Getting a taste of the Rice Bowl of Vietnam

After a long, sleepless night of tossing and turning — in anticipation of the trip; I managed to make it in time for my hotel pick-up at 8 am. We spent the next 15 minutes picking the rest of the members of the tour. Our tour group had an eclectic mix of people — two Japanese friends, an American mother-son duo, and a solo traveller from Australia. Our guide, Kyon (my best guess of how his name must be spelled), was a cheery, verbose young man.

As we transitioned from the city to the countryside; his words provided the steady buzz  to the background of fleeting scenery. I realised, as much as I wanted, it would be hard to escape the memory of the war. Occasionally, I fought sleep. Fortunately, our tour guide’s monologue came to my rescue, and my eyes stayed open. Outside my window, fields were painted green, the sky was bright blue, red rooftops glistened in the sun, and I wondered: was I truly in Vietnam? Roughly an hour and half later — we reached our destination.

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As I waited nervously at the pier, boats bobbed with the flow of the current and the sky darkened with grey clouds. It was time to hop on board and stay calm. We weren’t given life-jackets and that didn’t help my anxiousness or fear of water. Oddly, once I was comfortably seated in my cane chair (onboard), this unassuming floating device seemed surprisingly steady and ready to tackle the flow of the current.

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The engines whirred and set the boat into motion and pellets of rain dropped from the gloomy sky above. The turbid waters of the Tien River (a distributary of the parent Mekong River) turned choppy and our vessel bobbed with every push. There’s a strange sort of exhilaration to be found in the cocktail of haplessness, fear, and awe. I contemplated my nothingness — in comparison to the vastness and might of the river — that thrived with life at every bend.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

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The Mekong River (Mother of Waters) originates in Tibet, continuing through China, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, eventually splitting into distributaries in the south-western region of Vietnam — to ultimately form the Mekong Delta, before emptying into the sea. Our tour would take us to My Tho — the gateway city (from Saigon) to the Mekong Delta. According to local legend, the city was named after the ‘beautiful’ women (a mix of local Vietnamese and Chinese/Cambodian residents) of the region. Our guide preferred to believe the city got its name from a local fish. 

As we reached our first stop (Unicorn Island), our guide rattled off the names of the four islands (Dragon, Tortoise, Phoenix, and Unicorn Islands) surrounded by the Tien River. The rain had stopped and the sun made the weather hot and stuffy. On the island, you can get really close to buzzing bees or try to stay still with a python coiling around your leg. Honestly, I’d be happier if the python was set free, instead of serving as a prop for gullible tourists. We were also offered a drink (a concoction of warm tea, honey, and bee pollen) with snacks.

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It was time to continue our ride along the river. Towering fishing boats glistened in the afternoon sun and pockets of clouds filled the sky. I should have been looking at the river, instead — it was the sky that caught my eye. I couldn’t get enough of the gorgeous blue dome above us.

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Our ride lasted for about 15 minutes. We docked at the deserted edge of the second island. It was getting excruciatingly hot and yet, under the shade of palm leaves — the sight of the murky waters of the river looked captivating.

We passed through narrow roads to reach a settlement. Here, you can learn how to make coconut candy. Kyon didn’t waste any time. He picked up a coconut and skinned it like a pro. From there, it goes into the grater and then into an emulsifier. The mixture is cooled and cut into tiny nuggets of joy. Tasting freshly prepared, chewy coconut candy was one of the perks of the tour.

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There was a mix of local alcohols kept for tourist sampling. I gave it a miss. The cobra wine (with a scorpion) captured everyone’s attention. Believed to improve virility, our guide kept harping on how good it was for the ‘husband’. Noah, the only teenager in the group, innocently questioned why?

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From thereon, we walked along derelict island roads and crossed a rickety bridge over one of the smaller distributaries of the river. I was trailing behind (to click pictures) and missed our guide’s snippet of information on this part of the island.

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Up ahead horse carriages awaited us. Now, as a rule, I try to avoid (unless required) animal rides of any sort. Before I could protest, I found myself in the carriage. With every sound of the whip, I recoiled in pain for this beautiful horse that had to carry us for no apparent reason, on an extremely hot day. It was definitely a low point for me.

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The village had a mix of affluence and understated simplicity. Kyon made it a point to show us the local plants and fruit trees. He also gave an introduction to the conical Vietnamese hat also known as Non La.

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As we tried traditional fruits, we listened to a small performance by local artists. The folk singers mustn’t be professionally trained and that’s why might sound a little raw. They had a distinct (nasal) style of singing and it was pleasing to the ear.

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It was time to face my moment of truth. Our weight had to be delicately balanced on the sampan and I was sandwiched between Dee and her son, Noah. I tried to not let fear cripple the experience. So far, fear definitely had the advantage.

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It was hard to ignore the captivating image of our strong oarswoman with her Non La. If I captured her on camera, I realised, I would be guilty of painting a stereotype of a typical Vietnamese island dweller. There was more to her then her traditional hat and oar. I didn’t know her story and would reduce her to a prop in an exotic locale. But, I also hoped, our readers would understand that for many locals in this island, the sampan equals mobility and the Non La — a way to protect yourself from the sun. I tried rowing for a bit and realised the effort it takes to get across. Her strength is what truly captivated me. And that’s the story I’d like to go for.

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Our sampan gently moved along the brown waters of the My Tho River. An eerie silence pierced the air — only to be momentarily broken by the gentle swoosh of the oar. Light barely penetrated the dense canopy of palm leaves above. At the edge of the narrow river bed, the ends of the palm trees hid more — than they revealed. Every movement, in the water, was deceptive. I silently cursed Basil for making me watch ‘Anaconda’ (the movie) and for not being with me in an uncannily similar real life situation. My imagination was having a field day, whilst my heart hoped it would somehow survive this seemingly benign ride.

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The rest of  our tour group caught up with us. After 20 minutes (although it felt much longer), we all hopped onto another boat and cut across the waters to make a stop for lunch.

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We had a generous spread of traditional Vietnamese food for lunch. After the initial awkwardness, the silence at the table was broken by clinging glasses and fumbling chopsticks.

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We retraced our route and eventually reached our starting point. On the journey back to the city, we learned that the Mekong Delta was under serious threat of flooding and scientists predicted many provinces would most likely be submerged by 2030. The Rice Bowl of Vietnam and treasure trove of natural diversity would eventually disappear. It was hard to believe and heartbreaking to realise how much of what we saw will eventually fade away.

Additional Reading 

 Mekong: a river rising 

22 responses to “Getting a taste of the Rice Bowl of Vietnam

  1. Thanks for the virtual trip of rural Vietnam.
    I love the last two pictures where the blue boats go well with the sky colour.

  2. That felt a little bit like my day in the Parana Delta in Argentina! Languid, relaxing, culturally interesting, hot and humid!

    Even before I reached the end of the paragraph about the oarswoman, I felt she was far from a stereotype. In fact, she was a singular presence, I thought, a strong and confident woman balanced at the end of a boat. I liked her at first sight!

    • I know! I remembered two of your posts while I wrote this one. 🙂 I even thought of your ‘Delta’ post on the trip. I’m so glad to read your comment about the oarswoman. Systematic stereotyping is the ugly side of tourism. I didn’t want to contribute to it. 😦

  3. I might consider a gondolier in Venice a stereotype, but it would never occur to me a Vietnamese oarswoman would be one. I suppose having stereotypes requires having at least some knowledge of an area – somewhere in that grey area between none and enough to know better.

    • It’s heartening to read your comment, Dave. I was kind of tired with every image I saw, either online or at Vietnamese restaurants (in Seoul) of the woman/man with the traditional hat. 😦

  4. What a wonderful journey down the Mekong. Thanks for taking us along with you on this interesting boat trip. The scenery was beautifully captured through the photos and I have come to the conclusion that it is the Vietnamese woman who brings home the bacon.err.., the fish.

    • It was an insightful trip, Helen. 🙂 I’m wary of touristy trips, but this didn’t kill the joy of being in the outdoors. I’m not sure if the women fish here. We did get to see towering fishing boats, but I kind of assumed it would be the men who’d be the ones fishing. Honestly, I’m clueless. 🙂

  5. How timely to read this post. Am considering a trip to Vietnam later this year before leaving SE Asia. Your journey gives me lots of inspiration. The image and backstory on the oarswoman were especially captivating. Hope to follow in your wake this October.

    • Thanks a bunch, Lisa. Means a lot coming from you. 🙂 My posting schedule has taken a kind of backseat and I’m hoping to get back on track. I look forward to your travels and would love to read your side of the story. 🙂

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