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.