On the drive south out of Saigon toward the Mekong Delta, we passed massive building projects and rabbit warren hamlets where shacks and lean-tos leaned against cement and ceramic homes, all in the same place. Vietnam is a country in transition and the highway south showed it.
Right now Ho Chi Minh City is awash with development, but there's not enough room to hold it all. Apartment buildings are going up south of the river, looking a bit like the mass housing units erected in Chicago or New York, although perhaps not as tall and certainly more colorful. Everything is painted in primary colors, it seems, clean and bright with intricate tiles and comprehensive designs. At least the new housing. The older housing, like many cities, has faded a bit, tile broken in places, with no money to replace.
Most of the people living in these new apartment homes are foreigners come to work in HCMC, paying about $75,000 for a two bedroom apartment, an expensive price here. Vietnamese don't like the buildings because they're too far from the middle of town.
The city seemed to go for miles. It was a curious blend of urban and rural, buildings and homes and rice fields all mixed together, with industry and cows standing alongside each other. The Mekong is the breadbasket of Vietnam, producing huge amounts of rice, fruits and vegetables as well as clay for terra cotta and fish and shrimp the size of brautwurst.
We stopped at some kind of monkey preserve during the three-hour ride. Various people looked at the animals and river but what caught my attention were two men building another story on the home next door. These homes might be called boxcar homes in the states, narrow and deep with one room behind another room behind another. It was fascinating to watch. They had used tree branches, well, skinny logs maybe, 3 inches in diamater at best, to create the frame of the building, then poured cement columns to hold up the roof, then put the roof on, all of this done with a bucket and rope to transport the liquid concreate. Eventually they will encase the wood in some kind of cement or clay, creating a wall that will look almost like fired ceramic.
Along the way we passed white tombs on the water, stone caskets with headstones sitting in the middle of rice fields. We were told that people placed their dead in these tombs on their property many years ago and even if property changed hands or, more likely, flooding caused the land to change, no one ever moved the dead because it was against custom. It was the home of your ancestor and you honored your ancestors. Each new year a family will paint their home and buy new clothes, for themselves and their ancestors, so the caskets remained pristine. They would buy paper clothes for their ancestors and burn them in the new years cemetery. Although the ceremonies continue, the Vietnamese don't put tombs in rice fields anymore because the land is too precious. They now cremate their dead.
We caught a boat to continue our travels into the Mekong, a small both about the size of those used in the jungle ride at Disneyland. The breeze off the water helped asuage the heat and humidity constant in the delta. Saigon is no coldhouse, itself a bit humid. But the delta is much more so, a sauna with bugs, although we were lucky that it didn't seem as filled with mosquitoes as we were warned about. We passed boat after boat plying the waters, usually boats about the size of ours, a few larger, many smaller dhows that looked like someone had dug out the middle of a huge log although as we saw later they were crafted by hand, carved and pieced together, plastered with clay on the bottom to prevent leaks. In the past two oars plowed by a man or woman standing at the rear of the boat powered the dhows. But these days more and more have motors, small outboards with long metal tails about 10 feet in length with the blades at the end. I don't know why they had such long motors but it was clear they afforded the people much flexibility in getting around the ever changind delta.
It was low tide when we got on the water, a tide so low it stranded many boats in area tributaries. A few hours later the water had risen what looked like 10 feet and freed them again. The water was lower than usual, our guide said, but the water always came back.
We stopped at a rice factory on the way. It was yet another chance to illustrate how humongous Westerners are.
Now I'm on the large side anyway. But in Vietnam I am King Kong. Even the American Vietnamese along on this trip, the men especially, tower above their counterparts. Most of the Vietnamese are short and slight, many barely 5 feet tall and weighing less than my thigh, I'd guess. So leaping off small boats onto smaller docks is nothing to them. To Gargantua here and some others in my group, it was less easy. And the sad thing was how the Vietnamese all scrambling around to help us, sort of like guiding a 747 into a slot for a Cessna. I did fine, as did the others, but worried a bit as I'd step onto a dock and it would sink down and then slowly, slowly rebound.
But that wasn't the end. You then scrambled up narrow dockways, bridges to the ground, sometimes at a steep angle, usually with no railings, all the width of a laptop or two. Certain death, well, certain gunge in mucky silt and mud - and possible injury - awaited you below. They weren't the monkey bridges they told us to look for - bridges comprising a stick of bamboo the diameter of my arm - so I guess I shouldn't complain.
The rice factory was the epitome of efficiency, industry and monotony. Small barges would carry in rice. Two men armed with large baskets hanging from shoulder poles would take turns filling the baskets and moving the rice into a huge warehouse at riverside. The pile of rice reached 20 feet high in there. The men would have to climb to the back, like climbing in sand, dump the rice and then return for another trip.
In the back a man popped the rice. It smelled like popcorn and looked like puffed rice, which is was. He dumped buckets of rice into a metal wok suspended over a fire fueled by rice husks. The wok also had a bunch of sand burned black from reuse. The sand would keep the rice from sticking to the wok. After it popped, a black to white evolution, he sifted scooped up the rice with a sifter, shaking the sand back into the wok. He sifted it again to get rid of the rice husks. The rice was passed on to a man boiling coconut oil and other flavoring over another fire fueled by rice husks. A second man would dump the rice into the hot liquid, which looked like butter, and they'd each use two large sticks to mix it, moving around the metal wok in a coordinated dance. They then dumped it on a frame the size of a coffee table and proceeded to make Vietnamese Rice Krispie squares.
Three people sat at the side packaging the squares, one placing it into a baggie, the second wrapping a rubber band around the opening to close it and the third putting the end product in a larger plastic bag. The teen with the rubber band had the motion down pat, ending his part with the loud pop of a rubber band snapping against plastic. While I admired the skill, I couldn't imagine sitting there, day after day, in the heat and humidity, snapping rubber bands.
The factory produced other items from the rice including rice paper, which came from rice milk, which came from milking rice cows I guess. Anyway, the woman would pour a thin layer of rice milk onto two pieces of material stretched taut over a hot surface and then cover it with a woven straw lid. In a matter of seconds she would remove the lid and peel off the paper, which then dried on wide sheets woven of rice straw.