Day 4, Vinh Long: Floating Market & Cycling Tour in Vietnam's Mekong Delta
It was just before daybreak when I was awaken by roosters' crowing. The sound of rain drops beating on the roof, from a light drizzle that started in the night, kept me listening until daylight crept into the room through the newspapers on the wooden-planked wall. It was nostalgic.
We were inside the house of a local Vietnamese family — a homestay in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
I got up and went out of the partitioned "bedroom” when I heard my companions tossed and turned, knowing they would be waking up soon. The air outside was rather cooling and smelled of rural freshness.
We took turns washing up and using the latrine by the carp pond. The big carps were very excited when chunks of feces hit the water surface, making sounds that attracted them from their sleep. I wondered if they ate the feces.
Once we were done getting ourselves ready for the activities of the day, we assembled outside the traditional house that we had stayed the previous night. We took some photos with Chú and Cô before boarding Chú's private motorboat with all our belongings. Before leaving, Cô gave us a bundle of longans and waved goodbye to us. Thanh said Cô was weeping but we could not see clearly as the boat sped further down the river. It had indeed been a wonderful homestay with the couple and we had a wonderful time.
Along the way to the floating market, we continued to observe the locals' morning activities, including locals bathing in the river with their clothes on — ladies too. There were also other boats of various sizes heading in the same direction as us. Thanh was busy explaining the various modes of water transports and their purposes. Apart from ferries, there were river taxis, private boats, sand barges, boats with produces for the market, etc.
Thanh also explained why the bow of the wooden boats were painted with a pair of eyes. It was said that there used to be crocodiles in the river many years back and the eyes were used to make the reptiles believed that the boats were some big creatures and scared them away. The river was bared of crocodiles now. And it had became sort-of a tradition to decorate boats with "eyes". Actually, I was hoping to cruise down a river among some crocodiles in a boat — like an adventure cruise down an Amazon river.
It was about 7:40am when we approached the floating market. More and more boats could be seen as we got nearer. Although the market was not as large as Cái Răng Floating Market in Can Tho, it was not touristy and sold almost the same type of local produces. There were no other tourists here except for us and the Australian family, whom we had met the previous day. Thanh pointed out that heavier electrical appliances and frozen or fresh meats were sold in markets on the land, just beside the floating market. Only agricultural produces and light food stuffs were sold on the river.
Thanh also pointed to a factory by the river that made ice blocks — made me think thrice before ordering any cold drinks with ice cubes in Vietnam.
Chú reduced power of the motorboat and steered it around the floating market, letting us observed the different cargoes carried by the boats and how they traded. Apart from boats with cargoes, there were also smaller boats that sold food, such as noodles, rice and snacks, and also boats with just buyers. Some bigger boats also housed the whole families. For boats that sold fresh fruits or vegetables, a sample of each item was tied to a long pole and erected high above the boat. This allowed buyers to find them easily.
While Thanh directed, Chú steered the boat towards a snack boat where we were to have our breakfast — and about time! Another boat ferrying the Australian lady with her two kids and their guide had just finished their breakfasts and about to break away from the snack boat. In that short moment when the two boats were alongside the snack boat, we greeted one another and shared the longans, given by Cô, with them. Then, they parted. It was our turn to have breakfast. I was famished.
Thanh said that although there were boats selling hot noodles, it was not recommended that foreigners ate them. The locals might cook the noodles with mineral water, which was perfectly fine, but they washed the bowls with water from the brownish Mekong River. Some tourists could not take it and had fallen ill after eating. This explained why we were eating from the snack boat that tour guides picked specially for tourists.
Nevertheless, the breakfast snack was delicious!
It was glutinous rice, with some kind of bean in it, rolled up in white sugary crepe with a piece of hardened malt sugar and shredded coconut. It was sweet. The snack vendor sold not just one type of snack, there was also rice cakes on banana leave and topped with coconut milk.
I had a glutinous rice roll and some rice cakes, and not feeling full yet. Knowing that we would be going for a cycling trip before lunch, I ordered another rice roll before our boat pulled away from the snack boat after Thanh paid for the breakfast.
It was only 8.30 am when we cruised away from the floating market to our next destination. 20 minutes later, we arrived at the very first pier where we had waited for the ferry, after alighting from the mini-van the previous day. We got off the motorboat, bid Chú goodbye and proceeded to the main road.
A short walk and we came to a bicycle rental shop. Thanh went in and the shop owner took out six bicycles with baskets for us to put our belongings. We also had washroom break in the bicycle shop — public toilets were rare in the rural areas, so we had to use them when there were opportunities unless no one minded the bushes. Then, we were on our way to explore some Mekong villages and rice fields.
One thing I disliked was to cycle on the same road as bigger vehicles. To make matter worse, vehicles in Vietnam, especially those in rural areas, usually shared single-lane roads in both directions. We had to watch out for oncoming vehicles in front of us as we cycled, and made way for vehicles coming up from behind us, usually with loud blasts from their horns. I was thankful when we turned off the main road, with some difficulties at a crossroad, and traveled down a smaller road with lesser traffic. Well, that was also part of experiencing life in Vietnam and had some "excitement" on the trip.
Thanh led us to a brick-making factory and explained to us the manufacturing process. Big slabs of dark-coloured clay were mounded by a machine into required shapes and sizes before being carted out to an open compound for drying and hardening under the sun. Once dried, they would turn into light grayish colour and would be further hardened by heating in kilns.
The locals used rice brans as fuel for the heating process, not wasting parts of the rice that were inedible. After heating, red hard bricks were formed and ready for sales. But what was more fascinating was the used of female workers, to transfer the newly-mounded clays from the mounding machine to the carts — because of their gentleness so as not to damage the soft bricks. A task that male workers could not perform.
We also cycled past some rice fields and stopping momentarily to try using a "monkey bridge" to cross a small canal. Joanne almost fell into the water because she had leaned heavily on one bamboo pole that gave way. Luckily, she jumped onto the opposite bank, which was just one step away from her. When it was my turn, I crossed the bridge using my hands to balance myself instead of holding on to anything — army trained.
Once across the bridge, we were in a rice field that was riped for harvest. Thanh explained the various steps in growing rice and how it played an economical role in Vietnam.
Continuing our journey, we came across some farmers spreading harvested rice on the road for drying under the sun — this forced us to cycle in the middle of the road and had to stop very often to give way to bigger vehicles. Then, we came to a marketplace where we would be crossing a river by ferry. While waiting for the ferry, I took some photos of the marketplace. The stalls were not fully occupied at this time of the day. Shren bought some durian-filling bánh Pía (pastries) from a shop.
When the ferry arrived, we walked our bicycles onto the deck and it moved off. Shren shared the durian-filling bánh Pía with everyone. It was very nice and she regretted not buying more of it to take home. 8 minutes on the ferry and we were at our destination — a local village with no roads for big vehicles except cement pathways that allowed only bicycles and motorbikes on them. We cycled, in a single file, through the village and more rice fields, taking in all the sights. The local's friendliness was beyond words — some farmers looked up from their rice fields and waved to us and kids shouting "hello" as we passed by. Tourists were not an everyday affair in these rural areas.
Instead of cycling back to the pier for the ferry back to the marketplace, Thanh led us around the village and onto a main road — the same stretch that we had started on. The sun had hidden itself behind dark clouds and we cycled faster, hoping to get to the bicycle shop before the rain caught us.
15 minutes on the road and we were back at the crossroad, which we had turned off earlier, after crossing a bridge. But luck ran out, the rain came down heavy and we were forced to seek shelter at a rest stop — just 150 metres from the bicycle shop.
There was a stall selling nước mía (sugarcane juice) and four hammocks were tied to wooden poles, waiting to serve rest-seekers. We ordered a few glasses of nước mía, without ice, and rested on the hammocks while waiting for the rain to stop. We also finished the rest of Shren's durian bánh Pía. There were two little cute girls playing at the stall and I took a couple of photos of them — they posed for me instead of hiding away, so adorable.
The rain reduced its intensity 15 minutes later and we decided to bash for the bicycle shop. It was not a mad rush anyway as the rain turned into a light drizzle before we reached the shop. After returning the bicycles, we walked to the pier and waited for the ferry. There were two other kids, a girl and a toddler, at the rest stop and, again, I tried taking photos of them but, unlike the girls at the other rest stop, they played hide-and-seek with me. The toddler was also a girl. It was then that I realised that most of the little children that I had photographed in the two days in Mekong were all girls, where were the boys then? No one had answers for me.
We took the ferry back to the same modern house where we had lunch the previous day. Today, there were more visitors. Three little girls — yes, girls again! — from the neighbourhood had came over to fish for mud-skippers at a small stream just beside the house. Mud-skipper fishing was a favourite past-time of the rural folks and we joined in for a while. After several failed attempts, we gave up and went into the kitchen to help the lady host with lunch, leaving the little girls to enjoy their little game.
We were making spring rolls again, but this time, the spring rolls were rolled with radish, minced pork, boiled green beans and spring onions as fillings. Thanh said that the green beans would made the spring rolls taste better. The finished spring rolls were then fried. A couple more dishes and lunch were ready. And we sat down to lunch with the lady host.
We rested for half an hour after lunch before bidding goodbye to the lady host and her mother(-in-law?), who had came over. It was already 1.30pm. We took a ferry back to the pier where we had came from earlier, walked to a main road, and the mini-van, which had sent us to Vinh Long the day before, was waiting for us. And the 4-hour journey back to Ho Chi Minh City commenced. Everybody dozed off — it had been a long tiring day.
As usual, the mini-van made a short stop-over at Mekong Rest Stop before arriving at Bui Vien Street, Ho Chi Minh City, at around 6pm.
We bid goodbye to Thanh, promised to keep in contact, and went into Nhat Thao Guest House. We collected our baggage from the reception and checked into our new rooms. After shower, we met up in the reception area. I booked a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, on the following day, for everyone through the staff at the reception counter. Then, we headed out for dinner.
My companions wanted to try Vietnamese's western food and we went into a restaurant not far from Bui Vien Street. Some placed orders for western-style meals, some ordered pineapple rice and I decided to try Vietnamese beef curry with breads instead. It took more than half an hour before our orders were served, but I reminded the rest that it was normal to wait a longer time for food in Vietnam — never hurry a Vietnamese chef. The western food turned out to be slightly blander in taste, but was expected as Vietnamese dishes relied on natural flavours of the ingredients rather than on sauces. The same applied to my curry as well.
After dinner, we strolled around Phạm Ngũ Lão. With not much to do at night, we were back at the same provision shop, which we had patronised on our first day in Saigon, and ordered Red Saigon and Green Saigon beers again along with fried cuttlefish from a mobile vendor. We sat beside the road and again observed the activities around us as we downed the beers from the bottles.
It might seem like we had nothing better to do and just drank the night away but this was what the locals do too.
At 10pm, we called it a day.