Thursday, June 19, 2008

Meet me at the Mekong Delta

Before going to Viet Nam, the first time, I had expressed a desire to see the Mekong Delta and in my mind's eye, I'm almost embarrassed to say, I thought of it as a group of tributaries soaked in mud, very wet and full of mosquitoes, with chickens running around infected with the bird flu virus (the epidemic had just broken out). I imagined also GI's running around in the dead heat with all their gear and shooting at will, crouching in trenches and rolling over into brackish waters...So you see what one sided propaganda will do to a person? I have to admit that despite the brainwashing, I still wanted to see Viet Nam for myself. I had my own romantic notions, despite the mostly uncomplimentary footage we were being shown from that country. What we found when we got there couldn't be further from the truth (except for some left over trenches). Photo: Chuck and I in Tan Phu

We signed up for a one-day tour of the Mekong Delta at the front desk of our hotel, the Indochine. In hindsight, one day is not really enough as the area has much to offer, but considering how little we paid for this tour, we packed an enormous amount of activity, - and therefore, I have broken up the posts into several parts. This will deal with our arrival at My Tho, and its famous fruit market; My Tho is also the point of departure for all launches going to other islands within the Delta. It's an elaborate enough network that will touch upon Cambodia at the southernmost tip of Viet Nam. Overall, the Mekong and its river is an extremely important region for agricultural output, specifically rice and other crops; its names translates into the river of nine dragons and has its source in Northern Tibet.

Once in Viet Nam, you will quickly learn that the word "cho" means market. My Tho (please don't pronounce it as my toe, but rather me toh) is quite renown for its exotic fruit market, and therefore, it beckoned for us to stop and take in every color, every shape, and on occasion some rather bizarre looking creations. Our guide was a very erudite man who knew as much about his fruit as he did about his country's history. I closed ranks with him so as not to miss anything he would say and kept my diary close at hand at all times.

It is only fitting to put a photo of this fruit first, since it is dubbed "the king of fruits" in Viet Nam. It's called "Durian", which means "one's own sorrows", and for the uninitiated, has a smell of rotten cheese. I supposed a certain amount of sorrow is endured when getting a whiff of this fruit, but apparently, it is loved by the people here. It looks a lot like the jackfruit, which I did taste when I was in Bali and which does not harbor the strong smell. There is a romantic legend that is attached to the naming of this fruit which is a loose version of Romeo and Juliet.

"Dragon Fruit" is the name of this red and green composition to the left. It is not only lovely to look at, but once opened, it reveals more colorful intrigue. White pulp with black seeds and most pleasing taste for the palate. You will find this served at most open buffet tables for breakfast and/or lunch, and one of the most prolific fruit tables is to be found at the Hotel Continental, which must be on your list of places to stay, even if it is only one night. To be fair, we were also served Dragon Fruit aboard the Emeraude Cruise.

Keeping with the red family of fruits, this hairy thing is actually quite tasty. It's very similar to the lychee, but with fuzz all over it. Ask for chom chom, or rambutan if this is what you want; the inside is white, a bit chewy but wonderfully sweet. The rambutan tree is ubiquitous in the village of Binh Hoa Phuoc, which is located some 50 kms. north of Sai Gon (or HCMC, if you prefer), in the province of Vinh Long. The lychee also shares a white, translucent type of meat on its inside, as does the longan, which has become Viet Nam's main export to China.
Taking a short break from the fruit to look at some very significant and important items in Viet Namese culture. What we have here are areca leaves and the famous betel nuts. These items are "de rigueur" at weddings, and the more affluent the family, the more will be supplied. If you've seen Viet Namese with blackened teeth, it is due to excessive fondness of the areca leaf. Let us not forget also that these nuts/leaves are especially appreciated for the feeling of euphoria they impart upon chewing. They are the Viet Namese version of our energy bars.
These probably need no explanation, however, I wish to point out that these watermelons are almost seedless and are sweeter than anything I've ever tasted.

Bananas are everywhere, and are sold on the streets of every city we visited. Women carry them in baskets over their shoulders, much as they do oranges ,- in other words, you don't have to travel very far to find either fruit. In Viet Nam, all parts of the banana are used, such as with the banana flower tossed with salad ingredients, the banana stalk is cooked as a vegetable, and even the roots are cooked together with seafood. They are abundant, cheap and one of the best sources of potassium. Green bananas, or plantains, are also sold at market.

This pancake-like concoction had me guessing...I finally gave up. It's a banana specialty which is prepared with seeds. I am not sure if one eats this "as is", or if it heated up.

Dubbed by the Viet Namese "trai thom" (fragrant fruit), pineapple is grown everywhere. It is especially fun to watch the market sellers peel the skin, and then expertly slice the fruit so that it's ready to be enjoyed as soon as it's purchased. In certain areas of the country, the juice of the pineapple is mixed with an egg yolk and blended before drinking. The fruit can also be purchased in cans and is processed as a liquor as well, though I have not tried the latter. I much prefer the natural fruit in all cases, and usually don't linger too much with varieties that are available back home.

During this particular trip, I did not see, and therefore did not photograph some of my other favorite fruits, two of which used to be mainstays during my childhood in Egypt. One is the guava, which I was able to locate in Mexico City and the other is the soursop or custard apple, which is extremely hard to find stateside. I spotted my first one in Sai Gon, at the Ben Thanh Market and thought I was hallucinating. Other fruits which entered my repertoire from Viet Nam was the longan or nanh, which I have easily found in our very own China Town in Flushing, New York. I have not yet developed a taste for the mangosteen, but perhaps it's a matter of time.

There are alleys within alleys in My Tho just like the one you see here where everyone is busy buying, selling or better yet eating. Behind this particular range of stalls is the indoor fruit and vegetable market which needs to be seen and smelled. There is always something being cooked at every market, as vendors know that after shopping, one is going to want to sit down and enjoy whatever is on the menu for the day. No there are no menus, - you can just point to what you want, and you'll never be disappointed.

Across the way on that street is the fish and fowl market, and I literally circumvented every stall that had anything resembling a bird. That didn't stop anyone else from buying chickens, quail eggs, and other fowl related items. By the time we reached Ha Noi on our journey, we were having omelets for breakfast almost daily.

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