ietnam's Mekong Delta
March 12-15, 2001
In mid-March, 2001, we spent four days travelling in the Mekong Delta. We took an organized tour, which we both enjoyed very much, although Gerry liked it a little less than Jan because it was too inactive for him--we spent lots of time sitting on buses and boats watching the world go by. It was fun, though. We visited a floating fish farm, boated through a floating village, motored down canals large and small and crossed one or two branches of the Mekong in vessels of varying size. On one occasion the river got very choppy and the front-seat passengers in our low-riding boat got pretty wet, fortunately it wasn't us.
We saw rice being popped and made into all kinds of candy and even got free samples and Vietnamese tea to wash them down. We saw how rice goes through several stages of processing from raw rice to polished white rice and learned what happens to the intermediate and by-products of the process. The rice husks that are removed from raw rice to produce brown rice, for example, are used as a fuel in rice-popping and rice-paper factories; the brown powder that is produced when brown rice is polished to produce white rice is used as fish-food; and finally broken rice not suitable for the food market is used to make rice paper or rice noodles.
And although not part of the official tour, we saw first hand how Vietnam moves its rice from the fields to the distribution centers and from there onto its customers. We are getting to be rice aficionados of a sort having observed two or three growing cycles in both China and Vietnam. In the delta right now the harvest has just been brought in and it was fascinating to see the roadways lined with single-family homes that each had their front yard carpeted with rice for drying and then to see the waterways peppered with flat-bottomed boats carrying the dried and bagged rice to the warehouse. It almost seems as though a hundred percent of the population is engaged in the rice trade in one way or another. The roads are lined with rice warehouses and the roads themselves are filled with trucks carrying the rice to Saigon and other parts of the country and the world. As we learned on this trip, Vietnam is second only to Thailand for rice exports.
Luckily we didn't spend all of our time on factory tours. One day, we got to bike for an hour through one Vietnam village along a sand track that was peppered with little wooden hump-back bridges that barely looked strong enough for a person never mind a person and a bike. For Gerry it is always very satisfying to get away from the tourist outposts, and see some of the real life of the locals.
We also got to walk through another village when the pilot of the boat that we were on forgot to lower the engine head as we went under a low bridge and smashed the engine housing. Everyone is very friendly and all the kids want to say hello and shake your hand. Some of them also ask for pens and/or money, but don't seem surprised to be turned down. One eight-year old offered Jan some of her peanut candy to taste.
But the piece de resistance for Jan was a four-hour boat ride up the Mekong to a town near the Cambodian border. The boat this time was big enough to move around on, had a nice clean loo, and cans of beer for sale — what more could one ask? Actually, there was more. It was late afternoon when we set off so with the breeze generated by the movement of the boat we could comfortably sit on the top deck sipping beer, get to know our fellow passengers, and watch the sunset. Then for the next three hours it got darker and darker and the sky gradually filled with stars.
Perhaps a word about our fellow passengers is in order. There were about 20 of them and they ranged in age from 20 to , yes, you guessed it, 59. There were five or six Aussies, four Brits, three Dutch, three Americans (one of Vietnamese origin), two French, two Germans, and two Vietnamese- the guide and an employee of the tour company on an orientation trip. Some of the group left us before the end of the trip to cross the border into Cambodia, others, including us, joined the group on the second day of the tour having taken time out to do our own thing. Given how many nationalities there were, it is no surprise that the tour was conducted in English, definitely the lingua franca of Vietnam these days. We were disappointed that breakdowns delayed our arrival on the day we had planned to play bridge with a British couple, John & Penny Pyke from Anglesey, Wales
And finally, a comment about our accommodation. We had been told that we were paying only for fan-cooled accommodation. No air-conditioning and no hot water. We wondered how we would cope. Gerry is always cranking down the temperature in our air-conditioned rooms and how would Jan manage cold showers again after a 23-year gap? Well, we both survived though not without a small amount of discomfort. But who can complain when, excluding meals, the whole trip cost a mere $25?