Monday 8th December, 2014
Today we are heading to the Mekong Delta to explore the agricultural heart of Vietnam. The skies are blue and the sun is shining, so I am excited about what the day ahead entails. Making our way outside the city, we have a scheduled visit to the Binh Tay Market in the Cholon district of HCMC. Cholon, which literally means “big market”, has been home to Chinese merchants and traders for many centuries and is essentially still a huge emporium predominantly selling wholesale goods.
Binh, our guide, takes us through the narrow market alleys and lanes to show us spices and other food specialities that are available for sale. Eventually we head into an area where stalls are selling a variety of kitchen equipment that is extremely cheap when compared to what is available back home in Melbourne, so Binh helps me to look for a couple of items that I’m interested in for my own kitchen cooking adventures.
Once I’ve finished shopping, it’s a two hour drive south from HCMC to our destination so en route we take a Vietnamese coffee break at a roadside stop that looks more like a holiday resort, obviously purpose-built to accommodate the throngs of foreign tourists visiting the region each day, but a beautiful oasis nonetheless.
We eventually arrive at a city with a small port to meet our boat that is patiently ready and waiting for us. It was a little precarious trying to jump across to our boat in thongs but Kylie and I made it safely, and perched ourselves in the front seats to enjoy the view and journey.
I literally felt like a queen as we moved along the mighty river, gliding past a myriad of canals and tributaries of the Mekong by boat with my feet outstretched in the glorious sunshine.
After half an hour of cruising, our boat pulls into the riverbank to visit a brick factory. The river is the life blood of Vietnam which sustains many forms of fishing, farming and transportation commerce. I initially thought that our culinary tour would include a visit to a floating market but instead our visit took us to places rarely accessible by the tourist buses. Kylie and I were able to look inside the giant beehive kilns to see where the bricks were fired after being formed with plentiful clay from nearby rice paddy fields. The leftover rice husks from the farms are then used to constantly fuel the furnace to extreme temperatures. It was fascinating to see how each industry sustains another.
The Mekong is also known to the Vietnamese as the “coconut kingdom” with thousands of people living amongst approximately 40,000 hectares of coconut trees. Our next stop along the river was to visit a another type of factory where farmers sell their coconuts to a middle man or “processor” who will transform the harvested coconuts into other types of products. Unfortunately on the day of our visit, the coconut economy took a turn for the worse and the processor couldn’t afford to take the coconuts without incurring a substantial loss. Nevertheless, the husband and wife team who process the coconuts demonstrated how the coconut flesh is separated from the hard fibrous shell – the juice is used to make coconut jelly; the white flesh is utilised to make coconut milk, or to make oil from which they make candy, or cooking oil or perfume. The coconut fibres are used for building materials while the brown coconut skin chopped off the flesh are used for fertiliser. We were able to taste a range of coconut candy made onsite but the cocktail of young coconut juice that we were given to enjoy on the boat ride, diminished my desire for more coconut products.
Back on the boat we continued our journey down a small canal with our skipper occasionally diving overboard into the murky water to clear the propellers of debris. Eventually we came at a large bridge that signified that we had arrived at a village. Pulling into the village, Kylie and I left the boat and walked up to the bridge. Binh was showing us a tamarind tree, when all of a sudden I felt someone pinch my bottom from behind. Turning around to give the culprit a piece of my mind, all I could see was a small elderly woman grinning up at me. Apparently I had a nice tush and according to Binh, she was just showing her appreciation as this was a gesture commonly used in Vietnam!
As we continued walking into the village, we visited another small business where some women were weaving mats from reeds that have grown along the Mekong and then dried. The mats are commonly used in houses as relief from the constant heat. Outside the workshop, a tuk tuk was waiting for us to drive us to our special lunch destination.
I was so excited to be on a tuk tuk that I sat right up the front. The driver put his foot down and I couldn’t help enjoying the feeling of the wind rushing by my face. Flying through the village and towards the rice paddy fields, we suddenly veered onto a small path in a field and sped into the vegetation where we eventually arrived at another small village where we would be having lunch.
Kylie and I arrived at a large outdoor dining area where we were seated and immediately treated to a banquet lunch that had been prepared from local produce. Our first course was a delicious tasting fried, crispy crab followed by chicken and sweet corn soup. Shortly thereafter, a very interesting looking local Elephant Ear fish arrived at our table where it took centre stage until someone came to our table and started to prepare rice paper rolls for us with the filleted fish. The fish, which is similar to grouper was moist and extremely tasty. I was thinking that the fish was the main course, but shortly thereafter we were served cooked prawns with a special spice mix. I’m constantly amazed by the hospitality and quality and quantity of food offered to us. A huge dish of lemongrass chicken cooked in the claypot, with rice and stir fried morning glory was the next course. Despite the heat of the day, a hot meal was welcome with tender chicken falling apart and subtle hints of lemongrass flavour. Thankfully, fresh fruit was the last dish to cleanse the palate and finish off the meal.
Funnily enough, our boat was waiting for us right behind the restaurant, and so we started the journey back along the river to rendezvous with our car. We start the slow journey back to HCMC and arrive back at our hotel in the late afternoon but with plenty of daylight still left in the day to get acquainted with the Western-style shopping centres and the stylish souvenir shops along the famous Dong Khoi Street. There is only so much shopping two girls can handle, and somewhere throughout our wanderings Kylie and I found a great little wine bar to rest our weary legs and enjoy a happy hour beverage. The Argentinean chardonnay on the specials list was excellent for only 60,000 VND ($3.60 AUD) per glass and put paid to the notion that wine is too expensive to enjoy in Asia. I recommend checking out “Wine Bar 38”.
Travel Indochina provide a great brochure of culinary discoveries in Ho Chi Minh City and with the freedom to chose our own evening entertainment, Kylie and I thought that we would try “Lemongrass” for dinner which was just around the corner from the wine bar. The previous evening the restaurant was quiet, however on this evening it was extremely busy which is always a good sign. Set in an old French colonial building, Lemongrass seems to be a popular destination for large tour groups and so we followed suit and ordered one of the set menu’s with a number of local specialties that we hadn’t yet tried in Vietnam such as lotus stem salad. The food was good and plentiful although the restaurant is primarily catering for the tourist market and is priced accordingly.
I honestly thought that when I booked my trip to Vietnam, that the visit to Halong Bay was going to be the highlight but little did I know that a journey to the Mekong Delta would be so memorable and fun, arse pinching and all. This day was indeed my favourite day of the whole tour.
Disclaimer: All entries regarding the Vietnam Culinary Discovery tour within this blog reflect my own personal insights and experiences throughout my holiday and I was solely responsible for meeting all travel expenses incurred.