Another boat trip today—this time we have no canopy, so the guide hands out conical hats. It is already very hot. We make our way first to the floating market at Cai Rang, intending to get there early enough to see the market in full-swing. We drift lazily through the market where boats are piled high with all kinds of fruit and vegetables. Hawkers are on the lookout for the tourist boats, but they are not nearly as invasive as those in Saigon. Despite the rich variety of colours, I fail to snatch that elusive National Geographic photograph.
Further on, we come to a rice mill. The wooden mill looks like the product of a mad inventor, a living thing towering above us, shuddering and swaying, with belts flying, wheels spinning, pistons and trays reciprocating.
Our boat winds through more channels shaded by coconut palms, and everywhere children come out to wave to us and shout hello. We visit a rice paper factory—rice-flour paste is spread thinly on a fine cloth stretched tightly over a steaming pot. The resultant ‘pancakes’ once dried can be shredded to make rice noodles, or used to wrap up spring rolls.
We pass through Phong Dien floating market and here we must return to the minibus. There are two ferry crossings to make to bring us back to the mainland. Hawkers travel back and forth on the ferrys, trying to make a meagre living selling chewing gum, lottery tickets, and glittery metal butterflies. I wonder if their takings can possibly cover the cost of their ferry ticket. At the second river crossing, a colossal suspension bridge is nearing completion. It will be open in another 3 months, but as yet the decks growing outwards from the two pillars have still a little way to go before meeting. When it opens, the ferries will disappear, taking with them the hawkers, and the mêlée of ramshackle stalls and businesses that have grown up on the ferry traffic at either side of the crossing.
As we return to Ho Chi Minh City, we ask our guide about how he came to work for Kim’s Café. During the American war, he worked on the American side, and when the war ended he was imprisoned by the Vietnamese government for six years. People such as he are even now not allowed to work in state-run industry. He obtained part-time work with Kim’s Café where his English language has put him in good stead as a tour guide. He tells us that although Vietnam has a communist government in name, education and health care are no longer provided free of charge, and not all parents can afford to send their children to school.
At dinner, we come as close as we ever have to blows—Jay and John are keen to visit Hoi An. I am less keen and worried that by back-tracking down the coast from Hué, we will run out of time in Hanoi to see all that we wanted there. I am also still quite keen to do part of our journey by rail, but James and Jay would rather fly. We decide to postpone the decision until we reach Hué tomorrow and obtain more information on bus and train timetables. Back at the hotel, James has a stroke of genius. Why don’t we do Hué first, take bus from there back to Hoi An, and then travel direct from Hoi An to Hanoi without stopping again at Hué on the way back? By this ruse we can save a day’s travelling.
First though, we must get to Hué, and for that we need to be up at 4.30 am the next morning to catch the 6.20 am flight from Ho Chi Minh airport.