We still had not visited Mekong Delta, but now got a good reason when our friends visiting were interested in seeing life on the big river. We did a one-day trip to have a look at the Mekong.
The Mekong Delta encompasses a large portion of Southwestern Vietnam. It has been inhabited already in the prehistorial times. It has been ruled by the Chinese, the Khmer and it was the first colony of the French, known then as Cochinchine. In total, Mekong is about 4,300 km long and is the 12th longest river in the world.
Mekong Delta lies west of Saigon. In Vietnamese, Mekong is called Cửu Long or Nine Dragons and the Delta is called Nine Dragon River, named after the nine estuaries of the Mekong. We took off by car and drove two hours to the city of Ben Tre. It is the coconut capital of the country. From there we started our adventurous day.
Our welome drink was naturally a coconut.
We got to the river and boarded our nice sampan. We started slowly our trip on Mekong. Plenty of palm trees on both banks of the river. Ships carrying coconuts. Brown water. Where we were Mekong was still relatively narrow and the stream was not too strong. We were 40 km from the sea and about 70 km from the Cambodian border.
Sitting in the shade on the sampan made you forget how hot it was in April.
Coconuts being taken to one of the local factories.
A common sight on the river: mounds of coconuts and chimneys letting steam out.
There are around 30 species of coconuts in the Ben Tre area. What are the differences between the species is still not too clear to me. Coconut is an amazing fruit, as all parts of the fruit can be used. We were shown how the coconuts are opened with a spear looking tool.
Coconuts are opened one by one, and the outher shell or husk is used to make fibre (for ropes for instance).
The juice is poured into a canister to be cooked to make candies (very popular in Vietnam). Then the fruit is given to a guy who very handily with his special tool, takes the shell off.
While working on the coconuts, this guy surprised us with an excellent knowledge on South African and Finnish politics and Finnish soccer hero Litmanen.
Two ladies sitting on their plastic chairs then peel the coconut with a regular peeling knife.
No trace of peel remained on the coconuts.
The inner shells are burned in a furnace. It is heated and the coconuts are kept there until they become charcoal. Then they are used as fuel.
The steam coming from the furnace chimney is to cool down the coconuts once they are burnt enough.
We also saw a very manual brick factory. Blending the clay was pretty much the easiest task. The clay was pressed through a mould and then the bricks were piled and dried. There were two kilns where the bricks were then burned. They were stacked manually into the kiln and also taken out manually. About 80,000 bricks fit into the kiln. They were burned for a week and then let cool for 10 days. There is always a couple on duty one night each, when the kiln is on. Every hour they add coconut husk that is used as fuel. Then the bricks were taken to the market to be sold in packs of one thousand.
Bricks drying in the yard.
The kiln was also made by hand.
The tens of thousands of bricks that have been laid into the kiln manually, are also taken out manually. The metal chute is used to drop bricks one by one from the top of the pile.
Then we embarked on bicycles to head to the rice noodle factory. Our friend had not ridden a bicycle in 47 years, but after a slightly wobbly start, he was going like a pro. So the saying that once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you never forget that skill, holds true! We biked through countryside, so not much traffic but some school boys who wanted to practice their English with us.
We also learnt how roofs are made with palm leaves.
The rice noodle factory was also a manual one. Rice dough is spread on bambou holders in the morning and they dry during the day. In the afternoon the sheets of dried rice are taken in, removed from the holders and then sliced in a machine. In the afternoon the noodles are then taken to the market to be sold.
The rice flower dough drying out in the midday sun.
Removing the rice sheets and piling them. The holders can be reused for about one year.
Rice sheets are shredded and then packed into plastic bags to be taken to local market.
We embarked on a small boat that was paddled by two ladies. We went along narrow waterways. Birds were singing and there were some locals, but it was peaceful and relaxing. The ladies took as back to Mekong and we returned to our sampan.
This part of the river was very narrow and our rowing boat was just wide enough to feel comfortable but not blocking the whole river.
Nice and quiet.
Fishing is one of the main livelihoods, so there were plenty of fish traps in the morning when we boarded our sampan, but by lunch time the tide was high and none of them could be seen.
A local fisherman with his traps.
We had a really nice lunch at the guest house’s restaurant, which was followed by a walk through the small village to the rice pancake lady. She had retired, but still made pancakes by order. We also got to show our skills. Not very surprising, we were slow compared to her and her pancakes tasted really nice.
Ms Sau could make 100 pancakes in an hour.
It took us nearly ten minutes to make four pancakes.
We returned to our sampan and started our way back. We saw more coconut factories and even some more advanced plants where coconut was refined and exported into the cities. There were also ship yards where both wooden and iron ships were being restored.
A full load of jars.
Wooden boats with the traditional eyes to scare off monsters or to help find the back home.
We returned to Ben Tre to begin our journey back to Saigon. We hope to do another longer trip to the Mekong Delta later. It is only two hours from Saigon but it feels like being in the countryside.