Good Morning Vietnam!
I hate getting up early! So, when my alarm goes off at 4:49 am my first reaction is “whatever that is for, I don’t want to do it now”. But a few minutes later I’m in the shower (no hot water – ugh) trying to wake up. We get dressed and clomp down 5 floors of stairs to the small, dark lobby where a young man is asleep on the sofa. I open the door and look out into the dark, narrow street and see a guy standing nearby. “Are you Mr. Click?”
We step out and meet Trieu (Mr. T) of Eco Tour, with whom we have booked a full day of
exploring Can Tho. It is a short walk to the river, and we board a longtail sampan boat owned by Cap’n Mai (not her real name – I forgot it). It is twilight as we push off, cruising up Song Hau river under a setting full moon. The river here is wide and muddy brown, with a steady stream of commercial boat traffic carrying a variety of goods. Can Tho is located in the Mekong Delta about 70 km from the East Vietnam Sea, which is close enough for the tides to affect river flows and levels.
Our first destination is the Cai Rang Floating Market – one of the largest wholesale floating markets. Hundreds of large vessels of every description bring loads of fruits & vegetables early every morning, from 4 am-9 am. A tall bamboo pole atop the wheelhouse displays the product, and boats with like products, such as pumpkins, carrots, watermelons and pineapples, are moored near each other.
Other smaller boats motor are amongst them, purchasing quantities of the desired items to take back and sell at their local market or store. Tourist boats zip around between the larger craft as well as vendors selling food & drinks.
Firstly Mr. T flags down Mr. Coffee so we can get our early morning fix of Vietnamese Joe.
His sampan is loaded with a large cooler, many bottles of soda & mystery drinks, a large container of coffee, condiments and glass or plastic cups. The front is full of fresh young coconuts. We each get a delicious iced coffee & take off, with Cap’n Mai rowing us out the tangle of boats.
Now she motors us up between several other sampans full of tourists to get breakfast from the famous Miss 7 (her family had 7 kids), who has been out here serving pho, her version of the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, every morning. About $2 a bowl. There are 4 other sampans like ours pulled up as well a larger tourist boat with about a dozen hungry folks. The other boat people jump in and out of each other’s boats to help dispense the grub and pass the moolah back to Miss 7. Maybe 150 customers a day. We stay close until we finish our delicious pho & pass the ceramic dishes back to Miss 7, then pull away from the crowd.
Continuing up the river we observe various types of maritime industry & businesses along
the banks give way to smaller
shops and residential shacks, especially when we turn into much smaller branches of the river. The water is brown & murky, and I really would not want to have to get in. There is a lot of trash floating and our driver must stop the engine a few times, pivot it around so the prop is alongside the boat and cut off a plastic bag that has wrapped around it. Mr. T says that if one of the bigger inboard boats gets their prop fouled – someone goes overboard to clear it. Yuck.
Around 7 am we stop at a small dock & debark, walking down a path to a glass noodle factory. Here we see how a local family continues to make small batches of glass noodles, although they have cut back production recently as the older children lost interest and moved away. First, they mix the batter made from rice and tapioca (for thickening) in two large plastic tubs with electric motor driven beaters. The batter is poured and spread out on large griddles about two feet side, similar to the one Susie used to make crepes, heated by fire fueled by rice husks. Each very thin 18” diameter “pancake” cooks quickly and is picked
up by a large roller and spread onto a bamboo stretcher. 4 pancakes fill the stretcher, and another is placed atop it. When they have finished cooking, they take all the stretchers outside and place the pancakes on racks to dry.
When they are sufficiently dried, the pancakes have the consistency of a very thin, tough sheet of latex. This is fed into a machine with a metal roller that had very fine grooves cut into it which sliced the sheets into narrow noodles, falling into a basket below, or in this case, Susie’s waiting hands. Tasting one of these raw noodles is like chewing some tough, uncooked spaghetti noodles. They will be packaged and shipped off to various shops, restaurants & wholesalers, who will cook them up into some tasty noodle soup. They are called glass noodles are they become transparent when cooked. Variations exist around southeast Asia using different plants for the starch, such as mung beans or potatoes.
Back to the boat and we cruise through some smaller channels and loop around back to the main river, noting some large water coconuts and a dragon fruit farm. There were small and large patches of water hyacinths drifting with the current, and in a few places, people had stuck bamboo stalks into the water to catch the floating hyacinths for later use. As we turned up another smaller tributary, we passed a large wooden freighter piled high with a mountain of rice.
Time to bid adieu to our boat captain and switch to land travel with two wheels. We pick up 3 bikes in a lovely courtyard full of orchids, dogs & a pretty myna bird (who whistled to us), adjust our seats as well as possible and take off following Mr. T. The back roads here are maybe 2 meters wide – enough for two motos to pass each other – barely – but no autos. Concrete in fairly good shape in most places, with small bridges of various construction and stages of repair.
The scenery was wonderful with the path winding between homes, small shops, gardens and fields. Many of the house had colorful plants and flowers like bougainvillea, hibiscus, ixora, sunflowers and many others I did not recognize. Yellow Mai trees are blooming now and provide a vivid contrast to the red, purple & pink of the other flowers. Mai has a special significance to the Tet celebration in the end of January. A few of the gardens or small fields had some raised graves that appeared to be made of concrete and painted white. T says that the ancestors watch over the crops and bring good luck.
Vietnam is usually hot and muggy every day, but we were quite fortunate to have light clouds most of the day and a nice breeze. And no rain! After pedaling for a while, we stopped at a small café to sip some iced coffee while watching the small ferry load & unload. Some shops ask if you want “milk” or “fresh milk”, which we figured is either sweetened, condensed milk or plain cows’ milk. Our preference now is the former. I always like it iced but Susie takes it hot in the morning & iced later. Another thing in Vietnam is the tall glasses are never more than ¾ full of coffee. The server also brought a pot of tea, and Mr. T explained that when the coffee is finished the locals pour some tea over the ice to quench the thirst from the coffee. Hmmmm.
This ferry runs back & forth continuously – mostly motos and a few bicycles & pedestrians. One stopped at our table selling lottery tickets, so we spent 75 cents to win $80,000. We’ll see. Now we walk our bikes onto the ferry for the 10-minute ride to the other side, and pedal off on the north bank, heading to the cacao farm. Saw a guy with a neat little machine cutting large blocks of ice into ice cubes.
Muoi Cuong Cacao Farm is another small family business southwest of the city of Can Tho.
Here they have a small grove of Theobroma Cacao, also called cacao or cocoa tree, that get about 4 to 8 meters tall. Leaves & fruit husks are used as natural fertilizer and no pesticides are applied. Instead they encourage a certain type of ant to control other insects that attack the trees and fruit. They produce a football-shaped fruit that turns orange when ripe, weighs about 1 pound and contains a sweet pulp and 20 – 60 seeds, usually called beans.
The fruit is hacked open and the pulp and beans go through several steps to “sweat out” the pulp and subsequently dry the beans, preparing them for shipment. Cargill is a major buyer for this farm, along with some Belgium & France concerns. A small amount of the beans is further processed into cocoa powder, cocoa butter & chocolate liquor. The unsweetened chocolate we sampled is quite bitter, but the finished chocolate bars and hot chocolate was delicious.
Mr. Bin is the current owner, overseeing the operation every day. During a brief conversation with him, he mentioned that he learned to fly helicopters in Texas & Virginia during the Vietnam War. Now he is happy to tend to his beautiful cacao grove.
Back on our bikes we return to the ferry to cross over the Song Hau once more, and continue cycling through the country, usually with a small stream on one side. About 20 minutes later we came to the Vietnam Heritage Tree, a huge mangrove that is well over 100 years of age. I
have seen a lot of mangrove trees, but this one was enormous, with branches spread out over a huge area. Mangroves are characterized by many lateral limbs with multiple prop roots connecting them to the ground, creating a bewildering jumble of branches in a grand old tree like this. People used to come and cut off pieces for good luck until the government declared it protected, as well it should be.
Almost 2 pm and we were getting a bit hungry, so we dropped off the bikes and walked to a nearby local restaurant with gazebos built over a pond full of fish. Lunch included two different tofu dishes that were delicious, morning glory salad, pho, rice and fresh fruit. Somehow, we managed to eat almost every bit of it, thus earning a beautiful fruit plate of desert.
The last part of our tour was visiting a pagoda and a temple in the town, so we took a taxi for the short ride to Phat Hoc, one of the most famous spiritual destinations in Can Tho city. It
seems to be a mix of Buddhist & other Asian religions with statues of Buddha and a tall woman, and some featured a steering wheel from a sailing vessel, so maybe these are dedicated to sailors. However, the big attraction here was a beautiful apricot poodle who appeared out of nowhere and immediately went to Susie for love and hugs. He was very well groomed and super friendly – a sweet reminder of our wonderful Sami!
A short walk across 4 lanes of busy traffic brings us to our last stop, the Buddhist pagoda in the Khmer style, Chua Munirensay. There are several buildings; the main temple is another multi-story structure with many small Buddha statues showing him as a small boy to the more common adult, and smaller buildings for classrooms and admin. Chua Munirensay is a gathering place for the Cambodian community in Can Tho.
Temple or Pagoda? After reading several articles I am still confused, but it seems that in Vietnam a temple is designed to honor a specific saint or historical figure, whereas a pagoda is centered around Buddha. Someone needing guidance in business affairs may pray at a temple built for an important mandarin, while others go to temples to practice Buddhism.
Thus ended a wonderful day of exploring the area around Can Tho and learning so many
interesting tidbits about Vietnam and her people. Trieu made the day one of the most pleasant and informative we have experienced, talking about a wide range of topics including nature, cultural customs, local daily life, politics and philosophy. His company is called Eco Tours and we highly recommend it when you are traveling in the south Vietnam area.