There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Great Temple: Part 17 of Vietnam North to South

10/04

After two posts in which That War figured not all, this one returns to it with a vengeance.

We set off early towards Cu Chi some 50 km north of Saigon. Ten minutes from our hotel we passed an unremarkable crossroads with a small shrine on one corner commemorating Thích Quàng Đúc, the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire here on the 11th of June 1963. We first encountered Thích Quàng Đúc at his monastery in Hue where you can find the full story.

The shrine of Thich Quang Duc (far corner of the road)
Ho Chi Minh City

We drove north along a flat, straight road across land that had been forest before Agent Orange was sprayed all over it. The awful effects of that action we had seen at the War Souvenir Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

Trang told us more stories of the trials and tribulation of his family through the long years of war. They were not dramas, there were no heroes or villains, they were just stories of how people’s lives are buffeted and blown off-course by the storms of war. I will not reproduced them here, they are Trang’s stories and I feel he has a right to tell them to whoever he wishes but I should not pass them on second hand and mutated by the fallibility of memory.



Roadside scene north of Ho Chi Minh City
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a major tourist attraction, so we arrived at a car park that already contained several buses.

After paying our entrance fee we walked through a long concrete underpass and emerged in a wooded area.

During the war, Cu Chi, mid-way between Saigon and the Cambodian border, saw intense Viet Cong activity among the large number of American bases.

For protection, the Viet Cong built an extensive network of tunnels, popping up to ambush the Americans whenever they could. The Americans, understandably, devoted considerable effort to smoking the Viet Cong out from their hiding places (often quite literally).

‘Can you see the tunnel?’ Trang asked as we stood beneath a clump of trees on a patch of leaf strewn grass. We could see nothing suspicious, but then a soldier arrived. Moving Lynne aside he brushed away some leaves from where she had been standing to reveal a wooden hatch. He dropped down into the tunnel, lowered the hatch over his head and disappeared.
Into the tunnel, Cu Chi

The photograph above could almost be of a model, rather like the plaster dog’s backsides people put on their lawns to make it look as if a Jack Russell is disappearing into a hole it has dug. But this is not a model, it is a real person, the upper half is attached to a lower part and he really did slide through that tiny entrance.
Disappearing into the hole, Ch Chi

A continual game of cat and mouse had been played. The Americans liked to drop grenades into the tunnel entrances so the Viet Cong provided them with fake entrances. The Americans used dogs to detect the real entrances, so the VC put aniseed round the fake entrances, and so it went on.


Lynne by a real hole/fake hole/smoke hole for a distant kitchen?
Cu Chi
We were shown round the easily accessible parts, visiting underground kitchens, hospitals...


Hospital, Cu Chi tunnels

... and command centres.


Trang takes command, Cu Chi tunnels

We saw a man making sandals from used tyres....


Making sandals from used tyres

 putting the ‘heals’ at the front and the ‘toes’ at the back to confuse attempts at tracking.


Sandals with 'toes' at the back and 'heal' at the front

We drank the ‘tea’ they brewed from jungle plants and ate the boiled sago which was their staple diet. It was not unpalatable and a good source of carbohydrate, but I am sure I would quickly have tired of it.


Tea and sago at the Ch Chi tunnels

At one point we were invited to crawl along some the tunnels themselves. Of course they had been cleaned and swept so that we did not have to share them with the spiders and snakes the VC encountered, and they had been enlarged to accommodate our oversized western arses. The Americans formed a ‘tunnel rats’ unit, but in the confined spaces the larger Americans were always at a disadvantage against their smaller, slighter adversaries.
In the (enlarged) Cu Chi tunnels

It was all good fun in a Boy’s Own  sort of way, and it was easy to see the VC as Robin Hood figures and the Americans as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men, but there were some sections that made me feel uneasy.

It started with a destroyed tank. A group of tourist were laughing and having their photograph taken beside it, then it was our turn and Trang took the picture below. As he did so I wondered about the tank behind us: had it been brought here, or was this where it had been destroyed? What about the men inside? Were tourist snapping photos and laughing in the place where young American conscripts had died?
Destroyed tank, Cu Chi tunnels

 And then there were the booby traps. Bombs and mines are bad enough but there seemed to be something vicious and personal about the improvised traps on display. A soldier kicks open the door of a house and a plank swings down at him bristling with barbed iron spikes. It is easy to stop: he takes his rifle in both hands and holds it out in front of him. But there is an extra piece hinged on the bottom bearing another barbed skewer which then swings upwards into the soldier’s groin. I have difficulty understanding how anybody who could design or deploy something that would do that to another human being.

They showed off a line of booby traps buried in the ground, all of them based on the same barbed spikes. A wooden box with a spike in the bottom and four more angled down from the top corners was the simplest and in some ways the nastiest. Slip into that and as you cope with the pain from your impaled foot, you slowly realise that you are going to be trapped there for some time, possibly the rest of your life, and even if your comrades can get you out, it would probably be with one leg fewer than when you stumbled in.


Examples of booby traps
Cu Chi tunnels

I have no difficulty coping with the Un-Hollywoodlike idea that the Americans are the baddies and the Viet Cong the goodies, what I cannot comprehend is how you can dehumanize your foe enough to do that to them.

We left Cu Chi in a thoughtful frame of mind and drove a further 40 km north, parallel to the Cambodian border and into Tay Ninh Province.

The Cao Dai religion was founded in the Mekong Delta in the 1920s when a superior spirit called Cao Dai (literally ‘High Place’) made himself known to a medium. Cao Dai had previously visited earth as Lao-tzu, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Moses, Sakyamuni and Confucius (though not necessarily in that order) but was displeased by the outcome and had since being working through a series of saints – an eclectic group including Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur and Winston Churchill. Emphasising prayer, veneration of ancestors, non-violence and vegetarianism, Cao Dai is a pick ‘n’ mix of major world religions and seems largely benign if distinctly odd. The estimated 2 or 3 million adherents mostly live in the Mekong Delta and in Tay Ninh where they have their headquarters.

We arrived at the Cathedral of the Holy See – the leader of Cao Dai likes to style himself ‘pope’ – in time for the 12 o’clock service. Odd or not, large sums of money have been made available to build a Cathedral midway in style between a church and a Buddhist temple, though the decoration - reminiscent of the Vinh Trang pagoda - is typically southern Vietnamese.


Approaching the Cao Dai cathedral, Tay Ninh

Along with many other tourists we were crammed onto a balcony. At midday the worshippers processed in, the leaders in brightly coloured robes, the rank and file in white.

The assembled faithful, Cao Dai Cathedral
Tay Ninh

They settled themselves down and chanted. For maybe ten minutes the chanting continued unchanged, then there was a minor, though well-choreographed change in seating plan and the chanting resumed.


Endless chanting, Cao Dai cathedral, Tay Ninh

Fifteen minutes later we realised nothing else was going to happen and the repetitive one-line chant was beginning to grate, so we made our exit. We were far from the first to leave.
Inside the Cao Dai cathedral, Tay Ninh

Lunch was at a tourist feeding station; Trang apologised but there is nowhere else suitable locally. There was nothing wrong with the food, and there was plenty of it, but it was bland and designed to offend no one.

Driving back towards the city down a long straight road through flat farmland we passed several smaller Cao Dai churches, one of them in the village of Trang Bang. In June 1972 the North Vietnamese took the village and a group of civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers who had been sheltering in the church made a run for the South Vietnamese lines just outside the village. Mistaking them for Viet Cong fighters the South Vietnamese air force napalmed them.


Cao Dai church, Trang Bang

Nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc tore off her burning clothes and ran down the road naked and screaming. Nick Ut’s photograph of this event shocked the world (it can be seen here). My photograph shows where it happened, though the road has been rebuilt and widened since 1972. It is difficult to believe that such terrible events could have taken place in such a banal setting.


A banal setting for terrible events, Trang Bang

After taking the photograph Huỳnh Công (Nick) Ut went to the assistance of Kim Phuc taking her and other injured children to hospital. Depite not being expected to survive, Kim did recover and went on to study at university in Ho Chi Minh City and then Havana. She married in 1992 and whilst on honeymoon she and her husband sought political asylum in Canada. They now live in Ontario and have two children. Kim is a UNESCO goodwill ambassador and has set up the Kim Phuc Foundation which aids child war victims. Ut was 21 when he took the picture having worked for the Associated Press since he was 15. Evacuated when South Vietnam fell, he is still an Associated Press photographer but is now an American citizen and lives in Los Angeles. He and Kim Phuc remain in contact.

Back in the city we said goodbye to Trang and our driver. We had spent a lot of time together over the previous week and had got to know Trang well. It felt like we were leaving a friend.


11/04

The next day was our last in Vietnam. We did some shopping, walking up to the Ben Thanh market where we bought various presents, some tea to take home, and some ‘weasel coffee’, the beans having passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (not a weasel) before processing. This is the ‘most expensive coffee in the world’ selling, according to the ever reliable Wikipedia for US$750 a kilo. Ours was far cheaper, suggesting either it was from intensively farmed civets who are force fed coffee beans, or, more likely, a chemically simulated ‘weasel coffee’ - in  other words, as genuine as my Ray-Bans. Civet Farms, I learned later, raise serious animal welfare concerns so I hope it was a fake. The Speciality Coffee Association of America describes weasel coffee as a gimmick and says ‘…it just tastes bad’. It may well be a gimmick but it has, we were to discover, a powerful almost rank flavour, which suits my taste better than the insipid coffees Americans seem to prefer.


Where to buy weasel coffee, Ben Thanh market, Ho Chi Minh City

Near the market is the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, one of several serving Ho Chi Minh’s small Hindu community. The gopura may be diminutive by Indian standards, but it stands out in Vietnam.


Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple
Ho Chi Minh City

Removing our shoes, we walked round the inside, and watched a steady trickle of worshippers coming and going.


Worshipper in theSri Mariamman Hindu Temple
Ho Chi Minh City 
We spent a little time watching life in the park. Several groups of young men were playing keepie uppie using a sort of elongated shuttlecock rather than a football. We had seen this game played in open spaces everywhere in Vietnam [update: a similar game is playedwith a rattan ball in Myanmar.].

We briefly watched the filming of a television drama. Two young women sat on a park bench having a quietly intense conversation while surrounded by an army of cameraman, soundmen, make-up artists and producers, not to mention a fair few onlookers. I was surprised by how low-key television acting is compared to the stage version.


In the park, Ho Chi Minh City

After attempting to photograph the cavalry charge of motorbikes whenever the traffic lights change we had our last Vietnamese meal of chicken and cashew nuts, prawns and peppers followed by a Franco-Vietnamese crepe stuffed with mango and smothered with chocolate sauce.


Motorcycles, Ho Chi Minh City

In the afternoon we eventually gave in to a pair of shoe shine boys and let them loose on our old and battered trainers. We agreed to be seriously overcharged and watched them sit on the pavement and make a determined assault on our footwear. After a further attempt to overcharge us for insoles, they returned our shoes several shades closer to their original white.


Cleaning our trainers
Ho Chi Minh City
After that there was a little time to kill before we set off for the airport for the long journey home.
& finally

Our thanks to Haivenu travel of Hanoi, and especifically to Phong, the branch manager in Ho Chi Minh City, who made all our travel arrangements with commendable efficiency. I was glad we were able to meet before we set off home.
Thanks also to our excellent guides
Truong in Hanoi
Minh in Sa Pa
Vinh in Hue and Hoi An
Trang in Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta
Also our drivers who kept us safe in Vietnam’s sometimes challenging traffic.
And, finally, the families we stayed with in the northern highlands and the Mekong Delta.

Back to part 16
Mekong Delta (3) Cai Rang and My Tho

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Mekong Delta (3) Cai Rang and My Tho: Part 16 of Vietnam North to South

Back to part 15
The Mekong Delta (2) To Vinh Long and Can Tho
On to part 17


Cai Rang, some 7 km upstream from Can Tho, is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta. We were up bright and early and at the landing stage before 8 o’clock. Trang hired a boat and we chugged up the river, grateful for the cooling breeze as the morning sun was already hot.


A barge load of sand goes down the Mekong
The trip to the market took us forty minutes and the river was already busy. There was activity in the stilt houses along the waterfront and we passed barges carrying sand, a floating petrol station, rice barges and fishing boats, some - presumably Christian owned – with a cross prominently displayed on the roof of the wheelhouse.
 

A floating petrol station near Cai Rang

At Cai Rang the river was packed with boats piled high with fruit and vegetables.


Vegetable stall, Cai Rang

Larger boats had their produce in the hold, only a turnip or a papaya tied to the mast indicated what the sold, while smaller boats with long tailed outboard motors scooted amongst them and men and women in conical hats rowed heavily laden sampans, standing up and straining on oars crossed scissor-like in front of them.
 

Rowing a sampan, Cai Rang

We floated around peering at this and that in a boat far too large for three passengers.


The boatman may be smiling, but the boat is far too large for three passengers

Eventually we bumped up against a boat load of pineapples. I clambered onto the deck and watched a woman peeling a pineapple with a machete, trimming off the skin and then slicing a spiral groove round the fruit to removing the rest of the outer parts.


Sculpting a pineapple, Cai Rang

When she had finished she hacked it in four, giving a piece each to Lynne, Trang, the boatman and me. Holding it by the stalk, I ate it like a lollipop. I am on record as saying that the pineapples of Kerala are the finest in the world. This lacked their faint coconut-y flavour, but was the softest, sweetest, juiciest pineapple I have ever eaten. The central woody core we cut out of pineapples in England, did not exist, there was only soft luscious fruit right through to its heart.


As fine a piece of fruit as this world can supply
Cai Rang

As we left they started hauling up more pineapples from below.


Pineapple porn

I have long held the view that if some bizarre turn of events meant I could only eat one fruit for the rest of eternity, I would chose pineapples; now I know which pineapples and where to get them.


Spurned mangoes slink away
 
Pottering back downstream we diverted into a side channel and stopped off at a rice processing plant. We stepped onto the jetty, removed our shoes and walked, very gingerly across a ceramic tiled floor made as slippery as ice by a coating of rice dust.

Some types of rice are sold as grain, some ground into flour, but all are treated to the same process of husking and polishing. The venerable machinery rattled away as Trang described how the stalks and some of the husks are sold as fuel to the brickworks we had seen the day before, the softer husks are turned into cattle food and the grains are polished for human consumption.
 

Ancient rice polishing machine, or perhaps it's a dehusker - who knows?
Cai Rang

Impressive as this use of the whole plant is, the health and safety aspects of the factory were troubling. Apart from the hard, slippery floor, the moving machinery was unguarded and workers wore no masks though the air was thick with floating particles. To my untrained eye the conditions also looked right for a dust explosion should there be an unexpected spark in the wrong place. To call the working conditions Dickensian might be a slur on Victorian industrial practices.

We returned to Can Tho and watched a group embarking on a long decorated boat. It was, Trang told us, a betrothal party, a stage between engagement and marriage, and was traditionally attended by the groom’s family only. The bride-to-be wore a red dress of embroidered silk (well, I noticed it was red, Lynne recorded the other details), and the groom a white suit. Everybody, the future bride and groom included, wore beaming smiles and all seemed unfeasably happy.

Returning to the hotel we packed up, checked out and set off on the long journey back across the bridge to Vinh Long and then to My Tho where the main road from Saigon reaches the delta.

At My Tho we stopped in a scruffy street beside a set of iron gates which were opened by a man in a saffron robe. Trang had arranged lunch, he told us, at the Phuoc Long nunnery, but as all the people we saw there were men (though none except the be-robed door opener were monks) he may have meant monastery

Places had been laid for us at a long table in a room stuffed with heavy wooden furniture, old vases and Buddhist statues. At one end was a thangka in an ornate wooden frame, at the other a painting of a venerated Buddhist priest and an enormous decorated bell.
 

A framed thangka and Chinese vases, Phuoc Long
My Tho

As we were in a monastery the food was, naturally, vegetarian, but none the worse for that. We ate rice paper rolled round herbs and vegetables, fried spring rolls with bean sprouts, crispy yellow pancakes like those we had enjoyed at Hue, but here stuffed with beansprouts rather than pork and prawns, a mushroom dish that looked – and even tasted – like chicken’s feet, salad, fried rice, soup and dips. There was an enormous mountain of food, but we made a creditable dent in it and were careful to try everything.
 
Lynne, lunch, a venerated monk and a large bell, Phuoc Long
My Tho
Four places had been laid at the other end of the table and while we were eating a French speaking family – parents and a teenage son and daughter – arrived. The youngsters, particularly the daughter, were being sullen and difficult, poking at bits of food but eating almost nothing and rolling their eyes in horror at what they were being offered. I would like to say their parents were different, but they were not. The soup went untouched, the cling film was not even taken off the salad, and they picked at a spring roll and a rice paper wrap as though they were probably poisonous. It seemed so rude. ‘If that’s your attitude,’ I thought,’ best stay at home next year.’

After lunch a young man who lived there, though he was not actually a monk, showed us the rooms upstairs. He taught music, he said, and some English, and was also taking English lessons. He was preparing, as so many overseas students do, for examinations set by UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate – though this is an unusual application of the word ‘local’) and complained that he was hampered by having an American teacher who did not quite speak the language the way UCLES thought was appropriate. We sympathised.
 
Dark, heavy furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory
Phuoc Long, My Tho

The rooms were a treasure trove of Chinese pottery and old furniture, much of it inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory. One spectacular vase from the Ming dynasty was decorated with 11000 Chinese characters, all hand painted before firing. The artefacts had come from the royal palace in Hue when the monarchy was dissolved in the 1940s.


Vase with 11000 Chinese characters

In the small shrine we were invited to light a joss stick and ask for a blessing. We respectfully approached the Buddha and his two rows of supporters with incense sticks in hand. I always try to take these things seriously, but looking at the statue of Buddha and seeing Julian Clary staring back at me did not make that easy. (Non-British readers may find this link helpful).
 

Venerating Julian Clary
My Tho

 
There is, we presume, more of Phuoc Long and we only saw the ‘guest rooms’ but it is not a show monastery (or possibly nunnery). The same cannot be said of the Vinh Trang Pagoda nearer the city centre.

Where Phuoc Long was full of dark, almost sombre, furniture in curtained rooms, Vinh Trang was bright colourful and out in the full glare of the sun.

Originally completed in 1850, it was seriously damaged ten years later during fighting between French colonial forces and the army of Emperor Tu Duc, whose mausoleum we had seen in Hue. There was more major rebuilding in 1907 after a tropical storm.

The style is variously described as ‘like a rajah’s palace’ or ‘blending classical European and Asian architecture’ while others talk of Cambodian influences. To me it looked like a typical piece of southern Vietnamese exuberance, not entirely in the best of taste but always vigorous, even flamboyant.



Vinh Trang Pagoda behind its luxuriant garden
My Tho

 
In front of the façade is a garden of tropical profusion, while to the left sits an enormous ‘Happy Buddha’. I had been frequently greeted with the phrase ‘Happy Buddha’ when sitting down in restaurants, I have even had my stomach patted. The first time I was offended but I learned to go with the flow and even take it as a compliment. The Vietnamese consider being well-nourished a sign of prosperity; they do not (yet) live in our strange inverted world where obesity and poverty walk hand in hand.


Two Happy Buddhas
Vinh Trang Pagoda, My Tho

The temple also has a small artificial mountain (a touch of the Disney) and a courtyard lined with monks' cells beyond which are more courtyards, more statues and a hall, but Vinh Trang is not about inside, it is a place to be enjoyed outside.

We spent the rest of the afternoon driving back to Ho Cho Minh City where we checked into the Vien Dong Hotel for the third time. The doorman greeted us like old friends, which either indicates our tipping had been too generous, or not generous enough and he was hoping for more when we finally left for good. We shall never know.

That evening Lynne disappointed me by eating fish and chips; the fish may have been Vietnamese river cobbler, but it was still fish and chips. I am not sure exactly which part of Asia my chicken curry originated from, but at least it was Asia.

Back to part 15
The Mekong Delta (2) To Vinh Long and Can Tho


Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Mekong Delta (2) To Vinh Long and Can Tho: Part 15 of Vietnam North to South

Back to part 14
Mekong Delta (1) Can Bei, Cambodians and a Cornucopia of Fruit
On to part 16

 
We breakfasted on omelette and French bread – colonialism had the occasional advantage – and yet more fruit, and then said farewell to our hosts.


About to leave our hosts, Mekong Delta

It had not occurred to me that the Mekong was tidal, but it is here and there was insufficient water for our boat, so Trang found a man who would row us to a larger stream where we could make a rendezvous.

Although it was early, the sun was strong and boatman lent us local conical hats which, he insisted, would be far more effective than our own. I looked and felt a bit of a fake, but he had a point; they are made for the climate and are amazingly light and cool.


Floating through the Mekong Delta in the right sort of hat
 
It seemed the moment to forget about a war which had finished almost forty years ago and just enjoy the sunshine and the sensation of moving almost silently along the waterway, surrounded by the life of the river and the dense vegetation.


Life in the Mekong Delta
 
As our boat nosed its way through the rafts of floating water hyacinth we thought we heard the ooh-ooh noise of a monkey. ‘It’s not a monkey,’ Trang told us, ‘it’s a bird, a coucal’. He scanned the vegetation just above the waterline and then pointed. We were moving and wildlife rarely stays still for long, so I saw nothing but Lynne glimpsed a bird the size of a large magpie with a blue-green head, a brown body and a long blue-green tail (for a YouTube video of a coucal, click here). It is, I learn, a non-parasitic cuckoo which is quite common from India eastwards, though not always easy to spot.

We eventually reached a larger stream after a pleasant and restful journey - at least for those not providing the motive power. Our boatman from yesterday was waiting to meet us.


We reach a larger stream, Mekong Delta
 
After a short trip up river we dropped in on a fruit garden. We saw all the fruits we had eaten the day before and some extras - star fruit, which we have encountered before, and mangosteens, which we have not and look nothing like mangoes; they will not be ripe for a month or two. And then there were durians. A ripe durian smells like a badly maintained chemical toilet; it is reputedly illegal to carry one on public transport in Malaysia, and if that is not true it ought to be. There is a school of thought that says that once you have got past the smell they are wonderful. Lynne and I disagree. We each ate a durian pastry once – we bought them in a dim sum restaurant without knowing quite what we were ordering (we do this a lot). We ate it, but it repeated all afternoon with a flavour we would have dearly loved to flush away.
 
Lynne under a jackfruit tree, Mekong Delta
We crossed an even larger branch of the river, busy with fishing boats and rice barges, to reach a brickworks.


Rice barge on the Mekong

Being Easter Sunday the factory was quiet – only 10% of Vietnamese are Christians, but the French legacy includes a proper respect for ‘le weekend’. Bricks were being made, a labour intensive process requiring the clay to be thrown in at one end, and the bricks to be manually separated from the excess clay at the other.


Brick making in the Mekong Delta

The kilns were also loaded and unloaded by hand, which at least allowed for a quality control process.


There's something happening in this kiln and I'm looking into it

They did not just make bricks; other earthenware products could be found in the kilns – I always wondered where those wretched gnomes came from, now I know.


Bloody gnomes
The original owner of the factory became rich, and when he died he had himself buried on the factory floor so he could continue to keep an eye on the workers.


The boss (retired)
Another short potter up the river brought us to a garden house rather like those in Hue. We sat in front of the ancestor altar – an impressive cabinet inlaid with mother of pearl - and were treated to tea and fruit.


Cabinet inlaid with mother of pearl
We were entertained by two musicians, one on guitar, the other playing a variety of traditional instrument, and a singer. It was less traditional Vietnamese folk than the Quang Ho musicians we had seen near Hanoi, and their songs dealt with contemporary themes. This was clearly Trang’s sort of music and several times he was invited to join in. ‘This music’, he said regretfully, ‘is too sad for the new generation of young people.’ They seem to prefer their sounds Gangnam style.


Folk musicians who resolutely ensured all photographs would be taken into the sun
Forty minutes sailing brought us to the city of Vinh Long where we said ‘goodbye’ to our boatman and ‘hello again’ to our driver.

Dodging the motorbikes with his customary skill, he quickly drove us to Can Tho, the largest city in the delta and, with 1.2 million people, the fifth biggest in Vietnam. The Vinh Long to Can Tho journey time has been much reduced by the Can Tho bridge which opened in April 2010. At 2.75Km it is the longest cable span bridge in South East Asia.


Approaching Can Tho bridge
Once we had arrived, lunch became our first priority. Trang took us to a large restaurant packed with local families and, we were pleased to note, no other foreigners. They did, though, find an English menu and we chose spicy frog, squid in oyster sauce and soup with pork, squid and prawns along with assorted vegetables and the inevitable rice. And excellent they all were, too.


It was an excellent meal and that look on my face is supposed to be a smile. Oh well,
 
Well fed we checked into our hotel and, once the hottest part of the day was past, took a walk along Can Tho’s very posh corniche. They have a statue of Ho Chi Minh, who like the musicians, was looking at us out of the sun. Unlike the musicians, though, we had an opportunity to return next morning when the problem had solved itself to take this picture...
 
Lynne and Ho Chi Minh on the corniche at Can Tho
After buying some clothes for our grandson in the smart little market we wandered back to the hotel thinking that the roof bar might be good spot for a coffee. It was closed, but the roof did give us a fine view across to the bridge and demonstrate just how much water and how little land there is in the delta country.
 
The Can Tho Bridge
Back out on the street we found a café and were brought two small cups with metal filters on top - the usual arrangement, at least in the south. We sat for a while watching Can Tho pass by. Then, as there was no coffee in my cup despite repeated fiddling with the filter, I sent it back; its replacement worked only a little better.

Following the ‘safety in numbers’ rule a group of four foreigners spied us from the far side of the park, made a bee line for our café and sat at the next table. We should have asked for commission.

We walked back to the hotel passing these two men playing Chinese chess (for more street chess in more countries, click here) and beside them a sugar cane crusher. Drinking crushed sugar cane on a hot afternoon is always refreshing, although Lynne is a little squeamish about the juice flowing over ice presumably made from tap water. Not letting this put us off we exchanged a few thousand dong for a couple of glasses. The drink did us some good and no harm.



Street chess, Can Tho
In the evening we went with Trang to a street restaurant. Metal tables and plastic stools were set out beside the road and food appeared from a small kitchen in a hole in the wall. We had hot pot, a cook-it-yourself arrangement with a lot of green vegetables, some buffalo meat and buffalo liver. We never did manage to cook the buffalo to a reasonably degree of tenderness, but the liver was good, though Lynne thought it a little more strongly flavoured than she would have liked. There was also a huge plate of roasted chicken, so there was plenty to eat, beer to drink and remarkably little to pay.
 
Lynne, Trang and a hot pot, Can Tho

Back to part 14
Mekong Delta (1) Can Bei, Cambodians and a Cornucopia of Fruit
On to part 16