Discovering Indochina–Mekong Delta

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To the south of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnam government), the Mekong River Delta is about 60 km away. We took a bus from our hotel in Saigon to tour the Mekong Delta, and to see one of the floating markets that thrive on the river.

Here is a Google Map. We will drive to the Mekong Delta, and stop (I think) in Cái Bè, one of several cities that host floating markets on the Mekong. (The two other well- known locations are the Cai Rang Floating Market in Can Tho City, and Phung Hiep.)

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As we drive I notice several buildings typical of Vietnam. Here is a hotel, I think. It is 10 stories tall, but maybe only 20 feet wide. Land is expensive, so buildings are on small lots, and add stories to increase their space.

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More urban buildings.

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Rice fields (and graves) in the countryside.

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A rich house on the left, next to it an open shack selling something.

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A roadside temple, probably Confucian. These are really Ancestor Veneration Temples. In Vietnam, temples for the veneration of Great Heroes are a vital part of the scene. Each temple is dedicated to one or more of such spirits, and with a view of Vietnamese legend. There are many such temples in Vietnam. As a rule, these temples do not have Buddhas or Buddhist symbolism; but are richly ornamented in Chinese designs, and contain altars covered with incense burners, candles, pictures of the deceased, etc.

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Small houses in the countryside. Even these have pillars in front.

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Christian churches are pretty common. Here is one by the road.

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A crossroad in a small town we pass through. Typical Vietnam street, with many small shops and people mostly on motorbikes or on foot.

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Another well-to-do house. The combination of communist government with a (mostly) free market economy has made some people rich.

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When our bus stopped, we had to walk several blocks to the river. We passed by a vendor selling different dried beans and such.

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It is common for houses to display some kind of household guardians at the entrance. One type that I saw often was these dogs. I think they are collies, like Lassie. I never saw any actual dogs that looked like this, though. Just ceramic ones.

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We can see the river in front of us.

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We are helped aboard the boat.

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The boat had a crew of two, the pilot, in back, and a person to help the passengers, this Vietnamese lady.

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I was surprised at the shoes she choose for her job on the boat.

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It was a nice boat, adequate shade from the sun, and good wooden seats and decks.

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The Mekong River (from wikipedia)

The Mekong River is one of the great rivers of the world. These rivers brought, in the days before good road systems, exchange. It was exchange in commerce, and also in ideas and people and cultures. Many times it also brought changes, from small changes, like a new food, to big changes, like change of rulers, kings or emperors.

The Mekong is a river in Southeast Asia. It is the world’s 12th-longest river and the 7th-longest in Asia. Its estimated length is 4,350 km (2,703 mi), and it drains from an area of 795,000 km2 (307,000 sq. mi., bigger than the state of Texas in the USA.). From the Tibetan Plateau, this river runs through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Though there are navigation difficulties such as waterfalls and low water seasonally, the river is a major trading route linking China’s southwestern province to the South China Sea. It provides locals with an invaluable outlet to the sea and to international trading.

To South Vietnam the Mekong brought traditions from India. This was through the Funan kingdom, which occupied southern Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam from maybe as far back as 400 BCE (based on archeological finds) to 600 CE. Funan was heavily influenced by Indian civilization, perhaps overland through Thailand and Cambodia. Hinduism may also have been brought by the sea directly from India, since Funan was the first great maritime power in Indochina.  Learned Indian immigrants were employed in the administration of the state. Sanskrit was the language at the court, and the Funanese adopted Hindu and, after the 5th century, Buddhist religious doctrines.

It may be that the Hinduism of the Funan was the source for the same beliefs of the Cham people in Central Vietnam, whose kingdom rose as the Funan were falling from power. The Cham were the people who built the Hindu temples in Mỹ Sơn and Nha Trang that we showed in earlier posts in this series. .

Below is a map of Funan Kingdom, 100 CE

Map of Funan Kingdom, 100 CE

The river is in front of us. There are buildings on both sides of the river, densely spaced, each close to the next.

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This house has chain-link fencing for security. On the other side of the fence, clothes hang to dry.

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History of the Mekong Delta (From wikipedia):

The Mekong Delta (Vietnamese: đồng bằng sông Cửu Long “Nine Dragon river delta”) is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of distributaries. The Mekong delta region encompasses a large portion of southwestern Vietnam: 39,000 square kilometers (15,000 sq mi). The size of the area covered by water depends on the season.

The Mekong Delta has recently been dubbed as a “biological treasure trove.” Over 10,000 new species have been discovered in previously unexplored areas of Mekong Delta, including a species of rat thought to be extinct. (Oh boy, more rats.)

The Mekong Delta was likely inhabited long since prehistory; the empire of Funan and later Chenla maintained a presence in the Mekong Delta for centuries, from about 400 BCE to 900 CE. Archaeological discoveries at Oc Eo and other Funan sites show that the area was an important part of the Funan Kingdom, bustling with trading ports and canals as early as in the first century CE and extensive human settlement in the region may have gone back as far as the 4th century BCE.

Starting about 1000 CE, the region was known as Khmer Krom (lower Khmer, or lower Cambodia) to the Khmer Empire, which likely maintained settlements there centuries before its rise in the 11th and 12th centuries. The kingdom of Champa, though mainly based along the coast of the South China Sea, is known to have expanded west into the Mekong Delta, seizing control of Prey Nokor (the precursor to modern-day Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon) by the end of the 13th century. It is suggested that a Cham presence may indeed have existed in the area prior to Khmer occupation.

Beginning in the 1620s, Khmer king Chey Chettha II (1618–1628) allowed the Vietnamese to settle in the area, and to set up a custom house at Prey Nokor, which they colloquially referred to as Sài Gòn. The increasing waves of Vietnamese settlers which followed overwhelmed the Khmer kingdom—weakened as it was due to war with Thailand—and slowly Vietnamized the area. During the late 17th century, Mac Cuu, a Chinese anti-Qing general, began to expand Vietnamese and Chinese settlements deeper into Khmer lands, and in 1691, Prey Nokor was occupied by the Vietnamese.

Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh, a Vietnamese noble, was sent by the Nguyễn Lords of Huế by sea in 1698 to establish Vietnamese administrative structures in the area. This act formally detached the Mekong Delta from Cambodia, placing the region firmly under Vietnamese administrative control. Cambodia was cut off from access to the South China Sea, and trade through the area was possible only with Vietnamese permission.

This is another Mekong Delta tour. Only two passengers on board.

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Life here opens to the river. Here is some kind of warehouse, unloading (I think) a boat fresh from a buying trip at the floating market.

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Here is a boat full of watermelons. Maybe since it is full of one crop, they are selling, not buying. It is probably coming from the nearby floating market and going to distribute its goods along the riverfront. 

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Here is a boat full of round red fruit (or vegetable).

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Here is a bigger boat, a barge. This is a garden shop, a nursery, selling sapling trees and other growing plants.

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Several boats are tied together to make a bigger combined shopping area. They are anchored in the river. This is what is left of the floating market after many of the smaller boats have left for the day.

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It is after 9 am, so the activity level is pretty slowed down. Before 9 it is pretty crazy, we have heard.

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To show what they are selling, each boat ties an example of its wares to a pole. This way, people on small boats know where they have to go. The boat pictured below sells pumpkins.

The main items to be found are produce. It may come from far away, as far as the Cambodian border.

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These floating markets have been long established. The one at Cai Re was established by the Nguyen Emperor in the 1800s.

Farmers from all over the region bring their goods, fruits and vegetables mainly, to the markets and sell them to local dealers. These dealers sell the products to shops in the neighboring towns and to wholesale dealers from the big towns.  In the floating markets you do not only find people buying and selling goods, you also find floating restaurants, floating bars, floating gas stations, and many other floating shops. Rivers and canals are here the easiest and fastest way of transportation, so the floating market is of great local importance.

This is how these markets look when they are busy, before 9am. (Photo from Vietnam Prestige Travel)

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Below, a lady rowing her boat away from the market. It looks pretty empty. Maybe she was just buying for her household’s needs today.

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A wooden pole store on the shore. These poles are a basic building material here.

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A few houses on the waterfront.

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This looks like someone’s home on the water. As things go, this might be a pretty good home. Most of the space, though, would be for hauling freight.

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One of many ferries that we have seen in Vietnam. There are many rivers, and not so many bridges, so ferries are common.

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Another Christian Church with a tall steeple.

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These people have a flower garden on their porch.

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This is a store that caters to water traffic. One big item they stock is household Spirit Houses, in yellow, blue or red. (More about Spirit Houses later)

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Our next stop, we are told, is for some villager crafts. This is at an area a bit away from the city with its dense riverside development. We start at the “Tu Dang.”

We never learned why our boat was flying a Brazilian flag, pictured on the left below.

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We are led into a special tea room.

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They served some kind a tea that they make from local plants, and with it, snacks of candied ginger, coconut, and some other treats. Naturally everything they serve is for sale here. Purely commercial.

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Near the door, there are these bottles of Snake Wine. Inside the bottle is a snake. The larger bottles also contained scorpions.

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Sidewalks lead through the area, from one shop to another.

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People live here, too. Here are flowers growing in pots.

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This, I think, is a kind of rice paper set out to dry. We will see in a bit how they make this.

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Kites hanging on a wall. I think the Vietnamese really like kites.

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We are in the next shop. I do not think they are trying to sell us anything. Rather this is a demonstration of eating unusual foods. In this case–fermented duck eggs.

There is a plate of these set out for us. Quan will show us what this is and how to eat it.

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He breaks the egg, then pours the rest into a cup.

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In the bowl we can see something. It looks maybe like a curdled egg yoke.

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Now he pulls something else out. It looks like an almost fully developed duck embryo.

On the plate I see half a lime that has been squeezed to get the juice out. I guess he added flavor to his tidbit.

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Yum! Here goes.

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The other men on the trip were all young guys, in their twenties. Most of them travelled with their girlfriends. Perhaps they felt they had something to prove. Each one in turn ate a fermented duck egg, with all its contents.

Open the egg and scoop out a taste. Or bring the egg up to your mouth and take a sip.

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Then dig in!

I think this was the guy whose hands shook before the second tasting. But he went through with it.

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“I’ll have one, too,” said the next guy. He just took this first sip. I don’t think his facial expression shows much pleasure.

Each of the young men ate an egg. I did not. I no longer have anything to prove, and this seems kind of disgusting to me. None of the women, including Carol, was as adventurous as the guys. They all reported that it didn’t taste bad at all—mostly like eating a chicken egg. But it sure looked bad.

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We then walk and go into another shop, “Thanh Phong.” Handbags and other merchandise line the walls.

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We then stop and watch a woman making rice paper. She spreads a thin rice-flower dough into a circle, like a thin crepe or dosa.

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She covers it for a short time so that it can cook.

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Then she removes it from the heat. It is so thin she has to be careful handling it so she doesn’t tear it. These are what you saw set out to dry in a photo above.

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In the next handcraft shop they make chewy coconut candies. Here is a mixer, with some of the chewy candy, still a liquid.

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I am not sure if they cook it, or pull it, like taffy. Finally they get it into long strips and cut it into pieces. They are being rolled, I think, in rice paper, so that they whole thing, candy and wrapper, are edible. Each piece is wrapped by hand.

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Next up, a python snake.

Quan pulls a big snake out of a basket.

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When I said “big snake” I wasn’t kidding. This must be eight or ten feet long.

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It wraps itself around Quan. I am not sure this is always confortable for the snake handler.

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He offers us the snake. He says that sometimes people are fearful and will not take the python.

It seems OK to me, so I take it.

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Then it’s time to pass it on.

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Several people took a turn handling the snake. Even some of the ladies took a turn.

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After the snake, there was some kind of high-test local alcohol being served. “I’ll drink to that!” say the guys.

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Nearby, a young child in a hammock is almost asleep.

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As we walk, I notice these “Spirit Houses” outside most homes.

These little buildings, ranging from the simple to the elaborate, are seen all over Vietnam. They are erected for the happiness of the Spirits. These Spirits may be those of a particular location, or the Spirits of deceased relatives which must be placated lest harm come to the living. They are part of the animist and ancestor worship traditions of the Viet people. The little shelters often contain candles, joss sticks, toy furniture, and other items for the pleasure and use of the Spirits. Spirit houses are of vital importance to those who erect them.

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Included within the shops are some that sell women’s apparel

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Carol even got into the mood, buying this Chinese jacket that she will never wear in India because she would be overcome by heat. Maybe when we go visiting in the USA in 2013.

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The last place we visited makes puffed rice, in the old fashioned way.

They start with a big pan, with dark black oil at the bottom.

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And stir the rice into the oil. You can see some popping on the left of the pan.

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It pops and they sift it out. Voila, popped rice. (I understand from Internet research on the subject that you must soak the rice first. See link here for more details how you can do this at home.)

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Finished with this excursion, we head back to our boat.

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These painted prows are certainly colorful. I guess they are owned by the same person, since they have the same markings.

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What’s a day on the Mekong River without some crocodiles? Now they are mostly gone from the river, so we see them in a pen.

Come out, come out, where ever you are!

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How would you like to swim in this pool?

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A croc walking with a fish in its mouth. Now you see the fish…

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…now you don’t. One gulp and the fish is gone.

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We were then taken to a nice outside restaurant on the edge of the river.

They made us Vietnamese spring rolls, wrapped in rice paper, at our table.

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Here is the finished thing.

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Here is another dish of greens.

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Then the main course, fried fish. The whole fish is served in a special rack where it stands vertically, wearing a sculpted tomato hat.

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After a few minutes it looks like one of those films where the piranhas devour some creature, leaving only the bare bones.

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Richard takes a rest in one of the ever-present hammocks.

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After the meal, some entertainment. I am sure that the singer is a boy from the family. He seems cheerful and personable.

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He sings us a song and plays a Vietnamese stringed instrument.

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The guitar player has a rhythm device he plays with his bare foot.

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A girl (big sister?) comes out and regales us with a couple of Vietnamese songs. I thought this was nice, after the good meal.

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Then back on the boat.

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The next part of today’s adventure was to go on a canoe ride.

Several ladies rowed canoes close to our boat, and we all climbed onboard, just a few to each canoe.

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Here is one boat full. They gave us all these coolie hats to wear, so we would not get too hot in the sun.

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Then we go off. The boat ladies were expert in rowing the canoes. Maybe they were poling, not rowing. It is shallow here and maybe poles are better. Maybe they use them both ways, as oars and poles. They stand and power both oars.

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We go through some side channel. The water is low, not high tide I guess.

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People live here, by this channel. This looks like a nice house. You can see the steps down to the river, where probably they berth their boat.

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Rowing through a water gate.

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Ducks by the riverbank.

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We get back on our boat from the canoe trip. They serve us some special Vietnamese fruit, the durian.

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The smell of this fruit is so strong that they will not allow it in an airplane; it could stink up the place.

The edible parts, yellow in color, looked like someone’s internal organs. The pieces of the fruit have the consistency of custard, and are eaten with a spoon.

I guess they tasted OK. I could not get over the smell, though.

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Then we are back in the town, with all the building by the riverside.

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Driving back, we get a glimpse of the amazing Saigon traffic. I will write more in the next article about this. You can see what it is like though; uncountable motorbikes, with an occasional car, bus or truck. Many of the riders wear a mask for the smog (and so the sunlight will not darken their faces).

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It was a nice day. I enjoyed being on the Mekong. This is a legendary river in this part of the world. I can see why, how it provides life and commerce; everything a family or a village needs.

Related Posts

Earlier parts of this series can be found here: Hanoi , Day 1,Hanoi, Day 2, Hue, Hội An, Mỹ Sơn ,Nha Trang

If you enjoyed this post, you can find other travel articles here:Touring and Travel in India

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One Response to “Discovering Indochina–Mekong Delta”

  1. kashluck Says:

    Durian fruit is also popular with Singaporeans.
    As you said, the smell is unique!
    When the fruit is consumed by members of one household, the next three households will know about it!!
    In Singapore, the fruit is not only banned in Aeroplanes, but also in trains and buses as well.

    raviprakash

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