Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Anchors Aweigh! We Are Off to See Vietnam

First Stop: Ben Tre, Vietnam  

The Mekong Princess
After an overnight sail from Ho Chi Minh to Ben Tre, we boarded a sampan for a tour of the area. We quickly understood that the river is the life of the community and basic means of transportation here. After a short tour, it was back to the boat for lunch and an afternoon sail to Tam Binh. The tours are nicely planned for early mornings and late afternoons so we can be in the air-conditioning during the hottest part of the day with time for a rest.
We went ashore in sampans. In some areas, the same one
stayed with us and was towed behind the boat so it would
be there for the morning excursions. Fun way to travel!
As the Mekong River enters Vietnam from Cambodia, it splits into two channels: Tien Giang (Upper River) and Hau Giang (Lower River). The river continues to divide as it traverses through the delta region which is a fertile area of almost 50,000 square kilometers. By the time it reaches the South China Sea, nine branches appear, although two have now silted up over time. This is why the Mekong River is called the River of Nine Dragons.
We also traveled their version of the canoe. It was a
little unsteady at times, but very peaceful. Mostly
women doing the paddling of these vessels.

The Mekong Delta region is home to a fifth of the population and provides half of the rice for the whole of Vietnam. The area provides coconuts, sugarcane, fruits and fish.

On our trip through the creeks, I saw a strange fruit that looks like a pinecone hanging on the water palms. Apparently it is edible, but very different from regular coconut palm fruits. And there are many kinds of birds inhabit the area as well. It was very pleasant to hear them sing.
At Ben Tre, we took the sampan up into the mangrove-lined channels to visit the home of a local coconut candy maker. From here, we boarded horse carts for a trip to another channel where we climbed into small two seater boats, most paddled by older women.
The community had prepared some tea and fruit for us.
The narrow creeks were lined with Nipa palms, which are a native species of palm considered to be the only one of its kind to have adapted to the mangrove habitat. It was so peaceful and cool as we were quietly moved through the creeks.

The entertainment. Interesting.

We were entertained by some local musicians with traditional Vietnamese singing and treated to tea and fresh fruits of the area. I must say it takes a special ear to appreciate the tones used. The stories as translated were lovely and the instruments were pleasant sounds, but the vocals were challenging to the Western ears. Many of the people throughout the country, especially women, spoke in very high-pitched tones.

The local lifestyle seems primitive to our Western ways, but they are all thriving and have created a sustainable way of life. We learned early on that nothing is wasted! They eat everything and use everything.

Typical restroom for tourists.
At the candy factory, the coconuts are cracked open and the flesh removed and prepared. After the coconut candy is cooked over rice husk fires, the ashes are returned to the rice paddies to help replenish the soil. The coconut shells are made into bowls - some brightly painted. You find these things in a Pier One or similar store.

Like many of the countries we have visited, the people have learned over time and continue to practice: waste not, want not! Nearly everyone does a better job of reusing or recycling. Since they don't have access to plastic bags, bottles, etc., they are far ahead of us in this environmental area!
They make bricks from the red clay so many of the houses
are made of brick with metal roofs.

The afternoon took us through parts of the Mekong Delta barely touched by tourism. Even though we saw a number of other river cruise boats in Saigon, we did not see them until we were near larger cities as our boat was off the beaten track.
We passed many golden structures.
Every home and temple has a front gate.


AND there are golden Buddhas everywhere!

Making coconut candy for the market.

Making rice wrappers for spring rolls, etc.
We also visited a family who was making rice wrappers (or whatever they call them). From the rice slurry, they cook it on what looked like a huge crepe pan. Then it is moved to the woven drying racks and placed in the sun to dry. There were different flavorings in some which they sold as snack food. When broken up, they looked like corn chips.

Then they dry in the sun. No FDA here!


Ready for the horse-drawn cart ride.
At Tam Binh, our destination for the afternoon was the Toa Sen pagoda, an ancient Khmer pagoda dating back to the 4th century AD. In 1999, it was recognized by UNESCO as one of the most important Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia. This temple is comparable to Borobudur, Angkor Wat or Bagan, temples in Cambodia. To get there, we took horse carts. Interesting mode of transportation!

The monks were preparing for the Tet holiday when the community will come to the temple and have a day of feasting and games. They created a huge maze of bamboo poles and string as one of the activities. Some of our fellow travelers tried to find their way through it. Even though you could see all of the alleyways (unlike in our corn mazes), it was still challenging to find a way out.





Looking back at the entry gate.
Young monks at work preparing for Tet.



Interesting flower growing on the tree.
What a cute one visiting the pagoda.



These children are so cute!

Our final stop for the day was in a neighborhood where the locals make products from water hyacinth. We saw many bunches of branches floating in the Mekong River and wondered what it was. It is the fast growing, free-floating plant that produces a pretty flower. The vine is used to make slippers, furniture, baskets, purses and serving trays.


The women and children weave the baskets and other items.
They get pennies for them and you buy them in a store for
more money than they can make in a month!
We visited the home of one family of weavers to see how they use the water hyacinth vine to make these products for sale. They kindly gave a tour of their home and backyard where they keep their pigs.

Pigs on the patio! Cash crop.

Pigs ruled in Tonga and Fiji, even Vanuatu. This is the first time we have seen pigs kept next to the house in pens. This family raises pigs to sell and for their own food.


Typical kitchen cooking area.

They  had a large kitchen. Bigger than most, but a lot
of people live in this home.

Thinh explained the meaning of the little
temples in each front yard near the gate.

SO! What do you think of my country?

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