Our river boat tour has continued down the middle parts of the Mekong delta and concluded this morning at the town of My Tho.
At a little town called Sa Dec we went ashore to visit a few places of interest. Our first stop was at a brickworks where clay is manhandled ashore and shaped mechanically into bricks or floor paving tiles. It is air dried before being placed into large kilns.
The kilns are fired by burning rice husks which are manhandled ashore in baskets. When full, the two baskets on the bamboo pole weigh over 60 kgs. The ash from the kilns is later returned to the farmers for use as fertiliser. It takes about 55 days to bake a kiln full of bricks and considerable manual effort into stacking and unstacking each kiln. There must be a dozen, or so, of these factories along the canal behind the river in this area.
Further along the river, we visited the local fresh food market. It consists of two parts. In the first, individual stall holders sell everything from fresh vegetables to meat and fish. We saw containers of live chickens and ducks which were beheaded for the customer as they were purchased and lots of other food that we would never consider eating – water snakes, rats, snake head fish from the paddy fields and frogs for example. The second part of the market, consists of a wholesale section which sells bulk produce to other resellers. Some come as far away as from Saigon to buy vegetables for their businesses.
Down the road, we came to an old Chinese house that looked a little like a temple from the outside. This was the original home of the father of the man in the story ‘The Lover’, which we watched on the previous night. The house of Marguerite Duras’ (the girl in the story) had been demolished some years ago now no longer exists. This home of the Chinese man’s father had a very ornate interior and was clearly the house of a wealthy man. It had been used as a police station when the communists ran the country after the war, but now it is maintained by the government as a museum.
Back on the boat after lunch, we travelled a little way downstream to the village of Cai Be. Here, there is a floating market where the boats advertise their goods by hanging them on bamboo poles above the ship. One boat sold pumpkins, another cabbages and another was selling cassava. At the end of the waterway, we stopped at a typical ‘back yard’ business that was making various forms of coconut based candy, We watched the coconut milk being compressed out of the coconut flesh, boiled until it was caramelised and then cooled, cut and packed into bags for sale.
I have visited a similar factory like this before but this one also made puffed rice by baking it in hot sand and then separating the sand back into the pot with a sieve. Instant rice bubbles! However, like the other one that I visited in the past, this factory also had a pet python which was trotted out for us to hold. It would have been over 3 metres long and it weighed about 30 kgs.
We left the boat this morning at the Mekong River town of My Tho and travelled to Saigon by bus. Although the city is officially called Ho Chi Minh City, all the locals still call it by its old name – Saigon. This trip took us about 1 1/2 hours, most of which was on a 100 km /hr freeway. We looked out over ice fields and little villages along the way. A long fence kept the cattle and the water buffol off the motorway. There was a toll to pay. I’m not sure how much for a bus, but O noticed that the man in the next toll booth driving a light van paid 20,000 Dong, or $1.
Saigon has appears to have developed considerably since I was last here in 2007. There are a number of large new buildings and it is starting to look quite modern. The streets seem much tidier and the beggars on the street corners seem to have disappeared. There are some new shopping centres and a lot more hotels. The Asian Hotel where i stayed on my first trip back to Vietnam in 1994 now looks very tiny. The old colonial buildings such as the opera house, post office, town hall etc all look as tough they have had a recent makeover.
The back streets still look very similar but there is now a large 6-lane ring road that avoids all of the previous city congestion. I think that the number of cars and motor cycles are still the same, however. Cars and motor cycles do stop at traffic lights but there is no concept of respecting pedestrian crossings here. To cross the road, it’s a case of just walking slowly and continuously, letting them weave around you. The international brand stores now have a strong presence. There is a Louis Vuitton store across the road and designer watches for sale in shops around the corner.
The old sections of town still have a certain amount of run-down charm!