Note: this is a second edition as after spending ALOT of time and effort on this post when I clicked publish it deleted all the content. Hence the big delay. My phone would have gone out the window if I’d have done it sooner.
Friday 22nd August
I personally woke up really excited for this eco tour as it was the day we got to try a bit of everything – farming, boating, using buffalo, fishing, going in the bamboo boats.. and more, so I woke up easily and we had an early breakfast. By 7.45 we were eagerly waiting in the lobby for our tourguide to pick us up.
When we jumped in the empty spotless minivan the guy introduced himself as Sinh (Sing) and immediately we liked him as he was funny and chatty, with just enough sarcasm to make him very entertaining. And all in impressive English. So we drove to another hotel to pick up another couple who were the only other people on the tour but discovered that they’d already checked out and gone – meaning we had a private 10 hour tour, cool! I know it’s probably funner with a group but hey, we weren’t going to complain at a personalised service and having everything all to ourselves and in our own time.
The van took us about 10 minutes out of town where we stopped in a lay by and got our bicycles. They were so much lighter than the hotel ones with amazing squishy comfy seats so we needn’t worry about having sore arses later. The three of us started our day, crossing the road and getting on the tracks that cut across all the paddy fields and bodies of water inbetween. Now I know how to ride a bike, honest, but my balance was so shit it was funny! The thing is most of the time these dirt tracks, full of bits of rock everywhere, are only about 2 foot wide and with streams on either side. I also was trying to look at everything we were passing so I was an half wobbly! Let’s see how long I stay on…
The whole time we were on the move Sinh was pointing things out and telling us interesting pieces of information about the locals and how they keep their shrimp and fish farms. I thoroughly enjoyed myself spotting two types of kingfisher, flocks of bright white egrets, vibrantly coloured dragonflies and we laughed at buffalo wallowing in the deep mud.
Our first real stop was quite sudden – Sinh was ooing and awing at a pond that had a group of about 200 brand new yellos ducklings splashing around in it! Oh my god it was one of the cutest things I’ve seen and they were all squeaking to each other and trying their hardest to dive under the water but they were too buoyant. And they totally just looked like a load of rubber duckies. The toys. Kinda felt like I should have had a stick and a hook like at a fairground. We hung around for quite a while cooing iver the babies, with suddenly another batch of a couple hundred more deciding to join the party. The two groups merged and we clicked away with our cameras. Sooooo cute and fluffy and yellow and high pitched. Just push the fact out of your mind that these ducks will have happy lives until they’re a mere 3 months old then off to market they go. Well, short and sweet.
Tearing ourselves away we cycled along more tracks, enjoying the breeze we created. You’re boiling on the bike but the second you stop your body just drips in protest. We passed a farmer riding his buffalo, followed by her 3 year old and 1 year old calves. Luckily the track widened out here, thank god coz buffalo are frickin huge! We also passed another tour group of about 20 people, this time on a track of about 4 feet, and again I managed to stay on, woohoo go me! The boys didn’t appreciate my happy surprise.
After a while enjoying the beautiful peace and tranquility of cycling through the countryside, we turned into a big garden with perfectly organised rows of all sorts of herbs and greens you could imagine. We stopped at a little shelter where a teeny old lady waited for us. She wore blue overall type things and a conical hat and was the sweetest thing – no English of course but Sinh told us she was 74 and looked after this patch we were in. Firstly I just want to mention the smell of this place. We were surrounded by mint, basil, lemon mint, parsley, morning glory (they love that name here – it’s a tasty herb that blossoms in the early morning but they also use the name for a lot of restaurants and hotels [and they know exactly what they’re doing]).
Firstly we fed the fish she had in a big concrete trough whose job it was to eat the mosquito eggs that were laid on the waters surface, so we threw in bits of lettuce and watched them go into a feeding frenzy. Then we were put to work. She showed us how to use a double watering can contraption which consisted of a wooden pole put across the back of your neck which had a big metal watering can hanging from each end. I went first and discovered it was bloody painful on the top of your spine when the buckets have water in them! I quickly walked up inbetween some rows, swinging the cans forward and backwards to water both sides, instantly easing the load. Javi took a turn and all the herbs and lettuces were shiny with water droplets.
Then we were pointed to a little patch of earth and shown our to turn it over, which we then finished off. We put fresh seaweed in the churned up earth, which was surprisingly soft, and then flattened it over. They don’t use any fertilisers or pesticides, it’s very organic. Sinh told us that the produce from this garden goes to the market and also to industrial companies like hotels and even exported. Good stuff.
When the lady was satisfied with our smooth ground we stuck our fingers in making lots of holes and then put a lettuce leaf in each one – in 3 weeks they’ll be nearly big enough to eat, I didn’t know they grow so quick! She picked us a little bag of assorted herbs and lettuce for our lunch later, we said goodbye and got a photo with her then set off again.
We rode back out into the paddy fields and soon came across another duck farm but these ducklings were about 20 days old so much bigger than the others who were only a couple of days old. They were still cute though and I had a cuddle with one that had an injured leg (wasn’t me) before we moved on.
We continued at a nice slow pace, and I got my balance stable enough to be able to look around me rather than just the ground infront of my wheel. Seriously cycling along I was so happy and peaceful, I was pretty much grinning the whole time. At one point I had a bright poster paint red dragonfly flying alonside me, it was gorgeous – looked fake it was so brightly coloured! Sinh told me the red ones are called Chili Dragonflies. He also educated us pointing out poorly looked after rice fields and very good quality ones. Lots of the farmers tie plastic bags to poles to scare away birds and rats from their crops and again he pointed out ‘lazy’ ones – he liked this word and used it a lot. We spotted the best scarecrow though – a fully clothed mannequin standing their in the long grass. That’s not very scary you may think, but the mannequins here only have half a face! Quite disturbing.
We had a quick five minute breather under a tree next to a buffalo shed, which housed a mother and her week old calf. He was so cute and mum was good and protective but I still got a few quick snaps. The next stop was a rice factory. This one, and most of them, is run by a family who normally work 7 days, and we were introduced to a man and his elderly father, who was deaf due to working his whole life with the machines without ear protection. All the equipment was wooden and run on electricity that they turned on and off for each machine to conserve what they could. They showed us how the rice was separated from the husks, cleaned, sifted again and finished. Sinh said some farmers gave in 20 big sacks to be processed, half of which goes to market and the other half back home for the family, but some farmers only have a basketful. And again, some is poor quality and some very good – apparently rich people don’t even touch rice that is short grain or broken, only the long grain.
After thanking the men for showing us how everything worked we left and out in the middle of the fields came across a cemetery for the local village. There were lots of family tombs, and also quite a few unamed babies, which was sad. Some of the tombs were so elaborate, they looked like mini pagodas all on their own.
The next place on the agenda was a daycare centre full of gorgeous little kiddies who we played with for a while, used the loo, and washed a bit of the sweat off our faces. They were so cute. After a little rest Sinh took us round the front of the building where we sat at a bamboo table under a beautiful veranda overlooking the fields. We were given sticky rice and crushed up peanuts to dip it into which was delicious, and told this was the traditional brunch the farmers eat as they start so early they have this snack at about 11am.
Then it was buffalo time! We were given conical hats and big red shirts to protect our clothes and farmer brought his huge boulder of an animal round – I jumped on first. These animals are so wide I was halfway to doing the splits and also she was rock solid. And surprisingly hairless too, she just had a few wirey hairs. I rode her round a muddy pond which was up to the buffalos knees and marvelled at the size of her head and horns. It was like riding a rhino. Javi had a go too. Then it was time for work so the farmer attached a wooden plough to his animal and we took turns leading her and controlling the plough behind to churn up the mud. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. For a start I didn’t want to pull the lead rope hard coz it obviously went through her nostrils, and I was crap at controlling the plough too. Lucky I’m not a Vietnamese farmer aye. But the mud was amazing! Once you get over the initial disgustingness of hot muddy water and warm very squishy creamy mud between your toes and up to your ankles, it’s quite nice. You learn to love it! Probably very good for your skin. Just don’t look at the shit and mosquitos everywhere. Nah. After we’d ploughed the patch then we had a go at ‘surfing’ – the plough was removed and a wooden plank with lots of metal rotating teeth underneath was attached. Javi went first and you have to lean back, holding into the buffalos tail. Of course when I did it she decided to stop and poo so I got nicely splashed with pooey water. Hey ho!
After having fun getting muddy the buffalo was tied to a shady tree, her work done for the day, and we turned our attention to a smaller water filled patch of mud. We were shown how to scoop out the water and throw it into the bigger pool, using a bamboo bucket thing attached to two ropes that you have to manipulate to scoop and throw. Again, harder than you think, the hand eye coordination really has to be top notch – our first swing I nearly threw the whole thing over myself! The two farmers finished the job in 3 minutes, highly impressive, and we then had to rake the mud so it was nice and flat. When it was smooth enough we learned how to lightly and evenly throw rice seedlings over the area. In a different area we were given a handful of rice shoots which we shoved into the mud under the water. So squiiishyyyyy.
The farmers took us back under the veranda and we ‘thrashed’ the rice, to remove the rice from the grass. This was done by using a machine that is manually powered by your foot pushing a lever up and down, turning a big cylinder that had metal loops on it that bashed the grass, re moving the rice. Careful with your fingers though! The next step was to feed the grass shoots to the buffalo so we stepped out onto the road to feed ours. She thoroughly enjoyed it. A little boy stopped on his ride home from school and was fascinated so we gave him the rest of the grass to feed her. His little face lit up! Sinh had a chat with him and told us he was 14 – we guessed he was about 9! We turned back to our rice and now had to grind it to remove the husks. The rice was out into a big stone pot and with huge heavy wooden blunt poles we rhythmically smashed the rice, squeezing them out of their husks. Then, using a bamboo shallow basket/tray we sifted out the rice, using a smooth kind of flipping action like with a pancake. We then had a turn at grinding some rice with water to make rice water, which we then mixed with an egg and some herbs to make crispy pancakes! We cooked them over a fire in a little claypot and they were whisked away to serve with our lunch. Mm.
Sinh then told us to sit on the steps and him and the farmer washed our legs and feet with cold fresh water – lovely (good job I shaved my legs as he was cleaning the mud off right up to my knees). Then we were taken around the back of the daycare centre to a covered cool terrace and lunch was served. A delicious lunch. Our crispy pancakes, baked aubergine, spring rolls, sticky rice, pork and vegetables – we couldn’t finish it all it was so much. When we’d finished two ladies appeared and told us to lay down on these flat bamboo beds and proceeded to massage our feet, legs, shoulders and head. It was sooo good and relaxing – I did giggle a couple of times though when she was doing my feet as it tickled. They massaged us for a good half an hour then we awoke from our semi slumber to say goodbye and thank you to the family who’d hosted us.
We then walked down the track and waiting for us on the tarmac road was our next mode of transport, a beautiful bamboo cart pulled by another buffalo, this one even bigger. They were very proud to call this the BMW of Vietnam. We climbed in and the very happy driver started chatting to us immediately. Well, Sinh translated. He said he was 48 and his buffalo 36 – they’d always been together since she was born and you could see the trust between man and beast. Buffalo here live to about 25 on average so this buffalo is a bit famous as she is extremely experienced and bombproof. He said some buffalo spook at big trucks on the road and run off, but this one knew the ins and outs of everything so was very reliable to pull a cart on the road. She pulled us for about 20 minutes, in which we both had a turn driving, and then we transferred to our waiting van as the road was about to get tricky.
The van took us along a very thin bumpy track to a fishing village, and we walked past men working on big boats. Sinh pointed out the old boats and the newer versions, the old having eyes painted on the front which is believed to scare off the dragons of the sea and also to search for fish. The new boats don’t have the eyes, they’re more modern – I prefer the traditional ones. At the water’s edge Sinh showed us the difference between the old bamboo basket boats and the new ones – the old are made of bamboo, buffalo dung and tar, and the new bamboo and fibreglass. We were told to get into one that was waiting for us and with Sinh and another member of staff, who had amazing skills maaging the thing, we were taken out to the bigger boat. Sinh jumped onto the boat but before they let us off the guy did some acrobatics and spun us round and round so fast! It was fun but I’m glad he stopped when he did haha. Onto the big boat and we met the other guys – Captain Cuc, obviously the captain, Anh and Sang, one of them being the cook and the other the expert rower – I cannot remember which one was which so from this point on Sang is going to be the rower…! So we very slowly sailed our way out a little into the river, which was kind of crazy as the tide was so low the fishermen were actually standing shoulder deep to catch their fish, and people were walking across from the mainland to islands, while we were chugging long in a big boat haha. At least there was no need for life jackets. We came to the coconut tree networks out in the middle of the river and here we jumped back into the bamboo basket. We had a go at paddling for aaaages but neither of us could get it. You had to make a kind of s-shape in the water but infront of the boat which was just mental, and all we managed to do was spin ourselves. We really tried though! After probably about 20 minutes of battling with the heavy long paddle, which also could reach the bottom it was so shallow, probably about 2 foot, Sinh jumped in and Sang set us off in the direction of the coconut tree grove. We moved inbetween the trees down a little waterway and the guys produced two short bamboo sticks with a chunk of prawn hanging off a piece of wire… yay, this meant crabbing! We spent a good amount of time fishing for these guys, who were amazing – bright red, orange, brown, the bigger ones were green and purple which are the ones we went for. I tell you though, these little buggers are so strong and although you have them gripped onto the bait tightly they have every one of their legs wrapped around a root or a branch and you really have to fight them! Again, it took a bit of practice to drop them into the bucket as opposed to the bottom of the boat. Needless to say there was a lot of squealing and lifting up of barefeet – and it wasn’t just me being the only girl in the boat, by the way, ahem!
As the bucket filled and we slowly ran out of bait the guys started making things for us out of bamboo leaves. Seriously, these people can make anything out of anything, it’s incredible. Sang slowly step by step started making what was to be a lotus flower ring and I followed along, keeping up with him surprisingly. I seemed to be pretty good at it even if I say so myself, I think the guys were impressed too, hehehe. Sinh made a giant cricket, a crown, a pair of glasses that looked like a penis and testicles when Javi put it on his face, and lots of flowers, stems and all. Sang also made an amazing bird attached to a long strip of leaf so that you could hold it up in the air. As the sun was setting (and the crabs all told their mates about us annoying humans catching them for no reason) a very skinny, very old looking man paddled over on a chunk of polystyrene to sit on the edge of our boat, and in Vietnamese, told us stories of his time fighting in the Vietnam war. Even though we couldn’t understand a thing he said he stared at us as he spoke so intently we felt so drawn in, it was weird and we felt humbled by this tiny man. He explained how he’d got shot at twice when he’d dived into the water once for cover and lucky he did because the water slowed the bullets – one went straight through his hand and another into his chest! He showed us the scars.
When we’d had question and answer time we then got attached to a long fishing boat that had rocked up and were pulled back to the boat. Sang jumped off and attached the bamboo basket to the boat and we hopped onto the fishing boat. An old man and his son, dressed in blue overalls and those conical hats, were going to teach us how to throw nets to catch fish. The father showed us and I got some snaps of him expertly throwing the net over his shoulder against a beautiful sunset sky, all blues and yellows, so pretty. And the conical hat makes it. Javi was up first and was given the 5kg net to throw. He had a few gos as it takes practice for sure, and caught a couple of tiny fish. Then my turn came and although I KNEW the water was only a few foot deep, the fact I had to stand on the point of the boat unsteadied me a bit as I thought I was going to throw myself off the boat along with the net! Also the net is attached to one of your wrists so you can pull it back in. After a few tries I did ok and caught a couple of little fish too. As I posed for the camera with one of them, trying not to squeeze it so hard it burst in my hand but hard enough so it didn’t slip out, the fisherman pinched its gills so it died and I threw it in the bucket with a squeal – like a proper little girl I know but it just freaked me out he crushed its gills while I was holding it, bleurgh.
After a few laughs and splashing and getting covered in shiny fish scales we were dropped at a beach on a nearby island and it was time for us to help the familythere haul up their giant net to see what they’d caught. This was another style of fishing and was basically a big net attached to four bamboo poles sticking out of the shallow sea, attached to a winch on the beach. The net is lowered flat into the water, fish swim over it and then it’s lifted up to catch them. We had to climb a kind of scaffolding, made of bamboo you guessed it, and use all four feet and hands to bring up this net – it was ridiculous how difficult it was and we are twice the size of these people, and they do it numerous times everyday, mostly on their own! How weak we are. After winching the net out of the water we jumped in the bamboo basket with the fisherman and went to check out the haul… two tiny swordfish, a guppy thing and a shrimp, nothing over 10cm, we threw them back. Javi went to have another go with the net while I spotted a gorgeous black and tan puppy on the beach and so was from then on distracted and played with him. He was only about 8 weeks old and so adorable, and really well mannered. The dogs here are treated very differently to what we accept in our cultures and most often I don’t like what I see here, but this pup was polite and happy and playful. And never gnawed or nibbled, not once in about 20 minutes of chasing and tumbling around with me. Little sweetie. He did that thing where they get so excited they tuck their bum and tail underneath them when they run, was so funny as he couldn’t run too well on the soft sand, hehe. Good beach life for a happy dog, obviously got a good family.
The sky was really darkening now, with pinks and reds and oranges, so pretty, and we got back on the big boat to sit down at a carefully laid out table for two. I know I said this before but it was so beautiful just being the two of us, felt like we were on our bloody honeymoon sometimes. We were treated to squid with caramelised onions, spring rolls, chicken, pork, king prawns, vegetables and rice, oh and beer – uff we were so full we couldn’t finish everything. We ate and drank with the happy, giggling staff behind us and the sunset infront of us. So romantic. What a lovely end to a fantastic day – really one of, if not The, best days here.
We got dropped back at the hotel and had a swim in the pool to refresh ourselves. That was also beautiful as it was all lit up and sparkly and the bar music was soft and smooth – aaaah. Plus nobody else was around. Private pool, why thank you sir. As you can imagine we were absolutely shattered so after lazily lounging in the jacuzzi we went up to bed. FANTASTIC day.