Sunday, 10 February 2013

Mekong Delta (2) Can Tho - Rice Wine and Pickled Worms

Sailing up the Mekong to Vinh Loc
We journeyed up the Mekong from My Tho to Vinh Loc by boat.  The journey took about 5 hours and we were expecting to pass some uninteresting scenery along a major river route but we were pleasantly surprised that the trip was actually really very scenic.  It was also a much more pleasant mode of transport than a crowded hot bus.

Phi brought us to the harbour where we said goodbye to him and climbed into our little boat which would take us as far as Vinh Loc.  After that we would be transported to our hotel in Can Tho by motorbike.

Our boat driver spoke only a very little English but seemed quite happy perched on the back, squatting on his haunches Vietnamese-style, steering us through the Mekong, chatting away on his mobile phone.

Most of the surroundings we passed through were rural and we watched everyday people going about their business on the river.  There were lots of different types of birds flying about but their identity remains a mystery to me.  We simply enjoyed cruising along at a steady pace, with a lovely breeze to cool us down in the 35 degree heat.

Life on the river
We passed by floating villages, countless floating petrol stations, people on the riverbank fishing or sorting out their fishing nets, kids swimming about in the water, while we just sat back and enjoyed the relaxing boat ride.

Until, that is, our boat driver decided to take a short cut.  We started heading down a narrow channel where we started to see more kingfishers and mud skippers which was lovely.  But then it became apparent that as we were clearly towards the end of the dry season and river levels were quite low, that our boat was going to have difficulty navigating through this short cut.  At one point our driver got out of the boat, into the river and pushed!

We had to slow right down, which didn’t matter to us as we had all the time in the world, but we were a little concerned about the boat.  At one point we saw a boat ahead of us that seemed to be drifting, apparently without anyone on board.  

Apparently unmanned boat on a collision course
with a box of strawberries
We watched as it glided slowly downstream ahead of us, until with a huge crash it crashed into another boat moored at the side of the river. The bow of the drifting boat sliced into some polystyrene box (containing strawberries) which were piled high on the moored boat and the owner of the strawberries jumped up and out of his hammock (it was that time of day) and came out yelling.  It was then we saw someone leap up from the drifting boat (he was obviously having a kip in his hammock as well, it being that time of day), he quickly grabbed a pole, managed to disentangle his boat from the moored boat, and slowly and carefully steered off down the river.

After that bit of excitement, our boat got stuck a couple of times, and we wondered whether the short cut had been that sensible, but our skipper seemed quite unfazed by all the little problems and, in fact, soon enough we were in deeper water, he climbed back in, dried off, cranked up the engine and off we went.   A little further downstream we joined a major tributary of the river again and shortly after that arrived at Vinh Loc.  We had spent 5 hours on the boat and the time had just flown by.

Rowing upstream in a more suitable boat
At the harbour we were met by Phi’s friends and their motorbikes who loaded our rucksacks onto their motorcycles between them and the handlebars, and with us on the back we headed off to Can Tho.

It was only a 40 minute journey and it was uneventful except the fact that my arse goes a bit numb after a while.  The trip itself was like any other trip on a motorcycle in Vietnam, avoiding collisions with other vehicles by a hair’s breadth, allowing for vehicles travelling up the wrong way, getting out of the way of speeding cars, buses and trucks before they mow you down, and then finding yourself on the back of a motorbike going round a roundabout the wrong way and heading up a road in the wrong direction before eventually turning left. 

After a relaxing boat trip, the motorcycle journey had the reverse effect but, as usual, because of the skill of all of the drivers and riders on the road, we arrived in one piece at our hotel where we would be spending Tet.
More Mekong scenery

We would also be spending time relaxing trying to recover a bit from the bronchitis.  And it was a lovely place to do it.

The hotel was a larger resort than we are used to but it was cheap, and it was set in beautiful grounds with streams and ponds all over the place.  It even had a zoo although this was really a collection of birds and a rather large snake.

We had a bungalow with a huge room and bathroom with some outside seating.  A stream trickled past our table and chairs although unfortunately for us, the kid’s play area was right opposite.  This meant it was noisy early in the morning and late afternoon but we always had a break between 11am and about 3pm when all the Vietnamese went off for a nap.

The hotel gardens
There were a few westerners staying at the hotel and lots of Vietnamese on holiday with their families for Tet.  The restaurant was shut for a couple of days so most staff had a chance to spend some time with their families.  Tet is the only annual Vietnamese holiday and for a few days, almost everywhere is shut.

I spent most of my time sleeping (again) and reading and just generally being lazy, still trying to shake off my chest infection – sometimes you just have to do nothing and the rest did me the world of good.

Paul however, became slightly bored, so one day he went off for a wander into town on his own.  It was quite a long walk and another hot day. He returned a few hours later, looking a bit frazzled with a bit of a mad gleam in his eye.  It turned out he had got a bit lost and then been detained by a bunch of Vietnamese fisherman on the riverbank who insisted that he join them for rice wine and nibbles.  Never one to refuse the hospitality of a local he sat down with the group that, in the blink of an eye, expanded from two or three men to about a dozen.

He was presented with a variety of tasty morsels and those that he recognised were eggs, worm and fish.  Rice wine flowed freely from a clear glass (unmarked) bottle. 

Exotic flowers in the garden
First the eggs.  He was handed a brown egg.  He knew it was an egg because it was shaped like an egg but he had no idea what he was supposed to do with it.  It was a dark brown colour so he initially thought it was still in its shell and wasn’t sure whether, if it was, he was supposed to eat the shell too.   As he gazed at his egg clearly a bit perplexed, one of the fishermen helped him out in his predicament and kindly chopped it up for him.

It is likely it was a salted egg which is either preserved in brine or packed in damp salted charcoal for a prescribed amount of time.  I asked him what it was like and whether the yolk was runny and he told me to think of the consistency of a Cadbury’s Creme Egg.  This was not an appealing thought.

They also love salted eggs in China as well, along with a variation on the theme called thousand year old eggs.  However, they sound disgusting and a prime candidate for salmonella if you ask me and I applaud Paul for sampling these delights without throwing up.

The next delicacy on offer was worms.  He originally thought they were pickled but more likely they were salted (there’s a theme developing here).  Fair play to him, he helped himself and ate a few worms segments.  By the time he returned to the hotel and I quizzed him about his culinary experience, he wasn’t sure whether worms should actually be labelled a foodstuff and his stomach was beginning to protest.

Our little bungalow
Fish was served dried and (you guessed it) salted.  At least you're pretty sure you're getting fish when you are faced with the whole creature:  head (complete with eyes), fins and tail.  Come to think of it, they are usually so small, it's unlikely they're gutted as well.  No doubting it's a fish then.  Whether or not it's going to make you sick is a risk you have to take.

There were other delicacies provided but they were unrecognisable.  Bread was also served along with lashings of rice wine, which accounted for the rather crazed look in his eyes when he got back.  This is what happens when he ventures out on his own, and it usually involves alcohol!

Tet was celebrated while we were in Can Tho, and the hotel provided us with some traditional food which included soup (meals always includes soup in Vietnam) and some sweet and savoury rice cakes, and lots of green tea.  Fireworks in town followed at midnight and the next day the Vietnamese families began turning up to celebrate their annual holiday. 

Otherwise, we spent most of the time here relaxing in the beautiful gardens, watching the geckos fighting on the wall outside our room, whiling away the time and recharging our batteries, until it was time to take a bus to Chau Doc, our last stop in Vietnam before we headed over the border to Cambodia.

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