never get off the boat. goddamn right. (mekong delta, pt 3.)

Day five dawned in our hotel in Cantho bright and early. Very, very early. We’d set our travel alarm for 6am, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary, as our room faced the rear of the hotel, which turned out to be the home of the hotel owners’ chicken coop. There appeared to be two roosters in residence there, because starting the instant dawn broke at 5am, they proceeded to engage in what turned out to be a three-hour long call-and-response crowing match.

It was actually a kind of fun way to start the morning, but it didn’t stop us from trying to order coq au vin at the complimentary breakfast that morning. No go, but instead I was served something called (from memory here; probably butchered) banh shu mai, which turned out to be a wonderful french baugette with a pair of simmered pork-and-cilangto meatballs. Tear baugette in half, insert meatball, chow down: delicious.

The bread, in general, everywhere in Viet Nam, is deserving of special mention: there isn’t a roadside stand anywhere, even in the dingiest rest stop on Highway 1, that isn’t selling the ubiquitous banh: roughly foot-long mini-baugettes that are easily 90% as good as anything I ever had in Paris, usually for an amount of money that — even assuming they’re adding in the usual 300% roundeye markup — is so close to free as to make no difference. Apparently while the Vietnamese detested the French colonists, they knew a good thing when they ate it, and were quite happy to keep the bakeries going long after the last beret had been unceremoniously kicked out.

After breakfast and the inevitable iced coffee, our group piled onto the waiting tour bus to be driven to a boat. This one was uncovered, making me extremely grateful for the whiz-bang sunblock (sunblock plus zinc oxide) that I’ve been applying liberally every five minutes here. But the lack of a cover was a good thing, since we were heading into the Cai Be floating market at the market’s peak, which was a sight worth risking a little sunstroke for.

Cai Be isn’t quite as picturesque as the floating markets in Thailand that you see in all the guidebooks, but that didn’t keep it from being enchanting. Hundreds, maybe thousands of boats all congregate in a wide section of the Mekong river, each one flying a staff with one representative item out of their cargos affixed to it: a banana, a coconut, a cabbage, what-have-you. The big boats (really the same size and shape as the local fishing vessels: about 40 feet long with a cabin and engine in a house on the back) slowly clump against each other and pull away, and meanwhile little open boats zip between them, either transporting cargos or selling from smaller stocks of their own. Some of the small boats are little floating restaurants, selling sandwiches or soups or even iced coffee and soda — one or two of these floated alongside us to try to make a sale.

We spent about an hour cruising in, around and through the market, darting between the big ships and cruising by the little ones for photo ops. Afterward, we turned away to head up for a few hours crusing through the smaller canals and past a bunch of little villages. This was in some ways the best part of the trip: although I’m sure there were dozens of tourist boats out and about that day, there was so much available territory to cover that we never saw any signs of any others, and instead glided along peacefully, passing under bridges and past waterside houses, and then through long stretches where there was no sign that any human had lived there in the last century or millenium.

The morning’s requisite stop-off at a factory was even pretty interesting: instead of a dubiously souvenier-crusted ricepaper shop, we were led into a very, very real rice-husking mill. This was a two-storey shed along the river’s edge, inside of which was an enormous communist-era rice husking and polishing machine. The air was thick with rice dust, and we had to pick our way along a narrow path between twelve-foot-tall stacks of 40-gallon rice sacks (on top of which walked, leapt and occasionally swung the factory’s workers, each carrying at least one if not two of the rice sacks) in order to get close to the machine, which was a vast green assemblege of gears, pulleys and giant moving sieves, which served to seperate the rice kernels from their husks, and then polish the brown rice white. Our guide explained that the mill served to process the rice for the entire surrounding community: each family would bring their harvest in and pay by the kilo to have it husked.

Several happily sun-baked hours later, we pulled in to a boat dock on the other side of Cantho, and were all herded back into the bus for a ride to our designated lunch place. If there’s a definite downside to the packaged tours, this was it: they’d made the arrangements with the local restauranteurs long before, so we were pretty much committed to one place for most meals. Lunch was at a roadside cafe with an upstairs dining area: it wasn’t bad at all, just not really inspiring. As I didn’t feel like having chicken rice again, I ordered the frog curry. Frog, it turns out, does actually taste kinda like chicken, but getting the meat off the little bones is a difficult affair, and I kept thinking of that scene in The Muppet Movie… In any case, the company was better than the food: two of our companions joined us, Imad, a Lebanese-Canadian exchange student studying in Singapore (by far the most gregarious of the group, who were otherwise a bit clannish), and Taka, a button-cute Japanese woman in her early 20s who was on holiday from a job at the post office. They made for lovely company and we chatted away for a good long while.

Lunch finished, we boarded the bus for the trip back to Saigon. Now, um, I know I promised that I’d stop nattering about the traffic. But. Um. On the trip down the previous day, Miranda and I had sat toward the middle of the bus, so we’d been blissfully ignorant of what all of the honking and swerving had been about. This time, we made a supreme tactical error and sat a few seats back from the very front, affording us an all too clear view of our impending messy death.

Here’s the thing. The Mekong delta is Vietnam’s breadbasket. (Well, rice bowl, really.) The vast majority of the country’s food is grown there, as evidenced by (a) the unending ride paddies, and (b) the fact that nearly every single house we passed had several large plastic tarps set out in front with a harvest of unhusked rice kernels drying in the sun. Now presumably a lot, even the majority of that crop gets shipped by boat, but the rivers here tend to be narrow and silt-filled, making shipping by truck a fairly attractive option.

There is one, one highway connecting the delta to Saigon and the rest of the country. Imagine if there were only one road connecting the cornfields and cattle farms of Iowa to New York City. Now imagine that this highway is only two lanes wide. Now imagine that the only rule of the road is “the largest car with the loudest horn and the nerviest driver wins.” Now stab yourself in the stomach repeatedly and you have a rough conception of what the ride from Cantho to Saigon is like in the front seat. We spent the entire ride clutching each others arms and occasionally squeezing our eyes closed: on more than one occasion our driver would attempt to pass a slow-moving bus, tractor or lorry only to find himself locked into a game of chicken with one or more even larger vehicles (e.g. troop transport, cement truck, Mercedes Sedan full of Communist officials) approaching in the oncoming traffic.

(Yes, a Mercedes S-class full of CP apparatchiks outweighs a bus. The ability to have you and your entire family sent to re-education camps adds 5,000kg to any car’s weight. True and useful fact.)

Midway through the ride, we stopped for a bathroom break at what purported to be a bonsai garden, but what was actually a rather tired-looking mini-zoo attached to a big outdoor restaurant. Zoos in the third world are always unbearably depressing (as opposed to 1st-world ones which are only intermittatly depressing), and this one was no exception: a sad-faced baboon was lolling listlessly in a cage no more than 2ft by 3ft by 2ft, while several other monkeys swung continuous circles around a circular cage no more than 8ft wide. And then there was the baby macaque, about which the less said the better. Sigh. The only bright spot came when I was wandering around through the restaurant area, which was completely deserted (this being long before the dinner rush) and came across a table full of the restaurant’s employees eating: a group of teenage girls, they took one look at my hair and immediately collapsed amongst each other giggling and pointing.

I can only hope that I’m a bad influence.

The rest of the ride to Saigon passed as uneventfully as any ride which featured the near-death of a scooter driver every 3.5 minutes can, and we were eventually deposited back in front of Sinh Cafe at about 6pm. The Sinh people were, blessedly, willing to let us leave our luggage there, so we dropped our bags and hailed a meter cab back to Dong Khoi for a lovely dinner at Le Camarge, a tony French restaurant that was happily willing to overlook the fact that I looked like…well, someone who’d spent the entire day on a boat in the mekong and who had visited a rice-husking factory along the way. (The fact that the seating area was outside on a second-floor veranda, under very dim candlelight, probably helped a lot.)

(Food porn ahead; skip the next two paras if you’re allergic.)

I had an appetizer that managed to test even my love for foie gras: billed as a foie gras terrine on the menu, leading me to expect a pate of duck liver and, well, other stuff, what arrived was somewhere in the vicinity of eight ounces of nearly unadulterated duck liver. Now I love — love — this stuff, but even I had to take this one very, very slowly. This was followed by an entree of seared “St. Peter” fish with a tomato compote, which was simple, straightforward, and so delicious that I could cry thinking about it. (Note to self: find out what the heck “St. Peter fish” is. Buy tons.) We shared the only half-bottle of wine on the menu (I am blanking on the name, and was waaaaay too toasty to take notes, even before the wine), which turned out to be nearly sweet enough to be a dessert wine, but it sufficed. (For Miranda’s menu, see her journal.)

For dessert, we shared a “cappucino parfait with Dalat strawberries”, which turned out to be a sweet milky and slightly coffee-tasting froth with tiny strawberries inside. It was delicious and just light enough to not send us into an immediate coma. Or explode.

Thus (very, very) sated, and more than a touch tipsy, we strolled through Dong Khoi and back down toward Sinh Cafe, where we collected our bags and then spent a little time checking our email before hailing a cab to the train station.

…which is as good a place as any to end this chapter.

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