I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Mekong Delta in Half a Night, Monday 24 March Cont.

The minibus had a/c and the ride took less than two hours. I expected some picturesque countryside but it is suburban strip mall the whole way. Not the Old Navy and Home Depot and Target strip mall that is now all of America, but still not so exciting.

In the center median was a marsh with gorgeous purple water lilies in bloom. I couldn't get a picture of any until nighttime when the flowers were closed, but you'll have to take my word on it that they were pretty. We passed some cultivated water fields of some sort--rice, fish, I don't know. We saw some cows, and they looked pretty fat and happy. They are smaller and leaner than our cows, but in a good way, like their DNA hasn't been contorted for a preference for one cut or the other.

I enjoyed talking to J, and I tried out the words I had painstakingly learned from the Pimsleur tape on one of our translators. He said my accent was very good. I'm pretty sure that was mere politeness (and a little bit of a crush) on his part, but I felt good nevertheless.

We arrived in My Tho city in the Tien Giang province. The hotel was state run. I assumed that it was just a cheap alternative to a commercial Western-style hotel, but I later learned that it is a great honor to stay at a People's Committee Guesthouse. Only high ranking party members and honored foreign guests are permitted. It was still under construction, which appeared to require a great deal of vigorous banging on water pipes, and had a smell I found...unpleasant. To put it politely and mildly.

We checked in and somebody carried my heavy ridiculous suitcase up the stairs for me. I was simultaneously relieved and guilty. I had packed for two weeks and three completely different trips--work, pleasure, and a wedding on the way home and I just had so much stuff. It was insane. I'm never traveling with a suitcase that big again.

We had 30 minutes to unpack and refresh before our tour of the Mekong Delta. We piled into a minivan cab and drove all of 1 km to the river. It would have taken less time to walk there than it took us to wait for the cab! At the pier there were tall pikes sticking up, and kids were jumping off them to make spectacular splashes. They were so cute! I think often this kind of spectacle is put on for tourists for tips, but there hadn't been any other tourists around when we arrived and they didn't ask for tips so I think it was just for the sheer joy of it.

We got into our riverboat and headed out into the Mekong. Our first stop was Unicorn Island. It's a well-touristed island but people really actually live and make their living there, so it was kind of the best of both worlds.

We went first to the honey place, where we were invited to hold up a screen of bees, as demonstrated by the apiarist. I declined, though they were quite calm. My parents used to keep bees when I was a kid. There is nothing like fresh honey eaten off the comb. We sat at little tables and had tea with honey and the juice of tiny limes the size of kumquats. It was delicious. We also had coconut candy, candied lotus flowers, candied ginger, dried banana, and peanut candy. All of them were great. The men were offered banana wine to increase their male potency. J and I insisted on having some too. I don't know about male potency, but it was quite potent. It was like drinking sweet mouthwash. I bought some coconut candy, which was wrapped first in clear edible rice paper and then wax paper. It was pretty greasy.

We left the honey place and walked along the path to the fruit place. We had dragonfruit, pineapple, and little things the size of large grapes and the texture of tapioca pearls with a big stone in the middle to be peeled and eaten. I think maybe they were called may apples? In Vietnam, fruit is eaten with toothpicks and served with a (dry) mixture of salt and hot pepper that you squeeze a lime over and then dip your fruit into. It is so good. I never would have thought of it, but what is not to love about fruit, salt, and heat? I love all of those things. While we are busy eating the fruit we are mostly left to ourselves, except one very curious young girl. She LOVED digital cameras, because you could take a picture of her and then she could see herself.

There was traditional singing accompanied by two-stringed instruments. The adorable four year old girl who loves to have her picture taken sang first, then four women sang. The men played the instruments. There was a girl of around 8-10 "backstage" (behind the picnic tables where the singing was) but she didn't participate. I wonder if she used to be the adorable one and how she feels about it now. Somehow, as the oldest child, I really identified with her. Of course, maybe she is just shy and didn't want to sing! The women didn't wear full ao dai, but fitted shirt with raglan sleeves that are similar to the ao dai. They were cute.

Next we got into canoes and were rowed down the canals. Mostly women did the rowing. The woman rowing at the front of our canoe sat with her feet tucked under her on one side and was incredibly strong and fast.

It was very dreamy and surreal to be riding through the canoe at dusk with bats criscrossing the water, reeds on either side, and palm fronds dipping into the waves. I felt like I was in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. It's funny how a new reality feels less real than a familiar fake world!

We got back onto the riverboat and were given green coconuts with straws. I was saddened to discover that while I love coconut, I don't really care for green coconut milk. The coconuts were in honor of our next stop, Dragon Island, home of the Coconut Monk. He started his own religioun after subsisting solely on coconuts (possibly) for 3 years (or 10). As with any good eccentric, lots of stories circulated and it was impossible know which was true. During the American war his sect was quite popular, as being a monk excused you from conscription. After the war all the followers drifted off and the religion trailed to an end.

He had spent his last years building for himself a fantastic mosaic funerary urn, at least 10 feet tall. The (new) government decided he couldn't be buried in it, though. I didn't ask where his body was instead, but I was curious. It was full dark by now so we couldn't really get the full feel for it, but I love it. It's huge and gaudy. There were also nine dragon towers on what felt like a basketball court, one male and (natch) his eight wives.

Then we were back to the mainland and dinner at the hotel. There was a hotpot of fish and a plate of fish. I got an egg and fried potatoes. This was not at all good and will make me fat. If I'm going to get fat I want it to be off cheese and ice cream! I dipped a potato into what I thought was a chili sauce. Oh dear! I discovered the source of the hotel's unpleasant (to me) smell. Vietnamese fish sauce is not my cup of tea, to say the least.

Jet lag was catching up with me and I was quiet at dinner. After dinner I had a shower and ran out of hot water halfway through. Bummer. It took me several days to figure out the hot water heater situation. I was asleep in a heartbeat!

You can see all the photos of the Mekong Delta, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

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