Strength and sweetness in the Mekong Delta
Flying to Vietnam’s southern islands, we pass over the Mekong Delta – a place with more water than land. Boats replace motorbikes, and the markets float. Most of Vietnam’s produce comes from the delta.
While we drove two hours to My Tho – the only part of the tour that wasn’t by boat or on foot – our guide briefed us on the tour. Probably because of the delta’s “rice bowl” status, the tour centered around food. He told us we would visit beehives and sample queen bee milk, but that it obviously isn’t real milk since bees don’t have breasts.
Arriving at the ferry terminal in My Tho, we were joined by our local tour guide, and greeted by the first of a day’s worth of hawkers. Agriculture isn’t the delta’s only industry. At some points in the day, I wondered if any of the people on the island do anything besides drive boats and prepare food for tourists.
Our guide was a funny, older lady, and, as we could see by her continual laughing and smiling, not bothered by the fact that some of her teeth were missing. She spoke English well enough to convey her sense of humor and to answer any questions we asked her. All of her speeches began with “Laaadies and gentlemen.” If she changed topic, she would say it over again. Jonathan and I would just look at each other and smile, knowing what was coming:
“Laaadies and gentlemen!”
The Mekong River starts in Tibet and travels over 3,000 miles through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. By the time it gets to southern Vietnam, it is a huge, sprawling river dotted with floating houses and fish farms. Near My Tho, there are four large islands where we spent most of the day. It was overcast, which doesn’t make for pretty pictures, but ever since the sunny and extremely hot month of January, we’ve learned to appreciate the protection of clouds.
On the island, we came upon the second set of hawkers, where I immediately fell prey to some wooden, cooking spoons, one of the many things made from the coconut tree. I needed some, and they were only $2 USD for four of them.
As we were led to a pavilion with chairs and tables, we passed a gentleman who had taken one of the sections of beehive out for us to see. They offered for us to hold it for pictures, but, strangely enough, no one was interested.
The honey from their hives is much runnier than what we are used to in the States, but the taste is about the same. We each had a little cup of tea with honey, bee pollen, and kumquat juice, and munched on slivers of crystallized ginger, dried, caramelized banana slices, and peanut candy. They served us a little bit of honey and queen bee milk on a tiny spoon.
After the demonstration, while we sipped our tea, they tried to sell us each of these items. One man kept whispering in Jonathan’s ear that if he takes a little queen bee milk on a spoon every night, he will be very strong. In Vietnam, being strong, is a euphemism for virility, and there are many things that are said to “make you strong.” It’s interesting to me that these things are only for men. Women are instructed to put the queen bee milk on their faces every day to get rid of wrinkles and make them look young.
Chickens ran free in the pavilion, and we noticed that one didn’t have any feathers. It was disturbing. All the chicken parts were easily identifiable, from its nubby wings to its scrawny legs. It was like watching my dinner run around. When asked why it was naked, they said it was a type of chicken that never grows feathers. Not sure if something was lost in translation.
Then, on to another pavilion full of tables. As we approached, we could hear singing. The Saigon guide told us earlier we would hear some traditional music – enough to make us interested, but not enough to bore us. So, we were a little surprised to recognize the “If you’re happy and you know it” song. While we ate mango, dragonfruit, jackfruit, pineapple, and pomelo, the musicians made their way to our table. They started with a few Vietnamese solos, and eventually, there were five young ladies and a boy singing. It was fine, but I couldn’t help but notice how terribly bored they all looked – eyes drifting around, blank faces, and, as a musician, I couldn’t blame them. I can’t imagine singing the same songs over and over all day, much less, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.” They also sang it in Japanese for two of the ladies in our group.
We left the musicians, and headed to the waterways. There we boarded long, narrow boats. They warned us to only step in the middle of the boat, and I got the feeling the boats weren’t made for western proportions. We sat single file, four passengers to a boat, with paddlers/drivers in front and back. This was my favorite part of the trip.
The waterways were lined with nipa palms, which look like palm fronds growing directly out of the water. Sometimes the palm fronds touched overhead, making it feel like we were in a tunnel or a tree-lined lane. In other places, the fronds had been cut to make roofs. I was excited to see their fruit – mace-like, brown, sectional orbs sometimes up to a foot across, because I’ve seen them for sale on the roadsides for months without knowing what they were.
Boats full of tourists headed one direction passing homes with rowboats parked in their “driveways.” Speeding past us going the other way were empty boats driven by (mostly) women with strong arms in conical straw hats. They easily navigated tight turns and boat jams – one person digging their paddle into the ground and the other rowing.
Sitting single file, it was difficult to talk to each other, so my mind had plenty of time to wander. I looked at the muddy water and thought of all the soldiers who spent days and months walking in it up to their armpits, packs and weapons over their heads, no way of knowing what lurks in the water. I also couldn’t help but think how dark it must be at night, and the skill it would take to for the locals to navigate the canals.
We wrapped up the day with a lunch of elephant ear fish wrapped into spring rolls, shrimp, white rice, savory pork, bánh xèo (a Vietnamese savory pancake – this one containing bean sprouts,) and soup. Bellies full, we headed back to Saigon and dry land.