Monday, July 13, 2015

Local flavours of Ben Tre

The plan for Day 2 was to leave My Tho after breakfast, ride around and explore Ben Tre, the Mekong River area, islands, canals and rice fields.  

Well, first things first, it was time for breakfast, for which we walked crossed the road from Hotel Rang Dong to a small restaurant that opens by 7 AM. On the menu was a choice of soups, quickly put together by the cheerful lady running the place. Set in a shaded garden, it was a pleasant place to start the day. 

The Soup was made from a pork base, with sphaghetti, pork and chicken pieces, and lime pieces and the usual red chillies on the side. Enough to get us going for the day, with the dripping Vietnam black coffee that has the most marvelous of flavours. 

The clouds were threatening as we crossed the modern bridge across the Mekong River, leading from My Tho to the islands and mainland further south that comprise Ben Tre. 

Getting off the bridge, we found ourselves getting into quiet areas, tree lined and very green. The quality of the road surface never ceased to surprise me.  

Further and further inside we rode, passing little villages along the way. 

Parking the motorbike under the trees along the path overlooking the Mekong, it was time to look around a bit. The colour of the river reflected the grey of the overcast sky. In the distance, we could see the bridge that we had crossed on the way from My Tho. 

We then hopped on to little boats that would take us along the canals around Ben Tre. 

The canals were extremely narrow in some spots, with the leaves of coconut trees bending low over the water surface. It was very quiet, with just the swishing sound of the paddles slicing through the calm, muddy water.

Before road systems were built, these canals used to be the means of transportation for the local residents. At these time, the canals are being maintained as a tourist attraction. It's a way for the residents to earn a living, as the tourism industry gets developed. 

We got a chance to look at the little small scale units that manufacture coconut candy. First, the inside of the coconuts are separated and squeezed to draw out the coconut milk. 

Next, the additional ingredients like sugar and other additives are added and the candy is brought to a finishing stage. 

The ladies were quietly doing their packaging work, and were not at all pushy, did not try to sell the candy. They offered us a few samples, though. Very, very gummy!

The return trip was quiet, as the slim boat glided over the water with the occasional swishing sound of the paddle leveraging the water to push the boat forward. The boat crew are very friendly, and try to speak the limited amount of English they have picked up, not much more than "Hello" and "Bye". It was good to see the tourism trade well established, yet quite low key without any sign of harassment or force to buy handicrafts and candies. It provides the population a means to earn a living - without harming the environment. 

Riding around Phoenix Island, we followed the path by the Mekong. It had not rained yet, so the roads were reasonably safe to ride on. 

The tracks got narrower and rougher. At some spots we had to get off the path to allow other bikes to pass. Sometimes the oncoming bikes moved off on to the grassy areas to let us pass. 

Phoenix Island in Ben Tre is rather interesting. It is home to the Coconut religion of Vietnam. The founder of the religion is reported to have lived solely on coconuts. The main shrine is set in a small limestone hillock. 

The courtyard alongside the shrine is a large garden with nine pillars representing nine dragons. It is reported that John Steinbeck's son was a follower of the Coconut religion. 

Boatloads of tourists land up in Phoenix Island from My Tho. This appears to be part of the tourist circuit, along with the visit to the Canals and Candy factories nearby.

In this case, a not so pleasant impact of the tourism industry is felt in the nearby villages. Several small workshops produce the little objects that are sold to tourists as local souvenirs. Stepping into one of these workshops, we found a couple of ladies bending over grinding wheels, mounds of saw dust all over. The air was thick with saw dust. Small fans kept the ladies cool. One of the ladies did not even bother wearing a mask. 

Outside the room was a stack of spoons in a semi-finished state, just shaped and yet to be polished. 

Stores located on the street of the village sold the finished products to tourists - shiny jars, spoons, pestles, mortars and other objects. 

Pushing ahead further, we discovered that Ben Tre is a pretty town, looking even prettier after the bit of light rain that had washed the road clean. 

The Mekong and it's system of rivers is everywhere. It's fascinating, the way that the Delta with it's intricate formation of waterways has developed over millions of years and supports the entire economy. More on this later... 

All the riding and wandering around signalled the onset of hunger pangs. Lunch was in an mid sized, extremely well maintained restaurant located off the main part of Ben Tre, in a lovely garden setting. The restautant went by the name of La Xanh, which I understand means Green Leaves.  

Our order consisted of a Hot Pot based Vegetable and Fish soup, with the most subtle of flavours, water based cooking with Mint and other greens. Along with that was a Fish dish, very lightly fried. Extremely healthy food, isn't it? The main courses were accompanied by Tea, Rice and the usual Sauces and Chillies. Yum! What lovely lunch, cooked fresh for us. Appropriate for the setting, a whole bunch of 
green leaves went into cooking the delicious Hot Pot broth, which appeared to contain good amounts of herbs like Lemongrass and Mint. 

Having fortified ourselves with top class lunch, it was time to set off to explore the Ben Tre area. Fruit stalls were in plenty along the road, the sellers patiently waiting for buyers to appear.  

The Ben Tre area is very green, with lovely little villages scattered all around the town. Villagers quietly go about their agriculture business.  

Finding ourselves near the Mango Cruises property, we dropped in, and were welcomed by the gracious Ms Nhung. Some of the garden areas were being renovated, recent heavy gusts of wind having caused a bit of damage to the gardens and roof. Set along the Mekong River, extremely tranquil, the Mango Resort would be a perfect setting to chill, gazing at the little boats that putter along the river. It feels like the boats hesitate to go any place, not wanting to disturb the environment. 

Designed by Ms Nhung, the resort consists of a main building with a few guest rooms. A few more rooms are housed in another building across the garden. In all, probably about ten or so rooms. 

I made a mental note. If ever I show up in Vietnam with the Missus, Mango Resort would certainly be an appropriate place to spend a few relaxed days. The Missus is definitely of the Mango Resort kind, and not at all the Motorbike kind. 

Nam and I set off again to explore the area. While in Vietnam, any time is Coffee time. We found a tiny cafe along one of the side roads and settled down to enjoy the drip Coffee and watch life go by. 

The heavens opened up barely five minutes later, and we had to retreat inside with our Coffee, still dripping in the process of creating the magic brew. Excellent timing, that was. The mega downpour stopped in about 20 minutes, in typical monsoon style.

The evening was spent doing a bit of in-room laundry and catching up with the world, with the help of the amazing WiFi coverage in Vietnam. Even the little guest house we checked into in the outskirts of Ben Tre had extremely good WiFi coverage. The Guest House was run by the same family that owned the La Xanh restaurant where we had eaten the lovely, freshly cooked lunch. We were back for dinner to the same restaurant. The family was around at that time, and I had a most delightful evening playing ball with the children. 

We shared an earful of secrets in some unknown language, probably the ancient "guuzzhh-buuzzhh-khuuzzhh" language, giggling all the time. The little fellow finally had to be reluctantly pulled away by his mother. 

Perhaps because it was past the little fellow's bedtime, and also because I had to be given a chance to tuck into the delicious dinner that had been,once again, freshly cooked for us. Tea, Vegetables, Fish, Noodles, and an assortment of Lemongrass, Mint and other herbs along with Banana wine all added up into a lovely dinner.  

It was another lovely meal set in a remarkably pleasant garden restaurant, Hot Pot based, as fresh and full of flavour as can be. Looking back, along with some of the food in HCMC, these two meals in Ben Tre would rank as the food highlights of my trip. The spontaneous family hospitality added another warm dimension, of course.  

Yet another nice memory is of one of the family members quickly coming to my rescue when she realized that I was unable to tackle the bony river fish with chopsticks. It is rather hard to negotiate fine bones of river fish using chopsticks. At least for us folks who don't eat with chopsticks at home. 

So, where did we stay? Earlier in the day, Nam had located the small, off the map, squeaky clean Quynh Phuc Guest House (Nha Nghi).  Located on a quiet street away from the rown, owned by the same family that owns the excellent La Xanh restaurant. 

The staff at the guest house spoke no English at all, they would simply nod and smile their way through any conversation with the help of sign language.  Good enough! 

The crowing roosters signaled dawn the next day, a lovely way to wake up. Bags packed, strapped to the motorbike, Nam and I set off again.  

First thing, as always, was to find breakfast, which happened to be at a well appointed restaurant with the added bonus of being able to order fresh, hot Soup from a cart on the street. 

What a lovely combination, a fairly upmarket cafe where you could order tasty street food soup. The smiling ladies spoke zero English. 

Black, drip coffee does make an excellent combination with fresh, hot, spicy Noodle soup as the sun begins to emerge. 

It was about time to set off further south for our long ride to Soc Trang. Looking up, the first thought was, what's the rain scene likely to be like today? Well, time would tell. 

Oh, in case any travelers are looking for a spic and span little guest house in the outskirts of Ben Tre, run by friendly staff who only nod and smile, and in case the prospect of the most delicious, fresh food seems attractive, accompanied by warm hospitality of the owners, not to mention kids playing ball and refusing to go to bed - look no further than the lovely "Nha Nghi Quynh Phuc" (Quynh Phuc Guest House) and the equally attractive "La Xanh" (Green Leaves) restaurant owned by the same family. The guest house and restaurant would certainly tick all your boxes for experiencing the local flavours of Ben Tre. 

Previous: The Buddha smiles Over My Tho


1 comment:

  1. Great post JG. Food looks awesome. Rural areas look super clean and no pollution.


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