Jan. 5th, 2017

Can Tho

Jan. 5th, 2017 11:02 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
Tuesday 6th December

I had to get up quite early as M Wolf had agreed to meet me at a local bus station at 8am. I grabbed some breakfast, a miscellany of crusty bread and sausage mainly as I couldn't quite acclimatize myself to having noodles and the like to start the day, before I packed my bags and checked out of the hotel. A taxi was waiting for me, with the staff having called one on my behalf before I ate, and soon I was chugging through the suburbs along with the rush hour traffic. The distance was quite short, merely a couple of kilometers, but it still took nearly 45 minutes to reach my destination. It turned out to be a rather non-descript street with numerous open shops spilling out onto the road. There didn't seem to be a bus station in sight but I spied the logo of the bus company with which we were travelling so I assumed I was in the right place. The road certainly matched that given to me by M Wolf but it was 8:15am by this stage and he wasn't there. Furthermore, there were about ten shops I noticed with the same logo, meaning that finding the right one could prove to be tricky. Fortunately, upon walking into the waiting room of the first one I saw to ask for directions, I spotted M Wolf sitting on one of the orange plastic chairs so everything was resolved.

Apparently we were waiting for a minibus to take us to the main bus station further on the outskirts of town, and once a bus appeared he hopped on. Our ticket to Can Tho, the regional capital of the Mekong Delta some three hours to the south-west of Ho Chi Minh City, was for a bus leaving at 9:30am so we were pushing things a little tight. However, our little bus soon filled up and soon we were making the short way to the expansive bus station, where we had to wait on yet more orange plastic chairs for our bus to arrive. The interior was pretty modern but the PA system consisted of a man with a microphone and an amplifier stood outside the doorway reading the signs on the buses as they drove slowly past. There were two huge orange ones in front of ours and we had to wait for the people to board these before boarding our own. Upon stepping onto the bus, I was surprised to receive a black plastic bag similar to those you put dog excrement in, as well as noting that everyone was taking their shoes off as they reached the top of the steps. This was quite an alien concept to me, but after putting my huge suitcase into the hold, I followed suit and took off my shoes. It was then that the novelty of this hit me as instead of rows upon rows of seats as you would normally expect to find on a bus, there were two isles separating three rows of reclining seats which were recumbent in a horizontal position. There were two bunks, a top and a bottom, and M Wolf and I had nabbed top ones. They were pretty difficult to climb into, particularly with my backpack which contained my fursuit head, but eventually I managed to position myself into the bed, with my feet resting in a compartment underneath the head of the person in front of me. It was certainly not an efficient way to seat people on the bus but it was incredibly relaxing, even if my main view for the journey was the grey ceiling of the bus rather than the scenery outside. I rested my backpack on my legs, stuffing my shoes into the cubby hole by my feet, and this got a little uncomfortable after a while, but it was good just to lie back and listen to podcasts as the world rushed by.

It was an incredibly sunny day, not that the air conditioning in the bus would have let you believe that, and there was a fair bit to see as we made our way down a reasonably modern highway, whizzing past rice fields and the numerous tributaries which make up the delta. Halfway through the journey we stopped at another bus station where there was a huge cavernous market. Not having had any breakfast, we picked up a grilled sausage which was a little too sweet for my taste while M Wolf asked whether I wanted to try a special type of nut which is roasted on an open fire. The skin is flaky and black, but you are meant to peel this away to leave a white little nugget not dissimilar to a cashew. It was incredibly rich, a little creamy, not to mention dry and I had had enough after two or three. Furthermore, the disposal of the skin, which was like charcoal on the fingers became somewhat irritating as we ended up with a small carrier bag full of debris. Despite this, it was a rather nice break into our three hour journey and was certainly needed despite the comfort of the seating arrangements.

We arrived at the other end just after 12:30pm in the blistering heat of the mid-day sun. The air was warmer and stickier here than it had been in Ho Chi Minh City, making walking around a little more unpleasant, but soon we were in the air conditioned comfort of the main bus terminus where we had a choice between getting a bus to the city centre or a taxi. As the bus was free and we were in no real rush, we decided on that, even though we had missed one and had to hang around for another twenty minutes. Still, we idly passed the time chatting and eating the remainder of the overly dry black nuts we had bought, before we boarded the minibus and pootled our way into town. With a population of around 800,000 people, Can Tho is certainly not a small place, but it is easily navigable so getting to my hotel right by the Can Tho River was pretty straightforward. My hotel was the Kieu, a futuristic building plonked on the riverbank, which was quite desolate as I walked inside. I did have a porter open my door though and the lady at the front desk was pleasant as she checked me in, before I was shown to the eleventh floor. Alas, here there were some workmen mending a door to one of the outside balconies, meaning that things weren't particularly quiet during the day, but I was only staying for one night and the workmen had buggered off by the time I went to bed. In the meantime though, I got settled and had a quick shower, before meeting M Wolf and his friend for some late lunch at around 3pm. The place we went was just over the futuristic pedestrian Ninh Kieu Bridge, which had a huge metal lotus as its centrepiece. This is lit up in a range of gaudy colours at night, along with a number of hotels by the river and the main road bridge into the city, which we had passed over on the bus as we approached. There were also a number of moderately sized boats moored up to the bank where banqueting took place in the evenings. I refrained, however, with M Wolf taking me to a restaurant on the other riverbank which he assured me was very good. I wasn't so sure.

Called the Hoa Su Restaurant, the place specialized in a range of exotic meats including but not limited to turtle, tortoise and snake. They were served pretty much as they looked when they were alive, keaving you with little doubt as to what you were eating. Things only became more uncomfortable after we had ordered - with me telling M Wolf to go for something traditionally Vietnamese. I have eaten a lot of exotic meat in my time and have generally found that the reason why people don't eat it is because it's shit, so we decided to go for a few traditional fish dishes. All well and good, until our waitresses came back with about eight silvery fish in a plastic carrier bag, which she then proceeded to tip into a pot of boiling water. As she put the lid on, you could hear the fish banging their heads against the metal in an attempt to escape. The gruesome part was when the pressure of the boiling water forced the lid up off the lip of the pan, and this enabled one of the fish to escape. The waitress jumped back shocked as the pathetic creature flapped listlessly on the wooden decking of the pagoda in which we were sat, and she scooped it up and took it away, assumedly to suffocate in a bin or something. After seeing that, I was somewhat put off by the meal, which had the shrivelled carcasses of the fish combined in a broth with rice and a collection of vegetables. Apparently the heads are a delicacy and the meat was certainly tender, not to mention fresh, but I have had more comfortable dinners. And of course, if they have live fish, I feared they may have live snakes and being sat in a pagoda over a drained out section of the river made me quite uneasy. Still, we had beers and friends and good conversation so it wasn't all bad, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't glad to leave. M Wolf was talking about coming back in the evening but fortunately I put him off this idea and we ended up snacking elsewhere.

After the food, we decided to explore the city, utilizing a bicycle that M Wolf had rented. The back seat was clearly a storage place for a plastic box of some kind as it was just bare metal, making the ride along the bumpy roads far from comfortable. Having no cycle helmet as we rode along the busy rush hour streets was somewhat scary, while the reduction in pressure of one of the tyres, necessitating a repair at one of the many roadside garages only added to the sense of peril, Still, I did get to see a load of interesting stuff including the intricate and golden Munireangsey Pagoda, built in 1946 to serve the city's Khmer population, right in the middle of the city and the main recreation area, a paved park (Luu Huu Phuoc - a golden bust of this bespectacled gentleman also sits in the park) with a glorious gate in the Chinese style. I had a short wander around while M Wolf fixed the bike, attracting the attention of some teenagers skateboarding at one end, before we headed over to the central lake, which was something of an oasis of calm in the bustling city. From here you could see the golden spire of a nearby temple, which we tried to reach but unfortunately the heavens opened and we had to duck for cover. Finding somewhere was tricky but we did manage to situate ourselves underneath a balcony, which did a moderate job of keeping us dry. Unfortunately the downpour was relentless and with darkness starting to set in, time was running out to see the city. This forced M Wolf to run to a nearby shop and pick up a couple of luminescent blue macs, which we could use to keep us dry as we pedelled around. Typically, as soon as we put them on, the rain started to ease but at least we were prepared should the rains come again. They didn't really, although the following half an hour was punctuated with the occasional shower, so we decided to visit a small tea shop along the way back to the main road. I wasn't sure whether M Wolf knew the proprietor or not, but either way we sat down around a little red plastic table on little red plastic chairs and shared a few small cups of Dac San Tan Cuong Thai Nguyen tea over a pleasant chat, all of which being in Vietnamese. The hot water for the tea came from a thermos which she poured into a little teapot where the dry tea resided. In all honesty, it was a little too dry for me, but then tea without milk or sugar often is. It was quite a pleasant flavour, a little like grass and cardboard I guess, and although the samples were free, after five cups I thought I should probably buy some. Consequently, I bought two packs of the stuff for around £7 in total, which made a nice souvenir on the way home. It was a shame there weren't any other teas on offer really, as it would have been good to sample more, although the other more biscuity tea we did sample was quite pleasant.

M Wolf's friend had gone by this time, with us losing him between the lake and the tea shoppe, but we soon met up again back at the main road, where we parked our bike and headed into one of the shopping centres. I am not sure why we went here really, perhaps because we were soaking from the rain, with the shoulders of my t-shirt clinging to my damp body (which had been the enduring sensation during the tea tasting) but either way we wandered aimlessly around a supermarket for a while before I bought a packet of crisps and my first souvenir for Wolfie, a pink dog who only sang in Vietnamese. As I was paying, one of the shop assistants got out the store batteries to test whether he works, and indeed he does, making for an excellent gift to take home. M Wolf thought it was quite amusing but not as amusing as I did when I gave it to my partner. Sadly, he hasn't put any batteries into him here yet, and he has been somewhat neglected on top of the linen basket.

M Wolf's friend had to head off after this, leaving M Wolf and I to explore the university area of the city, which was about fifteen minutes' cycling away. I can't remember if we cycled or walked it, but I do remember it was down one of the main roads of the city, where there was a large number of restaurants spilling out onto the pavement. Before getting to the university, however, we ducked into the student area with its vast array of bars and eateries. Situated by a small river, with the road hugging one of its banks, it was almost European in style although the grey concrete bank with a white stripe at the top was uniquely Asian, as were the number of motorbikes. We were still quite full from the disturbing fish meal we had had earlier in the day, but outside MT68, the desserts took M Wolf's eye so we decided to sit down and have a light dinner. The range of food here was quite extensive, even if it wasn't to European tastes. The spring rolls made from steamed fermented rice batter with pork, shallots and mushroom filling (Banh uot cuon) served with orange fish sauce were quite crunchy with a dry texture (although I wasn't a fan of the sauce and picking them up with chopsticks without spilling the filling proved tricky), but it was the dessert called Banh beo which was weird, a gelatenous rice pancake which was used to wrap around some croutons. It was an odd combination and quite slivery, somewhat sweet, but not as sweet as the third dish which was thick condensed coconut milk and rice flour coagulated around skunk vine leaves called Banh la mo. This was quite moreish, unctuous even, and of the three dishes tried it was probably my favourite.

Having eaten, we headed further down the road, which disgourged itself near a pretty major highway, on the other side of which was the dark imposing entrance of the university. There was little light over here and very little to see, but we crossed the road anyway and headed into the complex. The grasshoppers and crickets could be heard as we walked down the narrow country lanes which make up the university grounds. It's actually quite rural in feel, with concrete buildings of various departments dotted about. We didn't see much sign of life apart from some people playing sports, while one of the small convenience stores was still open. Around the residential area, which we first struggled to get in, there was a modest supermarket and another restaurant which looked completely dead, but there was surprisingly little life around as we walked up and down nearly all the streets over the course of an hour. Indeed it was quite peaceful, with only the occasional motorbike driving past us, but it did enable us to have a good conversation at least, which was no bad thing. This conversation continued as we headed out of the university and back towards the city centre, stopping along the way at the Anca Loc bar where we were told there was a good beer. We had also been told that M Wolf's friend would meet us here and this was on, then off, then back on again as he had an issue with his motorbike. He grabbed some food while we were still stuffed, enjoying a few beers as he ate. We were told this was one of the better places in Can Tho, and it was pleasant enough, although not overly outstanding. Indeed, it was the typical restaurant in the region, with one large room with chairs spilling out into the street, with the bar situated at one end. The atmosphere was quite good though and they had both Saigon Special and Saigon Export, so at least there was a little variety. Still, with time pressing on and us needing to go to bed early due to a 3am start the next day, we decided to head off pretty soon, heading back to the hotel proper just before 9pm.

On the way, we spotted one of the famous night markets (I think it was the Old Market), which had just erected itself in the middle of a street. There were only two rows of stalls here, largely selling clothing, so it didn't take too long to walk around, while there was only a small number of people around so the ambience was somewhat muted too. There were a fair number of tourists though, which was interesting, while back towards the hotel, the party was in full swing with a number of establishments being lit up in gaudy neon lights. The pleasure boats on the river were pumping out loud music, which seemed a little odd with diners on them, while I got to stop off and look at the impressive golden statue of Ho Chi Minh in one of the parks by the river. The lotus flowers on the bridge were also lit up quite impressively and under normal circumstances, I would have loved to have stayed around and soak up the atmosphere. However, having such an early start meant that I needed an early night so with reticence I said goodbye to M Wolf and headed back to my room, only to be met by a charming little gheko scuttling across the floor. I didn't really want to pick him up and show him out though, so I just left him there, with this praying on the back of my mind as I tried to get to sleep as they do run exceptionally quickly. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why I slept so poorly, being woken up numerous times meaning that by the time I awoke proper, I had only had three and a half hours of useful rest. Still, it was a brand new day, albeit dark, and another adventure was afoot - a trip to the Floating Market.

June 2017

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