Jan. 8th, 2017

Can Tho II

Jan. 8th, 2017 11:36 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
Wednesday 7th December

The Floating Market takes place at 5am every morning apart from the three days of Tet (effectively Chinese New Year). There are a number of them on the distributaries of the Mekong Delta, meaning we had to hire a boat to take us there. This had been sorted by M Wolf the night before, but it did mean an impossibly early start, with me stumbling out of the hotel, bleary-eyed, at around 3:30am. We were due to meet fifteen minutes later so I aimlessly wandered around while I waited. There were very few people about - an old man who looked at me in a weird way and the local council rubbish collection clearing the streets after the night before. With 4am coming and going, and with no sign of M Wolf or his friend, I was starting to get a little concerned. A bloke turned up and vaulted over the locked gate which led to a jetty which was used for boarding one of the party boats. Next to it, in the shadow of the larger vessel, were a few small motorboats and it was one of these that we were going to be using. Indeed, this gentleman, who spent the next ten minutes spitting into the river and smoking, was going to be our captain and he was quite a nice chappie. By the by, my friends turned up nudging 4:15am, which was a little annoying as I could have had an extra half hour in bed, and soon we were clambering on to the unstable wooden boat. We were given a lifejacket, which didn't fit me due to my cavernous belly, and soon we set off, skimming along the water and through the darkness, travelling about 8km to the site of the market. On the way, we saw the numerous hotels on the river bank while we also traversed under some bridges, which had a considerable amount of traffic on them considering the early nature of the hour. This wasn't too surprising though as the Vietnamese consider a lie-in quite slothenly, with many starting the day incredibly early.

Speaking of early, we arrived at the market about twenty minutes before it was due to open, and just as the day was dawning. Consequently, we decided to get breakfast at one of the waterside cafes which dot the river. Called Kim Xuyen, they only serve four dishes (Bun Nuo'c Leo Soc Trang, Hu Tieu Mi, Hu Tieu Sa Dec and Hot Ga Lop La). The latter was pretty Western, so we opted to go for the other three, with the three of us sharing them all. They were basically thin soups with noodles, lemongrass and lettuce, with a different meat accompanying them. Pork and beef were the main ones and they were freshly prepared on the premises, which made them exceptionally tasty. Indeed the range of flavours and textures in these dishes were quite fantastic, and the freshness of the dishes made them one of the highlights of my trip. Halfway through our meal, the lady proprietor put on the big flat screen TV hanging on the wall, the one element of modernity in this rather basic restaurant, upon which Vietnamese pop songs were being played. They were quite interesting, with the usual semi-clad women doing dance moves and some DJs with quite impressive couture. I got quite into this, finding it fascinating, so much so that as we got up to leave, I caught myself dancing at the songs, which was only encouraged by the owner's family, who were sitting at the table next to us. Aside from them, there had been only one other group in the restaurant at that hour, a similar boat party to us, but they had gone as we were finishing up our meal.

Watching the day break over the water was quite magical, even if our view was somewhat impeded by a number of boats and miscellaneous wooden structures. Still, it was one of those happy 'sticks in the memory' moments and one where I felt quite privileged to be alive, despite the ungodly hour. After our breakfast, the three of us boarded back onto the boat, where I was greeted once again with my ill-fitting life jacket and we chugged along the water looking at the range of boats operating as market stalls. This was very much a food market, with fruit in particular being a speciality, and each boat was selling different things. There was one with pineapples piled high, and another with bananas, while yet more sold a range of different fruits. One of these was a hut attached to the bank but set over the river, which had baskets of about five or six different types of fruit that we can't get in the UK. There were about five other customers in the small shop but I was paying more attention to the shopkeeper's dog, who was scampering around and being silly. Alas he didn't want a stroke, but M Wolf did buy me some spongy sticky orange fruit which made a good dessert to our substantial breakfast. Before this, I had picked up a coconut from one of the small rowing boats which also ply its trade around the market, coming to your boat to sell a range of drinks. This was sumptuously sweet and good to sip as we moved backwards and forwards between the market stalls. The boats were all spaced out over around 400m of water, allowing the customers to come and go as they pleased. It wasn't overly busy in all honesty, and about half of the boats there were tourist vessels similar to ours. but there was a charming rural atmosphere and it was fascinating to watch generations of families ply their trade on the waterways. Adding to the rustic nature of the scene was that many of the boats were quite old and delapidated, clearly being there for a number of years.

After about forty-five minutes, we had exhausted the market and opted to head back to the hotel, spying some fisherman catching muscels I think using a rather large net, basically the old fashioned way. We also saw a floating petrol station, which allowed boats to fill up with diesel. The sun was breaking through the clouds by this stage, turning the morning into something rather beautiful, and speeding back towards Can Tho under the bridges and against the scenery which had been shrouded in darkness on our way there provided an exhilarating contrast. Once back at the hotel, we split and I headed for a brief snooze, still reeling from the lack of sleep I had had the night before. I had instructions to meet up with M Wolf at 9am so we could do and explore the main museum in Can Tho, an interesting place almost solely dedicated to asserting Vietnam's claim to the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Claimed by China, the exhibition highlighted a number of maps from European, Vietnamese and Chinese sources to 'prove' that the islands were Vietnamese. The dispute is one of the key political issues in the region and something I did know a little about prior to my trip, but to see this collection used for such a political purpose was certainly a thought-provoking experience. The rest of the museum, particularly on the top floor, was dedicated to the history of Can Tho, particularly during the Vietnam War. As all of the captions were only in Vietnamese, I didn't get an awful lot out of this and with time pressing, I decided to go outside and take a look at the trophies from that war, effectively shells of missiles and bombs which had been recovered, along with some jeeps, a fractured helicopter, a plane and some cars. Stripped of their glory, rusted and unloved, they made a sorry sight of triumph. There were also a number of pristine anti-aircraft type guns on display with their guns pointing upward, which I assume the Vietnamese had used in the War. In the museum we also saw the government issue fire drill poster, which is only interesting because it seems to be standardized across the country.

This was pretty much the end of my time in Can Tho and indeed with M Wolf, and as we reflected over our three days together on a concrete bench outside the museum cafe, next to the spoils of war, I did feel somewhat sad. He had been a great guide and a fantastic friend, and I would miss him and the other Vietnamese furs in the south. He kindly gave me a gift of two bottles of coconut wine, along with another coconut spirit which was locked inside a coconut. Fearing I couldn't get this on the plane, we opted to crack it open on the bench, although removing the welded-in stopper proved to be somewhat difficult. We did manage to pop it open in the end though and poured ourselves a glass, toasting the trip and remembering the good times. What I didn't bargain for was the sheer strength of this stuff, which at 10:30am was somewhat inappropriate, but we did have a cheeky shot or two, which was quite smooth but with a strong alcoholic hint. M Wolf had mentioned something about going to a cafe for breakfast but with time pressing, he just walked me back to my hotel before saying goodbye, allowing me to gather my things and then book a taxi to the airport, which was just outside the city. Having not had any breakfast, the small cafe inside the spartan terminal didn't really offer much, and so I had to settle for a packet of the local Pringles as I waited for my plane to Hanoi. There was something of a scare as my luggage had developed a crack in it, meaning I had to sign insurance exonorating the airline of guilt should further damage occur. Unfortunately, I was told this as I got to security with my shoes already off, so I had to go back and sort this before proceeding. This only gave me a sense of nervousness but fortunately everything was fine, and the flight took off and landed in the Vietnamese capital on time.

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