Vietnamese eating tour – the mighty Mekong

by Forager on August 11, 2009

Having completed the first phase of our Vietnamese eating tour in Ho Chi Minh, the Co-pilot and I headed off the on dusty and bumpy road to Can Tho, to embark on the second phase of the eating tour: The Mighty Mekong Delta.

Having tried and failed to procure some delicious banh mi for the 3 hour bus ride, the Co-pilot and I did our best to settle our growling, indignant stomachs and tried to enjoy the occasional glimpses of roadside towns flashing rapidly by our windows. Unfortunately, that was a difficult task as seated next to us was a curious but stomach-churningly offensive local we affectionately dubbed “The Red-eyed Jackal”. It will be no surprise to travellers that locals are often curious and may stare unashamedly at foreigners or in some areas even be compelled to touch and stroke you like an exotic specimen in a petting zoo. We’ve both endured our fair share of being stared at and can usually quite confidently ignore the blatant stares and go about our business. The Red-eyed Jackal challenged us to new heights and threw all our experience out the window. I’m not sure what it was about him – perhaps it was his cherry-red bloodshot eyes that unnerved us; or his lack of respect for personal space as he craned in close leaning across the Co-pilot to read my guidebook with me; or maybe it was the way he chose to nap, his relaxed body nearly draped across the Co-pilot, with one filthy foot ever threatening to make contact with the Co-pilot’s knee; or was it the way he industriously picked and groomed his facial orifices with filthy, long, yellow talons and flicked them into ether with a spine chilling “click” of his nails, every so often flicking gunk from his talons in our direction and eliciting terrified high-pitched girly screams from us both. Not sure what facet of The Red-eyed Jackal we found most offensive, but I know one thing for sure – that 3 hour bus trip was painfully stressful.

By the time we arrived in Can Tho, we were tired, stressed and feeling dirty from our encounter with the Red-eyed Jackal, we checked into our hotel to refresh then headed back out to explore Can Tho by night, savouring icy cold beers in the humid heat and snacking on treats where the wafting barbeque scents around the city led our noses.

The next morning we awoke early and strolled down the main street, as the town arose and locals emerged from their houses. We headed down to the river to embark on a 7 hour boat tour of the Mekong Delta.

Greeting us at the river was our boat driver Minh in a small wooden motorboat. A cheerful young man with a broad smile permanently plastered over his face. Though he spoke very little English we seemed to just get by with a combination of a little poor English, a little poor Vietnamese from our phrasebook and a great deal of finger pointing, gestures and charades. It was using these cobbled together methods that we learnt that although Minh looked a youthful and exuberant 18 years old, he was 35 with a wife and young son. A perfect example of those fabled youthful Asian genes. Conversely, he was quite shocked to hear that we were both significantly younger than him. With bittersweet forced smiles we cursed those damaging Australian UV rays.

Off we set down the river, heading west towards the markets. Although it’s an early 6am and we were still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, the river was already teaming with activity with many boats coming back from the markets. From Minh we learnt that the first boat tours set off at the unearthly hour of 4am, like this enormous boat heavy laden with rice. How is this boat staying afloat? It doesn’t quite seem possible.

We saw many boats still heading out to market, their wares piled so high and the boats so low they seemed level with the water, creating small waves that lapped over the edge as they plough through.

We heard a boat call out and drive up next to us offering piping hot coffee. I nodded in excitement and we ordered us one each and watched in wonder as the ladies prepared our coffees, adding in plenty of sweetened condensed milk. I’ve said in one of my earlier posts how much I enjoy Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows and I actually watch his experiences in the countries I’m about to visit in the way of research. And since I’d seen Anthony Bourdain sample a similar coffee on his trip down the Mekong, I knew I definitely had to have one myself.

And I normally don’t post photos of myself on this blog, but this one is special. This is the momentous occasion just before we had Cafe au Mekong. Only after we’d downed half of our piping hot Mekong coffee did we think about the origins of the water used to make the coffee. My memory tells me there was a suspicious looking tin pail near the kettle and I’m guessing the locals don’t have the same reservations we have about drinking straight from the Mekong River. The Co-pilot then grimly analyses and dissects the Mekong geography. It’s downstream of all the other Mekong countries and given everyone pollutes the Mekong with their human and factory run off, and we’ve essentially drunk a small cross sample of it all. Damn you Bourdain! Why must I blindly follow where you lead? I just hope they boiled that water really thoroughly and I don’t have semi-dormant coliforms from every south-east Asian country breeding happily in my belly…
Luckily we don’t have to dwell on Cafe au Mekong for too long as Minh calls over a pineapple and watermelon boat and nimbly clambers on board to dig through and carefully pick out a juicy pineapple. Once back on board he pulls out a knife and deftly peels and scores the pineapple. In minutes he hands us each a delectable pineapple lollypop. The pineapples here are sold with the stalk intact which makes for a convenient handle.
And boy, I think it was the best pineapple I’ve ever had. Like all fruit in tropical south east Asia, the fruit grows balistically, and this pineapple was so sweet it tasted like it was sugar concentrate infused. There is also something incredibly primal and satisfying about holding onto a whole pineapple by the stalk and tearing great meaty chunks of it as though it were a whole leg ham. This is the way pineapple should be sold everywhere!
The river narrows and suddenly we’ve hit the traffic jam and mildly organised chaos that is the floating market.
We are surrounded by boats, their hulls pointed in every single direction and the sound of diesel motors, splashing from wildly waving oars and market vendors yelling out their wares and at each other fills the air. What strikes me as most fascinating is that this feels like a real working floating market. Unlike most of the colourful floating markets in Thailand, the vendors and buyers here use these markets as a genuine resource for buying, selling and bartering. The produce on sale is mainly of the fresh fruit and vegetable variety, not small touristy souvenirs and trinkets, so the vendors don’t bother harassing tourists to buy their rice, potatoes or spices. It is appealing to think that if no tourists turned up tomorrow, these vendors would all still turn up and go about their daily business. Having said that, we haven’t gone absolutely unnoticed. This little girl persisted in yelling “HELLO!” repeatedly and at the top of her lungs to get our attention, but would simply stare in wondrous silence whenever we turned to give her that desperately sought after attention.

After the markets Minh steered us down narrow canals that bleed off the main artery of the Mekong into lush tropical forested areas where the boughs of jackfruit and green mango trees hang heavy with fruit that had grown to colossal sizes that I’d never imagined possible. Going down these canals and seeing life on the banks of the Mekong is one of the advantages of doing the floating market tour in smaller boats. The larger and faster longboats and even larger powerboats just wouldn’t make it down these shallow veins, ducking under low and rickety bridges. They’re designed for more time poor travellers that intend to get to and from the floating markets in a hurry.

From our intimate vantage point we drift past countless people bathing in the river, soaping up a lather in their hair whilst their neighbours wash dirty dishes in the water. We see a little local boy hanging a makeshift rod in water hoping to catch dinner, and further still an outhouse hangs purposefully over the water and a fetid scum mixed with drifting plastic bags floats across the surface. This is life on the Mekong – and for the locals it’s a truly multipurpose body of water.

We stopped at one of the riverbank restaurants for lunch. Being still surprisingly full from the pineapple, we decided on a small snack of Can Tho style spring rolls for breakfast. These spring rolls are filled with a taro like savoury mixture and wrapped not in the traditional egg pastry but in a fine rice vermicelli netting and deep fried. The resulting texture is incredibly crisp and crunchy without being as oily and heavy as normal spring rolls.

As our boat ride came to an end, the ever cheerful Minh steered us back to Can Tho. We’re exhausted despite not having done much other than sit for 7 hours in the boat. The constant assault from the heat, humidity and bright squint-inducing sunlight takes its toll and we struggle to stay awake.

Wasting no time, we grab a quick streetside bite and jumped on the 4 hour bus to Rach Gia, the hometown of my best friend L-bean and the launching pad for the last phase of our trip, Phu Quoc. We’d done our research on where to eat in town and took advantage of the soft early evening light to head out and stroll around town to take in the sights and smells. We unexpectedly came across a bustling area of street side hawker stalls. Countless motorcycles lined the boundary of the markets and locals congregated here in singles, couples and entire families. The heady smell of barbequed meat flooded our senses but from where we stood we could only see the crowd and wisps of white smoke against the night sky so we found ourselves lulled towards the crowd, mouths agape and salivating like brainwashed zombies.Nestled amongst the bicycles were women with makeshift mobile barbeques generating that mouthwatering aroma. On closer inspection, we see that the menu du jour are sizzling spitting pork chops grilled over white hot coals.

Other vendors sell a tempting array of glistening roasted and barbequed meats. We spot roasted pork, chicken and duck, soy braised pigeons and duck wings.

But we’ve got pork chop firmly on the brain. Seeing those plump chops being turned on the barbeque and the seductive meaty aroma still beckoning, we decide on the trusted pork chop with rice. Served on broken rice drizzled with copious amounts of fragrant nuoc cham dipping sauce (fish sauce, lemon juice, garlic, chilli and water) and a side of crisp fresh cucumber, tomato and pickled carrot and radish salad. The pork is perfectly cooked and very tender, with moreish smoky grilled flavours. This is how Vietnamese pork chop should always be. Delicious and eaten outdoors savouring the warm evening air and watching the world bustle by. And it should be this cheap – the 2 pork chops cost us 60,000VND or about $4AUD. Bliss!
The next morning we wake up at dawn to get the early flight to Phu Quoc for the final leg of our
eating holiday – a relaxing beach resort stay to finish up whirlwind 10 days through Southern Vietnam.

We look out the window and hear the tooting of horns and bicycle bells, the clatter of dishes and the sounds of a broom sweeping against concrete – signs the city is waking from it’s slumber. Directly beneath our window, 2 ladies carrying heavy laden baskets stop and decide this is where they’ll set up shop. We watch mesmerised as they systematically tidy up the space and carefully put their wares on display. Hands work quickly as they fluff up the still steaming hot rice, and the spices and condiments are arranged this way and that, the vendor taking obvious pride in the final layout as though she was putting priceless jewels on display. Satisfied with her handiwork, the two women pull out stools and settle in to wait for customers. The pride, optimism and entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people is visible everywhere you look.

The quick cab ride to the airport sees us whizzing by an army of people in identical buttoned up blue long sleeved shirts heading to work on their bicycles, school children trudging to school, shop keepers opening and sweeping their stalls and the first signs of barbequing meat. All this and it’s only 6am! The Co-pilot and I agree that Rach Gia is a town with a easy vibe about it. It’s small enough to see more bicycles than motorbikes or cars giving it that elusive village feel, but large enough to generate that vibe of energy of industriousness unique to bustling cities. And any place that routinely has barbecued meat for early morning breakfast wins my vote!

We check-in our bags in at the airport and bypass the sad looking cafe serving overpriced bottled soft drinks, juices and sanitised sandwiches in favour of street fare. We’d noticed the road to the airport was paved with delicious looking noodle stalls and bakeries and just 5 minutes walk from the airport we came across this simple noodle stall with sticky plastic chairs, cold stainless steel tables and a roll of toilet paper on the table. All the hallmarks of an authentic Vietnamese eatery.

Ignoring stares from the locals, the Co-pilot and I conversed in our distinct brand of broken Vietnamese and charades to order a delicious hu tieu noodle soup (a type of chewy tapioca noodle) with generous chunks of fatty pork leg and blood jelly. I bravely ignored the inner voice that questioned whether I should be eating Vietnamese blood jelly (coagulated and cubed pig’s blood) or whether the pink looking pork was cooked and slurped down the warming sigh-inducing broth. Besides, I’ve had Cafe au Mekong now, surely I could do no worse.

After seeing pork chop being grilled on barbeques on our way to the airport, the Co-pilot opted for another pork chop on rice to satisfy his never ending pork chop lust. Like the pork chop the night before, this one is delicious, the fried egg with the still runny yolk on the side making mouthfuls of rice, nuoc cham, pork and yolk incredibly tasty.

Satisfied we pay for the meal which is a mere 50,000 VND or $3.50AUD. *Sigh* I love Vietnam!

Despite spending a mere 3 days, 2 nights in the Mekong Delta we feel like we’ve seen enough of the area to appreciate the slower pace of life here compared to Ho Chi Minh, and the difference experienced between the 2 areas is so vast we might as well have been in 2 different countries! Although the food we had in the Mekong was delicious, I felt this phase of the eating tour was less food-focused than the previous one in Ho Chi Minh. Conversely, though the Mekong Delta provided the perspective of culture and local interaction that was absent in Ho Chi Minh. The Mekong Delta experience enabled me to feel like I’d really arrived in the Vietnam I came to see and not just another cookie-cutter style bustling urban Asian city.

Content and bellies full we strolled slowly back to the airport to board our plane to Phu Quoc – the last leg of our Vietnamese eating tour.

Related posts:
Vietnamese eating tour – Ho Chi Minh (part 1)
Vietnamese eating tour – Ho Chi Minh (part 2)

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karen August 19, 2009 at 12:01 am

I love a good pineapple and you just can't get any better than SE Asia! Too bad I can't really eat – it makes my mouth uncomfortably tingly.

Hehe red-eyed jackal. Ewwwwww….

Aah the Asian propensity to stare, I always had to deal with it when I go back with Shaun to Malaysia and Thailand lol!

2 Forager August 19, 2009 at 11:16 am

Hey Iron Chef Shellie – Thanks! I had pineapple recently after writing this post as looking at the pictures was driving me insane – but it just wasn't the same. Sigh..

Hey Karen – I know the feeling you mean. I ate so much recently I think the tenderising enzymes sort of marinated my mouth a bit. A sure sign I ate too much. And yes, the staring. Different people stare in different ways and at different things. In Southern Italy they stared at me gobsmacked like I had 2 heads, in Shanghai they stared at my skin and the Co-pilot's shoes and "enormous" feet. Strange.

3 Tangled Noodle August 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I feel exhausted, too! This was a whirlwind read and I loved every word. Your photos are gorgeous as always but I almost couldn't see them through the tears of laughter from your description of the Red-Eyed Jackal and Café au Mekong! 8-D

I could really go for a pineapple lollipop right about now.

4 Forager August 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Hey Tangled Noodle – Thanks – your compliments are always so generous! :) The Red-Eyed Jackal is pretty awful isn't he. But he did make the otherwise uneventful and boring bustrip to CanTho very memorable! Still, don't need to have another experience like that, I'll take the boring one thanks.

5 billy@ATFT August 28, 2009 at 7:05 pm

oh it hurts me so much reading your post. makes me so wanting to go back to vietnam for the food…. i just not sure how am I going to start blogging all the food I've eaten there… gonna be a torture!

6 Forager August 29, 2009 at 2:40 am

Hey Billy – I know exactly what you mean! I get massive cravings for both food and travel when I write those posts. I want pork chop ALL THE TIME now. I can't wait to see your posts though and see what weird stuff you ate! Come on, chop chop!

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