Day 4

The following text is transcribed directly from my diary. For those that rightly pointed out that Janelle and myself have not engaged in many uniquely Vietnamese experiences, I would point out that we’re in the middle of the most westernised and commercial city in Vietnam – all there is to do is shop, eat, drink, and gawk at the occasional architectural marvel. Today, however, we left Saigon and hit the countryside. Read on!

Tuesday.
11:00pm
Janelle and I are in a car, entering Mekong City. On the dashboard sits a particularly gruesome nodding dog, the scalp of his head ravaged by the sun and dripping down his nose. Still, he’s in better shape than many of the tumble-down lean-to’s we’ve driven past on this two hour journey, let alone their poor occupants. Surprisingly, these dwellings are interpersed with an alarming number of statuesque mansions, though their frequency dwindled the further we drove from Saigon. I can’t wait to leap out of the car and violently purge myself of this morning’s breakfast, as I have every meal for the last 24 hours.

2:45pm
A boat tour on the Mekong costs us 675,000 Dong. We should have talked them down. I’m the world’s worst bargainer. The taxi is setting us back a further 500,000 Dong.

We’re sitting in a beautiful garden/restaurant in the Mekong Delta, stuffing ourselves with fried fish, noodles, vegetables and battered shrimp. This morning’s food is still going through me like a Mekong river speedboat. Or, more correctly, hundreds of tiny Mekong river speedboats. I’m sure you needed to hear that.

Lunch, however, is very delicious (“ruk nong”). Janelle repeatedly insists that our guide, Giang (her name means “river”) eat some of the food. Giang earns US$20 a month, which is mind blowing. She works hard (seven days a week), her English is great, and she’s, ahem, extremely well-presented.

Earlier, we stopped at Mekong Island to sample fresh honey, honey tea, rice wine with honey, banana wine, and several other combinations of honey and booze. By the time we left I was somewhat tipsy.

Then we headed to coconut island, and the coconut candy factory. We were immediately greeted by a plate of fresh, unset coconut candy, still warm and sticky from the oven. Not one part of the coconut tree is wasted in the manufacture of candy. The milk makes the candy, the leaves add colour and flavour, the husks burned to heat the milk/sugar mixture, and the trunks hold the roof up. We bought some coconut candy, and soursop candy. Soursop is softer and slightly sour, like a gummi bear.

The last stop, the one after lunch, was to sample freshly picked fruit. As well as fruits that I could identify (pineapple and banana), there was Dragon Fruit (which is the flower of a cactus), Ramatam (a kind of lychee), and others that I can no longer remember the names of.

While we were eating, two musicians assembled beside us and began playing; one on a single-string upright violin-type thing, the other on a two-string guitarlike number. A young girl, about 8 or 9 years old and dressed in an immaculate white silk gown, stood between the tables in front of them and began singing. Giang explained that it was a folk song about some happenings on the Mekong Delta. After a few verses, she was replaces by an older woman (her mother?), who sang the next part while her other children mouthed the words. Then, a stunningly beautiful girl of about 16 took the “stage”, clad in a gorgeous embroidered red and yellow silk gown, and sang her piece. The three were joined by another girl for the rousing final chorus, which was followed by a brief instrumental version of Auld Lang Syne (as if we needed further reminding that we were tourists). The singing was raw but ornate. We didn’t take any photos, not wanting to make these poor people feel more like circus performers than they already did, laying out there cultural heritage for the consumption of obscenely wealthy foreigners.

Now we’re driving back to Saigon. Smoke blankets the rice fields, which are dotted with ornate gravestones and mausolea. Along the roadside, the pattern is roughly: hovel, hovel, empty cafe, hovel, enormous mansion, rice paddy, hovel.

Today we spent:
Taxi: 500,000 Dong, $50
Boat Ride (3 hours): 675,000 Dong, $67
Lunch: 306,000 Dong, $30 (for both)
Tip for Giang: 200,000, $20

About $100 each for an amazing day out. We probably got ripped off in some areas, but really, I can’t complain about that. The people here are so incredibly friendly and hard-working that to bargain them down seems unfair.

Note to Dad: many companies here proudly proclaim ISO 9001:2000 and ISO 9002 certification. Woo!