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Mekong Delta

October 28

It was about a two and a half hour drive from Saigon to Cai Be located in the heart of the Mekong Delta. On the way Duyen pointed out tall high-rises and informed us that they were very expensive and purchased by Vietnamese who were returning to Vietnam as well as by foreign workers.
Although stopping on the side of the freeway is "not permitted", Duyen wanted to show us lotus flowers growing wild. 

A farm lady appeared as we were setting the camera and without hesitation she waded into the hip deep water and picked a lotus in full bloom and a large bud, re-emerged and handed them to Sherrie. Duyen translated our request to take a picture. The beautiful lady graciously stood back keeping her smile (which we believe is a permanent reflection of her personality) and then quickly turned and seemed to disappear again. 

What a beautiful moment in our travels.
Another stop ... at another temple ... but captivating views also lay between stops. 

In the village of Cai Be we met a local guide and he escorted Duyen and ourselves to a boat where the "captain" awaited. With a shove and a wave from those ashore, the five of us headed out onto the watery avenue. 

Life in Vietnam’s agrarian heartland still unfolds as it has for centuries. A myriad of delta waterways brought us closer to the traditional floating market. This is the wholesale version. Farmers bring their produce ~ sugar cane, sweet potatoes, jack fruit and so much more, through the different water channels to the "middle-men" on bigger boats. The "middlemen" then sell the produce to retailers. Sometimes smaller boats tied behind the larger ones are used to go out to the farms and collect produce for this aquatic market.  All prices are negotiated.
Each boat had a sample of what it had for sale hung on a high pole for all to see. At the moment things were quiet. Lunch time. Time to eat, swing in a hammock, do a boat repair or have a bath.   

Just passed the floating market our "captain" manoeuvred his craft to the shore and we walked up to some buildings at the end of a narrow pier. The local guide wanted to show us what this Vietnamese family did.

At one "station" a fellow had a large wok set over brick enclosed fire and he was stirring something that was very black. The "black something" turned out to be river sand. He measured some rice and spilled it into the hot black sand, then stirred and flipped the sand and rapidly moved the wok. Within moments the rice began to pop, just like popcorn. When it became quiet a second fellow swung a screened wooden frame and the first man poured the contents from the wok into the frame. With some shaking the screen allowed the sand to fall through and back into the next wok while retaining the popped rice. Then the second man swung the screen around, poured the contents into another screened frame and with some fast and heavy-duty shaking and hand-stirring, the rice separated from the chaff which fell through the screen to a pile below.  

Nearby, again in a wok over a open fire built within a brick frame, a concoction of sugar and coconut was being boiled together making a light caramel.

When ready the wok was moved over to a round holder in the middle of the floor. Cleaned popped rice was measured and dumped into the caramel and immediately men #3 and #4, who held long paddles in each hand scooped up the rice from the bottom of the wok and moved it to the top. Standing on opposite sides of the wok and with arms moving in unison, and the men themselves going round and round the large wok, it looked like an ancient dance. Perhaps it is. At the right moment, they put down their paddles, picked up the wok, carried it to a table and scrapped out the contents. The table has raised sides and when they spread out the caramelized rice puffs they piled it slightly higher than the edge. Next the "dancers" brought out heavy metal rolling pins. With one on each side of the rectangular table, they quickly rolled their metal cylinders in a herring bone fashion with just the barest amount of space in-between, then finished off the edges. Now the rice concoction rested below the edging of the table.
 Their next performance consisted of taking metal straight edges, placing them across the table, lining them up with the measurement markers on the table’s edge and cutting "rice crispy squares" into rectangles.

From the table frame the rice krispies went to a low table where three people took each chunk of treat, slipped a plastic bag over the top, grabbed an elastic band and with an eye blurring movement, tied the bag up with the elastic and tossed it onto a pile ready for a waiting market.

As though that wasn’t fascinating enough at another station a fellow made rice candy ... 

pulled it out into strips like salt-water taffy, cut it up and handed it off to a girl to wrap. With delicate fingers, she folded rice paper around each toffee-like bite and then wrapped all that in another paper. The consumer simply undid the outer wrapper and put the rice papered candy into their mouth - no sticky fingers, no candy stuck to the wrapper (and you thought M&Ms were the first "won’t melt in your hands" candy).

Oh you would think it would all end there – but who made the rice paper? It is also made on site. They even got Sherrie to try doing the delicate job – thank goodness she’s not planning to come out of retirement anytime soon.
 Back onto the Mekong River again.  
Our captain manoeuvered through a narrow canal that cut across one of the many Mekong River islands. Our camera seemed to click steadily as we glided around each turn, under each bridge and encountered the Mekong Delta citizens going about their daily lives.

It seemed surreal; like a Disneyland ride that would end by coming around the bend and seeing the paddle-wheeler near Adventure Land. Instead we came around the bend back into the main waters of the Mekong River and crossed over a wider stretch of water before entering another channel.
This time a little wider, a little busier as it divided the large island of An Binh. Again the camera clicked away like lazy castanets. About half way across the island we stopped at Mr. Sau Giao's.  
Walking up from the river bank through a nursery of bonsai trees and orchids we stopped at a bonsai scene and the local guide showed us an elephant ear fish. "You will be having one just like him for lunch," he said. We thought he was joking. He wasn't.

The elephant ear fish came to the table whole; upright like you would see it in the water (like we did!
picture right), held erect by four pegs covered with green onion tubes. Also served was a plate of fried spring rolls, rice paper, lettuce (our guide assured us it was washed with bottled water) and mint. He showed us how to make a wrap with the fish and other ingredients. 
That wasn't all ... served with the above, were also two large whole shrimp and a small bowl of sugar, salt and sesame in which to lightly dip the shrimp (once we got the shell peeled off). 
We ordered some Vietnamese beer "333" or "Ba ba ba" to wash it down. We were happy and content and full. They cleaned some of the dishes off and proceeded to bring to our table soup, steamed rice, steamed vegetables and a plate of beef and french fries (not traditional but it keeps those who can't step away from their western comfort food, content).

When the guide and Duyen, who had been eating and visiting with friends elsewhere, came to check on us, we begged them to help us out for we couldn’t eat any more. The guide brought over a bottle of rice wine and four shot glasses. We each had a taste ~ well the fellows had a second shot.

Continuing our journey we noted how the well-used waterway was suffering erosion along its banks and threatening some shoreline homes.
At one point some older boys were diving into the murky brown water to fill sacks with sand which were then passed from hand to hand until they reached shore and were placed in position.  
Leaving the channel behind, we crossed (while sipping on coconut milk) another wide stretch of water where the Co Chin River meets the Mekong, and arrived at Vinh Long where we bid the "captain" and the local guide goodbye.

Dung, our driver, had the car waiting and we climbed in.
Heading back to Saigon, we would only be making one stop. Duyen told us a story of a little boy who went to school in Saigon. His school teacher had said to the children, "Do not say you 'have to go pee' but tell me instead that you would 'like to sing a song'. The little boy always obeyed his elders and used "I want to sing a song" when he needed to "go".

Summer break came and his parents sent him off to stay with his grandparents in the Mekong Delta. One night when he was sleeping with his grandfather, he woke up and said "Grandfather I want to sing a song."

The grandfather said, "Not now, little one, you will wake the family. Go back to sleep."

When he woke again he said more urgently, "Grandfather, I want to sing a song."

"Not now," repeated grandfather.

"But, Grandfather, I really need to sing a song!"

"Okay," relented his grandfather, "but if you must, do it quietly in my ear."

We stopped at the same tourist stop we had used in the morning "to sing a song."

click here to continue to October 29 and to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon ... 

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