A day over the lucky 'nine dragons'

Last Updated : 16 September 2017, 19:22 IST

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It was 9 am on December 26 when I left my hotel in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The young English-speaking guide, Lam, was taking me towards the boat point at Ben Tau near MyỹTho, capital of the Tien Giang Province in southern Vietnam, for a day over River Mekong.

My Tho was founded in the 1680s by Chinese refugees fleeing Taiwan after the fall of the Southern Ming dynasty. Its economy is based on tourism, fishing and cultivation of rice, coconuts and many tropical fruits (bananas, mangoes, pineapple, papaya, dragon, passion, longan (lychee) and citrus fruits). Astride the entire route lies the Mekong Delta.

In Vietnamese, the river is called ‘Cuu Long’, meaning ‘nine dragons’, as nine is their auspicious and lucky number, and the river, flowing 220 km through Vietnam, has branches in South Vietnam like dragon’s limbs, though two are silted. Mekong also means Mother River.

Here to stay

Our first halt was at the beautiful Buddhist Vinh Tràng Temple, a few kilometres short of the boat ferry. An amalgam of Asian and European styles, and constructed in 1849, it has been renovated four times and reconstructed once. The main triple gate (a central steel gate and two side-gates made from concrete and styled like a fortress); statues of various Buddhas including Amitabha Buddha, Gautama Buddha (in bronze); various arahants (in wood) and bodhisattvas; the garden with potted plants; and a sitting (laughing) Buddha are worth seeing.

We reached the boat ferry within a few minutes. Being entitled to a separate motor boat for the 2-½ hour ride, we had to wait for one. The weather, extremely pleasant all along, became sunny. Luckily, boats had roofs. Lam got me an ice cream and briefed me here, so that I could spend my time photographing views from the boat. Most boats are rowed/driven by women, and they don’t even ask us to wear life jackets, the fearless Nadias!

River Mekong lies between My Tho and Ben Tre Province.

Floating trade

There are four islands short of the far bank: Dragon, Unicorn, Phoenix and Tortoise, all names sacred to the Vietnamese. The boat arrives and Lam playfully asks me to request the boatwoman to take off her face mask (protection against the sun), and she obliges with a smile; well, isn’t she pretty!

I see floating homes (which stay at least six months afloat) and fishing boats. During March and April, the saltwater season, red snappers weighing at least 500 gm each arrive in plenty. The fisherfolk stay for two weeks at a stretch to catch, sort out the fish and send them across to the market near the ferry. They spend over $ 35,000 annually for fishing.

I wondered if they get just dividends for all their risks and investments; Lam assured me they do. I saw net traps for freshwater fish and learnt that basa (a type of catfish) is exported to Australia and the US. Yellow and black sand-dredging by ships/boats was going on. In 30 minutes, we skirted the Tortoise Island and entered the Xep Channel.

We then took a row boat across the channel creek, with mangroves on either side, full of waterpalms, and a major river route once used by the Viet Cong. Getting off near Quoi An Village, we took a walk through a jungle track via an orchard full of fruits, watching a crocodile farm en route. On reaching the road, a horse cart arrived and we went for a kilometre ride.

Fruity treats

After a short walk later, we reached Ben Truc Orchard where we tasted five to six types of sliced and decorated fresh tropical fruits: pomeloes, jackfruit, dragon fruit, pineapple & watermelon, besides green tea with honey and lime, and local music. We arrived at the Mekong Riverside Restaurant: a huge thatched-roof dining hall seating over 300-350 tourists at a time. Word had been sent that I was a vegetarian. Still, it took a long time for my food to arrive. After lunch and more briefing, we took a row-boat to the exit point of the creek and got into the same motor boat, where the woman smilingly welcomed us. She took us to the Coconut Candy factory on the island, where they explained candy and cookie making, besides various uses of coconut to me, a South Indian.

On the way to the hotel, Lam taught me four-five Vietnamese phrases, which I tried both on her and the hotel staff and the driver for the next two days... Among them was ‘chúc may man’ (good luck or wish you well)!

Published 16 September 2017, 16:19 IST

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