Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Saturday, April 04, 2015

28. The Mekong Delta, Vietnam

The Mekong Delta
Mekong River

The Mekong River is the 7th largest river in Asia and its source is in the Himalayan Mountains, in Tibet, some 4350 km (2703 miles) away.  In the Delta of this river the ancient empires of Funan and Chenla were recorded in the chronicles of the Khmer but there is evidence that people have inhabited this huge swamp for millennia. It is a very fertile area for a variety of agricultural products (coconuts, pineapple, bananas, mangos and much more). Having so much water available makes the Mekong Delta a natural area for the production of rice. It is nick-named “The Rice bowl of Asia”. Almost 50 % of all of Vietnam’s rice production comes from the Delta.
Mekong River
The Mekong River fans out into 9 different rivers creating this huge, fan shaped delta area. This fan is the basis for the belief in the 9 heads of the dragon in the mythology of the ancients. Each one of those 9 rivers has ever smaller and smaller splits and all are littered with Islands, creating a maze of waterways from very big to very small.

We took an excursion to see this Delta in a more myopic way. Technically speaking, HCMC is already within this
Rice Fields in the Delta
Delta but we wanted to see the rural picture. We took a bus and drove for about 2 hours, away from HCMC, away from our cruise ship’s pier. On the bus ride we passed rice farm after rice farm. We passed and saw smaller towns where modern life had not yet arrived. We saw from the bus a bit more of the traditional life of Vietnam.


Vinn Trang Pagoda
We stopped at a 150 year old temple (Vinn Trang Pagoda). Stopping at a temple is almost a must do, when visiting any town in Asia. I guess, subconsciously, the locals want to make sure that you are blessed and protected while visiting their town. We really have not had a tour to a town yet where we did not stop at a temple along the way. This time, it was the Temple of the ‘Happy Buddha’. Alongside the road we see an extremely large, glaringly white, sitting Buddha statue, laughing. He was not really a Buddha but was a
The Happy Buddha
Monk and is depicted as an obese, bald man wearing a robe, prayer beads and carrying his few possessions in a cloth sack. He represents contentment and happiness. There are equally large standing and reclining Buddha statues as well, also all in white. The pagoda next to the statues was filled with icons in gold and silver, along with flowered decorations in anticipation of the Chinese New Year Festival. This year we are switching from the year of the Horse to the year of the Goat.

Reclining Buddha at the
Vinn Trang Pagoda
Vinn Trang Pagoda

At the Vinn Trang Pagoda

Whole Gilled Elephant Fish

After the temple, it was already time for lunch. We visited a great restaurant and had a whole, grilled elephant fish which was served for our table of six. The fish was grilled and we ripped the fish into pieces with our fingers and rolled the meat, along with greens and spices into thin, tissue like, rice paper wraps. Then we dunked those wraps into a 
Very Tasty Spring Rolls
secret sauce and the total elephant fish disappeared this way in no time. Thinly sliced cucumbers and jackfruit were served with this meal; next came small, meat filled spring rolls. 

Rice Paper Crust Filled With Sticky Rice

Then a large ball was served, as large as a bowling ball; it had a rice paper crust and was filled with sticky rice. Simply yummy! We all competed to get the biggest piece of this ball and stuffed our faces. Fresh, king sized shrimp were served too. The serving lady peeled them for us, delicious. A lime, salt and
Shrimp Dipped in Lime Juice, Salt and Pepper - Yummy!
pepper mix was served with the prawns. I never ate shrimp like this before but it was good.
A clear soup with fish and vegetables finished the meal. A total feast!

Our Dragon Boat

Then we boarded a “Dragon Boat” to ply a different area of the same waters, the same Mekong River, the same Delta as our ship’s pier. Being in a much smaller boat, low in the river, gave us a different view. Our boat had a motor, though. 

The dragon boat took us to a large island within the Mekong River. The island of Thoi Son, I believe. The main Mekong River here is three miles wide. The island was 2 miles long by 1 mile wide. On this island, we visited a coconut candy making 
Shredding Coconut for Candy
shop. The candy is somewhat like toffee but filled with coconut flakes. Delightful! This served as our dessert.
Painted Eyes on the Bow for Protection
From Water Monsters


Being on the Dragon boat (our boat had eyes painted on the bow for protection from the water monsters) now gave us a new perspective. Fishing boats do not have these eyes painted at the bow as the fishermen believe the eyes will scare away the fish. Superstition is still a great part of life here. While 10% of the people are Catholic (a left over from the French occupation) and 5% are Taoists, 65% worship their ancestors and believe in strange ways. Tombs of a farmer’s family
Blue and White Boxes are Family Tombs
in the Middle of the Rice Fields
are erected smack in the middle of the rice fields, for example. They are large structures, painted green or bright white. They look like concrete caskets and will interfere with the planting and harvesting. I guess that is done on purpose so as to remind the family, when working in the fields, around the graves, of the ancients. Marriages are blessed according to the zodiac signs and the constellations. It is an old society, mostly based on agriculture, the beliefs run deep and this society has very different viewpoint from the Western point of view.

Wobbly Sampans
Next we visited a small canal that meandered into the island, using this small canal to paddle through lush jungle. We had to climb into perilous sampans; small, narrow boats for a max of 6 people, 4 passengers and 2 rowers. Well, not rowers like in a rowboat but one person in the bow, using a paddle as in a canoe, and another in the stern with another wooden, thin paddle just using muscle power. The channel we navigated through was muddy with jungle-like vegetation. It was very narrow but in the shade of palm and
Dense Jungle Almost Prevents Passage
coconut trees. We had to sit very still and in the center of the sampan in order not to tip it. It was a wobbly affair but for me new and interesting. This small excursion along the hidden canal, with bushes and plant life literally crowding around the sampan made it visually clear how hard it must have been for soldiers to do battle in this swamp. Thatched roof and walled houses (huts?) were hardly visible in the bush just along the canal. Ambush perfect for guerrilla warfare. The stink of the water was not bad but it was there. We were 
Snake and Tarantula in Whiskey Bottles
only paddled around a bit and glad, after a while, to stand on solid land again. Yet this small trip on the canal was memorable. After climbing very carefully out of the sampan, we walked past a store selling snake whiskey and special tea. Real snakes were in the bottle and some tentacles were visible in the whisky bottle, too.

At a honey seller we were offered local honey and bee pollen. In addition, small 
The Bee Keeper
dabs of Royal Jelly was offered to put on our skin. Royal Jelly is the liquid bees feed the queen of the hive. To collect just a tiny jar full takes weeks. Very expensive and rare stuff, this Royal Jelly food. Also given honey in a glass which was filled with tea and bee pollen was put on top.

Putting Honey in a Glass Which is Filled With
Tea and Bee Pollen is Put on Top. Very Good!

It started to get late by now, we needed to get back to HCMC, so it was back onto the Dragon Boat, then back on the bus and another 2 + hour ride back to the ship. We arrived at the cruise ship in the dark but it allowed us to see Saigon at night, too. HCMC is so full of neon lights and scooter traffic. It is controlled chaos, especially in the dark. Lights on some of the bikes are missing,
Ho Chi Minh City Lights at Night From Our Ship
people riding the opposite way on the side of the road, narrow streets, double parked vehicles, dim street lighting; Life in Vietnam. Chaotic! It works for the people living here and it is the Vietnam way of life. Very different from what I am used to.

Ho Chi Minh City Lights


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