Published: March 13th 2011March 4th 2011
Hung's Homestay near Can Tho
While exploring in Can Tho, Monk had bumped into a Canadian couple he'd previously met on the bus from Phnom Penh to Kampot. They'd just arrived in Can Tho that morning after having stayed two nights in a homestay which they said had been wonderful.
A couple of nights' stay in the home of a Vietnamese family was on Monk's agenda for the next stage of the trip and what better place to choose than one that came so highly recommended. Monk called Hung and arranged to meet him the next morning.
Hung's nephew turned up on his motorbike and Monk and Saavas climbed into a taxi which followed him out of Can Tho into the countryside. The normal way of arriving at Hung's is to meet him at a road bridge over a river, downsteam from his house. Hung's boat, waiting under the bridge then carries the guests to his house. At this time, the tide was out and the river was too shallow to go by boat so the taxi stopped by the river, slightly downstream from Hung's house on the opposite bank. Crossing the river on a punt, Monk and
Saavas climbed up on to the track ready to mount motorbikes for the last stage to Hung's house. As Monk was donning his crash helmet, an old man walked slowly past, grabbed Saavas' crotch, squeezed, grinned and moved toward Monk. For just once in his entire life Saavas was lost for words - he just stared straight ahead, mouth wide open, as though in a trance. With the old man approaching, Monk took instant action, removing the crash helmet and covering his delicate parts with it. Monk's action had the desired effect and the man sauntered off happy to have made Saavas' acquaintance.
Hung's home is set back from the riverbank with a dirt track running between the house and the river. On the bank itself, with balconies facing on to the river, Hung has built 10 shacks of wood and reeds. They are very basic, just a bed with a mosquito net and a small cubicle in the corner with a shower - cold water only. Two shared toilets are in a separate block. It can be very peaceful but also, at times, quite noisy.
The main house has a covered yard where the guests eat together
at three tables. Hung's wife does the cooking and she's an excellent cook. Monk and Saavas were given grilled catfish, rice, vegetables and fruit for lunch after they arrived.
In the afternoon, Hung took his guests walking around the local area pointing out the crops growing in the fields, some of which belonged to Hung.
In the evening, Mrs Hung prepared a large elephant ear fish and Hung showed eveybody how to roll pieces of the fish in rice paper with lettuce and cucumber for dipping in a chilli suace. There was also chicken with ginger, delicious stir-fried vegetables, a pork dish and, of course, lots of rice. After dinner, Hung produced a small plastic bag of clear liquid. He pushed a chopstick into one side of it and then carefully out the other side. Not a drop of the liquid spilled. Holding the narrow end of the chopstick over a glass, he gently withdrew the chopstick from the bag, just a few millimetres. The liquid ran out of the bag, down the chopstick and into the glass. Hung repeated this delicate procedure over two more glasses, each time using the chopstick like a tap, and threw the
half empty bag on the table where still not a drop leaked out. We toasted each others' health and felt the fiery taste as the rice wine hit the back of our throats. Monk commented that it was not wine so much as whisky or eau de vie and Hung confirmed that the rice was fermented into wine and then distilled into a liquid around 40% alcohol. He explained that the Vietnamese have basically two words for alcholic drinks - beer and wine - it wasn't beer so, hence, rice wine. After more conversation and more rice wine, it was early to bed in readiness for a 7am start next morning.
The country noise of owls and other wildlife is very atmospheric as one drifts off to sleep. Around 3am, the heavens opened and Monk lay awake for a couple of hours until listening to the rain and the occasional boat chug by on the river. After a 'refreshing' cold shower, he joined the others for a 6:30am breakfast.
At 7:00, Monk, Saavas and four ladies from Singapore set off for a morning tour. Hung manouevred the boat along the narrow river, turning into ever wider rivers until
finally arriving at the Cai Rang floating market - one of the largest in the region. This market is different from the Chau Doc floating market in that it is somehow more intimate. In the 'distribution chain' of market produce, Cai Rang seems to be at the 'retail' level while the Chau Doc boats were larger 'wholesale' boats. Hung pointed out where many of the boats came from by their registration numbers, some from hundreds of kilometres distant. As with Chau Doc, husband and wife teams, and sometimes entire extended familes, live on the boats until their entire contents have been sold before returning back home to load up again with produce from their local area and repeating the cycle over again. It's a nomadic life for these traders. Some boats look as though they are floating fashion shops, however, the shirts, dresses etc hanging on their sterns are just the family laundry. Further along the river during the morning, Hung pointed out smaller boats loaded with a mix of vegetables heading back up the numerous channels, or waiting for the tide to open up the channels. These were yet another element in the distribution chain. These small traders had
bought from the floating market and were heading to the more remote villages and homes to resell the goods to those unable to reach the market. This whole distribution chain is so efficient and has been operating this way for centuries. No banks of computers or teams of logistics experts in gleaming corporate headquarters - just the combined efforts of thousands upon thousands of independent individuals playing their small part in the giant wheel that gets ultra-fresh produce from the field, the river and the sea to the plates of millions of people.
Further up the river we visit a rice processing factory producing noodles. The rice is ground and added to water to produce a milk-like substance. Over fires heated by dried coconut shells, the liquid is spread thinly over a round metal plate, maybe half a metre in diameter, and a lid is placed over it. While the next one is being spread, the rice forms something similar to a crepe which is ready within a matter of seconds to be removed and placed on large bamboo mats each containing four of the pancakes. Repeating this procecdure, flipping between the two hotplates, soon produces a stack of
rice pancakes on bamboo mats ready to be taken outside and dried in the sun. After four hours in the sun, the pancake is dry, but still elastic enough for the next stage. Over something similar to a giant paper shredder, one worker feeds the rice disks into the top of the machine while a female worker squatting next to it catches the bundles of perfectly-formed noodles and wraps them in brown paper ready for sale.
Further on again, we clamber up the bank to a small village, a hamlet really, strung along the river bank. Everybody in the village is involved in one activity - the propogation of plants for sale to farmers. Mango seedlings, papaya, gourds, chillis and many more are grown to order. Workers sit on wooden platforms sowing seeds into tiny containers made from banana leaves filled with the nutrient rich ash from burnt coconut husks. Walking through the village, Monk notices a young man rubbing clear liquid into the feathers of a cockerel. 'Ah' thought Monk - another fighting bird - just like the one he'd seen on the boat to Phu Quoc a couple of weeks earlier. Hung acted as translator. The bird
was being groomed with rice wine in preparation for its first fight. Large amounts of money are bet on the outcome of the fights and usually the losing bird dies or is destroyed. A multiple winning bird can command tens of millions of dong when sold on. The young man produced a thick leather sheath and drew from it two deadly-looking shining steel spurs. It's these spurs fixed to the cock's legs which do all the damage.
Back on the water, Hung makes a detour along a narrow river with the impenetrable trees and vegetation coming down to the water's edge. The river level is falling now as the tide recedes and we reach a small bridge over the river. On all the rivers in the Mekong Delta one sees bright green clumps of water hyacinth, with its delciately beautiful blue flowers, moving along with the flow of the river like a carpet of green on the fast moving water. At the bridge, the water hyacinth has become tangled together and the boat, unable to force its way through, becomes marooned in the green mass. Hung climbs overboard and for ten minutes, up to his waist, he tugs and
pulls at the green carpet releasing clumps of hyacinth one by one which go speeding on their way down river. Finally, with our path clear, a sodden Hung climbs back on board and the boat resumes its journey down river being overtaken by clumps of hyacinth on the way.
Later we stop and moor at Cai Rang town and Hung takes us walking through the market, pointing out the fruits and fish which are so unfamiliar and exotic to the European eye. At oen stall, Hung buys a dried fish costing something around 40000 dong (2 dollars) - quite an expensive fish, but a delicacy to be served up with lunch later.
For lunch, another wonderful fish dish from Mrs Hung and, as a special treat requested by Monk the night before, a green, raw mango is picked from the tree in Hung's garden and, after a few minutes, appears on the table shredded. Hung mixes in some sugar, salt and a little fish sauce and sprinkles the dried fish from the market over the top - a delicious salad to add to the other vegetables on the table.
After lunch it rained - and rained and
rained and rained. Rain in Vietnam has to be seen to be believed. By early evening it had stopped but the huts were now on an island between the river proper and a new river formed in the track between the huts and Hung's house. By evening, the new river had subssided enough to get across for yet another marvellous meal of snake-head fish, duck with ginger and countless other dishes.
Hung's huts were full tonight - Aussies, English, Kiwis, Singaporeans and French - a very sociable evening - albeit a bit soggy.
The day before, Monk had asked Hung about getting some laundry done and he'd offered to put it in his new washing machine. Unfortunately, no-one at the house had known how to work the machine and by the time we'd returned in the afternoon, and the rain had come, there was no chance of the washing drying. At 7am next morning, Monk's T-shirts were still in the washing machine which was filled to the top with water. After some experimentation Monk and Hung managed to get the machine to empty and spin some of the water out but Monk was left with a bag full
of soggy clothes which he had no idea how he could dry.
After breakfast we said our goodbyes to Hung as he set off to show the new arrivals the floating market and other sites we'd seen the day before. The previous evening he'd phoned and booked bus tickets to Saigon for Monk and Saavas and the ladies from Singapore. Mrs Monk and nephew accompanied us on the boat to the road bridge and, after a couple of abortive attempts, managed to moor the boat under the span of the bridge. We said goodbye to Mrs Hung and scrambled across the muddy wasteland under the bridge and up the rough track to the roadway, looking much like a bunch of illegal immigrants making a run for the remote border of some foreign promised land. A minibus from the Phoung Trang bus company was waiting on the road and within half an hour we'd arrived at Can Tho bus station, picked up our tickets and were on board a large, comfortable bus bound for Saigon.
Monk would thoroughly recommend a stay at Hung's, however, it's not really what he had in mind as a homestay. It's actually more a
rural bungalow resort. However, all the homestay elements are there - the hospitality, the food, the family and. of course, the dogs, one of whom was a real character who Hung had picked up by the scruff of the neck the day before and thrown way out into the river to wash the mud off him - he went under for so long Monk throught the poor thing would never surface again. It's basic so be prepared for a bit of roughing it. Hung is in the process of building 10 more huts at the back of the property and has diverted the river along a channel he's dug so that the new huts will be over water as the old ones are. They're about to open in a couple of weeks. Monk hopes that the increased numbers will not lessen the intimacy of the place.
The homestay now has wifi thanks to Monk spending a couple of hours setting up Hung's new wireless access point. It wasn't entirely an altruistic exercise since Monk needed Internet access to plan the next stage of the trip in Saigon.
Hung charges $12 a night which includes the wonderful evening meal and breakast. Making allowance for the food, he's probably charging only $5 a night for the accomodation. Lunch is $2.50 and his sightseeing trip costs just $10. He has cold beers at $1 and bottled water at $0.50. Hung can be contacted on 0903 849 881 or email@example.com. Give it a try!
Today, the 5th, is Monk's birthday but, more importantly, it's also the anniversary of Monk and Irene's marriage two years before, just six weeks before Monk lost his soul mate, his mentor, his best friend, his strength and his reason for being, leaving a void so vast even after these two years.
Monk resolved to say nothing and to try to let the day slip by unnoticed. Text messages from home brought comfort.