Monday, January 24, 2011

Floating down the Mekong on the Song Xanh

About an hour or two south of Saigon is the fertile Mekong Delta, Vietnam's 'rice bowl', the highest producer of rice crops, vegetables and fruits in the nation. The mighty Mekong River originates in the Tibetan highlands, then makes its way through China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia to South Vietnam before flowing out into the South China Sea, or the East Sea as the Vietnamese prefer to call it. The Mekong's Vietnamese name, Cuu Long, means Nine Dragons, and represent the nine mouths of the delta that flows into the East Sea. The final leg of our Culinary Journey through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, took us to the small hamlet of Cai Be, where we embarked on our private two-person Sampan — The Song Xahn — an authentic bamboo covered river boat that would become our home as we floated down the Mekong and the many small canals that wind their way through the delta. 

Our stewards for the two-day river journey included Lan, a friendly sixty-three old Vietnamese gentleman, and three charming young men who would act as our captain, cook and man-Friday. Our first stop was Le Longanier, a superb Indochinese villa nestled in a lush tropical garden by the river, where we were greeted by a beautiful young woman dressed in a traditional ao dai, who escorted us to our table were we would be dining for lunch. Toronto seemed a long way away at that moment!

Lunch at Le Longanier was a delicious set menu that started with a light Potage de Legumes du Jardin, followed by Le Longanier Spring Rolls, filled with fragrant fresh crab and mixed vegetables, decoratively served on a fresh pineapple half.

Potage de Legumes du Jardin

Rouleaux de printemps Frits 'Le Longanier'

The piece de resistance was the locally caught Elephant Ear fish, a traditional Mekong dish, that was served flash fried and with rice paper and fresh greens which was rolled all together and dipped in a tangy dipping sauce. I tried some of the fish on it's own to see what it tasted like without the condiments and found it a wee bit bland, however the presentation scored very high points!

Poisson a 'Oreilles d'Elephant' Frit

If that wasn't sufficient, a platter of mixed stir fried vegetables arrived with Caramelized Clay Pot Pork and a bowl of steamed rice which was topped with a cone-shaped banana leaf to ensure the rice stayed hot on it's way to the table. Very nice indeed!

Assortment de Legumes Sauté au Soya

Riz a Banane

Following lunch we boarded our Sampan and started drifting leisurely drifting along the Mekong, on our way to Sa Dec, one of the Mekong's busy brick making regions and home to many rice whitening factories. Nothing goes to waste in Vietnam. Once the rice is hulled, the husks are used to fuel the brick kilns and many other light industry in the region — as witnessed by the many barges we saw carrying tons of the dried rice husks. Even the ash from the husk is bagged and sold to farmers to fertilize their rice fields, and so the cycle continues all over again.

The Mekong is indeed a mighty river and a busy highway for the region's many boats and barges, transporting fish to market or to some of the enormous processing plants that dot the banks of the area's major centres. Commerce also takes the form of many floating markets that congregate every day selling everything from sweet potato, pineapple, custard apples, watermelon and mango to floating convenience stores and coffee shops!

A Floating Convenience Store

A Banana Boat with produce hoisted high 
as a sign of what's for sale

Everywhere we went, children ran out of their homes yelling and waving "Hello! Hello! Hello!" Most people that we passed greeted us with a wave and a big open smile, even people toiling hard at work, sweat on their brow — they all had time to make that personal connection. For a nation that has gone through so much hardship over the years and with many continuing to feel the manacles of poverty, I am humbled by the Vietnamese and their enormous capacity to take joy in the small, but important things in life — family, tradition and the promise of the next generation. 

A little vignette — as we were visiting Uncle Ton's monument on Tiger Island, we came across a group of local students contributing their time to help maintain the shrine. As we approached, they all began to stare and look at us with great curiosity. Our guide Lan told them we were Canadian and encouraged them to practice their english and ask us any questions they might have. Following a fit of giggles, some brave teenagers stepped forward and asked us why we had come to Vietnam and what our was our favourite part of our trip. I told them we had come to Vietnam to visit and explore their beautiful country. Our favourite part — meeting the people. Without a doubt, the Vietnamese people, especially the children, are among the warmest people I've ever met. As we were saying goodbye, they insisted on getting a photo of all of us to commemorate the event.

As we made our way down the steps and back to our Sampan, they all waved and shouted with big smiles, "Goodbye! Goodbye!" If this is Vietnam's future, it's going to be very bright.