27 February, 2017

Mekong Delta

Location: Saigon, Vietnam

A few weeks ago we booked a 3-day-2-night tour of the Mekong Delta. Five days ago we flew down to Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon, and booked a hotel for the night before and the night after our trip.

Saigon traffic is amazing. In this city of over 9 million people, there are over 7 million motorbikes. At a red light they all jam in and around any cars and trucks that happen to also be stopped, creating this immense blob. Then, about 5-10 seconds before the light changes, people start running the light and the blob gradually sorts itself out into it's disparate parts and traffic begins moving again.  Possession of the road seems to be 9/10ths of the law – if you can jam the front third or so of your vehicle in front of another, you win. There are over 14,000 traffic fatalities in Vietnam every year, most of them being motorbikers.

Crossing the street on foot is an exercise in patience, terror and trust. There are seldom any breaks in the traffic, so what you do is find a break nearest you and start out. Make slow, steady progress and the traffic somehow flows around you.  Don't falter or stop – everyone judges their speed and route based on everyone else's progress, and if you stop, you're more likely to get hit or cause an accident. It takes practice, patience, trust, and a certain amount of courage to make it safely across. Luckily, we've had almost two months of crossing streets in Hoi An, so we weren't as intimidated as some other tourists we saw.

Okay, back to our trip.
Our hotel told us this was the best authentic Pho in Saigon.  We were the only non-Vietnamese in the place.  Delicious

We really had a great time. Planned, guided excursions are not really our style but we don't think we could have seen all that we did if we'd traveled independently and certainly could not have done it in only 3 days.

Our first stop was Vinh Trang pagoda, with it's giant Buddha, then on to Ben Tre for a boat ride which included a bee farm and tasting of all the yummy things you can make with honey. A fruit plantation with a lovely flower garden, followed by an amazing lunch at an orchard including a spectacular upright smoked fish that we all flaked away from and ate. We continued on the boat and stopped to be treated to a sampan ride down a small coconut tree lined river. 

After a full day of water based activities we were bused to Can Tho where we spent the night in a lovely hotel and enjoyed a hot pot dinner.

On day 2 we started early again as we were going to the floating market on the Song Hau river. 

Smaller boats would drive around to the distributors and buy what they wanted then they'd zoom around the river hawking their wares to the tourist boats and anyone else who was out shopping.

There were even floating cafe boats in case you got hungry while shopping. 

This vendor has a wide array of produce for sale

We were surprised to see hundreds of boats anchored in the river, some were distributors and had bamboo poles sticking up with a piece of whatever fruits and vegetables they carry tied to the pole so everyone could see what merchandise was available.

Do you think this prop shaft is long enough?

An interesting way of rowing with these very narrow oars

Julie on a Monkey Bridge

Drying rice paper

Our boat dropped us at a rice noodle factory where Julie got to feed in and catch the noodles from the noodle cutting machine.

Pour the rice mixture on a fine silk cover over boiling water

Spread it out and let sit covered for maybe a minute

Roll onto bamboo utensil then off for drying. Then feed in batches through noodle slicer

Menu, we didn't try the rat, it may look expensive but $1 = 22,000 dong

This was followed by what, for many of us, was the highlight of the trip. Tra Su National Forest is a bit like the Everglades. We were taken by boat through the lotus and duckweed covered watery forest and were treated to lots of amazing birds.
Water buffalo

Our guide didn't have a hat so she picked a lotus leaf as we passed and used it, instead.

See the bird

Our boat driver through the swamp, he was great at pointing out all of the birds.

The day ended with a ride to another hotel in Chau Doc near the Cambodian border, another wonderful dinner, and another wonderful, soft bed.

Bikes are used to transport EVERYTHING here

On our third day we were taken out in yet another boat to see another floating market, on the Bassac River, a tributary of the Mekong. We also stopped to see a floating house fish farming operation, visited a Muslim village where we watched some speedy weaving and Julie bought an elephant purse – elephants woven in, of course. 

Indigenous Champa weaver

The day ended with a long bus ride back to Ho Chi Minh City where we spent the night before returning to Hoi An the following evening.

Beautiful flowers in Saigon

Motor bike parking in Saigon

Skateboarders are worldwide

A pagoda in Saigon famous for it's porcelain murals

What a varied, interesting, and fun time we had! A bit more “touristy” than usual for us, but a great experience, nonetheless.

21 February, 2017


Location: Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is famous for it's tailored clothes. Many people come here specifically to get clothes made. We'd talked about maybe doing it but hadn't really made a final decision.

That being said, one morning Mark and I were approaching the market to do a bit of vegetable shopping when a lady came up and started talking to us, I wasn't really paying attention. Mark started following her, and, being the dutiful wife, I followed. After we had already walked through the food section of the market my curiosity got the better of me, “Where are we going?”. Mark replied “This lady is going to make you a dress for $10 and me a shirt for $5!”. Groan.

The changing room.
 We kept following her and she finally led us into this huge building full of fabric and cute young lady salespeople. The older lady who had led us there took us to “Cloth Shop 45”, then stepped back and let the young sales ladies do their stuff. They sat us down, gave us a bottle of water each, got out their design books, and fluttered around us. We said we would like a dress and a shirt and asked how much it would cost.

Them: “The more you buy the cheaper it is.”

Us: “Ok, but how much is that?”

Them: “We can't tell you until you pick a design and some material.”
Nice fit!
OK, so I went through the book of dress designs and selected 2, while Mark told another girl what sort of shirt and shorts he wanted. There was a lot of question and answer going on, but luckily they all spoke pretty good English.

Them: “Ok, now you have to pick material.”

If you know us and know how we usually dress, you know that this is not something we like to do - too much like shopping <sigh>. Mark, being colorblind, as usual refused to pick any fabric and deferred to my selections.

Them: “You our first customers today – very lucky! For you we give very good price.”

Another nice fit.
We finally settled on the fabric and, as expected, the price was more than the original woman had said. Go figure. We bartered for a while, got up to leave and eventually settled on a price that we could all live with, very reasonable for hand tailored clothes. Bartering is a matter of course here, to some it is a game, but to us it's always a bit painful.

Them: “Come back tomorrow 1pm. We have your clothes ready. Very good. You like. We promise”

The next day our friends went with us to see our new clothes. We were actually very pleased, they needed a little alteration but we were told they would be ready the next afternoon.

The girl who buttoned Mark's shirt for him (!?!?!) told him to look in the mirror. Knowing he is not the best judge of fashion, he said he needed to show me, instead. From that point on, the girls called me his “mirror” - “Go show mirror”, “Let mirror see”, etc. It was cute and pretty funny.

"Lucky Budda" and his girls.
And now, whenever we go to the shop, they all seem to enjoy rubbing Mark's belly and saying “Lucky Budda, lucky Budda”.

The results.
We are happy to tell you that we are very pleased with our new gear.

12 February, 2017


Location: Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the most useful words we've learned so far here in Vietnam is “bia” (pronounced “bee-ah”), the Vietnamese word for “beer”. Because of this happy coincidence, we can always make ourselves understood when we order one. This is “a very good thing”, as the rest of our vocabulary is sadly lacking.

So far, we've learned “beer”, “3-3-3” (the name of a local beer) “Happy New Year”, “hello”, and “thank you” - useful phrases all. Unfortunately, we sometimes get mixed up. Case in point: the guy who supplies us with bottled water lives across the street from us. We take our empty 19 liter jug over there, give him a 10,000 dong note (about $0.50 US) , and he carries a full one over to our house and puts it on the counter. Last time Mark goes through the whole routine, the guy is leaving and Mark gives him a nod and says “Hello. Hello.” He smiles and says “Hello” back (probably wondering when Mark will start his version of the “hello” dance) and walks back home. Julie, Steve, and Marg all start laughing and say “You just said “Hello, hello” instead of “Thank you”. DOH!!

We have made some friends here despite the linguistic challenges. A few days ago we were visited by an older man, one of our neighbors, and his daughter-in-law, who thankfully speaks English very well. Turns out they're having an annual post-Tet full moon street party on our street and they would like us to attend. We give them a donation to help cover supplies, food, drinks, etc. and promise we'll be there at 4pm. Laughing, she says “Yes, and if you aren't on time someone will come by your house to make sure you remember!”

Last night was the full moon and this morning there's a tent set up spanning the street. At 2pm a Buddhist ceremony is taking place. It involves incense, gongs, bells, chanting, and a big drum. Not wanting to intrude we sit outside on our patio and wait to see what happens.

At 4pm a friend comes to tell us it is time and we all wander down the street. They are just finishing up the ceremony and invite us to sit and watch. We ask if it's okay to take pictures and it is, so we do.

Tables at both ends of the tent are covered with food, bowls, glasses, candles, and incense. The ceremonial participants chant, play a bell, a gong, and a big drum, and burn a lot of stuff – incense, wood, paper, money, etc. Near the end of the ceremony several people who have been observing with us get up to pray and bow.

They have built and decorated a 4 foot long dragon ship. It has wooden pontoons and sits on a low cart. When it's time, they fill the boat with food and other offerings and push the cart down to the river. We are invited to come along. We walk with them down to the river and the dragon boat is lowered into a boat, taken to the middle of the river, and set adrift amid much flinging of colored paper, paper money, cigarettes, and candy. The whole celebration is to ensure a happy and prosperous year for all who attend.

Then it's back to our street. There we find 7 tables set up with 10 stools per table, each one covered with food. Our new friends seat us at a table and we wait. We have no idea what much of the food is or what the protocol is for eating it. We all have a bowl and chopsticks and we wait for the other people at our table to start so we can see what we are supposed to do. The problem is they are waiting for us, the guests, to make the first move!

Eventually one fellow sitting next to Mark figures out what's going on and shows us what to do, helping us to our servings so we can start. Then they all get stuck in and we follow suit. There is shrimp (eaten complete with head, shell, legs, and tail), chicken, pork, crispy pork belly, fish, salad, lots of vegetables, rice, rice cakes, bread, etc., followed by a delicious soup and more unknown bits of food. It's all similar to and yet different from the New Year celebration we attended at Quyen's Riverside Pottery Village Homestay.

There is also lots of “bia” which is topped up as soon as a sip is taken. Most of the food is awesome, and some tastes a bit odd to our western palates, requiring copious amounts of “bia” to wash it down. Dessert is fresh fruit and more bia. After dinner the disco lights are turned on and the loud, thumping music begins. And the bia flows.

As with our other celebration, people from the audience come up to sing, and most of them are pretty good. One couple from our table dances a tango while someone else sings. Everyone is encouraged to participate, the kids are dancing, the smoke machine is pumping out smoke, and the disco lights are flashing. Everyone has a wonderful time and we are made to feel so welcome.
After the singing starts our friend Dong (means “beauty”, pronounced “tung” -ish) from across the street comes over to our table and whisks Julie & Marg away to 'the ladies table'. There follows even more beer and lots of laughing. None of them speak English but they encourage us to try different foods and a few of them get up and sing.

As soon as they are left unattended, Mark & Steve help the men consolidate several tables into a “men's table”. Everyone wants to clink their glass with the guests, loudly count to 5 in Vietnamese, and quaff their bia. Then it's time for a refill and another toast. And so it goes for some time....

At one point, Mark gets up to take a photo of the table and they all toast him as he snaps the picture. As he moves (well, perhaps stumbles might be a bit more accurate) along the table to get some shots of the ladies table, one fellow grabs him and pulls him aside just as a motorbike zooms past. Close call!

Occasionally during the evening tourists walk down our street. We can see them looking at us and wondering “How did those people get to go to that party?” We feel special and privileged to have been invited to this important annual event and feel that the good luck and prosperity of our friends has already started to rub off on us.

Let's have another bia!!