Vern: In Asia, rice is everything. It is 75% of one's daily calories but so much more than that. Rice is etiquette and innuendo. In Thailand, the equivalent phrase for 'Hi, how are you?' is 'Have you eaten rice today?' and in Vietnam, couples who share a bed before marriage are said to be 'eating rice before the bell'. Rice is life and rice is death. A glutinous variety of rice is especially enjoyed at funerals, so instead of 'to kick the bucket' the Vietnamese say 'to eat sticky rice'.
In southern Vietnam, the Mekong River splits into nine branches which forge their way out to sea. Lush green rice paddies line up between the rills, like the webbing between Swamp Thing's toes. Rice grows abundantly here and almost all the country's produce is grown by peasants wading in the Mekong Delta. So with all this rice around, it doesn't reflect well on Andrea and me that when we saw small white disks with a yellow filling in a clear cellophane wrapper at a bus station deli counter we thought that these might be lemon meringue. Or an equivalently delicious treat. Taking advantage of a multi-buy promotion, we bought six. Here's a lesson one shouldn't need to be taught twice: never buy a foreign food you've never tried in bulk! Our snack turned out to be dense rice cakes with the consistency of papier-mâché, filled with durian flavoured gelatine. Durian is a fruit which most agree tastes like feet and to the confectioner's credit the essence of this flavour was aptly captured in the cakes' filling. And to OUR credit, over the next few days we ate all six - paying penance before allowing ourselves to purchase any more goodies.
We arrived in Can Tho, a surprisingly large city in the heart of the Delta, and hopped on the back of scooter taxis, 'xe oms', which zipped us from the bus station, through the chaotic traffic and into the city centre. The short ride was a blast, and a little reminder that sometimes there is no choice other than to put a little faith in a stranger and just go along for the ride!
For dinner we trawled the riverfront noodle stalls but our findings were meagre. Andrea did however spot one of the best T-shirts she'd seen in Asia. There are a lot of terrible print t-shirts in these parts because sweat shop workers steal the patterns from the big brands and high street stores who get their stuff made here, and slip these to their friends who make up cheap knock offs which obviously don't go through quality assurance. And so, rather gloriously, t-shirts like this come into being:
New York City
It's not clear whether it is Peace or NYC which the t-shirt wearer is celebrating the establishment of in the first millennium AD but either way it is a poetic thought. Besides, the year 207, at the time, was known as the Year of the Consulship of Maximus and Severus, and any t-shirt printer worth his salt knows no-one would buy that on a shirt!
At 5:30 in the morning we chartered a small wooden boat to take us 6km upstream to the Cai Rang floating market. Half way there a little boat motored up, latched onto our vessel and served up a hot cup of coffee, then unhitched and chased down another tourist vessel. By the time the sun was up, the market was bustling and little boats heavily loaded with potatoes, limes and carrots shuffled between house boats and barges piled high with pineapples and watermelons. There was even demand for a woman selling lottery tickets. It wasn't as picturesque as we'd hoped but it was a worthwhile experience drifting through this little slice of the simple life. We took the slow route back to Can Tho via a quiet canal. Huge palm leaves grew straight up out of the water and ladies in conical hats puttered past us in longboats headed to or from the market. I thought ferrying fruit up and down the waterways was tough going, until we came across the people moving bricks. A handful of brickworks appeared amongst the foliage on the riverbanks and families loaded armfuls of bricks onto small boats and then hauled these off to building sites. It was back breaking work and at 7am they already looked shattered, it was hard to imagine what they go through in a fourteen hour work day.
As we came closer to the city, the river was lined with shacks made with corrugated iron and discarded banners. Unfortunately the water was slow moving and full of litter. The locals obviously have a lot of problems which come before the environment but to our western minds it seemed simply absurd to throw diapers and styrofoam into the river in front of one's dwelling. Even if they don't care where it ends up, there is no current to take it anywhere so their trash just bobs around in the reeds, in the same water they use for washing their clothes and other domestic uses. It is unintuitive and very saddening.
Back at the Can Tho docks our captain tied up the boat and clambered back on to dry land. A few hours later we were on a big orange bus headed toward Saigon.