Last week I started to tell you about my recent journey to Vietnam. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of running my own travel company is the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most beautiful and culturally rich countries. And my very first trip to Vietnam was no exception.
The snaking traffic of Saigon and the aromatic foods of the bustling outdoor markets were just the beginning of what would be an unforgettable trip through the heart of Vietnam. Our next stop was the Mekong Delta. That morning, I boarded our touring coach with our guide, Man, and the other eager travelers, and we set off on a long drive to our waiting boat.
Along the way, we passed seemingly endless rice paddies on both sides of the road. Whole families were out, weeding, tilling, and tending to the magic grain that fees this nation.
Popular author Malcolm Gladwell has written, in his best-selling book, “The Outliers: The Story of Success,” that to understand successful rice farming is to understand success. It takes a great deal of patience, precision, intelligence, and planning, to grow rice.
And while the people who live in the Mekong Delta are considered among the least prosperous in this generally poor country, the Mekong Delta dwellers themselves believe they are actually very lucky. With rice (which grows everywhere), fish and other seafood (which is pulled from the area’s many rivers, streams, and canals), and the extraordinary abundance of locally grown fruit, vegetables, herbs, and other edible plants, everyone thankfully always has enough to eat.
A small look at life along the Mekong.
Our bus brought us right to our boat, a luxury vessel compared to the small fishing boats and houseboats we passed as we chugged along on our way to see some very special sites. Our first stop was a communal village where local villagers use some of the rice they grow to make products, such as rice cakes, for sale throughout the country.
All aboard! Our trusty crew was ready for our boat ride, one of the most memorable experiences from my entire Vietnam journey.
These rice cakes aren’t anything like those available in the U.S., which are mostly consumed as bland diet food. Rather, these are made from freshly popped rice, mixed with honey and seasonings, and then formed into rectangular cakes. Once packaged, these sweet rice cakes are sold as treats throughout Vietnam. But more than the sweet taste, the process by which the rice is popped is what makes the treat well worth the calories for me.
The rice is threshed by hand, or sometimes (if the farmer is lucky to have one), by machine to remove the hulls. No part of the plant is wasted, as the hulls are gathered into a furnace to be used as fuel for a fire that heats a huge, wok-like pan filled with sand from the river. Once the hot sand — black from repeated heating — reaches its optimum temperature, the rice is poured in and stirred.
At first, I couldn’t imagine why the rice was being mixed with the hot, black sand, but it soon became abundantly clear. The rice begins to pop — just like popcorn — as the attendant stirs the black sand and rice over the fire. Soon, the white, fluffy rice has popped and is ready to be removed from the heat and separated from the sand.
An ingenious series of homemade filters does the job efficiently and elegantly. The first filter is made from fine chicken wire strung on the bottom of a wooden frame. The popped rice remains in the filter and the sand is sifted back into the wok. Then the popped rice is poured into a second filter made of much finer chicken wire, and the rest of the sand is removed. Now the rice is ready to be treated to the honey and other yummy flavors that make this such a popular Vietnamese sweet.
The entire process was mesmerizing and definitely hard work, as the temperature around the wok was most likely well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As we watched, we were served lovely lotus tea by the matriarch of the commune, a tiny Vietnamese grandmother. We chatted with this impressive woman who was unsure of her age, but believes she’s at least 75 years old. While we sipped our tea, her grandson minded the rice popping process. Every villager smiled patiently as we snapped pictures, even as we all jostled for the best camera angle.
That’s probably the operative thought from my trip. Everyone was smiling. It’s something you see everywhere in the Vietnam. There’s one particular rice farmer that stands out in my memory because I wish I had a more powerful camera lens to capture the large, sincere, and completely infectious smile that spread across his face as our coach passed his fields. And you can be sure that everyone aboard the coach was just as happy to smile and wave back to him.
Hello from one of the Mekong Delta children.