Sunday, August 21, 2016

Vietnamese Markets & Industry: Sa Dec and Cai Be

New Year's Eve 2015: The sun rises on another hot and muggy day on the Mekong River.
Sunrise on the Mekong River

Sunrise on the Mekong River
I still wasn't feeling amazing today, but my body decided to throw another curve ball at me. Earlier in the week, I had spent about 20 minutes up on the top deck of the boat without mosquito repellant on, and I'd gotten a small amount of bug bites on my ankle and arm. It's important to note that I was never bitten when I wore the repellant. Anyway, days after getting bitten, now my bites were starting to swell and itch like crazy. One of our new friends, in a very motherly way, applied some of the no-itch ointment she'd gotten earlier in the week. This is something I'd suggest adding to a SE Asia packing list. It helped, but I didn't reapply it and just suffered in silence.
swollen and itchy bug bites

Sa Dec Market Tour

After another delicious breakfast, we boarded sampans at 8:30 a.m. to head to the market in Sa Dec. It was not dissimilar from the market we visited in Hanoi—the main difference was this was just along a crowded, river-side street, rather than in a dedicated market building. If I were on a different kind of trip (e.g., staying in an apartment rather than having gourmet meals cooked for me every few hours), I would have purchased some of the more exotic items and attempted some cooking.
fresh fish
The fish are kept alive as long as possible before being sold.
death offerings (paper)
Throughout Vietnam, the dead are honored at their gravesite by burning paper versions of very fine things. You can buy paper money, a paper Rolex, a paper iPhone...
butchered chickens
Freshly butchered chicken.
Various vegetables and herbs.
delivery of ice blocks
Fresh ice delivery! On a motorbike, of course.
many rice varieties
All the different varieties of rice....
filetting fish
Fresh fish filets
live shellfish
Fish everywhere.
skinned rats
Freshly butchered rat. Yes, rat. The rodents that run around outside. Our guide informed us that these rats eat coconuts, so their flesh is very sweet, and his son loves them.
rice snacks in bamboo
Tasty treats wrapped in a banana leaf. I wish I would have tried these.
wholesale area
Wholesale area of the market.

House From "The Lover"

After walking through the market, we stopped at the Huynh Thuy Le House, a late 19th century home made famous by its connection to French novelist Marguerite Duras, who lived in Sa Dec as a teenager and wrote The Lover. She apparently had a love affair with a Chinese landowner and this house played a role in it. My favorite part was the tea they served us.
The Lover house

Brick Factory Visit

Next we hopped back on the sampans to visit a brick factory. I'm not exactly sure what made this a tourist destination, but I thought it was really interesting. The factory makes bricks from the clay/mud of the Mekong River. It's next to  rice-processing factory, where all the farmers bring their rice after harvest.
Mekong river brick

women hauling bricks
There are a lot of women working in this factory, hauling heavy bricks all day. Below, our guide shows us the extruder, which is filled with clay from the river and pressed into brick molds.
clay extruder
After coming out of the mold, the bricks sit around for a few days to dry out.
brick storage

large pile of rice hulls
There are giant piles of rice husks (the inedible portion of the rice grain) all over the factory. They use them for fuel for the kiln.
handful of rice hulls

The kiln is filled with bricks and sealed. Then the fires burn for hours while the bricks are baked.
kiln fire
It's so hot outside the door, that workers set their lunch tins next to it to heat them up.
kiln with lunch tins
Finished bricks!
fired bricks
Some kids that live nearby use the brick factory as a playground, and love to follow the occasional tourist group around.
Vietnamese children

Sampan Mekong Ride & Snack

After leaving the rice factory, were were served a delicious snack of tea and fresh fruit on the sampan. We ate, drank, and watched the world go by.


fish trap

riverside gas station
A Mekong River gas station (for boats)

Lunch on the River Orchid

It was time for our last on-board lunch! There was an offering similar to the previous days: soup, salads, sandwich, hot entrees, and lots of desserts. 
buffet items


passionfruit cheesecake

We had time for a quick nap after lunch before heading out on the afternoon excursion.

Cai Be Floating Market

I'd read a lot about the floating markets, and they seem to be a popular destination for most tourists that make it to the Mekong Delta. We went on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, and it was pretty dull. We got the concept, but it wasn't a major highlight of my trip. Basically, families bring their boats to a common harbor, and they put up a big pole with a sample of their product tied to the top. Then people go boat to boat to buy their items. There were lots of sweet potatoes and turnips for sale when we were there.
turnip vendor

market boats lined up

repairing a boat

eyes painted on front of boat

Cai Be Factory

After floating through the market on our sampan, we docked and visited a factory that made all kinds of food and goods. It's not a "factory" in the way you would think about manufacturing in the United States—everything was made by hand. They demonstrated how they make puffed rice candy, coconut milk candy, rice paper, and more exotic items, like snake wine.
making puffed rice
First they showed us how to make puffed rice candy cakes. Rice hulls and sand are thrown in a hot wok until they get really, really hot. Then the rice grains are thrown in and stirred very, very quickly until they puff up. The puffed rice is then sifted twice (to remove the sand and the hulls). Next, the flavoring is mixed and heated. This batch was durian with some sugar. Then the puffed rice is added backed in, it's all stirred together, and packed into a big cake on a table. The men use large cleavers to cut the cake into pieces, and then the women wrap them in plastic and seal them with an open flame. There you have it - durian rice krispie bars!
sifting puffed rice

making sweetener for puffed rice

mixing puffed rice with sweetener

forming and cutting puffed rice cakes

packaging puffed rice cakes
The next sweet treat was coconut milk candy. The large pot is filled with coconut milk, which is heated with sugar and other flavorings until it turns to taffy. Then it's poured into strips that are laid on the table and cut into small pieces. Each piece is wrapped in rice paper, and then blocks of pieces are wrapped in cellophane. All work is done by hand. We bought about six different flavors of this candy (including durian, again).
pot of coconut milk

cutting and packaging coconut candy
Then we were on to not-so-sweet local delicacy—snake wine. Whole snakes, cobras, or in some cases snake penises, are submerged in a very high-proof alcohol (often rice wine). 
cobra wine

small bottles of snake wine

large jug of snake wine

guide offering a taste of snake wine
Traditionally, it's said to have medicinal value. Since I still wasn't feeling well, I took our guide's offer to try one. I was only one of two from our group of 15 that agreed to this. We toasted with the traditional Vietnamese toast: Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!

It seemed to have a calming effect on my stomach. :)

Next, we watched a woman make rice paper. She had a boiling pot of water with a cotton cloth stretched tight across it. She would spread the milky rice liquid over it, let it cook for just long enough, and then expertly peel it off to set aside, where it would dry in the sun. This seems to be the exact same technique used to make rice paper pancakes (a popular street food), except the pancakes are eaten immediately rather than dried into paper.
woman making rice paper

woman making rice paper

steaming rice paper

removing rice paper

drying rice paper
There was a treat waiting for us not far from where the rice paper was drying ... a python! I'm not sure what the purpose was, other than entertaining tourists (or eventually putting it in rice wine), but I jumped in and said hi. 
Liz holding a python
After a little shopping (we did our best to support the local economy), we were back on the sampan. It was snack time, again!
Aaron and Liz enjoying fresh coconut milk
Pro tip: Coconut milk tastes pretty good. But, it's also kind of a laxative. After our coconut snack, we made a brief stop at the An Kiet House. There are gardens (which are long overgrown), a restaurant, and I believe a bed and breakfast. I would have been ok without stopping here.

Cai Be seems to be the area of the Mekong Delta that has some tourist infrastructure. If you are on a land trip in Vietnam and want to visit, there are places to rent rooms, and you can hire guides for all or part of a day. We passed a river-side resort on the way back to the boat.
Mekong Riverside Resort & Spa

New Year's Eve on the River Orchid

This was a busy night on the ship. First, we were entertained by a local band that played covers of American pop songs. They played a very short set, which was followed by the crew farewell. The crew dressed up in a variety of funny headgear to celebrate the New Year or Christmas—sometimes it wasn't clear which one, and I'm still not sure what the bunny ears were for. There were canapes and champagne passed during this pre-dinner performance. Then we went downstairs for our farewell dinner.
carved watermelon

server wearing bunny ears
New Year's Bunny?
Since this was a special celebration dinner, we had five courses instead of four. I started with the Num Pa Kon Chien, a coconut shrimp cake with sweet and sour dip.
coconut shrimp cake
Next was the Cambodian noodle soup "Kuy Taev," with minced pork and fresh coriander leaves.
soup with pork

An additional hot appetizer was served: angel hair pasta in oyster-soy sauce with bean sprouts, fresh water shrimps, ginger, and garlic chives.
pasta and shrimp
I chose the beef main course, which was described as "Asian delight." Beef rubbed with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, garlic, and chili powder ladled with a ginger oyster sauce and served with broccoli and Pont Neuf potatoes.
beef entree
Dessert was a classic flourless chocolate cake with apple sauce, served with rum raisin ice cream.
chocolate cake
After dinner it was back up to the sun deck so the band could play for another couple of hours. For a cover band, they were incredibly talented. The downside was a guest (the same one who caused the uncomfortable situation early in the trip), that ogled the lead singer so obviously (sitting on the floor in the front row, pulling a chair up uncomfortably close) he made her and the rest of us uncomfortable. She sat out a few more songs than I think she intended so her male partner could sing, because this man wouldn't let up. The band and the crew did a good job of making sure he didn't actually touch her, but once again he was allowed to drink and be a nuisance without any real repercussions.

When he wasn't ruining our experience, we enjoyed the songs, which included hits from Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, the Cranberries, and others. Here's my favorite.

The band only played until 10:30 or 11:00, and then they left the boat (we'd arrived at My Tho, our final destination). We did not stay awake to see midnight. But that's how we roll on New Year's Eve, no matter where we are in the world.