Saturday, January 10, 2015

Where The Dragonfruit Grow

9 January 2015

First, my apologies for the way the photos are lining up - I'm not sure what the problem is, but I'm tired of fighting my computer and this blogging site, so we're just going with how things line up (or don't).

A few days ago, we ran into two young French/ Canadian/ Rumanian young people we had met in Penang, Malaysia.  It was fun to see someone we've met, and we had a nice lunch as we caught up on our travels.  It's a very small world!

Okay, we're now in Nha Trang.  This is pronounced "nyah TRANG," not "nah trang" - and the Trang is a long A, as in train - TRAING.  

As you can see on the map, we're roughly 25% of the way along the coast from Saigon to Hanoi, our eventual destination.  (I've circled Saigon and Phu Quoc, so you can see where we've been in Vietnam.)

There are several classes of service on the trains here.  We opted for the soft seats in the air-conditioned car.  There are hard wooden bench seats in the no-AC car.  And there are cars with berths, either hard (no mattress) or soft (with mattress).  We figured since it was a daytime trip, we'd rather sit up and watch the scenery.

Before I describe what we saw, I have to tell you about lunch.  At various times during the trip, the attendants or conductors rolled carts down the aisle of the train, selling drinks and snacks.  At noon, they came through with a series of pots and pans on the carts, and we bought lunch.  Except the sellers don't speak much English, and we speak very little Vietnamese, so there's either pointing at unknown food or acting out the food.  Luckily, the young man in back of me spoke excellent English as well as Vietnamese, so he assisted.  And for 35,000 dong I had a container of rice, spinachy-like veg, and a chicken leg.  I know, 35,000 dong sounds expensive.  But $1 US = 21,500 or so dong.  So that lunch was just under $1.50.  Really.

At one point in the mid-afternoon, I wanted a cold drink.  Hadn't seen the food crew come through in a while, so I went through the train to find them.  I walked forward toward the engine, through two or three cars with the hard wooden benches, full of Vietnamese families, with little kids who pointed at me and older women who smiled and smacked younger men to put their feet on the floor so I wouldn't have to climb over them.  I found the food crew and bought a bottle of iced tea, and then had to make my way back, past the same pointing children, helpful women, and young men stretched out across the aisles.

Our train went through the city of Saigon, then the suburbs and outskirts, and soon we were in country.  Mostly flat farmland, with rice paddies and orchards and fields of some kind of strange green plant.  It looked sort of like a cactus or succulent, coming up in a straight trunk and then spilling over at the top, like a giant fountain of green plant arms.  Very weird looking, like green mop plants.  Or the creeping plant that is the night-blooming cereus.  Couldn't figure it out, but saw field after field and yard after yard of this weird plant.

After a while, we began to see this plant with flowers on the ends of the hanging mop arms, sort of long drapey pale yellow or white flowers.  And then what looked like maybe greenish balls, some kind of fruit.  It wasn't until I saw the deep red balls that I realized: this was dragon fruit!  This is how the fruit grows, at the end of the long draping branch of the cactusy plant.  

Then we started passing square cement posts, not very tall, with dragonfruit stems strapped to the four corners of the posts.  Ah, so apparently the dragonfruit plant doesn't really have a trunk, it seems to be almost a vine that grows flat - or, in this case, is tied to a wide post so it can grow up and out, and bear fruit when it reaches that stage.

Very interesting!

In amongst (and sometimes next to) the dragonfruit fields were the rice paddies, also in different stages of growth.  Sometimes they were brilliant green with growing plants; sometimes almost an ochre yellow, indicating the plants are going to seed, which is the rice we eat.  Other fields were being molded into paddies, with mud walls being built to help contain the water.  When rice paddies aren't your normal, everyday scenery, it's very interesting.

The topography of Vietnam is varied - as you can see, the area around Saigon and to the coast is mostly flat and fertile.  There's a ridge of hills and mountains running down the center of the country, like a spine.  Some of the hills were green or even rather blue in the distance, but others were covered in rocks with barely anything growing on them.

The houses were also interesting; in Saigon, buildings are either hotels and apartments, which tend to look the same, or older multi-storied houses that have businesses on the ground floor and residential units on the upper floors.  But in small towns and rural areas, the houses are two storey cement or brick homes, often painted in pastel colors, with interesting ornamental molded cement designs on the area above the front door.  They were lovely, and look like miniature versions of buildings in Saigon such as City Hall and the Opera House.  I suspect this architectural style is one of those leftovers from the French colonial days.  

We even passed a small temple or shrine in a field, a more traditionally Asian shaped building, that might qualify as a small pagoda.  And painted in the soft but bright colors of the houses.  It was a lovely little counterpoint of color in the bright green rice fields surrounding it. 

There were birds in the rice fields: herons great and small, snowy egrets and cattle egrets, ducks and geese, and some flying bird that was similar to a crow but with iridescent turquoise blue at the ends of the wings.  No idea what this bird was, but just a surprising flash of color flying by.

I was most fascinated with the people.  Most of the time, travellers meet citizens of the countries they're visiting within hotels, restaurants, other service or travel industries, and sometimes just on the street.  But we don't often see how rural life is lived on a day to day basis.  So seeing people planting, plowing, harvesting, guarding their flocks of cows or sheep or goats, was a special feature of our trip.  People were covered head to toe to protect themselves from the sun, and most people wore the conical hats that we saw all over Saigon.  

And cows, Brahmin cows, with the big humps on their backs - the cow that seems to do best in hot tropical climates.  

MOST exciting, though, were the water buffalo!!!  They look like huge greyish-black bulls, but a little bit wider, the horns angle differently, and up close they're a little bit furrier.  There were some walking on a path right next to the train, so I had a chance to see them up close, separated only by the window glass.  Docile and huge.  Yeah, I think I'll stay behind the window.

So, tomorrow I'll post a blog about Nha Trang, and coastal life in Vietnam.



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