The Mekong Delta

We had to get up early to go on our tour of the Mekong delta today. This
meant waking up at 6.15, and having a shower. This was a novelty in
itself, because for the first time since we’d arrived in Asia the guest
house had cold and hot taps – so I could shave with hot water for the
first time in 3 months. Normally, its cold only, and they have an electric
water heater to give you a warm, but not very powerful shower. Its amazing
that you get so used to losing the little comforts of home so easily, and
almost don’t notice getting them back every once in a while.

Anyway, by 7 o’clock we were on a bus, headed west to the delta. The
drive, which took a couple of hours, wasn’t very exciting – just a long
line of lorries and motorbikes heading in and out of the city, and a
straight road going past factories, rice paddies and coffee shacks. After
leaving our bus at Cai Bai, we hopped in a boat and went to see some local
‘factories’. Or at least, that was what the guide described them as.

Wrapping sweets in the ‘factory’

It turned out that ‘factory’ was a description for a bamboo hut where
things were still being manufactured in a traditional way – it seemed like
something from the middle ages, with whole families involved in the
production of rice paper, coconut sweets, puffed rice (like Rice Crispies)
and rice sweets. Grandma and grandpa made the rice paper, steaming a thin
layer of watery rice powder for 30 seconds until it formed into a sheet of
paper, for making spring rolls. Then it was laid onto bamboo mats and put
out into the sun to dry. This method of drying things is the same all over
Asia, and because things are dried out in the open under the sun, they
normally smell really bad and attract hordes of flies – especially the
dried fish products. The sweets were being made by Dad, who mixed sugar
and coconut milk to make a delicious paste, which thickened and eventually
hardened into a toffee-like consistency. The sweets were then cut up by
Mum, and wrapped by her and her daughter by hand. This was the bit that
really surprised me – all those thousands of sweets, all wrapped precisely
by hand. I had somehow imagined that automation would have crept into this
job. The last ‘factory’ we visited was a back yard where 3 men worked over
a searingly hot pan, popping rice, just like popcorn. They came out all
fluffed up and white, and were then used to make sweet blocks, just like
the Rice Krispy cereal bars.

Mekong delta boat

Then it was back into the boat to cross to an island in the delta, for
lunch and a wander around, before piling back into the boat for a visit to
a brick factory. (This sounds like a typical ‘Communist Country’ tour
agenda, but we’d found the morning interesting, as we got to see just how
simple production is for many of the foods we’d been eating while we were
here). There’s obviously no phrase in Vietnamese for ‘Health and Safety’
as we wandered around the production floor, between kilns and raging
fires, watching raw clay being turned into bricks and pots (pots which
sell here for less than 2, and for 50 at home!).

Vinh Long market

Our final boat trip took us to the city of Vinh Long, back on the
mainland, to visit the market, which was full of ladies in straw hats
selling their fruit and vegetables. The hats are mostly worn by country
women, or older generations – today’s city women wear baseball hats, which
is the standard for all the men in Vietnam. The Vietnamese women also seem
to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they don’t get sun on their
faces – they want to keep their skin as light as possible – so they can be
seen riding around town on mopeds, with hats, sunglasses, and two face
masks – one on their forehead and one over their mouth. At first I thought
the facemask was an anti-pollution thing, until I realised that they take
them all of when they’re out on their bikes in the evening. It’s a funny
old world – women from Europe working hard on their tans, women from Asia
working hard on keeping their skin as light as possible.

We got back at 7pm in the evening, and the girls wore themselves out on a
huge bouncy castle in a funfair on the walk back to the guest house, and
we all went to bed, worn out by another hot and long Asian day.