Monday, October 10, 2016

The Farmers in the Delta – Erich

Do you know the song “The Farmer in the Dell”? Cute song. Repetitive, additive, fun for kids. But there is a lot of taking in the song. The farmer takes a wife. The wife takes a child. The child takes a nurse and so on all the way down to the cheese. The cheese, in its own selfless way, takes nothing. It stands alone. And I never knew exactly what it means to say the cheese stands alone. But it's beside the point. The song is all about taking.

And in that vein, we recently took. We took a trip, a tour, if you will, of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong River is one of the longest rivers in Asia. It flows through seven countries: Tibet, China, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Here in Vietnam is where it flows to the sea. But as it nears the ocean, the river spreads out into an alluvial plain.

An alluvial plain is a flatland where the river forks into many fingers that flow to the sea, what we call a delta. That's because the capital form of the Greek letter delta is shaped like a triangle, and that is the shape that the fingers of the river make. But the other great thing about an alluvial plain is the soil. The river, after traveling so far, has picked up many wonderful minerals and nutrients. And as it spreads out over the flatland and splits into fingers, it tends to deposit many of these. So alluvial plains are frequently great lands for growing food.

The Mekong River Delta is no exception. Farmers in the region grow rice, lots of rice. But they also grow many wonderful tropical fruits. We got to enjoy some firsthand. But I'll get to that.

First we boarded a bus in Ho Chi Minh City for the hour and a half ride down to the Mekong River. Our first stop was the Chùa Vĩnh Tráng.
I got pictures of this from all (actually three) sides, but I like this one the best.
Vĩnh Tráng means infinity. While chùa means temple, and this is an incredibly unusual Buddhist Temple. Why unusual? Well, the original temple was destroyed by termites. So a new temple was reconstructed in 1907. This was during the time that Vietnam was a French colony. So the temple has a fusion of design elements. The pitched roofs are similar to Chinese pagodas. The interiors are very Cambodian in style. And the exterior facades resemble a large French villa. A very unusual mix.

It doesn't exactly scream France, but it does have elements.
The garden outside the temple includes jasmine trees and their fragrance was strong and delightful. The gigantic statues of Buddha, standing, sitting, and sleeping were white, gleaming, and bold.
The clouds made a nice arch
That is one happy guy!
Not the most comfortable mattress, but he is beyond material concerns.
The interior was lavishly decorated, with not an inch of barren wall or ceiling left alone.
I love the mix of the modern and traditional elements here.
I wonder if we are allowed to beat this drum.
Apparently these are the rules. It's okay, I wasn't that hungry.
From the Chùa Vĩnh Tráng we rode in the bus to the boat dock.
We visited on a Sunday which is a popular day for the Vietnamese to go to the delta as well.
Here we got tickets for a motorboat to take us across the wide Mekong River. The boat was long and had a very loud engine, so we missed much of what our tour guide, Nia, was telling us while we crossed the river. But we learned plenty more when we reached the other side.
Welcome to Fantasy (well, Unicorn) Island
We landed on Unicorn Island. But in Southeast Asia, a unicorn is not a horse with a horn on its head. Their version of a unicorn is a creature whose lower body is that of a lion, upper body and head are those of a dragon, and who has an arm with a hand over a sphere. You frequently see statues of such creatures at Buddhist and Hindu temples in the area. (Though we didn't see one at Chùa Vĩnh Tráng.) We also didn't see any of those mythical creatures on the island, so I'm not sure how it got its name. Maybe they're nocturnal and we just missed them due to being there in the day.

First we visited a stop where we got to taste the honey collected on the island. About half of the island is dedicated to growing longan trees. A longan is a fruit with a thin peel and then a soft translucent white fruit inside. In the middle of the fruit is a large dark seed (that floats, as we would later see during our rowboat ride.) It is related to a lychee, if you know what that fruit is.

On Unicorn Island, they raise bees that get their nectar from the longan tree flower. The bees are much smaller than the honeybees we are used to in the United States, adapted to the tiny flowers of the longan tree.
Yeah, my wife touched that. Crazy brave (or just crazy.)
And the honey has a distinct flavor. I mean, it tastes and looks enough like honey that you would know it was honey. But it is a bit less viscous than the honey we are used to and has a flavor that differs from clover honey or wildflower honey in America. We got to see the bees in a hive. And they wanted someone from our group to touch the honeycomb (covered in bees) and taste the honey directly from the comb. First they asked Carver to do it and he was not going near that. Luckily, Alrica volunteered to “take one for the team”. She touched the honeycomb, was ignored by the bees, tasted the honey, and declared it “very good.”

We went from that stop to another area where we got to taste five fruits grown on the island. We were serenaded by locals while we ate. They sang songs in Vietnamese, though they closed with “If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands” in English.

The five fruits, which we were told to eat in order, were: Pineapple, Mango (which was an interesting variety that was both sweet and sour), White Dragonfruit, Watermelon (and I admit, I did not partake in that one myself being less than a fan of all things melon), and Longan. We had tried all but the longan before. However, we figured out how to peel and eat the longan, because a fruit we have tried is rambutan. They're similar, not in appearance, but in form.

From there we walked to a dock, but not on the Mekong River itself. Throughout Unicorn Island, there are streams/canals that flow. They are natural streams, but people have dug them out to make them wider, so they sometimes call them canals. Here we boarded rowboats. They were thin like canoes and kayaks, but longer. We didn't have to do the rowing, we had local boatmen and boatwomen who took us about three kilometers.
Ready to row!
It was a beautiful view of the trees and the banks. In the middle it began to rain, lightly at first, but then with more vigor. No problem. Our boat owners had the pitched conical hats that natives where, one for each of us. And they had plastic sheeting to put around ourselves to keep dry-ish.
Traffic jam!
I'm not real down with selfies. Apparently the smiling idea is beyond me.
The dock where we left the rowboats was where the stream met the main river again. Here we re-boarded our motorboat. It took us to another area in the delta, one that our guide referred to colloquially as “Coconut Town”. In this area, not only do they grow coconut palms, but they use every part of the coconut for everything. The buildings are made of coconut palm wood. The roof of said buildings is made from dried coconut palm leaves. Utensils for eating and cooking are made of the wood. Cups are made from cast off husks of coconuts. Animal feed comes from the edible parts of the coconut not consumed by humans. Fertilizer is made from the leavings when the coconut milk and meat have been collected. The milk of young coconuts, which is sweet, is used as a beverage (which we got to enjoy on the boat trip to Coconut Town.) The milk of fully ripe coconuts, which is sour, is used for cooking. The coconut oil is used as a cosmetic. And the coconut meat, naturally, is used to make candy.

Candy? Yes, candy. We visited a coconut candy factory. There was a machine to remove the husks from the coconut. Then another machine shredded the coconut meat. This was placed into a large press to squeeze out the sweet sweet milk that is inside. (The remaining milkless pulp of the meat is fed to animals.) This sweet milk is cooked and stirred until it becomes thick. And then it is made into a chewy sticky candy, almost like caramels, but not caramel flavored.
They used to do this by hand. Happy technology!
There it is, ready to be cut and wrapped.
The candies were combined with other flavors as well, so you could get coconut candy with ginger flavor, or durian, or chocolate, or peanut, or pandan leaf, or just plain coconut.

Also at the candy factory, we had the opportunity to try snake wine. Snake wine is bizarre. There is a huge jar filled with dead snakes, geckos, scorpions, and ravens.
Yes, snake wine really is snake and much more. They should call it snake, et. al. wine.
Nia told us the snakes are skinned, but their venom is not removed because it is a necessary ingredient of the wine. I'm not sure where the original source of liquid or yeast is, but this jar definitely ferments. It smelled like wine.

Nia asked for volunteers to try the snake wine. Both Alrica and I tried a sip. It was strong, clear, and had a flavor I would be hard pressed to describe. It wasn't bad and certainly clears out your sinuses. Nia told us it is about 40% alcohol. And he insists that you can drink as much of it as you want and you won't get drunk, because it is medicinal. I can believe that the Vietnamese use it medicinally, but I didn't quite accept the “drink as much as you want and never get drunk” claim. Not that I did an experiment to find out if Nia was right or not, but I am skeptical.
We're either sweaty, rain-soaked, and tired or else the snake wine is kicking in. You make the call.
From Coconut Town we got on our boat again and rode to our last stop: a restaurant with a dock right on the river. Here we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch. We had spring rolls made from Elephant Ear Fish, and there was plenty of meat left on the fish to enjoy after you had eaten the spring rolls.
Apparently the uncooked fish looks like an elephant's ear.
In addition we had catfish in a thick and tasty gravy, a vegetable that looked and tasted a lot like green beans or string beans (and maybe it was exactly that), and a Vietnamese omelet with spring onion, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and fish sauce. (Fish sauce is a big thing in Vietnam. Lots of cooking is done with it. It's made from tiny fish, like anchovies, that have been boiled for a long long time.)
Really? He's making us look at pictures of his lunch?
Dessert was watermelon. Again, I passed. But I had plenty of elephant ear, so I wasn't starving.
When all three generations have a good time, it's a win-win-win.
There was no dairy in the meal. Dairy generally isn't so common in Southeast Asia, though you see more of it in Vietnam because of the French influence. But we didn't see any dairy, not even a morsel of cheese, during our time with the farmers in the delta.

That's probably because the cheese was busy standing alone.

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