|A Tour of Vietnam - Day 2|
Page 2 of 9
An early flight (well, we think 7.35am is early!) from Sydney Airport and most of the day in a Cathay Pacific A330 airbus had us landing in Hong Kong, dashing across the terminal (rather, up and down escalators, through checks and via – at one point - can’t remember how and where, on a fast underground train link) to just connect with a shortish flight to Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon.
By the time we arrived (around 5pm-ish) Vietnam time, three hours before Sydney’s EST, we were ready to stop travelling. Just 40 minutes later we reached our hotel, the Northern Hotel, in the delightful French quarter of HCM city. As we travelled, our guide, Tuan (means ‘handsome boy’, he tell us with a grin) explains some of the nuances of visiting Vietnam.
To the Mekong
Up early, but for a good reason. Today we head for the Mekong, that long river whose name means ‘mother river’, possibly because it touches and nourishes five countries.
We could have gone by boat upriver but that would take eight hours. By bus it was just a couple. But first the battle through the HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City is such a long name and most people abbreviate it) early morning traffic. Life is lived on the street here and we saw people picking up baguettes for breakfast or slurping down bowls of rice porridge from a roadside stall then hopping back on a motor bike and into the turmoil of traffic again.
Later, as the countryside began, we passed rice paddies, many of them with white tombs in them amongst the shoots of rice. These belonged to family members we were told, and their presence was a bit of an insurance that the farm would stay in the family. After all, who wants the remains of someone else’s rellies on their land? Three centuries ago, this land was part of Cambodia – which still isn’t all that far away.
Our guide pointed out the first signs of the development (complete with golf course) which Michael Jackson’s father is financing. Overseas money is being welcomed in this country.
Finally in My Tho city (pop around 400,000) we visited the large and relatively new (1849) Vinh Trang pagoda with not one, but TWO Buddhas. The present one stands tall wagging an admonishing finger. His half-shut eyes and long ear lobes indicate wisdom, we are told. The other – the ‘happy’ Buddha – looks pleased to be regarded as the ‘next’ Buddha. His responsibilities are some way off, I guess.
There are strict rules about pagoda protocol and I snap a picture of a sign that admonished us to avoid ‘din conversation’.
Next we hurry to catch a seven-kilometre boat cruise along the Mekong for about an hour. It’s good to leave the muggy conditions behind and pick up a little breeze on the water as we pass some heavy-duty barges, fishing boats and fish farms. Almost at the end, our boat heads off into a narrower canal and deposits us at a dock on an island.
From here we whizz through a ‘coconut museum’ then hurry to a small eating place prepared for us with honey tea and plates of tropical fruit. We fall on the jakfruit, a personal favourite of mine, longans and watermelon, but leave the dragonfruit – which always seems beautiful but bland to me.
As we sip and munch we are entertained by a musical trio and three singers. It’s a romantic song, but the words mean nothing to us, although the voices are beautiful, and the melody haunting.
Another stop while some of our group has a hefty python arranged around their shoulders (not me!) and then a much sweeter treat – a coconut candy-making establishment. Here, the hot toffee, flavoured with durian, chocolate, ginger and several other fruits, is spread out on plastic sheets, then cut with pieces of plastic when cooled, then wrapped – so of course we bought. Well, they would make good take-home presents, we reasoned. That’s if we didn’t eat them first.
Minutes later we are led to a village laneway to mount a little cart, pulled by a diminutive horse. Pour little thing. Six of us piled into the cart (‘It’s OK!’ says the driver) but we feel for it as it lugs us a couple
of kilometres through the village to the canal-edge where dugout canoes wait.
We notice grimly that smaller Asian passengers could fit six in a boat. Our group is rationed to three. And we have to sit absolutely central and not wiggle as the boat would tip alarmingly with even the slighted movement.
Still, it was a quiet and peaceful trip down the canal with the jungle almost meeting overhead and unseen birds singing from the shadows. Although just centimetres from the water we could not trail our fingers in it as having hands over the side of the boat was strictly prohibited. Other boats passed by, almost touching, and it would be just too dangerous.
Lunch at last – we were hungry, despite the coconut candy – and the NGOC Gia Trang Restaurant at 196A Ap Bac St, My Tho had a surprise for us too.
Years ago on a Mekong visit I had seen perhaps the most unusual ‘snack’ ever. It was being made in the gardens of a zoo at Can Tho, further west, and I’d watched entranced as within a few minutes a small blob of paste in a large wok containing hot oil, swelled to something hollow, crisp and golden, and the size of a basketball.
Our guide had told me it was called xoi phong and was made from glutinous rice, and he had arranged for one to be made for our group. It arrived, every bit as spectacular as I’d remembered it.
This time, rather than just snacking on it, it came as an accompaniment to our meal. Our waitress carefully cut into the ball which amazingly stayed intact (rather than shattering or deflating) then cut it into strips which we ate with the dusk we had been served. It provided a lovely chewy contrast to the tender flesh and was quite irresistible. We’d already polished off an equally stunning whole fried fish (an Elephant Ear) still with scales which had curled up like fingernails all over the skin. For this, the flesh was removed by the waitress and we were directed to wrap pieces with the accompanying salad in rice paper wrappers.
After such a morning, of course we snoozed all the way back in the bus, rousing only when we hit the stop-start rush hour traffic of HCMC.
With time to spare before dinner we took the opportunity to explore the nearby city blocks. I was keen to try a true Vietnamese coffee made by slowly dripping intensely strong coffee through a small metal container. I had already bought one on the street the night before. Next to Bach Dang (said to have the best ice cream ‘in the world’ - coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell) we located Trung Nguyen Café. They served us a delicious this authentic drink, prefaced by a complimentary glass of green tea as we waited for the coffee to drip through (a fairly slow process).
From there we strolled to the ‘mother-in-law’ markets (dubbed this by our guide who quipped the goods were not good enough for wives or children) but found the stallholders all packing away their bolts of silk and swags of clothes, the watches and mountains of shoes and handbags. Six o’clock closing it seemed and the lights started going out just as we reached the food section, to which we had been drawn by the strong and unlikely aromas of durian and coffee and dried fish.
So then, it was on at last to our dinner venue – The Open Kitchen (Nhà Hàng Ngon) at 160 Louis Pasteur Street, a place everyone in HCMC should visit.
The place is well-named as two open kitchens extend up either side of the central dining area. The place was packed with diners inside under ceiling fans and fairy-lit trees, or outdoors in the tropical air with more trees and fairy lights. Either area is ideal. The system works well. The ‘kitchen’ is a series of work-stations, and each set of cooks prepare just one or two hawker-style dishes on charcoal braziers and domestic-sized appliances.
I am almost ashamed to say how much we ate – hungrily ordering more and more. My notes tell me we had green papaya salad, vermicelli and grilled pork, spring rolls, a Vietnamese rice pancake as large as a dinner plate but crisp and lacy and stuffed with bean sprouts and herbs, curry chicken, grilled lamb and juices. My notebook also reminds me that we spent 300,000 dong. Which is about $15 for the two of us!
Ahhh! Vietnam. We are already falling for this place!