Before, say, the 1970s.
First. Husbear is on a strange schedule where his weekends have become Thursdays and Fridays. Luckily, I'm not working right now, so I couldn't give a grackle when his weekends are. Yesterday was spent househunting - and a great place has been found and reserved for the next six weeks or so. We move later today. It should have wireless internet, so hopefully posts will be at their normal level of haphazardness rather than ceasing completely.
This is my too-long explanation of just why a bunch of pictures got uploaded last Wednesday and have not been put to the blog yet.
Back to our timeline!
We only had a grand total of seven days in Vietnam. Not wanting to absolutely exhaust ourselves and end up not seeing anything, had already ruled out a trip up to Hanoi (40 hours on a train) or even an excursion to Hue, the Imperial capitol on the center coastline of the country.
We did want to get out of HCMC, though, so when we saw a travel agency offering a three-day Mekong Delta trip for $28 per person, lodging included, we jumped.
The day started out in a typically disorganized fashion. Multiple tours leave each day from each travel agency (though they're pretty much all offered through government tour offices, as we found out later), so the one we chose was bustling with groups of people, none of whom had any real idea what was going on. Buses arrived, orders were shouted, and they left - sometimes with new people, sometimes not.
Eventually, we were loaded into a large van with four other people. We were the only ones who had brought all of our luggage (it seemed easier than leaving it behind. Hindsight - we should have packed a small bag and left our packs at the hotel). We stopped at a very ritzy hotel to pick up an Australian couple, and we were on our way!
We bounced along for an hour or so, then made a pit stop at a roadside stand complete with hammocks. Rejuvenated, we rattled on for another hour before finally stopping in front of a modern plantation-style building in My Tho.
First item on the agenda - the seven of us clambered onto a small boat.
This was our boatmistress, who was with us most of the day.
We chugged across the fairly wide river behind the plantation. People still very much live on the river in this part of Vietnam, which I suppose sounds nice enough until you see some of the reality.
Now, I've stupidly misplaced the brochure from this trip, but I do remember that the stops we made were on islands with names evocative of mythology - Unicorn Island, that sort of thing. And since I'm probably the only one who cares at all about naming the islands we visited, and because all tours of this area go to pretty much the same islands, I'm just going to gloss over place names for the day.
First stop on the boat? I'm crazy coconut-head, gimme some CANDY!
We went to a small operation that makes coconut caramels. It's very similar to the procedure for making sugar/milk caramels, except instead of using cow milk you use coconut milk. Stir over fire until caramelization starts.
If you want to strive for true verisimilitude, make your fire from coconut shells, which you can see piled up in the background.
Then, take the coconut mix and pour into trenches for cooling. Then cut and sell to tourists, buy 5 get one free!
We didn't buy five. Those candies are HEAVY! Each caramel is individually wrapped in edible rice paper and then again in wax paper, which led to a hilarious misunderstanding where some people in our group thought all of the wrappings were edible and popped wrapped candies into their mouths, to their eventual dismay. ("This candy tastes like paper!")
We did buy some candy, along with a small bottle of ricewine with a small snake in it - just a little one, since we half-thought it would get taken away by customs - and some coconut-wood spoons.
Back onto the boat, and down a narrow canal. On the way, we saw more coconut shells being gathered, presumably for fuel. The husks are pretty thick and heavy, so I imagine dried out they'd make a wonderful fuel source.
Next stop? Dangerous animals and insects R us!
Naw, actually, it was a honey farm. We enjoyed tea with honey and a small orangey lemon, which was very good and simple. And we met the bees.
Hopefully these folks aren't having the same bizarre unexplained bee die-off problems we're having in the US right now.
It was while we were draining the last of our tea that the environment turned a little strange. We were the only people in a large roofed-over enclosure with tables. Suddenly, our guide appears stage left lugging a boa constrictor!
"Anyone want to hold him?" the guide asked. There was a definite glint in his eye.
Of course, we had to take the challenge. He was heavy, more than scary. And he honestly kept trying to leap out of my hands, which is why I'm staring at him so strangely in this picture. I'm thinking "Dude, you can't fly!"
Next, back on the boat for a short slog, and then lunch. (I think I washed my hands before eating, thank you.)
Lunch was sort of included in the price of our tour, if you count a few strips of pork and some rice as lunch. You know, I didn't mind these add-ons, because we weren't paying much at all for the whole tour. So, we spent 100,000 dong and got a half-kilo fried elephant ear fish and a couple of beers.
Elephant ear fish is supposed to be a local treat, so... why not?
The elephant ear fish was served deliciously with herbs and rice noodles and rice paper wrappers. You wrap bits of fish in a wrapper with the noodles and herbs and dip in an accompanying sauce. I think this would be another great idea for a party!
After lunch, which was very fun and more than a little delicious, we donned ridiculous headgear and eased our way very slowly into small canoes.
Yes, this hat did a great job of keeping the sun off our heads. And it was also cooling, perhaps because it let some breeze through and had a space at the top to contain all of our headheat. But we couldn't bring ourselves to buy one. Because, I mean, look at me in this picture. We cannot wear these hats without looking like pandering jackasses.
Lots of people in Vietnam still wear them, though, including the women who were working awfully hard to row the tourist boats to their next destination.
Our tourist-laden canoe caravan worked its way down the river. We marveled at the amount of lush greenery and craned our necks for what we could see of life along the waterways.
We passed several people on our way to our next stop, some of whom waved at our boat. Younger kids loved waving at us... the adults weren't always as animated. Probably using too much energy with all the rowing.
Our canoes eventually pulled up at a small break in the foliage, where we stumbled uncertainly out of the boats and were met by a gauntlet of women selling little snackies. Though we had just eaten, Husbear was curious about one of the offerings.
We walked along a narrow concrete path to another covered area with benches, where we were shown to tables covered in an assortment of tropical fruit.
Pineapple's still my favorite, and the pineapple they had in Asia... oh my.
We then listened to a presentation of traditional Vietnamese singing, including what sounded dead like "If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands". Unfortunately, we didn't get that particular number on video, but we did take a clip for you:
And that, basically, was the end of the entertainment portion of our day. We got on a larger boat back to the plantation house back in My Tho where we had started the boat rides, and were loaded back on our bus.
Then, things got a little strange. Our bus left the parking lot, went around the corner, and stopped. A man hopped on and said "Two or three day tour?" We raised our hands, and he beckoned that we should come with him. The rest of the occupants were to be taken back to HCMC, where they'd end their day trip.
So... we gathered our bags and walked around the corner, where another van filled with tourists was apparently waiting for us. These people would be continuing on with us to Can Tho for the evening, but this wasn't explained - we asked the other people on the bus.
After driving for a little while, we pulled over by the side of the road in podunk town and picked up a further four people. I don't have any idea where their tour had started out, but they were coming to Can Tho as well. They good-naturedly told us that we were their fourth bus that day.
See, this is the thing. When you buy a tour from a tour operator, you're basically buying the exact same package as a bunch of other people who leave on the same day as you from different parts of HCMC. Each tour leaves each day, and at various points during the day tourists are shuffled so they remain on the tour they paid for.
But each tour's price can vary wildly. We paid $28 pp, but some people paid upwards of $50. It's always a better idea to book after you arrive, if you have a day's lead time, and shop around a little.
Anyway, our new configuration of two and three day people (and people going to Cambodia) was dropped off in front of a rice warehouse. We came out the back door of the rice warehouse to find 1. our new boat and 2. a bunch of people taking their evening baths.
The group balanced itself out on tiny little benches for the ride to Can Tho. I love that the boat is marked 'TOURIST" - reminded me fondly of being called farang all the time in Thailand.
Some shots of the river and life along it from our trip to Can Tho:
We saw people in these little stand-up boats all the time.
These are some pretty typical houses along the shore of the Mekong.
There was very dense development on the shore for the half-hour or so it took us to get to Can Tho.
When we arrived in Can Tho, we got off the boat and threaded our way along the streets behind our guide for a few minutes. We took several turns and ended up walking down a not very inviting small alley, lined on both sides with open garages and living rooms containing whole families watching TV and eating.
Our hotel was pretty nondescript. We paid an additional $5 to get airconditioning, because, well, sometimes you just have to splash out.
The bathroom was hilariously typical. (Yes, my husband does occasionally leave the seat up.)
On the left, that's the toilet and the cleansing squirt gun. This toilet actually has a flush, though. The right has the water heater and the shower nozzle.
We did catch the tail end of a spectacular sunset over the rooftops of Can Tho.
In person, we aren't really all that sociable... so we struck out on our own for dinner, to a restaurant we'd passed on our way to the hotel.
Sao Hom was right on the waterfront. It was fairly schmancy, but the food wasn't too expensive and they offered some really interesting set menus.
Husbear's came with a light fish soup with pineapple and herbs. I thought this was a nice start to the meal, with a bit of a twang and a restorative flavor combination.
He was also served adorable little spring rolls, stuffed with pork and contained in a really interesting web of a wrapper.
I ordered a seafood hotpot, which arrived as a giant plate of raw seafood.
Don't worry, it was followed quickly by a huge bubbling pot of tamarind and lemongrass scented broth. I would have preferred the broth to be a little stronger, but that's just me. Plus, not knowing what I was doing, I dumped all of the noodles and everything into the post, causing our young waiter to rush from across the restaurant, saying "NO!" When he arrived, he was much calmer... "Normally... we do not do this."
My dinner ended with flambeed bananas in rice alcohol, which would have been a great idea if all of the rice alcohol had burned off. As it was, it was like eating deliciously caramelized bananas dunked in moonshine.
On our way back to our hotel for our 6 AM wakeup call, we walked past a couple of women selling a really strange-looking item off of blankets spread out on the street. We inched our way over, and I guess we looked confused enough that one of the women showed us how to pop the seeds out of their strange bed and eat them.
Really vegetably. I think it's a lotus, and I can't say it's one of the best things I've eaten. I wonder if they cook the seeds and add them to stews, because that would definitely be better. They're sort of astringent raw.
Day One of Three down!