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Thursday 23rd September - Ho Chi Minh City
By Claire
Sunday, 26th September 2004 05:27

We left the city in much the same direction as yesterday, and this morning there were a lot of mopeds transporting furniture: desks with carved legs; office chairs, and long benches all tied behind the driver. Occasionally a passenger would be propped up on the seat holding a pane of glass in a comedy moment. As well as the bundles of chickens, today there were cages of dogs stacked at the side of the road, and a florist on a bicycle was lost under boquets and arrangements as he weaved through the traffic.

We stopped for the obligatory breakfast break and I lazed in a hammock for half an hour. Two hours further down the road we dropped various groups of people off and then arrived at the dock. We boarded a small wooden boat with wooden chairs along the sides and a wooden roof, and chugged along with an outboard motor for a while. The river was huge and filthy and brown, much like the one in Bangkok but wider. There were a couple of large towns, one on either bank, and a forest of television ariels towering over the corrugated iron houses on the water. We crossed the river and stopped at a small jetty where we were greeted by a throng of market stall holders offering their wares. We were led through a small covered market to a house with plastic tables laid with plates of sweets. This was a popped-rice factory and the whole day was going to be spent viewing local crafts and being expected to buy a sample. We dutifully tasted the treats and then watched two men pour a large frying pan of sticky goo into a wooden trough and roll it out. In the garden, a man was heating sand from the river (not an appealing thought) in a big wok and then he added rice. Within seconds the whole thing was a mass of white bubbles and they looked a bit like a load of maggots wriggling. It was pretty cool, though, and he did it again for us.

Next we had a bit of a cruise down the river. We passed the town and headed out into more open water, where water hyacinths grew in great green swathes to prevent errosion of the river banks and old men mended fishing nets. Women on boats tended areas of fruit trees in the water or corrals of ducks. There was a floating market here, where the locals rowed out in little boats to buy things from much bigger boats, but we didn't get too close. Then we took a little side street and travelled down small canals for a while where we saw wooden houses on sticks with jetties and tiny wooden bridges, and people washing and cooking and mending things. There were dense groves of trees on both sides and the waterway was only just wide enough for the boat. The towns seemed to go way back off the banks, too, through banana plantations and over rickety bridges. We stopped at one of these places for lunch.

A large fish greeted us at the table, propped up with its bodyparts still intact and a marigold in its mouth which looked like a clown nose. The waiter showed us how to wrap the bits of fish into a rice pancake and add vegetables and sauce and left everyone to it. I had some rice and pork and only tasted the fish which just tasted like fish. Then we had about an hour to wander around, and we were offered the use of bicycles. Mikey and I steered clear of the likely death that would cause and went for a walk instead. The village was a sort of island in the canals, and there were bridges linking all the bits. It was rather pretty and we went as far as the houses went, and then turned back. There was a nice little chuch that we walked along a muddy path to, and every child we passed waved and called hello. Past the church we found a bridge over a canal that was only made of a few sticks above a five foot drop and we braved that, and finally went back to the restaurant for a snooze in the hammocks. All to soon it was time to get back on the boat.

We went back roughly the way we came and this time we stopped at a facotry that made coconut toffee. It was a small wooden shack on stilts and again we tasted the sweets and then saw how they were made. Almost everyone in Asia eats coconuts when they are young and green, and full of milk. When the shell and flesh become hard, like the ones at home, the fruit is considered too old and the flesh is ground up. This place used the old coconuts and they boiled it with sugar and syrup and things in a big pan until it solidified then cut it into strips and wrapped it in paper. It was a very well-practiced process and the three people sitting round the table had obviously done it before - the candy was wrapped in two layers of paper with a movement that was too quick to see.

The boat took us back to the mainland for the last time and we were left to have a look round a market. This was a dark place covered with tarpaulin and umbrellas and sold just about every animal that's used for food, some still alive. There were snakes and turtles in cages, eels and carp in shallow pans of water, crabs with their legs tied up, still twitching. And there were organs of every kind, on sticks or in bags, pink and white and frilly and dripping, bunches of dead frogs, small squid and cuttlefish, live chickens, duck heads (if you bought those, you could get them to put it on the bill, says Robin), shell fish and vegetables of all shapes and sizes. The wet earth floor was crunchy and it stank. We didn't stay for long, and sat in a cafe for a bit. I asked a lady to peel a pomelo for me and I caused a bit of amusement by my method of eating it, I think, which was to pick up the slices in my fingers. No one suggested an alternative, though. Mikey was hassled by a lady who wanted him to buy some sort of lottery tickets and got a bit upset when he declined. And that was about it for the day - the bus picked us up again, we had a very bumpy ride home and stopped briefly at another cafe. I don't think many people can last more than about an hour at a time on a bus. This one had some cages in the garden, with pythons and monkeys in them. I was a bit upset at how the monkeys were treated, sitting in bare cages with no food or water available. One of them had a baby so small that it could fit through the bars of the cage and crawled around outside for a while before going back to its mother. There were two gibbons, too, who stuck their long arms out of the cage to demand food. While I would have been tempted to give them fruit, I didn't like the Italian girl feeding them crisps and biscuits, but I suppose at least it's food for them.

We had soup and spring rolls in the hotel for supper, wrote a whole bunch of postcards and packed our bags.

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