Posted by: kim | August 4, 2007

Along the Mekong Delta

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Soon before leaving for Cambodia last week, we took a daybreak tour from Can Tho (ready at 5.30am!) of the Mekong Delta and caught two floating markets in full swing — Cai Rang and Phuong Dien.

Our simple boat was powered by a small propellor. The lady taking us and who appeared to be her pubescent son accompanied us along the river, first stopping for petrol that they sell in reused plastic bottles.

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Hundreds of people live along the muddy river and they use it every day for washing clothes (it appeared to be washing day when we visited), bathing and even brushing their teeth which made us cringe a little, as their other waste gets pumped straight into the river. Unfortunately, locals have little place to dump rubbish either, and we saw much of it being thrown directly into some of the meandering canals we went through.

The vast majority of the people selling the fruit and veg we encountered were hard working women. All types of food from the banal to the exotic were on sale to traders who might be using it for their restaurant or local roadside stall: dragonfruit, rambutan, carrot, longan, pumpkin, pineapple and much more. At Phuong Dien a few boats had slabs of meat lying in them and even people selling blocks of ice, but for the most part it was fruit and vegetables.

What I also liked about the markets was the fact that the traders wore clothes that matched what they were selling. The fiery dragonfruit perfectly complements the green and pink ensemble worn by this lady:

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Phuong Dien seemed even busier as we got caught in a kind of ‘boat jam’!

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Many of the people living along the river are poor, and some of the shacks were made up of precariously-patched corrugated iron that looked like they could blow away at any moment.

As we passed through some of the smaller canals, the surroundings took on a jungle-like effect. The lady taking our boat stopped to cut mystery fruit from trees and to point out plants such as water coconut.

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In this area, our boat’s propellor got caught in floating plastic no less than five times. The lady’s son had to cut it free with a small knife every time (of course, the errant plastic simply got dumped back in the river). There was a lot of non-biodegradable rubbish in this area which was a shame but the locals probably don’t have anywhere else to put it or perhaps they assume it will be magically picked up somewhere down the line.

We also saw a rice noodle factory and stopped at a restaurant along the way for a bite to eat and a swing on the hammocks. We also had people come up to us and give us a surprise massage which cost about $3 – six times cheaper than the Walk In Backrub in London!

We also stopped by to take a walk along one of the nicer-looking villages, where the adolescent boy tried to show off his macho-ness by stabbing his small knife into the coconut trees and trying to rip off leaves as he led us past the beaten track.

I recommend doing a tour like ours – we were on our very own boat, unlike the really fast tourist boats that barely stop for air when they go past the markets. There’s a tour office on the main promenade in Can Tho which should be able to point you in the right direction. We paid $24 for an eight hour tour but I think you could probably do better.

At the end of a relaxing morning we had lunch (again) at the vegetarian restaurant across the road from our hotel, where the little old lady who ran the joint had forced Rob to eat the last few grains of his rice with a spoon otherwise it would go to waste. Who could say no to a little old lady? The meal the day before cost us $1 in total including drinks and soup — the cheapest meal yet. In fact, most of the meals we’ve eaten have cost less than the Malarone anti-malarial tablets we’ve been taking (a month so far, with no side effects) which are about $6 a pop.

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