Monday, September 20, 2010

Can Tho

The ride to Can Tho was only 4 hours or so, making it a pretty short and easy trip. We tried reading the Vietnamese signage along the way, noticing certain words that showed up much more frequently than others and jotting them down to look up later. Once in Can Tho we were happy to discover that the bus company we used also offered a free shuttle service to your hotel of choice. The shuttle bus could only take us so far though, as our guesthouse was down one of the many small alleys that wove in, out, and around the city. Luckily, we found it pretty quickly, although it certainly didn't look much like a guesthouse. It looked more like someone living room, complete with one couch, a TV, and a coffee table. And there was no one in sight. We shouted to make our presence known and within a few moments were greeted by a short lady in PJs and a green mud mask. She led us through the room, out a back door, into another alley and back into a smaller sort of living room where we met with a woman who led us up to our room on the fifth floor. We settled in and took a brief rest before heading back downstairs to find food. The two women were still downstairs, waiting for us. I guess we hadn't checked in completely leaving them to wait as we rested in our room. Whoops. In Vietnam the rule seems to be that you must hand your passport over to the hotel for the duration of your stay. I don't know if this is a legal thing or if they figure passports are good collateral for any damage or refusal to pay - either way, you're left passport-less most of the time in Vietnam. So we dutifully handed over our passports for safe keeping, paid for our room, and deflected her attempts to sell us on a canal boat tour, telling her we'd get back to her about that. Heading down the road we found an Italian place that offered wifi, which is what we needed seeing as our guesthouse didn't have any (annoying, I know). So we ended up eating Western food for dinner and using their wifi. Afterward we took a brief stroll along the river before heading back to the guesthouse. We ended up booking a canal tour to see the floating market after all, before going to bed.

We woke up way too early on the 16th. If we were going to see the floating market in action we would have to get there bright and early. We were both surprised at how bright it already was at 5:00 AM. Unreasonably bright, if you ask me. We groggily made our way downstairs where we met with our tour guide for the day: an older woman in her PJs, missing a few teeth, and blessed with an almost childishly innocent personality. She handed over a bag containing a baguette and a bunch of finger bananas - our breakfast - and motioned for us to followed her with a toothless grin. We made the short walk to the dock, passing numerous fruit and veggie vendors on the way. How do so many people manage to get up so early? Our boat was an old, long, and narrow thing, made of wood and only wide enough to fit two people. We climbed in and took our places on the little seat while she stepped into place behind us and took hold of the rudder and motor with obvious familiarity. She yanked the starter cord a few times before it caught and we motored out into the river towards the market. Chuck and I indulged in finger bananas as we took in the scenery. To our Western, nature-starved eyes, the abundance of wild greenery was really beautiful. Stilted wooden houses perched atop the water, many looking about ready to completely topple in. They were mostly roofed with corrugated tin, although some had sections of dried palm fronds instead. We noticed people crouched down by the dirty water washing dishes, or clothing, or rinsing their vegetables. I saw one woman cutting up a chicken and tossing the bad bits in the river, and 15 minutes away from her by boat was a man taking a bath and washing his hair. In the same river. At that point, I decided that the river must not be a very clean or healthy body of water. We continued on a ways (past the floating gas station – how cool) until we could spot a small collection of boats in the distance. As we got closer we were approached by a boat shaped similarly to ours, but smaller and faster and loaded with snacks and drinks. I was thoroughly impressed with how well the driver was able to maneuver her boat using just one hand and foot as she stood at the rear, a cone hat perched sensibly on her head. As a side note, I found myself astounded at how many people really do wear cone hats in Vietnam. It's not just a false stereotype – they really do wear the cone hat. Ok, back to the boat lady. She spun herself around and lined up parallel to our boat, matched our speed and pointed at her goods. "Water?? Coka?" We declined repeatedly, and when that didn't convince her we resorted to just ignoring her. It took a few moments until she was convinced that we weren't just playing hard to get. She levered the motor once again and zoomed off to find someone else to bargain with. We neared the collection of boats in the distance, watching them grow to a size that was larger than I had expected. They were perhaps 40 feet long with very round hulls, made completely of wood and looking quite worn. I could tell which ones were loaded with goods not only because I could see the fruits of vegetables on the deck, but also because the boat would be sunk halfway down in the water, some boats looking as if they might be flooded at any moment. This floating market was more of a wholesale floating market, with each boat carrying oodles of just one item, namely pumpkins, pineapples, and watermelons. Each boat also appeared to serve as a house and people were out doing dishes or cooking as well as trying to sell their fruits. We ended up buying two pineapples as we left the small market, our boat driver making the exchange for us. As she steered down a smaller side canal she peeled the pineapples for us, leaving the stem on so that we could hold them like popsicles. She also made a stop along the river bank where some palm trees were growing out over the water and cut a few large fronds off - we had no idea what she was up to, but after some time it became apparent. She was making us jewelry! Out of palm fronds. While steering the boat. It seemed like a lot of work and concentration, but I suspect she must get bored if she does nothing but drive, so it made sense. By the end of the trip I had a pair of earrings (they "clipped on" due to their spiraled shape), two bracelets, Chuck had one bracelet, and a sword/wand with flowers woven into it. We were constantly impressed. Somewhere along the canal she pulled over to a little dock-like protrusion and pointed to a paved path that ran along the water. We managed to communicate just enough to understand that we were to meet her back at the dock after exploring whatever it was she had stopped to have us explore. So we climbed off the boat (all the while hoping she wouldn't just leave us there) and made our way down the path. We ran into a group of tourists who were all headed into a big garden or farm of some sort, so naturally, we followed them. The farm was a mix of wild overgrowth and cultured crops. Pink lotuses with yellow incense-cone-shaped seed pods. A mango tree dripping with green mangos. One spiky pineapple, nestled in a leafy cradle. Guavas, individually wrapped in a little plastic bags for protection. And my favorite was the dragon fruit. We didn't know what the plant was at first - it looked like one of the nameless vine-cactuses that grows back in Florida. Once we spotted the bright pink ornaments of fruit that were attached awkwardly to the plant we recognized it as dragon fruit right away. I was so excited at finally seeing what a dragon fruit plant looked like, that I had Chuck take a photo of me making my best dragon-face next to the thing. A small path that ran between the stands of guava trees led us back towards the canal via an open-air restaurant. I think that our boat lady had meant for us to stop and eat lunch there, but we weren't all that hungry (we'd eaten too many finger bananas perhaps) so we just got a much-needed bottle of water and headed back to the boat. She was waiting faithfully for our return and gave us one of her big, toothless grins when we came into view. She really seemed like a sweet lady. She continued paddling us down the canal for two hours, all the while weaving the palm fronds into little works of wearable art. It was a lovely - if not a bit lengthy - ride past small wooden houses tucked among the palm trees and whatever else plants that were growing unchecked. It was just what I had pictured in my head. It fit perfectly with my notions of what a rural, Asian, canal should look like. Wild with only small and simple touches of human intervention. By noon we had come full circle. The guide pulled up at the small dock we had departed from and we made our way back to the guesthouse amidst the ever present fruit, vegetable, and meat vendors that dotted the streets. Oh, we gave our guide a tip for all the leaf-jewelry. I'm pretty sure that money was first and foremost in her mind as she made them, but she did seem to be honestly appreciative when we tipped her, which was nice. What did we do for the rest of the day, you ask? Sleep, of course. We had gotten up way too early. We re-awoke a bit before sunset and headed to the Italian restaurant with the free wifi for a few hours. We booked bus tickets to the tiny little town of Ben Tre (pronounced kind of like bun-chuh - Vietnamese pronunciation is hard stuff) for the next day. We avoided eating at the Italian place, hoping to find some good Vietnamese food for dinner, and heading down the riverside promenade we found just that. There was a little area set up with tin tables and looked to be manned by three different street cart restaurants. We compared the menus quickly and chose the one that had hot pots because Chuck was craving a hot pot. Our waitress was a pretty young woman wearing a Zorok beer-girl dress. Have I mentioned beer girls? I feel like I have, but I can't seem to find it when I look back through my posts. So perhaps I'm repeating myself when I tell you about beer girls, but oh well. So, Thailand is where we first noticed beer girls. You can tell a waitress is actually a beer girl because she'll be wearing a cute, short dress with the logo of whichever beer company she works for embroidered into it. At first we thought they were just waitresses who had gone the extra mile, but it turns out they're more than that. If I understand correctly, they don't actually work for the restaurant - they work for the beer company. A restaurant can apply for, and if they're doing well enough they'll be given, napkin holders, napkins, signage, etc, all with the beer logo on them, and a beer girl. She is paid by the beer company, not the restaurant. So the restaurant gets a free waitress, and the beer company gets (hopefully) better sales thanks to all the advertising. I think it's a pretty cool system. And it works. I can attest to this because Chuck and I ended up buying Zorok beers along with our dinner, thanks to the beer girl. She was also a great waitress, helping us with a smile every step of the way, which was completely necessary given that we didn't know what to do with our food. We ordered something called "spiny with salted chilly" (yes, it was spelled "chilly"). What arrived at our table was a plate of long, thin, raw fish on skewers, covered in red sauce. We waited there for a few minutes staring at the fish, wondering if we were supposed to eat it the way it was. We looked around but didn't see anyone else with any "spiny." Chuck picked one up and gave it a sniff and a poke. I picked one up and made it talk by flipping its little mouth open and closed. We were getting close to trying it raw (I mean, we've eaten sushi...) when our Zorok girl returned with a table-top grill. I think this is point at which she realized we were like helpless children who needed to be taught how our dinner worked. She took us on as a little pet project and stayed with us to cooked our fish, gently telling us "No" when we tried to eat them before they were sufficiently cooked, and showing us how to pull the spines and ribs out by tugging on the tail. Then she helped us cook our seafood hot pot, adding all the ingredients in the correct order (can't you just throw it all in at once?) and serving us the resulting soup with a smile. She was pretty nice. The whole meal ended up costing $10 - what a deal! We walked around the city a bit after eating, but it felt kind of creepy and deserted. I have one particularly vivid memory of our walk. The road was empty save for two homeless bundles, one sitting while the other was laying on the sidewalk under a blanket. I remember that I tried not to look at them - both out of politeness (because staring is rude, or so I've been taught) and a feeling of awkwardness. But as we passed, the woman - who was staring pointedly at us - slowly pulled the blanket off the laying man. Attached to his back was a collection of twenty or so small, round, glass jars, suctioned to his skin like bulbous scales. He just layed there motionless on the sidewalk, while she stared at us. It was a very strange sight, made more sinister by the weird, pale yellow light cast by the street lamps. I only glanced at them for a split second, but it was one of those split seconds that brands you. Looking back I almost feel like I missed my chance to be part of some adventure involving witches and magic and a destiny to save the world from forces beyond any mere human's control. Like something from a movie. But really, what were the glass jars? What were they for? Was he sick? Why did she show them to us? Was she a witch-lady?? Was she going to curse us??? I think it might have been a type of "massage" called cupping, where they suction glass jars on your skin for therapeutic reasons, but I didn't learn about cupping until long, long after seeing the jar-covered man.

On the 17th Chuck got up well before I did. He went out for food while I slept. I got up close to noon, which gave me just enough time to pack and get downstairs to check out. We got our passports back, the poor things having been held hostage for the length of our stay. They were, happily, unscathed. Our transport to the bus station ended up being a motorcycle taxi. I was dreading the ride. I am not a fan of moto-taxis. First, I have a horrible sense of balance. I'm sure I could easily throw us all off balance and end up smeared on the road. And second, it's so intimate. You have to touch the driver. I mean, you have to straddle the driver. Unless you go for the more lady-like, but more precarious, side saddle position. I opted to straddle the dude, scooting as far back on the seat as I could without feeling like I was about to fall off. I'll admit it - it ended up being kind of fun riding on the back of the motorcycle, wind blowing, leaning into the turns. They still scare me, though. Once at the bus station we wandered through the crowded, dusty lot, looking for the bus with “Ben Tre” posted in the window. It ended up being less than luxurious. It was less than comfortable, even. Short and cramped with no AC. Luckily, the ride to Ben Tre would be a short one.