Coconut Candy & Crocodiles: the Mekong Delta

Hi from Vietnam! We’ve been here a couple of weeks already and done a lot, and I’m going to post slightly randomly, because we did a few more museums and – surprise! – they were grim. So to start, here is our day trip from south from Saigon (that’s Ho Chi Minh City to anyone who can be arsed to use the city’s post-war name, which is zero people out here) to the Mekong Delta.

First of all, let me stress that if you travel from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, you need to stop off at the Mekong Rest Stop. I have become well acquainted with Asian public toilets in the last month and I can safely say that I have never been to one – out here or at home, actually – that’s had such a pleasant ambiance. There is a lake. The lake has lily pads. There are bridges and paths and little places to sit. There are restaurants with cute names and neatly organised crockery. I didn’t have time to take a picture because I spent 15 of our 20 minutes queuing for the toilets (nothing is perfect) but it was prettier than some places I’ve paid to visit.

This has been your public service announcement.

Our trip took us to three islands on the delta’s tributaries, which are named things like Unicorn Island and Phoenix Island. The most mystical thing I saw was some fire dancing, but we’ll get to that. We were warned to keep our arms inside the boat in case of crocodiles and I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or a caution – there isn’t any health and safety out here, but no one wants to be eaten by a prehistoric lizard – but the river has been over-fished, so there aren’t many left. I don’t think there’s much of anything left, as fishermen tend to go right out into the sea to catch what they’re after. There’s still a tradition of painting eyes on the front of boats though, to keep the crocs away.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I may paint eyeballs on my car to ward off motorists who can’t use their indicators.

On our first island we visited a coconut candy factory. I haven’t done a blog on South East Asian food yet so you haven’t heard me complain about the lack of chocolate (there are Snickers, M&Ms and Hershey’s in the shops, but American imports are expensive so most of the confectionery is cake-y). Instead of chocolate, sweet toothed (teethed?!) Vietnamese eat coconut candy, which is basically coconut plus malt sugar. The cooking process is ridiculously simple (mix and cook for half an hour) and we got to try some. It tastes a little bit like toffee and a little bit like fudge and a lot like something you’d find in Honeydukes or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I have a serious sweet tooth – I was distressed to learn I’d have to pay five dollars for a Hershey’s – and a few mouthfuls was sweet enough for me. Maxim managed about one bite, so it is possibly not for the savoury-minded… or the diabetic. I would’ve bought some for home, but we’ve got two more months of travelling and the odds of a lump of gooey sugar surviving in my bag are worse than the odds of the US administration not starting a war, so to get a flavour of what it’s like, do the following:

  1. Get some coconut flavoured toffee
  2. Turn the heating up
  3. Run a hot bath so the entire house is nice and steamy
  4. Release several thousand insects onto your property
  5. Eat the toffee
Coconut Candy factory in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
This is where the candy cooks over coals. Sometimes they add flavour, like peanut or ginger.

Our second island was kind of surreal. New year celebrations hadn’t finished (I will talk about them in another post), so there was a circus-type variety show on with a guy eating knives and a girl dancing with fire to Lady Gaga songs, as well as traditional lion dancing. It felt both very Vietnamese and very international, but I guess Lady Gaga has that effect. The island’s regular entertainment included a couple of pools full of crocodiles, a couple of shops with bags made from the crocodiles’ late cousins and a fleet of ancient bicycles that I refused to touch (partly because they came out of the ark and partly because my feet wouldn’t have reached the pedals).

Tet Circus Celebration Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Yep, those are knives balanced on his nose.
Crocodiles in Mekong Delta, Vietnam
I’m not a crocodile fan, but I’m not a crocodile handbag fan either…

The third and final island was probably the closest to what I’d expected from the tour: we tried local fruits while a group of musicians played local folk songs – and If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands which is one Western import that needs to disappear from everywhere, including the West – and got stared at pointedly by a lady with a basket until I took one for the team and tipped a thousand dong. Then we tried honey tea in a traditional-yet-quite-commercialised ‘local home’. I mean, it was clearly someone’s home, but no one serves tea in formal dress and heels. As someone who used to work for a tea bar I can confirm that honey tea is a) nothing like regular tea and b) delicious. They keep the bees on site (some actually flew around us and took little baths in the honey as it was served) and the tea is essentially a spoonful of honey plus lime juice plus what I think was honeycomb, topped with boiling water, served in a shot glass. I’m going to try it at home, and maybe sell it as a hangover cure-come-detox method because it was one of the few genuinely healthy beverages I’ve ever tried that also genuinely didn’t taste like vomit.

As this is Vietnam and an excursion wouldn’t be complete without using the term ‘that’s bizarre’, the same house had a cage with two pythons, and visitors could drape one of the pythons around their neck while posing for a picture. I abstained because I am not suicidal, and couldn’t help but notice that while one of the pythons was out and about, the cage containing the other was left wide open. Bizarre and a potential international disaster!

Our final sight was the traditional Mekong riverboat trip, the one you’ll see if you Google the Mekong Delta. The views are wonderful, and as we did it at low tide you could see where the water normally came up to, which was kind of ethereal and cool. The downside was that the lady paddling our boat spent most of the 15-minute trip demanding that we tip her. She’d point to where other people had left dollars or dong in other boats and kept up a running commentary of ‘Tip? Tip!’ so much that I nearly told her ‘Never pat a burning dog. Oh and always cleanse, tone and moisturise instead of just using soap, you’ll really notice a difference.’

Riverboat on the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Traffic jam…
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
The delta’s water is actually quite clean – the colour comes from the soil, which is very fertile. It’s also freshwater, which is why the islands are so green.

There was no beautiful rest stop on the way back into Saigon, unfortunately, but there was a thunderstorm. I didn’t manage to get a good picture of the drenched motorcyclists, but I did find it interesting that they use their giant plastic ponchos to cover the moped’s handlebars and main light as well as protecting them and two or three people sitting behind them… I have no idea why it hasn’t caught on at home.

Next up: exploring Saigon!

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