Floating Along the Mekong Delta
On the second day of our whirlwind adventure, we were Cai Be bound. Cai Be is a small rural town that subsists by the Mekong Delta and is know for their floating market. The paternal side of Danton’s family resides here so the main objective of this part of the trip was to visit them. My mother’s family also comes from a small village so I was excited and nostalgic for the peaceful flow of rural life and, of course- the food.
Cai Be Bound
The day always seems to start much earlier in Asia than it does at home in Vancouver, BC. By the time it is 6 am, the bustle and bustle of city life is in full swing as the markets and food stalls open for business. Danton and I are also up early so we can begin our voyage to Cai Be by the Mekong Delta. We get picked up by 6:30 am and pick up some aunts and cousins before hitting the road. The traffic in Ho Chi Minh city is a mess of scooters, cars, and buses. The constant flow of vehicles seems endless and pours in alternating waves at the occasional traffic light. It is a sight to behold as a passenger.
The closer we got to the highway, the more the sea of cars thinned out and the faster we were to reaching our desintation.
We had left over jackfruit for breakfast and it wasn’t long before everyone in the car craved real sustenance. I had a very positive experience with “Vietnamese drive-thru” that morning. I guarantee it will be better service than any McDonald’s drive-thru you’ve been to before. Here, as long as your vehicle is close enough to the stall, and you have a loud enough voice, any place is a “drive-thru”
We stopped by and got some Bahn Mi (subs) and Vietnamese coffee without having to leave the vehicle at all. To my surprise, we were also able to pick up some bread at one place, Chả lụa (Vietnamese ham) at another, and even some clams for dinner at a stall closer to the village!
Before reaching the house we would be staying at, we stopped at the local market to grab a couple more things for the dinner we would be ahving later that evening. The market was nostalgic for me. I have very fond memories of perusing the small day markets in my mother’s village and buying ready-to-eat desserts.
This market had everything from produce to clothing with vendors on either side of very narrow walkways. Motorcyclists would drive down the two-person wide paths and patrons instinctively move to the sides. The overhead tarps to protect against the sporadic tropical rain was barely as high as my head and I had to duck down most of the time.
I love seeing all the fresh produce and meat at the markets. The fruits and vegetables most likely came from someone’s farm nearby and the meat recently butchered. It always gets me excited about cooking, however, I won’t be cooking at all during this trip.
There wasn’t anything too unusual at the market that I haven’t seen before. I think Thailand and Vietnam have a lot of the same fruits, and I noticed they share similar components in their cuisine. However, I did discover a bizarre fruit I am not familiar with. The red-orange fruit pictured above is called gac. Opened, the fruit has segments that alarmingly look like organs and the spiny outer shell reminds me of jackfruit. I didn’t get to try it, but apparently, it does not have much taste and is typically used to color a sticky rice dish. It is high in beta-carotene and lycopene, which is really good for you!
The Mekong Delta
To get around in a place like Cai Be, you’ll need a motorized boat. While it is totally possible to travel by car or other motorized vehicles, it is so much quicker and enjoyable to do so on the river. Not everyone owns a boat, so commuters can also cross the water via small ferries.
The water was murky and brown, but the wind in your face was cooling and welcoming. We got further and further away from the more populated areas of the Mekong Delta and headed towards the jungle. To access some of the houses we would be visiting, we took our boat up small tributaries and drifted slowly towards our next destination.
Things to see
Dogs are everywhere! I love seeing them, however, they are very wary and will not come up to you. As we drove the boat towards the house, many canines can be seen walking around. My favorite memory of Mekong Delta cruise were two dogs chasing each other at the mouth of a tributary.
With a keen eye, you will be able to spot these silly fish jumping around in the mud. Many of them are small and brown, but occasionally you may find a larger blue mudskipper showing off its colours. Keep an eye out for little holes in the mud as they will not be too far away from their home!
Danton spotted this beautiful blue and orange kingfisher perched high in the trees. We only saw one of these during our two days in Cai Be so perhaps they are uncommon. This guy, pictured below, is probably hunting the little mudskippers below.
From our boat we saw a lot of papaya and longan trees! The papaya trees were part of a orchard, but its not uncommon to just find one all on its own while walking from house to house.
There were several people out on their boats and even walking in the water when the river was low in the afternoon. Some are catching fish, and others might be getting shrimp or crab.
Everytime I travel, I am focused on the food! Not only do I love to eat, I like to learn about the culture and customs through the food. With Danton’s relatives in Cai Be, I learned some Vietnamese drinking etiquette and also endulged in a plethora of different dishes.
What we ate
Where to begin? The day’s itinerary was filled mostly with eating and time to rest before eating again. Walking up to one of the houses we passed by trees of guava that were close to ripening. The property was predominately occupied by fruit trees growing “trai man” that are red, tear-shaped fruit.
What we had in the afternoon was what appears to be a Vietnamese version of charcuterie. There was pate, two kinds of cha lụa, and some pickled carrots and radish. I suppose it is really just deconstructed banh mi with the baguette on the side. The banana leaf on the right is banh gio, steamed rice flour with a mushroom and pork filling.
Even if you can’t offer much in terms of conversation (read- you don’t know the language), you can at least partake in the drinking. This is a universal social activity among Asian cultures from my experience in South Korea, Japan, and now Vietnam.
In between bites, raise your glass and yell “Yo!”, clink glasses, and drink up! Do not drink on your own- ever. If you feel like drinking, invite everyone to join in. If someone raises their glass, drink with them. The rules are pretty simple, and if you follow them correctly, you’re guaranteed to make some friends!
Remembering this meal gives me a food coma! I have most of our meal in the shot. The clams we bought earlier, some fried prawns, soups, and salads all laid out on the floor. Most of the men sat on this side, and the same amount of dishes were to the left of me with the women sitting around those. There was more Tiger beer and more cheers of “yo!”
Overall, everyone enjoyed eating and drinking together and it was nice that because of our visit, everyone could get together.
Live large. Live Jennormously!