Ben Tre, Vietnam24 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.