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Published: August 3rd 2006
Hot Pot in Vĩnh Long
A Vietnamese lady running a travel agency recommended this restaurant to us. Boy was she spot on ! To the bemused looks of the exclusively Vietnamese clientele we were brought a huge bubbling pot of broth and plate after plate of vegetables, noodles, sliced beef and seafood. Thanks to the small charcoal stove it was about 50 degrees !! No better reason for a cold Sài Gòn beer !
We got back to Cần Thơ from our trip to the floating markets around lunchtime. After a quick bite in Cần Thơ, we caught a minibus heading towards Sài Gòn (the Vietnamese are adamant that their language is monosyllabic so I'll stick to their spellings) a.k.a. Hồ Chí Minh City. Unsurprisingly, government employees and policemen aside, Southern Vietnamese people prefer the name Sài Gòn.
We don't intend to go to Sài Gòn though - our intended destination is Vĩnh Long, a small city located one Mekong-branch along from Cần Thơ. At Cần Thơ bus station, we are pulled in three directions by touts from three minibus companies. As is now our policy we head for the company without touts - it seems to work very nicely ! This time no bootleggers on board with us, only a couple of French people, one of which was doing a three-month internship in a Sài Gòn psychiatric hospital...you couldn't make it up. We'd been told the trip to Vĩnh Long would take about three hours - which puzzled us, since the distance between Cần Thơ and Vĩnh Long seemed to be about 50 kilometres or so...A few minutes into the trip and the
Brick factory in Vĩnh Long
This is a major brick and pottery-producing province. It's exported all over Europe. The kiln, such as the one whose roof you can see here, use rice husks as fuel. Waste not, want not !
reason became clear. We hadn't reckoned on the Mekong. A huge branch of the river separates the two cities. No bridges. The first hour and a half of the journey involves waiting for the ferry and crossing the river. Innumerable large car ferries run the route but the traffic volume is such that it takes quite a while. Before the construction of a large suspension bridge linking Vĩnh Long with the next city Mỹ Tho, it used to take endless hours to get to Sài Gòn. The Mekong is, indeed, King. And not always a magnanimous one. The Vietnamese name for the Mekong is Cửu Long
, meaning "nine dragons", a reference to its numerous branches, which dominate this part of the country.
We arrived in Vĩnh Long under menacing grey skies. The bus dropped us off at a minor bus station in the outskirts, and as Vĩnh Long doesn't see many tourists itself, there was nothing by the way of public transport...a couple of rather unpleasant xe ôm
drivers tried to extort a vast sum of money to take us into town, which we couldn't face with our heavy packs. We dejectedly walked towards town (it would have been
The trees in this small orchard were positively heaving with rambutans. A self-confessed rambutan addict, our guide Ha could not stop herself from grabbing handfuls of fruit off the trees. We followed suit - an devoured dozens of beautifully sweet, slightly sour rambutans, or "chôm chôm" in Vietnamese.
a long walk in...) when we spotted our salvation, a cyclo...he couldn't believe his luck. Neither could we ! Our first choice of hotel had been demolished (good start) and the next one was about fifty dollars ("dirty-expensive" the driver said...excellent). We eventually found our way to a reasonable place to the south of town. We planned our activities for the next 2 days before having a wonderful hot-pot for dinner.
The reason we have come here to Vĩnh Long is to visit a group of islands located in yet another
branch of the Mekong. These islands have very fertile soil thanks to the rich silt the Mekong brings from upstream. This has led to the islands, the largest of which is called Minh, becoming a major centre for the growing of tropical fruit - rambutans, longans, dragonfruit, rose apples. The islands are completely dependent on boats - apart from bicycles and a few mopeds there are no wheeled vehicles to be found.
The islands here have several small B&Bs which are very popular. We booked a small tour at an agency in Vĩnh Long. Sadly the People's Party has a very tight grip on tourism in Vĩnh
Sorting the harvest
Here a team of women, young and old, trim the longan harvest for transport to Vĩnh Long and from there to Sài Gòn. This cottage industry dominates island life.
Long, and independent travel here is no longer possible. After all this may have been a blessing in disguise as we got a nice boat and a wonderful guide, Hạ, all to ourselves. We spent a wonderful time on these islands, cycling along its narrow passages by the canals, wandering around the huge longan-tree and rambutan-tree orchards, watching the harvest being prepared for transport, floating around the canals on a stand-up rowing boat... The islands' economy is wholly dependent on these fruit. Our little B&B was charming - we had a little room largely open to the sky, surrounded by fruit trees. For dinner we had the locals speciality of steamed "elephant-ear fish" which we wrapped ourselves in rice paper with salad leaves and herbs. Tasty !
The following morning we headed to another local market ai Cái Bè (this one with a beautiful Catholic church as a backdrop) and then to a couple of tiny little workshops where more of this region's cottage industries thrive. Full industrialisation has not reached the Mekong Delta - it is still the preserve of the North...rice paper manufacture, local production of fish sauce and the like...Might some of the rice paper made
Alex and Hạ...
...floating down one of the myriad canals on these islands. Hạ was a wonderful guide, enlightening us at every opportunity.
here find its way to New Loon Moon, my favourite Chinatown haunt ?
We reluctantly say goodbye to Hạ, and hop on our (hopefully) last minubus, this one to Sài Gòn.
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