Month: June, 2006

Good night, Saigon

Saturday, June 24th, 2006 | All Things, Travel

Final day in Vietnam. Loose ends…

Ben Thanh Market is one of Ho Chi Minh’s most popular shopping destinations, having been in existence since the French occupation, and in its current location since 1899.

Locals and tourist alike congregate at this market near the center of town, especially on the weekends. Larger and somewhat more sanitized than Chinatown’s Binh Tay Market, which I visited on my first day in Saigon.

Slippers

The market also features a pretty extensive food court with individual stands outfitted with plastic stools for customers — like an indoor collection of street food.

Food stall

Sinh To is the ubiquitous Vietnamese fruit shake. The word is actually a Chinese language import, meaning “vitamin;” “vitamin” in Vietnamese is “vitamin”.

Sinh To

Taxicab ride to the History Museum for the afternoon water puppet show:

Water puppets Water puppets

Puppetmasters take a bow:

Puppet performers

After the show, visited the museum’s other big draw: the Angkor Wat relics… um, Elgin Marbles, anyone?

Angkor Wat statues
Angkor Wat bas relief. As I won’t be making it out to Cambodia this trip, this small sampling will have to suffice for now.

bas relief

At the Jade Emperor Pagoda, built by the city’s Cantonese around the turn of the century:

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Continued my leisurely stroll around District 1. On the way, I passed the site of the American Embassy, now the U.S. Consulate. According to the guidebook, it is not the original gate or building through which the Viet Cong broke through during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Security around the complex is extremely tight, though, with armed guards posted every 20 feet or so. In fact it was the one place in all of Vietnam that I was expressly forbidden — twice — from snapping a photograph, and that includes museums and several houses of worship.

This was the closest I could manage — the guards were out of my line of vision, behind the tree:

American Embassy
Though around the corner, I found one guard who was somewhat more obliging.
Guard

More street carts:

Food stand
How could I leave Vietnam without sampling a bowl of pho?
Pho

Just a few more hours before I leave for NYC. Sleep or pack?

Pack.

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Mekong Delta — Part II

Friday, June 23rd, 2006 | All Things, Travel

The family hosting my homestay had raised seven children, all except the youngest two, ages 7 and 11 — though I would have guessed no more than 5 and 9, all grown; the couple had signed up with the program a couple of years ago to make use of the vacant bedrooms (and, I’m assuming, to supplement their farming income.) During my brief stay, I’d noticed many large families in Vietnam, particularly on the delta where every extra set of hands could be put to work. One guide later explained, also, that in a country with no social security system, extra children would ensure care in old age.

Although the accommodations were not luxurious by any stretch, the family was very welcoming and I could sense that their home was somewhat above average as compared to their neighbors. For one, they had electricity (only 60% of Mekong Delta homes do) and a television set broadcasting the World Cup.

Unfortunately, I soon discovered that my Hong Kong purchased insect repellant proved no match at all for the tenacious delta critters. As I sat down to a dinner of freshly grilled fish, spring rolls, fresh vegetables and rice, the mosquitoes enjoyed a hearty feast of me. Misery! I was forced to retire somewhat anti-socially soon after dinner to take refuge in bed under the mosquito net.

On related note, I should mention that the house was crawling with tiny geckos, which in themselves are not particularly objectionable, but when encountered unexpectedly — say… in the bathroom, eek! — can be quite disconcerting. My housemates, all of whom had been backpacking through Southeast Asia for the past several months, were completely unfazed by their presence and explained to me that as geckos eat mosquitoes, they were actually a welcome site. I suppose one could say the same about the small frog that hopped across the hall past my bedroom later that night.

Homestay

Wakeup call at 5:30AM to visit the family’s rice fields, where workers had been toiling already for an hour and a half under cover of mist.

Rice paddy

Then off to visit the famous floating markets of Can Tho. I’d seen one of these near Bangkok a couple of years ago, but this was an altogether different experience: much larger, and not a tourist offering in sight. By 7:30AM, Cai Rang Market was buzzing with locals, picking their way through all the fresh fruits and vegetables on offer.

Mekong Delta

Floating Market

“Concession stand” — for tourists.

Floating Market

Having been up, in many cases, since before dawn, some stopped to take a break around 8:30AM as business slowed.

Delta life (3)

Delta life (4)

Water Buffalo

More local boats. The eyes painted on the prows are for ocean-faring vessels to see the boats’ way safely to sea.

Mekong Boats

Just as we arrived at the outer edges of Phong Dien floating market, about 12 miles southwest of the city center, the rain began… first as slight drizzle and within minutes, a downpour. The boat operator barely got the tarp up in time for us to avoid a soaking. Vendors scrambled for cover.

Rainy delta

Within 20 minutes, the skies cleared and it was back to business as usual.

After the rain

After the rain

After lunch and a quick tour around the Can Tho city center — rather nondescript — we started on the drive back to HCMC. But first, another town, another market. More of the same, though one display did catch my eye. Warning: not for the squeamish.

Custard apples — the Southeast Asian version of the cherimoya, though by some accounts, not quite as tasty. As I only know of one person who has sampled that fabled Andean fruit, I may have to try to smuggle one of these back to her for a taste comparison.

Custard apples

Stopping again in My Tho to visit the bonsai gardens:

Hibiscus

Mekong delta workers. At the incense factory, a half dozen employees sit in a stifling hot room and grind scented paste, which they then feed into the machines that stamp the incense onto the delicate sticks one by one, thousands of times a day. I would have thought that this entire process could have been mechanized entirely somehow, but apparently labor is inexpensive in Vietnam.

Incense factory

Incense sticks drying in the sun.

Incense

Making coconut candy from scratch — which I got to sample, yum.

Coconut candy maker

Steaming rice papers, to be cut up into noodles, or made into summer rolls:

Rice paper

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Mekong Delta — Part I

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006 | All Things, Travel

Back in Saigon and exhausted, but time to catch up…

My Tho, capital of the Tien Giang province, is a typical entry point to the Mekong Delta for visitors from HCMC. Located just a 90 minutes’ drive away, the area is famous for its coconut palms and fruit orchards. I set out by minivan early Thursday morning for my two day tour of Vietnam’s rice bowl region.

Upon arrival in My Tho, I hopped a small ferry boat — the first of what would become several means of water transport — to putter around the area islets: Unicorn Island, Dragon Island, Phoenix Island and Tortoise Island. Boats of widely varying size, age and sophistication are the primary means of travel among the canals of the Mekong Delta.

To My Tho

On Tortoise Island, I toured the abundant groves of fruit trees: Papaya…

Papayas

Longans… There are green and unripe. Later in the day, I came across a tree with ripened fruit and was able to pick directly from the branches for a tasty, but messy snack.

Longans

Water apples… Also unripe. I sampled these for the first time in Hong Kong. Refreshing.

Water Apples

… and Pomelo, which we have in the U.S. Note the Vietnamese version of scratchitti on this one.

Pomelo

After the islands tour, I made my way to Ben Tre province. The system of canals is very narrow in segments, though, and motorized boats are not permitted through the coconut grove-lined water passages. Had to hire a rowboat, most of which seemed to be driven by petite local women. Looks are deceiving, though, and in pairs, these women impressively navigate their boats packed with hefty tourists through the twists and turns without hardly breaking a sweat. Quite a feat… I was drenched in perspiration and all I had to do was sit quietly (and snap these photos):

Mekong Boats

Through the Delta

The waters may look filthy, but the murkiness is due to silt, not pollution. Other than the occasional leaves, branches and fruit peels, the passages were relatively free of debris. I observed many locals swimming, bathing (with clothes on — not unusual) and washing clothes along the banks. Modest private homes with sampans line the canal.

Delta life (1)

Delta life (2)

To Vinh Long. The large ferry transports passengers, cars, vans, and lots of motorbikes.
To Can Tho

Then a two hour drive to Can Tho, the largest city and de facto capital of the Mekong Delta. I had arranged with four others to stay with a local rural family overnight, and was informed upon arrival in the city that their home was located about half an hour out of town, by road then water. My transportation to the canal:
Local transport

We were loaded up four(!) with luggage on this rickety contraption. Being the odd person out, I was offered the option of either squeezing onto the back, or hopping another motorbike alone. Neither choice seemed particularly less hazardous than the other, so I opted for safety in numbers. I was perched on the plank — no sides — riding backwards, over bumpy country roads and a bridge, clutching onto my bags and the sides for dear life. Needless to say, no photos of that segment of the journey.

Thankfully, the ride was just ten minutes long, and I arrived at the water’s edge safe and sound. The owner of the house and his two young daughters met us at the canal bank with the family’s motorized motorboat. For the next twenty-five minutes, we cruised leisurely through the waters, past several open fronted homes, and felt very far away from the city.

The delta at dusk:

Can Tho

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