Saturday, 13 April 2013

... Indochina: The Dragon's Lair

The southwestern region of Vietnam is where the Mekong River empties into the South China Sea via a network of distributaries. After splitting into two rivers in Cambodia, it splits into a much more complex system in Vietnam creating riverside cities, palm tree lined islands and floating markets. In Vietnamese its name means "Nine Dragon river delta". The Mekong Delta is a very rich and lush part of Vietnam and produces about half of the total of Vietnam's agricultural output. Reports state it actually produces more rice than Japan and Korea combined! Although this area is primarily rural it is incredibly densely populated and literally all farmable land is taken advantage of.

After a two hour drive from Saigon, likely 2 hrs because the driving here is nuts, I arrived in the town of My Tho. Considered by many to be the gateway to the delta, it is a great place to for me to dip my Itchy Feet into the area. "My toe"... "itchy feet"? Bueller? Bueller? Sorry, I couldn't resist. Several tour operators offer day trips to the neighboring islands meandering through a maze of canals. Starting with a ride up a portion of the Bao Dinh River I was taken back to my Khlong trip back in Bangkok, what now feels like a lifetime ago. People waved enthusiastically from their houses on stilts, hammocks and boats including a little kid whom I suspect had just been about to drop his pants and have a pee. At the mouth of the river where it joins the main Tien River there was the floating fish market. Wait, that makes it sound like they were selling fish which float, Well technically they do when dead I s'pose. In any case, it was an interesting sight.

Crossing the, at times, choppy Tien to Unicorn Island where I got to walk around the fruit orchards sampling dragon fruit, jack fruit, lychee, longan, pineapple, an apple that looks like a pear and some kind of fruit belonging to the persimmon family. At this rate I wasn't going to need lunch. A group of locals played some traditional music whilst singing, which was rather lovely. It was however nice to get back on the boat, under the shade of the roof and feel a bit of a breeze as the heat was surely at a  temperature  that could make the mercury boil.

The rustic sleepy town of Ben Tre is famous for its keo dua, coconut candy, and it is not hard to see why. Ôi Chúa ơi! I kept getting plied with piece after piece: with peanut, banana, ginger, cocoa, durian (yeah no thanks) to name but a few. Not wanting to be rude I ended up stuffing them into my bag and now have quite the stash! They also make coconut milk, coconut oil and "coconut wine", although to be honest the latter was more like stuff you could potentially use to strip varnish. As a result I politely turned down the banana "wine" which looked more like jet fuel.

A quick horse (in good condition) and cart ride was followed by a slow boat along the tropical looking Chua Canal. Think of a SE Asian gondola if you will minus the singing and with a pointy hat instead.

This took me to a bee farm along with copious amounts of lime honey tea. It was admittedly was rather lush even in the heat. By now though I was running the risk of hyperglycemia. A slightly faster boat ride along the Ouoisoh Canal and I was treated to some hand made fresh veggie rice wraps. Finally! Something savory! Not unsurprisingly I turned down the opportunity to eat snake in any form, be it as meat or the snake infused "wine" but did quite enjoy petting the huge python the family kept as a pet. Remember, I'm a little bit weird... Albeit in a nerdy way. Over 10,000 new species have been discovered in previously unexplored areas of the delta, so let's hope we can preserve this absolute gem!

It was a fantastic day trip which I highly recommend taking the time out to do. Needless to say I fell asleep in a rather interesting contorted pretzel position during the ride back to Saigon.

Final-night-in-Vietnam-eats came courtesy of the Saigon branch of KOTO, which I had first visited in Hanoi for lunch. It's not hard to see why Saigon is the reigning culinary king of Vietnam. The seabass steamed in banana leaf was out of this world, likely even more so knowing that KOTO's staff have been given the chance of a better life.

And so I bid goodbye to Vietnam, in my humble opinion having barely scratched the surface of its past and its present. The future certainly looks interesting for this dynamic nation on the move.

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