Hindsight is wonderful. Instead of heading from Kep in Cambodia to Can Tho in Vietnam, we should of gone straight to Ho Chi Minh City and back tracked from there. We know this now, and we realised it as we sat in a dusty car park/bus station in the Vietnamese border town of Ha Tien. We sat in a coffee shop being spoken to in Vietnamese, without any local currency, tired and hungry while watching a luxury long distance coach pulling out towards HCMC and revealing our mode of transport, a 22-seater equipped with little plastic seats in preparation of overloading. Hunger got the better of us, so I ran across the the road to a small shop to see if she would accept Cambodian Riel for a coke and a packet of chips. The weary old lady looked at my money and me, shuffled into the back room and came back with a wad of cash including a lot of US dollars but no Cambodian. She saw my hunger so took my money, that was more then the asking price, so gave change in the form of chips. Just as I got back, it was time to load our packs next to the engine and jump on.
Vietnamese local buses are not, in any way made for me. It turns out my legs are too long, my bum is to big and my weight to large for the padding. Sarah fit, until the bus overloaded and she was pressed against a multitude of passengers. Nine long sweaty hours later, we made it to Can Tho. Two and half months later (when we are posting this) my bum is still numb. But hey, we made it. There was one highlight, however, at one point we were faced with the inevitable learning curve of who’s toilet was who’s. Sarah was confused by the Nu and the Nam… but we worked it out. And a trick for everyone travelling to Vietnam – Nam is Mens (MAN backwards) and Nu is Ladies (NU-NAH)
We checked into our pad, Hotel Xoai -which felt like a 5 star resort compared to our recent accommodations and enquired about dinner. We were recommended a couple of different places, but stopped listening after two words, Banh Mi. It was my favourite sandwich in London and I have been explaining to Sarah how good it is. We wandered down the road, found a little lady behind a small glass cabinet on the corner and ordered one. Like excited children, we skipped home to the hotel and opened it up. At first glance, I was disappointed and told Sarah not to get her hopes up. But it was delicious…delicious enough to be our staple meal for the next few weeks. We organised an early morning trip on the Mekong delta and went to bed, dreaming about roasted pork in a crunchy Vietnamese baguette.
4:30am wake up and we wandered on down to the harbour to get into our boat. As the sun rose over the Mekong, we motored downstream watching the commerce of the river go on on around us. Ships full of timber crossed in front of the across-river barges packed with pedestrian, motorbikes and anything else that squeezed on. Soon we were in eyesight of a cluster of boats that resembled the Cai Raing. Ladies were paddling from boat to boat selling Vietnamese Coffee to Vietnamese Baguettes, or as they call them in Vietnam – coffee and bread. The larger ships sold pineapples, potatoes, cabbage and other produce while, what seemed like their pet rooster watched on. We turned off the engine to float on by, but as river flows fast, we drifted through the market pretty quickly. Before we knew it, we were on our way again towards the busier market of Phong Dien.
Unfortunately, Phong Dien market is most thriving around dawn, so we were slightly confused as to why we weren’t taken there first to see it full swing. By the time we were there, it had diminished, with only half a dozen boats remaining. Our captain kept purchasing us fruit to eat, which was nice. Only that it was the juiciest fruit we had ever eaten, so were covered from chin to chest to shins in pineapple and watermelon juice – first world problems, right! While we saw a floating nursery selling herbs and fruit trees to his floating clientele, our captain spent his time making swords and flowered headbands out of leaves… As you do.
It was time to head back upstream. It turns out that we would ride alongside a boat filled with ducks that, from the looks on their faces, were out on the river on a day trip rather then to the market.
We were taken into a small off-shoot of the river amongst the villager’s houses. We hopped out and spent half an hour walking along the river watching chickens rustling in the front lawns of the family gardens that seemed to only grow food. We watched an elderly lady buying produce from a small boat who had been at the market that morning while her granddaughter threw seeds into the river, much to her amusement. We met the boat driver back outside a small organic farm, where we walked through the garden of pineapples, mangoes, lemons and everything else. We crossed a bamboo pole bridge into the centre of the garden to see their gigantic rabbits and stopped for breakfast. Our first breakfast in Vietnam had to be one thing – Pho. It is up there with an Indian Dosa as the perfect breakfast, fresh heathy(er) and as spicy as you want it and very filling. We shared one bowl and had little rice noodle bellies not too dissimilar to a puppy that has drunk too much milk.
We waddled back to the boat and headed to the rice noodle factory. It was interesting to see the process and the owner clearly had done this before, as when he offered Sarah to have a go at putting the rice paper through the noodle machine, he kept yelling “one more,” so he got a few extra kilograms of noodles out of the tourists for free labour. As we wandered out we saw a mix of products they made from the rice paper including a Vietnamese Rice Paper Pizza. Clearly this jumped out to us, but we instead headed back to the boat to save our stomachs for another Banh Mi.
Like Zoltar, from the movie Big, the Banh Mi lady on the corner was no longer there and any trace of her was replaced by a man repairing tyres. We decided to try the lady across the street that had an equally delicious sandwich but all we wanted to do was buy her pork and the previous lady’s bread and condiments. It would have been the perfect Banh Mi. But the search shall continue.
Through the same company that we had booked the Mekong Delta Trip with, we had also booked a street food tour of Can Tho. There were due to be a few more people but they did not show, yet the guide took us out on the town to eat some local food. At the first place, we learnt the three main rules of Vietnam:
- There is nothing free in Vietnam – except for tea – tea is free.
- To cross the road you must commit – do not hesitate, do not make eye contact with a driver, and do not change pace. Go when you want and you will survive.
- Other than a Banh Mi or Pho, you must roll all other food. Order a fresh spring roll , roll it in leaves. Order a salad, roll it in rice paper. Order meat skewered on a lemongrass skewer, roll it in leaves and rice paper. Doubt it? – Roll it!
Our first stop was a local restaurant that sold one thing. The plan is, get a group of ingredients on a plate, grab the rice paper, pile on leaves, veg and meat, dip and eat. It was delicious. We drank free tea, as per rule 1 and moved on.
Next up was another restaurant that had been around for twenty years and, again, sold one thing, the Vietnamese equivalent of a pork pie. As per rule 3, we grabbed the pie, rolled it in leaves, dipped it in fish sauce and ate it. Again, very tasty and we were told there was no other place in Vietnam that we could get it, just that shop.
We followed rule 2 and crossed the road, basically with our eyes closed, and sat down on tiny plastic stools on the pavement. During the day it was a mechanics, and at night a busy restaurant selling ice cold La Rue beer, and two other dishes, eggplant in a clay pot and fried frog. We ordered both and waited. The eggplant dish was incredible. The toad was half good. The problem was Sarah got the crispy cooked half and I got the slimy mushy half.
One more stop and we went straight to one lady in a line of five that sold the same thing, yet hers was clearly the biggest seller. It was a sticky rice dish – one half yellow, the other brown. Both were added to waffle type pancake and handed over. It was delicious, but now we were full. Our guide asked if we knew any other Vietnamese street foods and we said yes, Duck Embryo. He asked if we wanted to try it, so we asked if he ate it. He replied, only when I am drunk and I hate it. With that insight, we skipped it.