Thursday, 8 February 2018

Vietnam, day 11: Jungle Cruise - Sun-Dappled Canals of the Mekong

Ben Tre, Vietnam
24 May 2017
Before going on our tour, we had time for some breakfast (of which the mango was succulent and flavoursome), and a quick whip around the hotel owner's museum: a small collection of old cameras and plastic casings so that they could be used underwater.
Right on time, we walked across the street with our tour guide Hong to the river.

The sunrise still lingering among the clouds, we boarded our boat.

Along with Hong and the skipper, we were the only people aboard. Our own personal tour!

Very shortly we saw signs of life along the river, and Hong explained them all to us. One man had gone out in a small boat and would duck under the surface, scooping clay up in his hands and deposit it onto his boat. He would then stomp on it, making it more compact so he could fit as much as possible into the limited area. There were also several fishermen drawing in their nets, and people dredging sand.

At several points along the riverbank, Hong pointed out structures made out of green mesh that were designed to trap shellfish. Inside one, we spotted a chicken pecking around for any scraps.

Apparently as it was low tide, we were to visit a different coconut factory than the usual one for the tour. Though it was very difficult to find a spot to jump onto dry land and clamber over the discarded coconut shells, it felt like this factory was in a way more authentically presented as they see fewer tourists, so it was well worth the unstable terrain.

Each stage of the process had a specific area. The first step was to split off the thick outer fibre from the hard shell inside. This was done by forcing the coconut at speed onto a sharp spear-like tool that jutted from the floor. It not only looked dangerous, but Hong said that accidents could occur, leaving workers with cut hands or arms if they weren't careful. Workers are not paid by time, but by quantity. The faster you worked, the more money you would receive, which of course made the process more dangerous.

The next stage was to cut the coconuts in half so that the flesh inside could be accessed. Here we saw a woman tallying up the completed work to assess payment. There was also a small boy who approached us, hugged Yannick and offered us some of his snacks. Hong said that one of the guys asked how old I was, and she translated that I was 26. He was surprised, and said that I looked 16! Flattery is universal.

The next area of the factory was where women removed the flesh of the coconut and shaved off the coarse brown skin from the outside. After that was the final stage, where the flesh was washed. When taking photos of the women, they joked that they weren't attractive enough to be photographed. 

After a short jaunt in the boat, we reached our second stop: a coconut candy making operation. Melting down coconut milk, sugar, and malt, the sticky concoction was transferred to an indented board to harden into strips. From there, a worker would use a huge terrifying cleaver to segment the strips into bite-sized candies, which would be individually wrapped and popped into plastic bags for sale. We bought a few different flavours, including chocolate (which I thought tasted the same as the original flavour, but Yannick assured me tasted awful), pandan, and peanut which was by far the best.


As we were being shown around, there was the cutest little roly poly puppy knocking about, licking our toes, wagging his tail and snacking on discarded coconut shavings. (Hong told him "That's why you're fat.") Taking a seat around a small table, we were presented with a platter with perfectly selected ripe fruit and chilli salt. I revelled in the perfect mango, but couldn't get on board with my first ever sampling of the longan: a small fruit similar to a rambutan or lychee that was sweet with a jelly-like consistency.


Instead of returning to the boat, we were picked up in a heavy duty tuktuk and driven along a jungle path to reach the mat weaving workshop.

Here, long strands of dried grass were woven into sleeping mats.

The process of weaving a single bed-sized mat took about an hour and a half, and each worker would receive around $1 per mat. It was clearly laborious work, and to see elderly women crouched for long periods of time was a little saddening. 

As it was approaching lunchtime, we hopped back on the tuktuk and were delivered to a homestead where we were to be fed and watered. 

Hong had arranged for all my meals to be vegan, which was wonderfully accommodating. We enjoyed spring rolls, banh xeo (crispy pancakes), a tofu and mushroom dish with coconut rice, and Yannick also had a fried elephant ear fish (a specialty of the Mekong Delta). While there were no other patrons of the restaurant, we were joined by a fluffy dog and a scraggly cat who would occasionally gaze at us longingly for scraps. 

As we had travelled inland slightly from the main river, we embarked on a brief trip in a rowboat in order to get back to our usual boat. The sun decided to make an appearance, and Hong protectively supplied me and Yannick with hats.

This smaller waterway was quite beautiful, with sunlight shining through overhanging palm fronds. Devastatingly, half of Ben Tre is expected to be flooded by 2030 (according to the Climate Change Research Institute at Can Tho University). It's heartbreaking to know that places like the Mekong Delta will look very different in the near future, and you have to wonder what will become of the people who live here.

Having seen many boats with eyes painted onto the bow, we asked as to their purpose. Hong told us that many years ago, crocodiles lived in the river. As boats were piled high with goods, they sank lower into the water and crocodiles could climb aboard. To remedy this, eyes were painted to scare off the predators, making them believe that the boats were large and angry creatures.
Hong was such an informative and helpful guide, and it was such a great experience to be shown around by her and learn a bit about her life: she lived with her husband's family, and was attending university part-time. She had recently become pregnant and was saving up so that she could afford to give birth in the hospital rather than at home.

After a dip in the hotel pool and relaxing in the hammocks for a while, we walked into the centre of Ben Tre. At one point, a man greeted us and then proceeded to follow us at a short distance, muttering to himself. When we had crossed the bridge and were on a main road, he still hadn't ceased trailing us, so I went all Jason Bourne and said "let's lose him in the marketplace". We ducked into the covered market and zigzagged our way around the vendors at a brisk pace. Emerging from a different edge of the market, we found that we had been successful! I suppose my spy training is almost concluded.

After a trip to the supermarket (where the cashier practised his English skills on us), we headed over to the night market. Though we didn't find anything we fancied for dinner, we had fun taking some longer exposure photos. As we were strolling along the esplanade, a man pulled up on a motorbike and jumped off to chat with us (while his family looked on from the back of the bike). Apparently he knew Ken, the hotel owner, and had been shown around by him when he and his family had first arrived in Ben Tre years prior. Concluding our chat and continuing on down the road, we spotted a pizzeria and figured we'd try our luck. We knew that the food wouldn't be authentically Italian by any means, but we felt like a change in cuisine for the evening. Though the food was bland, we helped it along with a dousing of chilli oil. The waitress was very young, and spoke near flawless English.
On the walk back to the hotel, we crossed a bridge with fishermen leaning over the railings, and could hear resident under-bridge bats squeaking away.