Tag Archives: Asia

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta – Mekong es Sukong

We sat low in a wooden sampan between water coconut trees that crowded in on us as we glided down the narrow, silty canal. Our boatman’s oar dipped in and out of the water, birds chattered like monkeys among the fronds and roosters crowed to each other as if warning those ahead of our intrusion.

I posted a 10-sec video on Instagram and a friend back home likened it to Apocalypse Now. Apt comparison that I was surprised hadn’t occurred to me since a lot of the tourist experience in Vietnam revolves around discussing the War.

The day we spent in the Mekong Delta, though, was a break from war talk as we focused on the life of the coconut farmer and the red tilapia or catfish fisherman. Earlier that morning, before rowing down the canal, we’d driven a few hours south of Ho Chi Minh City to take a half hour motor boat ride on one of the nine river tributaries that meet in the delta.

Fishing nets are strung up onto posts, and little tiki huts along the banks serve as additional traps. Our guide told us they were chicken traps but when I exclaimed, “Chicken traps!” D quietly repeated that the man was “checking. the. traps.”

Our pilot cut the motor as we approached a lone fisherman anchored in the river, and called out to him in Vietnamese. The guy grinned and pulled a green net bag out of the water, twice the size of the ones our moms used to take shopping. We put down our coconut-water-in-a-coconut drink to congratulate him on his catch of a single squilla, which looks like a spindly lobster or a gargantuan shrimp. After reading up, I’m not entirely sure squilla live in the Mekong, so there’s a good chance I once again misheard the guide, or that fisherman kept one as a pet that he showed off to tourists.

Our destination was a coconut farm and we clambered off the boat onto a springy pile of coconut husks. As we watched, a worker impaled a young green coconut onto a comically large spear sticking straight up from the ground and with a few quick twists, tossed the husk on one pile and the coconut core on the other. That is step one of many in the mostly manual process of this farm. The hairy coconuts go to a group of women who further strip them of fibre and pass them on to stages which might include draining the coconut water or pressing the meat for milk or oil. The fibre gets spun into rope and the husks are used to help grow orchids. The leaves and wood of coconut trees (palm trees are different) are dried and used as fuel. It’s nose to tail coconut tree production.

After the coconut farm, we bumped along a track in the back of an open-framed cattle cart to a local house for fresh mango, pineapple, pomelo and banana, then took the Apocalypse Now canal ride to another house. There, the owner prepared a multi-course lunch of noodle soup, flaky spring rolls, do-it-yourself rice paper rolls with flesh pulled from a whole baked fish, rice and noodle dishes and finished with mini bananas (called bananas here) before returning to the city.

Heading back to Ho Chi Minh City is to leave the peace and hospitality of the Mekong behind and pick up talk of the War. Although I’ve purposely stayed away from discussing it here (our short time as tourists in no way qualifies me to understand its complexities), it was fascinating to hear the varied local perspectives as we moved from north to south. What everyone agreed on, however, is that Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon although the reasons might range from expediency (it is shorter than the official name) to minor political rebellion. Even that is layered: a newspaper headline the day of our Mekong trip was “Thief from Saigon caught by Ho Chi Minh police.”

Mekong Delta

Mekong Boaty MacBoatface

Hong Kong – What a Souprise

It was worth the three flights and missing-luggage scare to discover soup dumplings on our first full day in Hong Kong. Not any old-hat dumplings bobbing in soup but pleated pouches of XiaoLongBao that contain a soupçon, as it were, of ambrosial broth within the wrapper as an extra special soup-rise (see what I did there?).

There is a ritual to eating XiaoLongBao that is detailed on the quick reference instruction card that comes with your order. You transfer the plump packets to a spoon and gingerly bring spoon and dumpling to your bowl. Then you dip them carefully in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar with shredded ginger before poking a hole in the top. You can let the fragrant liquid drain into the spoon, mixing with the soy-vinegar-ginger and taste it delicately, or you can fall on the dumpling like a sucker fish cleaning barnacles off a whale, slurp up the broth and gobble the pork dumpling in one bite. This was how I started a month in Asia-Oceania with my travel pal, D.

It began as a trip to Vietnam but spread out once we looked at a map with Cambodia-is-right-there, and look-how-close-Thailand-is, followed by since-we’re-here-how-about-Australia, capped off with we-have-to-go-through-Hong-Kong-we-might-as-well-stop-over.

We knew we were in for a treat when the actors on the Taiwanese airline videos from Seattle to Taipei to Hong Kong explained the safety instructions gravely in Chinese then broke into interpretive dance when it was time to review them in English.

Two days in Hong Kong is too short but still allows for a good sampling of food. The XiaoLongBao set a high bar that was met by successive meals of braised, charred short ribs; dim sum of har gow, siu mai, and black pepper squid tentacles well worth the 90-min wait; and topped off by a seafood restaurant that ferries you 30 min to an island, feeds you whole snapper, steamed shrimp in garlic sauce and butter-drenched fried lobster all freshly killed and cooked to order before shipping you back to Hong Kong Island.

The city itself isn’t what I expected. Not a slick, shiny metropolis, but a bustling, grittier city with towers stepping on top of each other forming a ring that creeps up and around the island, and spills across the bay into Kowloon. It has cramped alleys with signs that jockey for position up into the sky; crowded markets dedicated to ladies’ wares or flowers or textiles; and big sprawling malls with high end brand names and architecturally spectacular washrooms. The city is shrouded in a mysterious, smoggy glow by day and puts on a light show every night to rival Times Square or Picadilly Circus.

We did what I love best which is walk around the city to get a feel for the life there. Our lovely hosts, childhood friends of D, knew the best places to go including a stop at the (free) exhibit of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority on an upper floor of the second tallest building. We went for the view but got caught up in the Science World-like games including a full-body interactive one about whether Hong Kong should peg its currency to the Chinese renminbi or the US dollar. I played it energetically enough that I caught the eye of the poor woman charged with surveying the few visitors and felt compelled to answer her questions with extreme enthusiasm including whether I would tell others to go visit (“Of course!”). So now I’ve kept my promise. Go see it.

My favourite part of this first leg of our trip, aside from the freshly baked pain au chocolat our hostess made every morning, was riding up the escalators from Central at the waterline to the Mid-Levels where we were staying. There are 21 escalators and inclined moving sidewalks that make up the longest covered outdoor escalator system in the world. Incredible people watching as you glide by crooked streets and busy stalls and glance into peoples’ kitchens.

I feel like I should wrap this up by using the XiaoLongBao as a metaphor for Hong Kong with its flexible wrapping, pleated streets and meaty deliciousness surrounded by the salty Kowloon Bay broth but that is just ridiculous. Maybe instead, I can just say this is the best way to start a new year – Gong Hey Fat Choy!