Ở Cai Be

On Sunday, March 18, we left Saigon by van for an overnight trip to the Mekong delta. Our first stop was Cai Be (more appropriately, Cái Bè), a river town on one of many tributaries of the Mekong River, a two hour drive south of Saigon.

This might be a good place for a few comments about the Vietnamese language. Unlike other Asian languages, Vietnamese is written in the latin script that Americans are familiar with, the reason being that the people here did not have a commonly used written language prior to the arrival of Portuguese Catholic Jesuit missionaries who created it in the 1600s and French Jesuits who fully implemented it throughout the country in the 1800s. Like Chinese, each syllable in the Vietnamese language is treated as a separate word. So, for example, the Vietnamese write “Sai Gon” and “Cai Be” for what Westerners would pen as “Saigon” and “Caibe.” Further, our familiar vowels a, e, i, o and u, each have multiple forms. For example, the letter “o” has three forms: o, ô and ơ. And every vowel can be pronounced any of five different ways, each of which changes the meaning of the word in which it appears. Thus, the variations of “o” (o, ô and ơ), written with its various diacritics are: ớ, ợ, ờ, ờ, ở, ộ, ổ, ổ, ồ, ỗ, õ, ò, ỏ and ó. Maybe now you can understand why the Vietnamese soup now popular in the U.S. is written Phở, but pronounced “Fa.” And if you’re curious about the title of this post, the letter “Ở” means “In.”

At any rate, back to our story. We arrived at the dock in Cai Be, boarded our water taxi, and started our journey up river.

Along the way, Loc described described the river scene and informed us that we would be visiting an island to see rice paper made in the traditional way. To make us feel more at home in this traditional environment, Loc bought us each a nón lá, a conical leaf hat.

After a half-hour boat ride, we docked at the island and walked to visit Loc’s friend, Chị Ba, busily making rice paper in the bakery next to her house. The process is very similar to making crepes. First, water is mixed with rice flour to make a pancake batter, then poured onto and spread over a hot griddle and covered. Once cooked, the “pancake” is cut and lifted, then placed on a drying rack.

Chị Ba let any who wanted try their hand and welcomed us to walk around and photograph her home.

A note about our hostess’ name, Chị Ba, which translates to “Mrs. Three” – a tradition in the countryside was to name children by number, starting with number Two, One being reserved for God. Thus, Mrs. Three is the second child in her family. Now, let’s assume that Mrs. Three’s father was the third child in his family, making him Mr. Four. To avoid confusion with other Mrs. Threes in her neighborhood, our Chị Ba would be known, then, as Mrs. Three Four. Or maybe it’s Four Mrs. Three. At any rate, you can imagine how confusing this can become.

Chị Ba now lives alone in this one-room building attached to her kitchen.

Around back, Loc demonstrated the Mekong toilet. A good place for an, um, morning meditation.

After our visit, we walked down the path to a more modern, but still traditional, coconut candy “factory.” Each piece of candy is handmade and hand wrapped in rice paper. It’s delicious, with the consistency of taffy and the taste of caramel.

Back to the boat, we then motored down the main channel of the Mekong River to the house of Mr. Six, Loc’s acquaintance, for a traditional lunch, then back to the boat for another ride.

There were some pretty amazing sights along the way back upriver, like these fully laden barges that looked to us like they were sinking.

Again, after a half hour boat ride, we came to another landing where we changed over to canoe-shaped skiffs for a row up one of the slow-flowing tributaries.

It was quite serene and scenic.

Not many roads or cars in this area and all the bridges over the creek we traveled on were for pedestrians.

Does the photo above remind you of any particular movie?

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