumquat trees and jackfruit trees and durian trees and rose-apple trees and some furry-lychee-looking-thing tree, along with so many other fruits I never knew existed. On the ground there were patches of Chinese coriander and mint and a weird looking lemongrass and all these other leafy herbs that I had initially assumed were just weeds. I had previously read in the Lonely Planet that the Mekong Delta was one of the most intensely farmed regions in the world, and after a short “bush walk”, you really can see it. It was like the edible room in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, only all natural.

A gazebo appeared through the trees, housing a table set with various brightly colored tropical fruits, and a very zany farmer appeared from nowhere and showed us to our seats. Although he didn’t speak English, I could tell he was a bit loopy just by how quickly he was speaking, how much he was laughing and how little Nam was responding. Nam told us that he makes “best fruit wine in Mekong”, and I am assuming best is the equivalent to most potent, as he then told us “forty-five per cent wine, beautiful wine, forty-five percent”. After hearing about the methods they use for the brewing of Snake wine, the farmer did strike me as the brand of person that would be responsible for production of alcohol. Out of a clear plastic bottle, the farmer poured us each a glass to sample the best fruit wine in the Mekong Delta, which tasted similar to something that would be used to clean a filthy bathroom. I pretended to light my breath on fire, and the farmer loved it, laughing wholeheartedly and mimicking the action a few times, then gesturing if I would like some more. Barely being able to stomach the first glass, I politely refused and ate a coconut candy. The farmer said something to Nam, and Nam said to me “he say those who eat sweet don’t drink”. I smiled and didn’t feel it necessary to correct him.

After the farm trip we were once again cruising on the Mekong, and we went to a place on the river for lunch. There is a species of fish called the “elephant-eared fish” that seems to be the most abundant throughout the area, and it must breed like wildfire as a lot of homes have their own little fish farm filled with that particular species, something that I would like to have one day. It tastes superb. We had two big pan-fried elephant-eared fish along with some spring rolls and roast pork and a couple of beers to wash it down, before making the hour-long boat trip back upstream to the homestay. I fell asleep on the boat ride there, and (I guess because of the history of the place that adds to its intrigue, but seems to go almost deliberately unmentioned) had strange dreams about war and of helicopters flying overhead. It was only when I awoke that I realized the choppers in my dream were the sound of the little outboard motors they use on the small wooden boats (watch this a video of us traveling to the homestay and you will see what I mean).

The homestay was a quaint little house with a chicken coup and a fish farm and with three generations of family living there in complete harmony, which I found pretty amazing. There were hammocks strung up everywhere and a couple of home made gazebos on the river that Nic and I took ourselves down to, sitting by the water as the sounds of the nightlife began to start up. Two other couples were staying at the homestay that night, the Germans, and another American couple that had different guide. They were all really nice people, and after dinner (self made spring rolls, which I once again butchered) we all sat around for a while drinking a few ales and chatting about where we had come from, where we were headed and what we were doing in life. Nam, who was obviously very familiar with the homestay, taking his shirt off and getting stuck into the rice wine, came out and offered us some. I accepted, having a few glasses of it and wincing with every sip taken, and at about 8:00pm, Nam raised himself up from his chair, and with a slight sway, leaned in towards me and said with a laugh “when nothing to do, drink da wine, grow da population”, and took himself off to bed. Classic Nam.

The following morning we were at the Mekong Delta floating markets, hundreds of boats of varying shapes and sizes all huddled together and somehow locked in exchange, like a group of amphibious wooden whales copulating en masse. Nam informed us several times that the ones who are selling things have a thin wooden pole at the front of their boat with whatever produce they are selling tied to the top of it, and the ones who are buying are everyone else. For some reason, I assumed that when he said they have whatever produce they are selling tied to the top, I thought he meant that there would be some sort of sign with the Vietnamese word for “watermelon” or a picture of a watermelon, something fairly lightweight and permanent. But no, at the top of the thin wooden poles was the actual produce, a watermelon hanging in a net, a pumpkin tied to a rope. Some boats were selling many different kinds of produce, their poles arching like fishing rods with an elephant-ear on the end. I never really found out why they went for the literal option, maybe due to tradition, but whatever the reason was, it might have been one of the things responsible for all the floating food that was bobbing around our boat, a sweet potato here, a knob of ginger there. If one were so inclined and had the patience they could just hover around and do their weekly grocery shopping without paying a cent.

When the floating markets were finished, we traveled up a similar little stream to the one we had the previous day, all the time waving and smiling to the friendly locals (and one particularly boisterous wedding party who all seemed intoxicated and were blasting Vietnamese techno karaoke at 10 in the morning), and we then made our final stop at the fish farm. To be honest, the fish farm didn’t really offer too much, it was basically just two big rectangular holes dug into the ground where there were previously rice fields, and sometimes there was a little splash on the surface as evidence that beneath the murky water were thousands of fish. Nam informed us several times that the owners of the fish farm have to be extremely careful to not make any enemies, as the fish are so fragile that a tiny bit of rat poison in the pool will wipe the entire farm out, and as he was telling us this the farmers came around the corner, looking very interested as to what we were speaking about. Nam spoke with them in Vietnamese for a bit, but they lingered, seemingly suspicious of our motives. One of them asked me “Uc? (Australia?)”, and I smiled, nodded and replied “yeah, Uc”, which seemed to ease tensions a bit, but even still, I don’t think any of us felt particularly welcome and Nam was more than happy to leave it there.

We returned to the boat, which took us back to the van, and then it was a three and a half hour trip back to Ho Chi Minh, briefly interrupted by a few toilet breaks (too much watermelon for breakfast) and a nice little restaurant for a hot pho. While the Mekong was really worthwhile and is something I will remember forever, the one thing that it seemed lacking in was a more in depth look at how the river people live, not just the wealthy farmers who make their fortune off fruit crops and fish farms, but those who rely on the river in a more direct way, for their food and their hygiene, the ones who are affected most by its gradual contamination. I don’t know whether the relentless push of the positive and the boastful display of those who are successful is something that is a side effect of a socialist state, or if it is just an assumption that the problems in Vietnam are not something tourists want exposure to (I know that if I traveled to Sydney, I wouldn’t want to be taken to see the bad side of the Cross), but either way, from what we saw of the Mekong Delta, it is still the lifeblood of thousands, and it is still a beautiful, historic and authentic part of Vietnam.