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Monday, 3 January 2011

Vietnam: that Mekong Feeling

The mighty Mekong, south east Asia’s great river, flows through several countries and over numerous borders including those of China, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos before emptying into the South China Sea in southern corner of Vietnam. It is the massive delta and it’s many river branches that makes up Vietnam’s portion of the Mekong; the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese call the delta đồng bằng sông Cửu Long or basically the river delta of the Nine Dragons, referring to the nine forked branches that empty into the sea. The region is a vital transport route, including into Cambodia and beyond, and is a major fruit and vegetable producing area, forming essentially the “bread basket” of the region. More appropriately I guess you would call it the “rice basket”, particularly as over 50% of Vietnam's rice originates in the delta region. The Song Saigon or Saigon River – that Ho Chi Minh City sits on, is not part of the Mekong system, despite many tourist brochures that will infer otherwise. This river rises inside Vietnam, unlike the mighty Mekong which begins its journey from the Tibetan Plateau, and then in fact empties into the sea only 10 miles north east of the Mekong Delta, whilst still remaining geographically distinct from the delta.

that Mekong Feeling [Dec 2010]That Mekong Feeling

The Mekong Delta means many things to different people. Like so much of this region I find it hard not to associate things with scenes from iconic, usually American War related Hollywood movies. I can’t think of the Mekong Delta without hearing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and seeing river gun boats and flying Huey helicopters a-la Apocalypse Now. But if you think you are going to be deep in the rainforest whilst exploring the delta today you’d be wrong, as like much of the rest of Vietnam, it is heavily populated and heavily industrialised.

(Note; in Vietnam the term American War refers to what most of us in the so called "west" would call the Vietnam War. This is to distinguish that war from several other wars of a similar period involving Vietnam, such as the French War for independence or the Cambodian War to oust Pol Pot, all of which plus more are often lumped together by us mere "westerners" as the "Vietnam War")

qdsc_0717Semi-traditional brick works on the delta

qdsc_0648Life on the delta

The produce that comes out of the delta is first class, abundant and tasty. Pineapples, citrus, melons, leafy greens, dragon fruit, you name it. If it grows in the tropics it’s probably being grown and sold out of the delta. The region supplies much of southern Vietnam with its fresh produce. Along the various branches of the river you can visit farms and market gardens and see the produce and of course the river itself is the major traffic route for this fruit, with large floating wholesale markets selling onto to smaller retail floating markets.

qdsc_0500Sunrise at a small retail floating market in the delta

qdsc_0556A local retailer purchases pineapples for on-sale at the main wholesale floating market outside of the city of Cần Thơ at Cái Răng

qdsc_0614an awesome looking pineapple growing on the fertile soils of the delta

qdsc_0620a Dragon Fruit cactus in flower. Originally from South and Central America the   Hylocereus species of cactus, producing a delicious edible fruit, has become synonymous with Vietnam and large numbers are grown in the delta

Having lived and worked primarily in the tropics all of my life, most tropical fruits I come across I have seen before. Most can be purchased in my local market itself, Rusty’s. Things like the Dragon Fruit that I mention in the above photo are recognisable to many around the world now, being widely available in major supermarkets in developed nations. Other fruits, whilst recognisable to me, are less well known to the masses. Fruits from the Syzygium family go by many common names; lillypilly, malay apple, water apple, lau lau, rose apple and many more. The bell shaped crisp fruits have an apple like texture and abundant watery sweet juice. I am not sure of the exact species growing on the Mekong but they taste good!

qdsc_0543a vendor approaches with Syzygium fruits at the Cái Răng floating market

A fruit at the floating markets that threw me initially was being called Milk Fruit by the locals in English. I guessed it was Sapotaceae family by the shape and texture, when I got a chance to google it, the first hits told me it was a star apple, Chrysophyllum cainito, but this particular fruit definitely was not what I recognised as a star apple. Star Apples have always been purple to me with a distinct star pattern when dissected. A little bit more research showed me that this variety, known as Lò Rèn, was usually green or red but not purple. I also learnt that the Chinese, long time masters of fruit growing manipulation, had created a rainbow coloured variety. The flesh is sweet and creamy somewhat like a custard apple, it does taste different to the regular star apples I am use to, but it’s equally as good if not better. Interesting like the Dragon Fruit, the Star Apple/Milk Fruit originates in Central and South America and was introduced to the delta.

imageVietnamese Milk Fruit growing in the delta

DSC_0889Vietnamese Milk Fruit showing the sweet milky flesh. At first this fruit threw me, google and wiki told me it was a Star Apple, but it was the wrong colour. Then I learnt in Vietnam they had green ones. But where was the tell-tale star pattern you see when you cut the fruit in half? Then I realised I had cut the fruit the wrong way to see the star pattern!

File:Chrysophyllum cainito0.jpga picture of the more common purple Star Apple, cut the “right” way to see the star pattern, courtesy of wikipedia

The next one to throw me off was the so called “Water Coconut”. Any half decent botanist knows there is only one member of the coconut family, even with variations such as the Dwarf Malay and the Filipino Macapuno, there is still only really one coconut. Yet here I was being told about the Mekong’s “special” Water Coconut. I asked to be taken to see one, and was surprised to find the local common name “Water Coconut” was in fact the Nipa Palm, or more specifically the fruit of the Nipa Palm. The Nipa grows all over the Asia-Pacific, commonly used for thatching, and for making liquor from the fruits, and of course eating the sweet translucent fruits themselves. The Nipa Palm is the only palm tree considered to be a mangrove species.

qdsc_0632Nipa fruits hang down low to the water, known in the delta as “Water Coconuts”

Also abundant in the delta is my beloved Calamansi. Worth noting I have given up trying to distinguish between Cumquats and Calamansi and the seemingless never ending varieties of cultivars inbetween. Considering nurseries in Australia sell Calamansi cultivars as “Australian Cumquats” and I have seen Filipino market gardeners in Australia growing the things, arguing over what is a Calamansi and what is a Cumquat, if it’s a small citrus, with a tang, I now call it a Calamansi, period. I suspect botanically the Mekong versions are closer to the Cumquat then a Calamansi, but hey, they’re all Calamansi to me now! Interestingly I found that in Vietnam, and no doubt other nearby Asian nations, for the Lunar New Year Calamansi/Cumquat trees are used as a symbol of luck and prosperity.

DSC_0628Calamansi on the delta

The largest city on the delta is Cần Thơ, a city of over 1 million people, most who rely on the Mekong for their livelihood. Cần Thơ is about to open an international airport, vital for taking their produce to the international market, and bringing in tourists to the region. Sitting right on the river, it’s a typical yet quaintly attractive Vietnamese city. I must say though, after travelling all my adult life, I experienced my first ever theft in Cần Thơ. I am still not sure what happened, whether I was pick pocketed, whether it happened in the hotel or what, all I know is sometime between dinner and heading out early to the floating markets my Olympus u-Tough underwater camera mysteriously disappeared. And as any traveller worth their salt knows – that's why you ALWAYS have travel insurance. My first claim in over 20 years of travelling the globe. That’s also why you always download your data off the memory card at regular intervals, I lost only a few pics and video clips of dinner that night – a dinner that featured Mekong specialties of finger fish, frogs and field mice. The field mouse was the sweetest most delicious white meat I have ever eaten, but sorry no pics of the mouse feast now………

DSC_0470Can Tho water front by night

imageThere’s more action on the river than in the city itself. Large wholesale vendors advertise their produce by hoisting it on a long pole; here you can see a cabbage on the top of the pole. They don’t bother with written signs as many of the simple village buyers can not necessarily read any way.

imageJust like many of us, the Vietnamese need their coffee in the morning. From before sunrise coffee vendors patrol the delta supplying the hot sweet liquid to river people in need of their fix

imageEvery Vietnamese city needs a giant statue of Uncle Ho, and Can Tho is no different, with their Uncle Ho looking out over the mighty Mekong Delta

qdsc_0582Since the branches of the Mekong Delta replace roads in the region, the lottery ticket sellers that wander the streets of most of Vietnam also have to revert to the river for transport to their potential customer base

image“Long Tail” outboards are really the only option (outside of human power) for the narrow and shallow Mekong Delta

DSC_0721Since all the action is on the river, that’s where the petrol stations need to be aswell

So now when I think of the Mekong Delta I no longer need to revert to Hollywood’s vision of the American war. No more Colonel Kurtz, no more tacky catch phrase like “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning”. Now it’s milk fruit and water coconuts and the rice basket of Vietnam…….and the thought of some one running around out there with a perfectly good 4 month old Olympus u-Tough underwater camera complete with pics of the tastiest field mouse I have ever eaten……

Can Tho and the Delta

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