Mekong Delta Tour - amazing!
01.08.2011 - 04.08.2011 89 °F
Aug. 3 Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam – Day 2
Aug. 3 Helpful Travel Notes:
Booking a Tour: Mekong Delta Tour • $10 USD/200,000 VND - Book through a tour or travel agent on Pham Ngu Lao Street
Mekong Delta Tour – Dinner at Saigon Vegan Restaurant
Today we have an exciting adventure in store! We have booked a Mekong River Delta Tour. A guide from the bus company picks us up at our hotel at 8 am, escorting us down our street to pick up several other tourists for the bus ride to our entry point on the Mekong. Our “2 hour” bus ride takes 4 hours due to traffic, but we finally arrive at the port where we board our long boat-style touring boat and set off onto the Mighty Mekong.
Our first stop is the merchant’s floating market – there is another floating market up the way for patrons, but it’s too far. We find this an adequate example of the floating market experience. Our guide explains how the bamboo poles standing off the bow of each floating market boat display what the boat merchant is selling for the day. For example, a boat selling gourds (a common crop here) hangs a large gourd from the boat’s bamboo pole. In this way, the merchants “advertise” to buyers what they’re selling. We wind our way through the market and head toward a small village that produces several products, including rice or sesame rice paper for spring rolls (sesame), coconut toffee candy, “popped” rice snacks, rice wine, tea with longan honey, bee pollen morsels, and royal jelly. We watch as the merchants demonstrate the production of each product – it’s a completely rewarding cultural experience.
Rice paper – First, rice is cooked, then watered down to a thin consistency that is ladled and spread across a large, flat dome. Once the air dries the rice/water mixture, the maker gently scrapes the circular rice paper off the dome and places it on the edge of a rotating wheel to dry. Another maker gently removes the hanging rice paper circle and adds it to a long wicker “stretcher” which holds 10 rice paper circles. The drying stretcher is laid in the sun to dry. This gives the rice paper the dried out crunch to which we’re accustomed.
Coconut Toffee Candy – After collecting a great deal of coconut milk/juice in a specialized vat, the liquid is poured into a large mixer. Adding sugar and water, the liquid is heated and spun until it gains a thicker consistency. Once it becomes taffy-like, it is poured into the molds to form long lengths of toffee. Once it cools and hardens, it is chopped into bite-sized pieces, wrapped in individual papers, and packaged.
Popped Rice Treats – This demonstration amazed me with its complexity and level of expertise. First, the hulls from former batches and lychees are used to fuel a fiery cauldron. The maker stirs up and heats sand in the cauldron to a particular temperature. He adds the raw rice and agitates/stirs it vigorously until it pops like popcorn. Once the majority of the rice is popped, he uses a large bamboo scoop to move the rice/sand to a sieve which separates the sand and rice hulls from the popped rice “prizes”. The rice is then poured onto another large cauldron to which the maker adds a light, warm caramel mixture. He and his buddy use large wooden paddles to walk around the cauldron, mixing, mixing, mixing the rice to coat it in caramel. Think of rice Krispy treats. Next, the caramel popped rice is transferred to a large, square wooden table with a ridged border. The maker and his buddy flatten the gooey rice on the table, then use large machetes to chop the rice mixture into small squares. By this time, the popped rice has cooled to a temperature where it can be handled, and it is transferred finally to the packaging table, where a lady wraps 16-20 pieces in individual baggies. Such a production for those little rice treats!
Our guide describes the process of making rice wine and walks us back to the bee farm that produces delicious longan flower honey, tea, bee pollen morsels (“great for your liver, brain and heart!”), and royal jelly. The family prepares your tea just so: a bit of tea, a squeeze of kumquat, and a teaspoon of perfect longan flower honey. Mmmm! Some of the best tea I’ve ever sampled.
After a bit of shopping in the foyer, we board our boat again. Our next stop is a customary Vietnamese lunch in a nearby village. We all opt for the “free with tour purchase” meal of tofu, fresh sautéed veggies, soup and rice. It’s scrumptious! Others opt to pay a bit more and sample the elephant ear fish delicacy served in the village. The elephant ear fish is a deep fried whole fish, served upright on the plate with some steamed veggies encircling it. Quite a spectacle!
Following lunch, we have the option to ride bikes around the village or chill in hammocks surrounding the lunch tables on the outdoor patio. I choose both, of course. I throw Essie in the Ergo carrier on my front, and off we pedal, over small bridges – Weeee! feet out down the hills and through the tiny village. After working up a decent sweat, I decide it’s hammock time, of which both Serene & I are keenly fond. We rack out, and almost miss the call of the guide to head back to the boat! Thankfully, one of the villagers rousted us, and we made it on the tail of the labyrinthine walk back through the thicket to the boat.
As we approach the riverside, we are greeted not by our tour’s long boat, but several canoes that mimic gondolas in Venice. The 5 of us -Jigga, Essie, Emil & Hannah, our new tour pals, and I- maneuver into a canoe and the woman begins deftly heaving the giant 10-foot oars across her chest in an “x” fashion. We don our Chinese-style conical sun hats, and enjoy the ride. I almost feel sorry for the poor woman hefting the oars, but for the fact that we continually hear her swear and grumble the entire way. Ha! It was a riot, actually.
We are taken back to our touring long boat, and make our way down the Mekong to a no-doubt strategic exit point, a tourist-trap of a bustling market village. Dodging motorbikes and cars, we make our way to our charter bus, find the largest stretch seats, and head home. Although the tour guide warns this trip will take 3 hours (as opposed to the “2-hour” trip here! Ha Ha Ha), we make it home in just under 3 hours, with a pit stop at a gorgeous resort. Emil’s delightful conversation and “Essie-Shepherding” are welcome, and help to pass the time effortlessly. We are exhausted, but what a fantastic adventure today!!
We head to dinner at a fabulous Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant we noticed as we left Saigon. Check it out whenever you’re in town – it’s one of the BEST meals we’ve had yet! Saigon Vegan Restaurant - 378/3 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3.
Aug. 3 Places/Things to Do:
Mekong Delta Tour - ~$10 USD/200,000 VND +gratuity for Guide. Book through any tour or travel agent on Pham Ngu Lao Street
Saigon Vegan Restaurant - 378/3 Vo Van Tan Street | District 3 | Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam