Tuesday, March 12th, 2013 – Vinh Long and the Mekong Delta

Distance travelled today 5 kilometres – Total distance travelled 181 kilometres

We finally managed to have some kind of “proper” tourist experience. There is quite a number of islands in the Mekong Delta and our original plan was to visit one of them and explore a bit. But, in the end, we changed our minds and decided to go on a classic sightseeing ride through the waterways of the Delta. We had wanted to see the famous floating market, but we missed it. It starts very early and, by the time we got to its location, just before noon, it was long gone.

In such marshy and wet conditions, we did not expect to see many brick buildings, but we saw a number of large churches, often in a very ornate style. In such a Buddhist (and superficially, at least, communist) country, I found this a bit surprising. There was a Communist Party HQ too !

We saw many ships with huge loads of rice (the bulk of Vietnamese exports come from the Delta). There were various other large barges with loads of whatever, on which the hauliers slept in nets. It was obvious that these people had a whole household on those ships. A kitchen and living room combined into one, a laundry room in the back, then the bedroom (a net) and, behind the bedroom, hanging laundry. Bathroom facilities seemed to be straight overboard into the waters of the Delta. Do not fall in !

The river was sluggish and, of course, completely brown from the mud from the bottom. The canals are tidal and are very shallow at low tide. More than once, on the way back, we almost got stuck in the mud. David and I, the only passengers, both had to be sitting on the bow which had the effect of raising the stern as much as possible. Another group of tourists was really stuck, but David was sure that, as long as they had enough beer, they would not even notice.

The shallowness of the waterways was clearly visible as we drove past an excavator dredging mud from the water in the very middle of the main channel. We did not know if this was just to keep the depth or if they were digging up fertile mud to improve the soil. Maybe it was both.

Quite naturally, our boatman trailed us round a number of slightly clichéd locations. In one place, rice popcorn was being prepared on a fire of rice husks, simply everything is used more than once. As usual, I took part in the “practical”, which meant that I got to try the sweets !

We also visited a floating farm where quail are bred (they roast them with honey and ginger) and rice bread, chewy coconut sweets and various products from bees are produced. All on the water. A big part of the trip was, of course, the souvenir shops and how long we could last before we just surrendered and bought something. In the end I bought one wooden spoon. This was principally so that I could tell our guide that I already had one souvenir and that we only had a very small piece of luggage. It might have worked if he had understood at least a few words in a language other than Vietnamese, which he did not.

In the midst of all the “tourist” stuff, the “real” life of the Vietnamese people in the Delta was going on all around us.

It is a very fertile area and, on the little islands, the gardens are very pleasant and contain beautiful flowers and some huge fruits !

The very last stop was at a cafe where we were treated, if that is the correct word, to a song, from a Folk Group, about the life of a Vietnamese peasant. David calls it the “Grandmother, Grandmother, why did the banditos carry you off in a sack of potatoes song” and claims that every nation and culture has such a song. I believe the origins may be in some British comedy sketch, from the late 1960s, but it is true that, wherever we may travel, we do hear basically the same thing. On a personal basis, I was convinced that at least one tune was a love song along the lines of “My dear, I cannot marry you, but maybe my father will soften if you get a bag of rice so we can sow it.” Whether it is me or David that is right, we both seem to agree that there must be a bag of something in there somewhere.

Our guide smiled at us all the way and said, if I remember correctly, just two words. When we were at the market, he said “market” and when we were on the way back to Vinh Long he called out “Hello“. He was smiling, from ear to ear, so I also called out “Hello“, which was a very popular English word there. Finally, we understood that what he really wanted was for us to climb on the bow to help the boat avoid getting stuck in the shallows. Almost miraculously, as soon as David moved forward by only ten centimetres, the stern rose from the mud on the river bottom and we were saved. Just stating a fact, not making a comment ….

The next highlight of the day was the reintegration of Minh, our motorbike, into the expedition. When we returned to the cafe, Utseom appeared out of nowhere (as he always did) and I explained to him that we needed some help. Following the accidents, the rubber grip had come off of one footrest and it was was bent up at an acute angle. We also needed some petrol. Utseom sat down and began to take notes. Since these were two simple tasks, David came to the conclusion that he had a small memory problem. We had noticed it before, but we had blamed it on him misunderstanding us. This time, however, he repeated everything three times to be sure. In the end, he solved it in his own way and left with the words that he was going for the rubber. He came back in a short while with a package containing a brand new footrest rubber, which had cost only twenty Crowns (!!) and then asked what to do next. We explained again that he should then go with David for the petrol. We had been told we needed 95 octane and they usually only had 92 octane everywhere. Utseom ran away again and, after a while, he came back with a washed plastic bottle and asked how much petrol we wanted. This was after we had agreed that he would first take David back to the hotel to collect Minh and then they would go TOGETHER for the petrol. So we explained it again. Eventually, Utseom beamed and said, in perfect English, “I will follow David!“. It was a little funny, but I was rather sorry. I found out that, when he took notes, he not only spoke English but even wrote it down in English without hesitation. The more he spoke with us, the more English he remembered, he must have spoken it very well, once upon a time.

After three days of rest, David finally rode on Minh again that afternoon. As soon as he set off, he encountered the whole girls’ class that had just come out of school. David said he had greeted everyone of them individually. At the time, despite being about seventy years old, poor old Utseom was crawling about on the ground, trying to force the footrest rubber onto the peg with a hammer. In any case, David was convinced that we could finally leave the next morning. We were quite sad when David returned and told me that Utseom had said goodbye to him with the words “Will we see each other again?” He even remembered the future tense!

Since we had almost returned to the full-on traveling mood, in the evening we set out to find a restaurant that was recommended by our “Lonely Planet” guide. It was very pleasant. The food was good and very tasty and the restaurant had a display of some beautiful orchids which, of course, appealed to the botanist in me !

It should be noted here that there were actually no restaurants as we know them. They were more of a dining room, next to a house, with a “preparation place“, i.e. a counter, where you chose the type of meat you wanted and they threw it on a plastic plate, along with an unspecified portion of rice. To do this, they added whatever was available, pickled vegetables, fresh vegetables, this or that herb, onion, chilli peppers or a bowl of pho soup. You could either buy extra water or get a weak jasmine tea with ice. Drinking tap water was a bit risky and I doubted that the ice was made from bottled water, I had seen it being delivered in Saigon. The interior of the dining room was actually exterior to the house, it usually looked like a garage and was mainly recognisable by its preparation counter and plastic furniture. They usually sat on plastic chairs of children’s size. Some of the “better” dining rooms did have braided plastic chairs, but also, usually, in children’s sizes. We came across real chairs of a normal size only twice in Vinh Long.

The dining room was run, with a few exceptions, by the family that also lived there in the house. From the dining area, there was usually a permanently open door leading to the kitchen and bedroom. You could often see a family member grunting on the bed, quite often it was a grandmother. The vehicle fleet, at least one motorbike, was either in front of the dining room or in the dining room or in the bedroom. As to hygiene, it was better not to think about it too much, or you could not eat. Once, (perhaps luckily) after we had finished eating, we saw the procedure of washing the counter for food preparation. Stand on the counter, spray everything with washing up liquid, rinse it by throwing five buckets of water at it from a distance of two metres and that was it.

As we walked up the road to our hotel, we could see, in the distance, the very impressive suspension bridge that had brought us into town. In our confusion after falling off of Minh, we had scarcely noticed it when we arrived. In the morning we would cross it again on our way back north.

Around nine in the evening, the light slowly began to fade and then, literally in a few minutes, it was pitch dark everywhere. The endless and ubiquitous column of motorcycles disappeared and everything fell asleep as if somebody had waved a magic wand. At that time, we said goodbye to our cafe, took another walk up the road and climbed into bed, like the rest of Vietnam. We did not know what time they all got up, but as it was a good hour by boat to the river market and, if they were supposed to be there around seven, they would probably need to be out of bed at cock crow. Sunrise was, according to David, around three o’clock. So, it appeared that, in fact, although the time was only six hours ahead of Prague, in reality it should have been eight hours !

So, it was goodbye to Utseom, who had enlivened our enforced stay. The next morning we would also say goodbye to the Delta and head north according to the original plan. We would have to wait and see what awaited us there.