Saturday, 24 February 2018

Vietnam, day 13: A Boatload of Pineapples!

Da Lat, Vietnam
26 May, 2017
Bleary-eyed, we waited in the hotel lobby for our tour guide to collect us. It was still pitch black outside. When he arrived, he introduced himself as Toby, and looked much more awake than we did. He led us down to the waterfront, where a few other tourists were waiting, and shortly our cute little boat pulled up manned by a friendly woman.
Gliding along the river, we watched the clouds slowly light up and turn from yellow to blue. Fishermen had already been at their nets for hours. A small boat was puttering from one vessel to the next, offering hot tea and coffee to all.

At such an early hour and with a slight breeze from our forward motion, the temperature was ideal. Before long, the sky had completely brightened and we had reached the large floating market Cai Rang.

Some boats were tiny, with just a few bags of goods to sell, and some were huge with what looked like hundreds of kilos of produce. In order to easily see what each vendor was offering, tall bamboo poles jutted from each boat with their wares tied to them. Pineapples, sweet potatoes, cabbages, and more! Some of the smaller boats were manned by what Toby called resellers: people who would buy wholesale goods and then bring them back to shore to sell at a higher price to shops.

Many of the ships had fluffy canine mascots!

Toby, as well as providing us with a wealth of information about Can Tho and the floating markets, asked us a lot of questions as he seemed very interested in our lives. He would catch my attention by calling me "Neesa" or sometimes "Nasi", and asked things like if my hair was its natural colour or dyed. He knew very well how much tourists liked to get photos of themselves, so he frequently beckoned us to pose for some.

As well as the goings-on in the river, the edges of the water showed us so much of Can Tho life. Houses were jumbled up along the riverbanks on stilts, and we would see little snippets: a boy brushing his teeth, a woman doing the washing up, a gaggle of children playing in the water. Some houses were minuscule, more like shacks, and some had holes in the walls in lieu of windows. It was shocking to see residents utilising the river water in so many ways considering how polluted it was. There was so much rubbish that often our boat's motor would get jammed, and the helmswoman would swivel it around out of the water for Toby to hack away at with a pair of scissors to remove the offending debris. Plastic bag cloggings were commonplace. At one point, Toby attempted to distract us by pointing out a nearby coconut tree but when our attention wavered he asked us to not look. We could tell that the flotsam must have been something disturbing, and of course our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities.

After filling up the tank at a floating petrol station, we carried on down the river.

The motors of small boats like ours looked quite crochety and perhaps as though they had once belonged to a lawnmower. One boat passed us that had such an unhappy motor that smoke was furiously being belched out, and as it sped into the distance, the brown cloud the motor produced completely engulfed the boat.

Cruising for a while along the river, we eventually reached Phong Dien floating market, which was a smaller and more rural version of Cai Rang.

The boats were smaller, and there were far fewer of them. There was also a higher proportion of supermarket-type vendors, who would sell bottled sauces, flours, cleaning supplies and other household items.

However, there were still many boats offering produce, including the internationally feared durian. The stink!

As well as a hot beverages boat, here there was a lady zipping around serving steaming pho to those in need of breakfast. Instead of eating on the boat, we had the luxury of docking and being seated at a small dining establishment.

We were supplied with pho (because who wouldn't want soup first thing in the morning?), green tea and a bag of delicious banana and kumara crisps that were sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Having filled our bellies, we set off again. This time, we strayed from the main river and drifted calmly through narrower waterways that were heavily seasoned with dense green foliage. We spotted several small houses, and were shown an array of fruit trees dotting the riverbanks. After a little while, Toby chopped up a watermelon and pineapple that he had bought from Cai Rang market and we proceeded to drip delectable juices onto our legs as we devoured the fruit. I feel that eating on a rocking boat is a skill that must be practised. Our helmswoman had quite the talent for weaving ornaments from coconut leaves, and she kindly presented us with a pair of crafted grasshoppers and a rose.

Our next stop was at a rice noodle factory, where we were shown the grinding of the rice, the steaming process and the laying out of the rice papers to dry. 

It wasn't exactly the most hygienic, and one of the drying rice papers had become the final resting place of a crash-landed dragonfly.

I was given the opportunity to feed a series of large rice papers into a shredder. Rice noodle is made!
Before departing, we gave some ear scratches to two adorable puppies who clearly were spoilt by tourists lavishing them with attention.
Back in the boat we went, and retraced our path all the way back to the main canal and past Cai Rang market. It began to rain a little, so Toby hoisted up the retractable awning to cover us, and tucked us into a tarpaulin blanket. He gave us more pineapple, and even sang us a song! It was almost like he was our parent for the morning. 

The rain grew heavier and heavier until the roar of the skies became somewhat deafening. Millions of raindrops smashed into the surface of the water, sending up tiny splashes all around us. Bidding farewell to Toby and our helmswoman (with thanks and tips), we hustled our way back to our hotel knowing that there was no point in trying to avoid getting wet.
We showered, checked out, and made a beeline for Mat Cua Cafe for drinks and snacks. The cafe's set up was quaint, with cushions on the floor surrounding low tables. I became so sleepy that I strongly considered laying down on said cushions and taking a power nap, but cafes are not for sleeping in and I managed to keep myself awake. Shortly before we left, a few other patrons trickled in and one played the guitar for everyone's enjoyment.

With hours still to quash before our overnight bus, we took a walk down the road and selected another cafe to hang out at. This one had large comfy sofas and yummy peach iced tea. Yannick tried a cacau da for the first time (similar to a chocolate milk) and thought it was good, though not nearly so good as ca phe sua da.
Though we weren't terribly hungry, we figured that we had better find some dinner before boarding our bus, so we embarked on a wild restaurant chase. We never did catch one, because we couldn't make up our mind and ran out of time for the whole restaurant fanfare. Instead, we found a street vendor who was whipping up some pikelets, and also purchased apples and Oreos from a corner shop. We were picked up in a shuttle, and I became sandwiched between an elderly couple. I felt a bit awkward, as it was a tight squeeze, but both of them were giving me super nice smiles. The lady was very warm and smelled faintly of coffee breath. She said to me "Da Lat?", inquiring as to our next destination, and I replied "Da Lat" in the affirmative. Once the shuttle dropped us off at the bus station, we stowed our backpacks in the storage area and went to find our seats.

The sleeping bus was a new experience for us, and we were glad that we are short people. The seat-beds wouldn't be conducive to those of a Slavic height. We were given plastic bags in which to keep our shoes so that they didn't dirty the bus or beds. After a few minutes, I saw the elderly couple from the shuttle look around for me, sending over little waves and making sure that I was settled in. The journey was actually much more comfortable than I expected as the seat-beds were padded well, we were provided with blankets, and the bus stopped every now and then for bathroom breaks. There were a few cons; the main two being that occasionally bright street lamps would shine in, and there was one snorer. Overall though, we spent the time reading and sleeping and not being too bothered. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

Vietnam, day 12: Didn’t Think I Could Barter, But I Can Tho

Ben Tre, Vietnam
25 May, 2017
Having just experienced such an eventful day, we awoke on the 25th and decided to go a more restful route.
We lazed about at the hotel, and once we were feeling up to it, took a walk into town. Along the way an incense-making operation was spotted, and no suspicious individuals trailed us. Having followed the advice of Ken, the hotel owner, we made a beeline for a cluster of ATMs along the main road. I found the ATM that Ken had advised us to use (the one that would allow you to take out the most dong), even with Yannick trying to convince me otherwise due to his gut instinct to "go to the shiny one". However, the ATM wasn't cooperating. It informed us that the maximum withdrawal was 3.5million dong, so we entered that amount. But it popped up with a message stating that we should enter an amount less than the maximum, before restarting to the greeting screen. The next time we tried 3 million, but again it didn't like that one bit. Exasperated by the heat (we were both literally dripping with sweat) and by the frustrating machine, we gave up and pressed the 2 million dong preset button and it finally worked!

Back at the hotel, we took our time packing up and then caught a taxi to the bus station for our journey to Can Tho (we wanted to make the most of our expedition into the Mekong Delta and had heard grand tales of the floating markets there). Before departure, some ladies came aboard selling snacks, and some funky fish was loaded into the cargo bay. Funky to the max. During the bus ride, a dude a couple of seats ahead of me was picking his nose. Like...the whole time. For hours. There can't have been anything left after a few minutes, so I think it must have been some sort of subconscious nervous behaviour. I couldn't look away. Like...the whole time. It was disgustingly fascinating.
Upon arrival in Can Tho, we approached some taxi drivers who tried to charge us 100,000 dong for a ride to our hotel. Impressively, Yannick used his bargaining skills to cut the cost in half! I didn't think his tactics could be so effective, but I was proven wrong in the best way.

While checking in to our hotel, we were informed that we had been upgraded to the VIP 2* room! (We never did find out that the asterisk was for.) I'm not sure what our original room would have been like, but the VIP 2* room was very spacious and boasted many windows.

Darkness fell, and we returned to the reception desk to arrange a tour for the next morning. Though we could have headed down to the river ourselves and found a boat, our Vietnamese wasn't exactly up to scratch and we decided that a tour with an English-speaking guide would be the best option.

Dinner was a simple affair at a restaurant a little away from the waterfront (where there were far too flashy restaurants that sold mainly seafood). At the top of the photo you can see a small shrine on a loft-like level of the restaurant, and beyond that was the family's living quarters. We traipsed back to our hotel without seeing much else of Can Tho, as we had a 5am start the next morning!

Today's post was almost called: The Infinite Nostril

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Vietnam, day 11: Jungle Cruise - Sun-Dappled Canals of the Mekong

Ben Tre, Vietnam
24 May 2017
Before going on our tour, we had time for some breakfast (of which the mango was succulent and flavoursome), and a quick whip around the hotel owner's museum: a small collection of old cameras and plastic casings so that they could be used underwater.
Right on time, we walked across the street with our tour guide Hong to the river.

The sunrise still lingering among the clouds, we boarded our boat.

Along with Hong and the skipper, we were the only people aboard. Our own personal tour!

Very shortly we saw signs of life along the river, and Hong explained them all to us. One man had gone out in a small boat and would duck under the surface, scooping clay up in his hands and deposit it onto his boat. He would then stomp on it, making it more compact so he could fit as much as possible into the limited area. There were also several fishermen drawing in their nets, and people dredging sand.

At several points along the riverbank, Hong pointed out structures made out of green mesh that were designed to trap shellfish. Inside one, we spotted a chicken pecking around for any scraps.

Apparently as it was low tide, we were to visit a different coconut factory than the usual one for the tour. Though it was very difficult to find a spot to jump onto dry land and clamber over the discarded coconut shells, it felt like this factory was in a way more authentically presented as they see fewer tourists, so it was well worth the unstable terrain.

Each stage of the process had a specific area. The first step was to split off the thick outer fibre from the hard shell inside. This was done by forcing the coconut at speed onto a sharp spear-like tool that jutted from the floor. It not only looked dangerous, but Hong said that accidents could occur, leaving workers with cut hands or arms if they weren't careful. Workers are not paid by time, but by quantity. The faster you worked, the more money you would receive, which of course made the process more dangerous.

The next stage was to cut the coconuts in half so that the flesh inside could be accessed. Here we saw a woman tallying up the completed work to assess payment. There was also a small boy who approached us, hugged Yannick and offered us some of his snacks. Hong said that one of the guys asked how old I was, and she translated that I was 26. He was surprised, and said that I looked 16! Flattery is universal.

The next area of the factory was where women removed the flesh of the coconut and shaved off the coarse brown skin from the outside. After that was the final stage, where the flesh was washed. When taking photos of the women, they joked that they weren't attractive enough to be photographed. 

After a short jaunt in the boat, we reached our second stop: a coconut candy making operation. Melting down coconut milk, sugar, and malt, the sticky concoction was transferred to an indented board to harden into strips. From there, a worker would use a huge terrifying cleaver to segment the strips into bite-sized candies, which would be individually wrapped and popped into plastic bags for sale. We bought a few different flavours, including chocolate (which I thought tasted the same as the original flavour, but Yannick assured me tasted awful), pandan, and peanut which was by far the best.

As we were being shown around, there was the cutest little roly poly puppy knocking about, licking our toes, wagging his tail and snacking on discarded coconut shavings. (Hong told him "That's why you're fat.") Taking a seat around a small table, we were presented with a platter with perfectly selected ripe fruit and chilli salt. I revelled in the perfect mango, but couldn't get on board with my first ever sampling of the longan: a small fruit similar to a rambutan or lychee that was sweet with a jelly-like consistency.

Instead of returning to the boat, we were picked up in a heavy duty tuktuk and driven along a jungle path to reach the mat weaving workshop.

Here, long strands of dried grass were woven into sleeping mats.

The process of weaving a single bed-sized mat took about an hour and a half, and each worker would receive around $1 per mat. It was clearly laborious work, and to see elderly women crouched for long periods of time was a little saddening. 

As it was approaching lunchtime, we hopped back on the tuktuk and were delivered to a homestead where we were to be fed and watered. 

Hong had arranged for all my meals to be vegan, which was wonderfully accommodating. We enjoyed spring rolls, banh xeo (crispy pancakes), a tofu and mushroom dish with coconut rice, and Yannick also had a fried elephant ear fish (a specialty of the Mekong Delta). While there were no other patrons of the restaurant, we were joined by a fluffy dog and a scraggly cat who would occasionally gaze at us longingly for scraps. 

As we had travelled inland slightly from the main river, we embarked on a brief trip in a rowboat in order to get back to our usual boat. The sun decided to make an appearance, and Hong protectively supplied me and Yannick with hats.

This smaller waterway was quite beautiful, with sunlight shining through overhanging palm fronds. Devastatingly, half of Ben Tre is expected to be flooded by 2030 (according to the Climate Change Research Institute at Can Tho University). It's heartbreaking to know that places like the Mekong Delta will look very different in the near future, and you have to wonder what will become of the people who live here.

Having seen many boats with eyes painted onto the bow, we asked as to their purpose. Hong told us that many years ago, crocodiles lived in the river. As boats were piled high with goods, they sank lower into the water and crocodiles could climb aboard. To remedy this, eyes were painted to scare off the predators, making them believe that the boats were large and angry creatures.
Hong was such an informative and helpful guide, and it was such a great experience to be shown around by her and learn a bit about her life: she lived with her husband's family, and was attending university part-time. She had recently become pregnant and was saving up so that she could afford to give birth in the hospital rather than at home.

After a dip in the hotel pool and relaxing in the hammocks for a while, we walked into the centre of Ben Tre. At one point, a man greeted us and then proceeded to follow us at a short distance, muttering to himself. When we had crossed the bridge and were on a main road, he still hadn't ceased trailing us, so I went all Jason Bourne and said "let's lose him in the marketplace". We ducked into the covered market and zigzagged our way around the vendors at a brisk pace. Emerging from a different edge of the market, we found that we had been successful! I suppose my spy training is almost concluded.

After a trip to the supermarket (where the cashier practised his English skills on us), we headed over to the night market. Though we didn't find anything we fancied for dinner, we had fun taking some longer exposure photos. As we were strolling along the esplanade, a man pulled up on a motorbike and jumped off to chat with us (while his family looked on from the back of the bike). Apparently he knew Ken, the hotel owner, and had been shown around by him when he and his family had first arrived in Ben Tre years prior. Concluding our chat and continuing on down the road, we spotted a pizzeria and figured we'd try our luck. We knew that the food wouldn't be authentically Italian by any means, but we felt like a change in cuisine for the evening. Though the food was bland, we helped it along with a dousing of chilli oil. The waitress was very young, and spoke near flawless English.
On the walk back to the hotel, we crossed a bridge with fishermen leaning over the railings, and could hear resident under-bridge bats squeaking away.