Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Vietnam 2016 Day 2. The Mekong Delta

The problem of being a millionaire is that you get used to spend like one. I have been here but a measly two days and I have already gone through almost half of my fortune! For example, today I spent a cool quarter million in a day-long tour of the Mekong Delta. It was a justified expense on two counts. First, the Mekong Delta is a geologic wonder, and as a geologist I had to pay a visit to such a famous geologic feature. Second, a quarter million dong is about US$13, so it was a bargain that was hard to pass.

At 8 o’clock I was one of the first to be picked up, and by 8:30 am we had a full mini-bus of adventurers and were heading southwest from the city into the heart of the delta (I must remind you that a delta is a constructional pile of sediment a river builds as it encounters the ocean; in contrast, when the effects of tide and salinity extend far inland what you get is an estuary. The so-called California “Delta” is in reality the California Estuary). The Mekong River originates in the highlands of Cambodia, where it picks up millions of tons of silt and clay that give it a characteristic chocolate color and consistency, and as it enters the Sea of Vietnam it dumps all that load to form an anastomosing series of channels and fertile islands and floodplains. We saw evidence of this fertility as we drove the brand new highway between Ho Chi Minh City and Tien Giang and saw hectare after hectare of emerald rice fields.

For some reason farmers are convinced that the water-saturated muck has to be plowed, preferably with the assistance of a water buffalo, after which the rice is planted by throwing like darts the small plants grown in trays. After that one should be able to sit back ans watch the small plants grow; oh no, the fields have to be weeded every day, and in these modern types pests have to be kept under control by spraying. So you are on the fields all day long, communing with your ancestors. Indeed, because the ground is water-logged, the dearly departed cannot be placed in a tomb, but are interred in above-ground vaults or small chapels that dot the surface of the fields.

Eventually we made it to the small town of Cai Lay, and from there to the small port of Cai Be, where we transferred from our mini-bus to a very wobbly long boat, which was going to take us around one of the main channels of the Mekong. It is a big river, and I had flashbacks to the Nile, the Mississippi, and (in a different scale) the Amazon. We turned into one of the small channels to see the river boats where folks live while they conduct business; a family or two come down the river in their houseboat, and park here for a week or two while they negotiate the sale of their merchandise. In order to let the buyers know what they have to offer they erect a pole and hang a sample of the produce to the top (say a handful of sweet potatoes or a bunch of onions). Once their load is sold they pick up anchor and motor up river to tend their fields. Farther down the river we stopped at a long boat where three smiling Vietnamese ladies were doing a killing selling fresh fruit to the tourists. I couldn’t resist and bought a dragon fruit, which they quickly peeled, sliced, and presented to me on a plate with a toothpick. Dragon fruit looks like a flower from another planet, is a very pretty magenta color, and when sliced looks a bit like a kiwi; it is very good.

Back to the main river, we crossed into one of the big islands, and spent our time there doing the thing that all tours do: We got to a place, watched a demonstration on how something was done, and then were invited to buy the particular handcraft. This time we had a passable time because the demos were interesting and we had no big shoppers in the group. So we saw a demo on apiculture, on how to pop rice (you use very hot black sand and then sieve the sand out of the popped rice), and how to make rice paper candy and coconut milk candy. Lunch was a simple affair, but a good chance for small groups to meet each other (my own group had young women from Brazil, Cameroon, and Martinique, and a guy from Germany and myself. It was fun.

After lunch I borrowed a bike and explored a small portion of the island taking advantage of the small gravel and concrete paths built by the residents. I have to admire the pluck of these people, who spend their whole lives among mud, and give them lots of credit for the profusion of flowers, fruit trees, and greener with which they adorn their homes. Some of the homes are actually quite nice (but built on mud against biblical advice), and can be bought for something like US$ 5,000!

The grand finale was a music show, where we listened to several songs that were so well acted that we had no problem following the plot. Even our guide took part in the show!

Once we got back to Saigon we were dropped off at the Ben Thanh Market, which is Saigon’s answer to the Great Bazaar of Istambul, or La Merced in Mexico City. Fun and colorful, but unfortunately they started to close just as I was beginning to enjoy myself. Odd, since trade was brisk and a pouring rain was keeping all inside. The answer was the night market, which was being set up at that very moment, even under the torrential rain. The night market is an Asian tradition that takes over several streets, and where young people go to shop and be seen until the wee hours of the morning. I have had my share of excitement, however, so I think I will enjoy the rain under my brand new umbrella and call it a night. 

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