Wednesday, July 15, 2015

From Soc Trang to the Floating Markets of Can Tho

The ride through Tra Vinh, or Little Cambodia, with little roads, numerous temples big and small, tall trees, and cheerful Khmer villagers, followed by the massive Mekong River crossings, turned out to be wonderful experiences. Soc Trang with its local markets was an interesting break as we headed on north-west towards Can Tho.   

However, the first business of the day was breakfast, which was at a large, yet lovely restaurant right opposite the famed Bat Temple in Soc Trang. I ordered for Vegetable Soup, however, what showed up was a humongous bowl of Seafood Soup, with the assortment of well high flavour greens. Oh, well, I am not complaining..!!

The Bat Pagoda is a Khmer monastery, a rather large complex that was constructed over 400 years ago. It is set in a large garden with extremely tall trees, and has a remarkably peaceful atmosphere. 

Beautifully painted motifs are found on the sides of the main temple, extremely well preserved with bright colours. 

Several buildings of worship are scattered around the main temple. 

A troup of Khmer musicians played uniquely soft, soulful music using a variety of rare, ethnic Khmer instruments. The strains of the tunes floated through the gardens from a distance. Looking up, I could see few bats high up in the tall trees. Maybe they were asleep, due to come out during sunset in search of food?

Soc Trang was buzzing with activity as we rode to the next architectural wonder, the Clay Pagoda, set in the middle of the town. As always, the bright mood of the Sun God was no indicator whether the grey mood of the Rain God would prevail later in the day. 

Well, though popularly known as the Clay Pagoda, the official name is Buu Son Tu (Precious Mountain Temple). Owned by a Chinese family, the temple was established over 200 years ago by a Chinese family. 

The uniqueness of the Temple is that every statue is made of clay. That is the origin of the popular name Clay Pagoda (Chua Dat Set). 

Hundreds of statues and other sculptures are found all over the insides of the Temple. It is said that every piece was carefully sculpted by hand by the monk Ngo Kim Tong. 

The monk spent 42 years sculpting all the objects in the temple, starting at age 20. The objects include statues, candles and other decorative items, all rather colourfully painted. 

Local residents were praying in the Temple, being an active Temple. At times I felt like I was intruding. Turned out to be a Temple built out of a very unique concept and hard work by one monk over four decades. 

Having marveled at two unique temples, reputed to be the most well reputed in Soc Trang, we set off towards Can Tho. Intermittent rain had fallen the previous night, and the pattern was similar in the morning. We decided to take the back roads through small villages. 

The intermittent rain, the slush and the dense vegetation all around made the ride all the more interesting. The random nature of rainfall that morning seemed rather strange, considering that we had encountered sharp yet short bouts of heavy downpour towards noon over the past few days. We were forced to stop a few times to take shelter. Once in a Khmer village where the villagers cheerfully asked us to make ourselves comfortable as they went about their morning tasks. Once again, only smiles and sign language worked. 

The rain continued to play games. A few kilometres ahead, we had to dive for cover rather suddenly inside a temple because of a sudden downpour. It felt a little strange, there was nobody in there. 

Probably a temple of one of the minority groups in the area. Here again, we had to wait about 15 to 20 minutes for the rain to subside. We gazed at the rain drenched scenery outside, protected by the Dragon figures that adorned the pillars.

Stop, go. Stop, go. Finally it was 'go' again, as the rain slowed to manageable drops. A tiny boat steered by a slender lady appeared on the river, leaving a quiet wake behind. 

We rode through Vietnamese villages, with noticeably better maintained roads and houses in better shape than the Khmer villages.   

Soon we found that we could ride no more on the little roads since the vegetation got too thick and villagers informed us of a road block ahead. We crossed over a little bridge that led to one of the broader highways. The river had once again turned into the artery for local commerce. 

Curiously, the clouds had turned from a patch of continuous grey to masses of cotton wool clouds, with the sun managing to peek out weakly now and then. 

The almost continuous state of dampness over the morning and the difficult riding over slushy roads called for a mid-morning break at a coffee shop along the highway. Predictably enough, WiFi was available, though I preferred not to connect. It was more peaceful that way. 

Peeking at the back of the Cafe, I could see a row of hummocks all ready to welcome their guests. Some serious chilling does go on all over South Vietnam! 

We reached Can Tho a couple of hours later. The rains had not spared the city, as was evident from the glistening surface. 

The relatively busy town of Can Tho was quite different from the rest of the Delta. I actually saw a few tourists. We located a neat little local restaurant for lunch, remarkably clean, with the staff continuously cleaning the floors and tables. 

Lunch in Can Tho consisted of Pork and Chicken Noodle soup with greens and red chillies on the side.  

The afternoon was relaxed, spent drinking coffee at a Cafe next to the hotel, watching life go by. A long walk later that evening was an effort to make up for limited exercise over the past few days, covering a modern market by the water as well as the area around the river. That evening, I located a wonderful garden restaurant a few minutes away from the hotel.

A bunch of enthusiastic college students working part time made up the staff in the restaurant. Bubbling with energy, they were happy to come over and have a brief chat, some spoke good English while a few spoke no English at all. 

Turned out that a store nearby was perfect to buy some freshly ground Coffee beans. There was quite a variety on display, I pointed at a middle of the road variant. The beans were ground and sealed into air tight bags. 

Thanh Nhan is a family run hotel, quite common. The owners, with kids and the kids' grandparents hang around the lobby area, while guest rooms are located on the upper floors. 

Very clean room and bathroom, terrific value for money. I was up just before dawn the next day. On the agenda to take a look at the Cai Rang Floating Markets. 

Setting off around 6 AM turned out to be a good idea. The sun started to rise and lighten up the area as we set off, creating patterns of different colours on the water. 

We were on a 'private' tour, as compared to a 'group' tour where the boat stops and picks up passengers from several piers. 

We saw boats of different shapes, sizes, capacity and colours. The smaller boats carried a limited number of goods. They are probably 'Retail' boats. 

A slightly larger 'Retail' boat. 

Mid-sized boats seemed to be the 'Sub-distributor' boats, to borrow terminology from the world of Sales and Distribution. These boats carried larger volumes but a smaller variety of goods than the 'retail' boats. For example, a few types of vegetables that they in turn sold to the 'Retail' boats. 

The 'Sub-distributor' boats ferry vegetables to the numerous 'Retail' boats. 

The large 'Distributor' boats carry large amounts of cargo, selling parts of the goods further down the chain to 'Sub-distributor' boats. And so on...

Many larger boats are not only platforms for trade, but also comprise living quarters for the participants in the Floating Market industry. Residents live on the boats, cook, clean, eat and spend most of their days on the large boats.  The river water isn't particularly clean.  

We turned off the main river into a smaller canal, with houses and boats lined up by the side. 

Being breakfast time, it was appropriate to visit a Noodle factory, to look but not eat, though. Rice batter is steamed on large, flat plates. When slightly dry with increased consistency, the thin cake is lifted up expertly using a round bamboo device. 

The wafer thin cakes are placed on bamboo mats to dry, generally in the sun (if it'snot a rainy day). 

The last step is to feed the dry cakes through a shredding machine that results in the output of Rice Noodles. 

The roasted Rice-Pancake studded with sliced banana was an interesting snack, neatly packaged in a thin, plastic sheet. Not bad, a slightly sweet breakfast snack. 

The cooking process consists of 'fire treatment' on coals. 

A second snack that was available was the steamed Rice Pancake.  Not wanting to over eat, I skipped over to the next stall. 

A large variety of soups! This should do! 

The main course for breakfast turned out to be pasta and noodle soup, with a variety of seafood, greens and red chillies. Yum, indeed..!! 

Breakfast done, it was then time to head back. The boat ride took about an hour, as we looked trade being conducted between the Distributor, Sub-distributor and Retail boats. Homes, many sitting high on stilts, are located along the banks of the river.

Life seems to be well regulated along the river, complete with numbered parking spots. I wondered whether the waste management system was as well monitored and controlled. 

Well, it's been an early and busy morning, with an interesting look at life in and around the Cai Rang Floating Markets near Can Tho. Time now, to head west towards Chau Doc, about 120 km away, the gateway to Cambodia. 

Previous: Little Cambodia and Mighty Mekong in Soc Trang 



  1. Amazing level of detail, Jyotinath! Poetic at times... How did you remember all those tongue-twisting Viet-Khmer names? Were you logging?


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