January 12, 2016; or the 11th for America is a day that will live in infamy. Creeping through the Viet Cong hotbed of the Hoi An water coconut mangroves, we were startled by a group of six men rowing basket boats made of weaved bamboo coated in tar and water buffalo dung. As we peered over the edge of our tourist ferry and soft noise began wafting through the air, and in a sudden burst of explosive energy, my life was changed forever.
[There should be a video here, it is way too impressive to not see in action.]
We had a jam packed day to be sure. Our travel agent enlisted the services of Jake Trans Eco tours, and LeiLei our guide for the day, kept us moving, even when we were sitting down. Starting from our hotel, Ancient House Resort and Spa, we headed to our bicycles. By bike we leisurely rode to the garden of Beho, a 74 year old widow who lost both her husband and son in the war. She showed us her garden, a 60 square meter plot where she grows dozens of crops throughout the year. She encouraged us to help water her garden rows using her yoked two canteen contraption, which I began to notice everywhere, and she demonstrated how she transforms her mostly sand garden into a productive garden through the use of seaweed.
As is common in many developing countries, alternative/organic farming practices are the norm, not because of health or environmental concerns, but because of cost. This incredibly unforgiving area is arable because each garden bed is built on fresh seaweed, covered in “soil”, and planted by hand with germinated plants. The daily effort this woman makes is evident in the impeccable rows and astoundingly weed free beds that have become the norm during my travels throughout Viet Nam.
We left the garden by bicycle and rode to the local open, air market. The group took special note of the variety of fruits available as well as the meat and fish “wet market”, which may have included a bag of amphibians too.
We were told that pork, the most prodigious meat available to be sure, is slaughtered and butchered each morning in town, before sunrise, and anything not sold fresh by end of day is diced, boiled, and sold as cooked pork the next day. Similar to farmers markets and open air markets around the world, this market had some treats for sale as well. We stopped and enjoyed a simple “market smoothie” consisting of avocado, dragon fruit, melon, and mango, rambutan and persimmon all cubed and drizzled with a mixture of condensed milk and coconut milk.
Our glasses, which looked like every fruit cocktail we had enjoyed in country, was accompanied by a plate of ice and a long narrow spoon. We were instructed to mash the fruit, add and mix in ice to our liking and enjoy as quickly as we could ice melts fast over here. It was simple, and as delicious as only simple food can be.
Collecting our bikes again we pedaled through town, which is an adventure of its own accord, and headed towards the rice paddies. We handed our bikes over to the rental group and strolled down the raised path separating paddies to a demonstration area, easily identifiable as it was the lone area not in pristine condition. We were sat around a table, given so ginger tea, and told about the typical rice farmer life and how rice is sold. We were quickly interrupted by a cheerful man leading a 1200 pound water buffalo. This buffalo, a young 15 years old, which is only a third of its expected life, was here to show us how soil is worked and fields are prepared, but first in true tourist fashion, we each got to ride it. After a quick lesson in verbal commands and a change of clothes into traditional attire, we were off.
After our rides we were invited to help plow ad rake the paddy with the buffalo, move water with the tandem basket, prepare the bed, broadcast seed by hand, transplant seedlings, harvest with a hand sickle and thrash with a pedal powered rice thrasher. We each took a turn on the mill stone, making the rice milk we needed to cook our own rice pancake, a thin, pan fried omelet-esque snack that mixes dried shrimp, bean sprouts, turmeric, chives and egg with our freshly pressed rice milk. The finished pancake is topped with fresh greens and rolled in rice paper to make awesome spring rolls. A dip or two in the ubiquitous fish sauce is all the help it needs. Our self-made spring rolls were the first course to our seafood centric meal in the farmers home. Fish, eggplant, greens, rice and bananas , in quantity, put us in the perfect state for a relaxing afternoon. Lunch was followed by a foot massage and relaxation time.
It was great, except for the whole strangers touching your feet thing. After our massage we walked to the bus and headed to Lei Lei’s predominantly fisherman village. We headed out to the ecotour boat by way of weaved bamboo baskets, waterproofed with a mixture of tar and buffalo dung. The man rowing each boat put on quite the show of rolling and rocking the boats, displaying how each man was especially well accustomed to keeping their balance.
On the ferry, we were given drinks and snacks, introduced to Captain Cook, because he is a captain and a cook, as well as his very energetic crew. These part tome tour employees all continue fishing regularly, using the income from Jack Trangs Eco tours to support their families when the fishing is poor. The boat pulled out and headed up the river into the water coconut mangroves. These mangroves are significant not only for their traditional role in home roof construction, but also historically due to the cover the 154 acre grove provided the Viet Cong . We were told about the raids on US bases, and how wounded Viet Cong would be brought to these groves to heal. We also headed about the US clearing the groves out completely from the air in the 70’s, but you would never have noticed the destruction today. Water coconuts grow fast.
We were treated to quite the show and then asked to load up into the bamboo boats ourselves. With some trepidation we loaded up and tried to dance along. We were not as sure footed as our compatriots, and nearly the entire group found themselves bottoms up in the water. The guides helped send a few of us there themselves. After the repeated dumping of a few we finally started rowing through the mangroves, getting to row ourselves, trying to flip our neighbors and attempting to avoid the locals harvesting palm fronds and bamboo poles. We eventually came full circle and found a veit Cong veteran had joined our captain and as we attempted to dry off the 74 year old man told us about the tactics and techniques locals employed to avoid capture by the US troops and their allies. I was surprised by his candor and the genuinely warm welcome he gave to us all, saying how he never blamed the soldiers or citizens, just the government that sent them. He also echoed the sentiment that had been shared by many, Americans today are not the Americans responsible for the war, and the tourism industry is helping so many people that holding grudges benefits no one.
We headed back towards the dock and were met halfway by a fishing couple who allowed us to board their small boat pull in the throw nets after they were thrown. Fishing benefits the patient, as the last met cast managed to pull in the most fish, unfortunately nothing was big enough to eat. The same couple lead us to shore and taught us how to throw the nets, and I am afraid I don’t have the balance to do this on a boat. We were also shown an alternative net system involving a large net on poles that lifts from the riverbed.
This net, covering a 20’ x20’ area, weighing nearly 800 kilograms utilized a foot powered reel to bring the fish up out of the water. After a quick basket trip out to the ferry and quicker ferry trip to the local dock we bid farewell to out boat crew and boarded our van and headed back to the hotel for a shower and fresh clothes.
For dinner we were shuttled to Old Town Hoi An, an area known for French architecture and hanging lanterns. Our first stop was a silk shop, with a display featuring live silkworms and working looms. The shop had everything silk, from embroidered art to suits and dresses. While we were inside browsing the rain started up, which limited our interest in window shopping quite a bit. After a wet walk to the restaurant and a meal with some common Vietnamese dishes, we loaded back up in our van and headed back to our hotel to catch some Z’s before our 4:00 a.m. departure the next morning.