Mekong Delta & River, Day 3

Today, we had an early breakfast and then headed to our bus for an optional tour to the Mekong River and Delta. Fourteen of us opted for the hour and forty-five hour trip through Saigon traffic and the countryside to board a small boat up the river to one of four islands we will pass. Unfortunately, all the silt from upstream causes the water to be very murky. We didn’t see any fish in the water, but supposedly there are some.

The breeze felt good as we whizzed down the river. The temperature was in the low 90’s, with only 50% humidity, although at times it felt hotter and muggier. We took a wooden boat from the dock in the Delta to the river. About twenty minutes upstream, we arrived at one of the islands to a fairly primitive building where they made coconut candy. Starting from the raw coconut, they shed the soft outer hull to reveal the harder inner shell, which they crack to release the liquid. It is then cooked with sugar and sometimes peanuts, rolled into thin rods and cut and wrapped in rice paper (totally edible) and packaged for sale. The process is very manually intensive. Some of the coconuts are pressed to release the oil, which is a standard oil used for cooking and the fibers are used to make mats, stuffing for mattresses and a hundred other uses. Nothing is wasted. And, the fresh coconut is delicious and very healthy.

Adjacent to the candy-making area, there was a shop selling some very unique items. Aside from the candy, there were purses and wallets made of REAL crocodile or python. They were quite beautiful, with prices to match. I suppose we could have bargained for better prices, but starting at $100 to over $300 US, these were not items I needed. Another interesting item to buy was something alcoholic made from the coconuts. However, inside the bottles were small snakes, scorpions or other “delicacies.” Who knows if you can bring something like this back through the US, but we certainly weren’t going to try.

We then took horse carts into the nearby town on the island. Once there, we went to a special tea house where we were served green tea with honey from their own hives and either lemon or kumquat juice. We were serenaded with music from local musicians and singers. It was a nice interlude.

After our refreshments, we went three or four at a time on small sampans (wooden boats) through the canals that connect to the river. It took us about twenty minutes as we meandered under a canopy of palm trees. Once at the river, we re-boarded our boat to go to the restaurant for lunch. Again, it catered to tourists, but the food was traditional and very tasty.

We started with spring rolls made with rice paper and filled with a recently caught fried fish, cucumber, rice noodles and bean sprouts, made at our table by one of the knowledgeable ladies who work there. You dip the roll in a peanut sauce and enjoy. This was followed by prawns with the heads and legs, which she deftly removed to release the delicious shrimp. Next, we had a soup, pho, with a flavorful chicken broth, shredded chicken and some noodles and veggies. The next course was steamed sticky rice with pork in a memorable light sauce. Finally, our dessert was rice paper lightly fried with a sprinkling of sugar. Each course was small, yet added up to a filling meal.

Although I enjoyed the meal, not everyone at our table liked it very much, including Jim. Some thought that the fish had too strong a taste, others did not like the soup. This meal today was quite different from the one yesterday, but still maintained the authentic flavors of the area.

By the way, the exchange rate from Vietnamese Dong to the US dollar is, are you ready, $23,200 to $1.00. So getting $100 from the ATM results in $2,320,000 Dong. You are a millionaire unexpectedly.

And, buying a car is a treat, with 200% duty on the price of the vehicle, which isn’t cheap to begin with. This is why you see hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles and scooters everywhere except on the equivalent of an interstate highway. The riders wear minimal helmets (mainly to appease the police) and children under six do not need to wear helmets at all??? Does that make any sense? The motorcycles weave in and out of traffic, even driving on the sidewalks. They practically come into contact with cars and buses as they squeeze alongside on the roads. It isn’t for the faint of heart.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Chinese temple in the part of Saigon inhabited mainly by Chinese. The temple was quite large and filled with symbolism, incense, and carvings. You light the incense to send good thoughts of healing, success or love to yourself or others. I don’t remember seeing this when I visited China about three years ago. Or, maybe we didn’t get the same explanation of the importance of the incense. In any case, it was quite interesting.

So, now we are in our hotel, relaxing and trying to decide if we want dinner. The menu in the hotel restaurant is very extensive, so maybe it will be best to just have something light here. Jim found his ankles were a little swollen, probably due to all the sitting we did today, as well as the meal, which may have had too much sodium or MSG. We went on a walk near the hotel, just to get some exercise. Maybe should have tried the gym!

Tomorrow, after breakfast, we put our bags outside of our room and leave for the airport at 10:00 AM for a short flight to Hue. More adventures to come.

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