Meandering on the Mekong
6.19.10 - 6.19.10 90 °F
Last Saturday we did a daylong boat tour of the floating markets and canals around Can Tho. We started the day bright and early, around 5:30 am, and climbed into our small boat, this time with a guide who spoke some English. As we motored towards our first destination, the Cai Rang market, our guide, a former Vietnam War medic, told us many interesting facts and stories about Vietnam. For example, the name Saigon comes from the Vietnamese words “sai,” meaning “a lot” and “gon,” meaning “cotton.” A long time ago, a northern king went to the south for business and, noticing the abundance of cotton trees in present day Ho Chi Minh City, bestowed the name Saigon on the area. We also learned that the Chinese called the Mekong Delta “Nine Dragons” because as the river enters Vietnam it splits into two branches, and then the northern and southern branches again split into 6 and 3 branches, respectively, hence the name “Nine Dragons.”
Anyway, the two floating markets, Cai Rang and Phong Dien, were pretty similar except there were bigger boats and way more tourists at the Cai Rang market. Both markets were amazing to see. Little boats were everywhere with all kinds of fruits. Each boat had a tall pole at their bow on which they would hang whatever fruits or vegetables they were selling so that buyers could see what they had from a distance. Little old Vietnamese women would paddle their small boats up to various boats and buy a few dragon fruits here, maybe a watermelon there. It was very interesting to watch.
At one point we ventured down a side canal and got off the boat to go watch rice noodles being made. They processed the rice into a milky liquid, which they then poured onto a sort of hot plate for a few seconds, before using a bamboo tool to pick up the rice sheet and place on a mat for drying. They used the husks of the rice grains as the fuel for the fire to cook the sheets, and then used the ash to fertilize the next rice crop. No waste!
After the markets, we turned into smaller canals for the journey home. This part was fascinating. Houses built on stilts were all over the place, and as we passed by little kids would come running to the banks and wave at us, giggling uncontrollably when we waved back. There were floating gardens of water hyacinths, a very useful plant to the Vietnamese people (there is a Vietnamese saying “Lazy as a water hyacinth!” because water hyacinths grow in patches on the surface of the river, and just float around). As we soon learned by watching the families on the banks of the canals, the locals use the rivers for bathing, washing dishes and clothes, as a bathroom and, maybe most importantly, as a highway. As we floated down canals, it reminded me a lot of the videos on the Discovery Channel of people going down the Amazon, with plants and shrubs everywhere we looked.
Unfortunately, there was a fair bit of trash too. We saw a few dead animals floating around, not to mention bits and pieces of Styrofoam caught in the weeds. Several times over the course of the day our driver had to untangle the propeller from a plastic bag. But overall the scenery was extraordinary and very peaceful.
A bit while later we stopped at a restaurant on the side of a canal for lunch. This place was obviously geared towards tourists; as soon as we sat down, two people came over and started giving us massages. We didn’t even have a chance to say no. They felt really nice, but as soon as they were over they made us pay 100,000 dong (about $5) for them. That kind of irked us but the food was good. Laura began to dislike the place when our driver brought over a small green snake and tried to get her to hold it. To make things worse, while we were eating a little boy brought over a rooster and was pretending to throw it at Laura, which she didn’t like. I thought it was kind of funny at first, but when the kid didn’t relent I almost stood up and chewed him out. Luckily he stopped before I had to do that.
Our lunch put us into a food coma, so it made it difficult to sit through the long, hot boat ride home, through a portion of the river we’d already seen 3 times. When we got back to our hotel, we decided to take a nap that turned into a 6 hour slumber. All in all, we had an amazing time that day and found the whole trip to be very much worth it.