Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tipping Point

[Mekong Delta, Sunday, January 8, 7:35 am, Vietnam time]

Last night we had a lot of fun playing Liars' Club. Kathy, Janice, Jill, Dave, Janet, and I were all on one team. Unfortunately, we came in second, missing such questions as the origins of the name "Balsamic Vinegar" (they said the correct answer was two brothers, Balsa and Mic, whose last name was Vinegar, and who were killed in 1602, so their mother named the concoction after them! I still think they're wrong.]

We were given instructions on tipping last night and dad's rather upset that the crew tip (recommended: $10/day, per person, for 8 days) is not included in the bill, but is separate. He insists this wasn't in the pre-trip information or brochure, but I pointed out it was in the information booklet provided by our travel agent in San Diego (though I only got my copy of it the night before).

[2:00 pm]

Yesterday evening, I was up on deck watching the sunset with Kathy and Janice, and they mentioned that Jill was an executive with a specialty cruise line company. When she came over, I asked her opinion about the cruise, and she said she thought the company ought to better prepare guests for the ship. Sailing in Cambodia and Vietnam imposes many difficulties on the cruise line, difficulties that can be seen by customers. Instead of promising a five-star ship, they ought to be more upfront about it being three-to-four stars.

One major problem is guaranteeing high quality and hygienic food on board. What that often means here is that the quality of food and the availability of food options has been sacrificed in favor of health. Now, I'm not sorry about that decision; I'm happy to remain healthy. But many guests, used to what might be available on a European river cruise, might be disappointed.

I asked her what she thought of the policy of dividing us into "teams" for the duration of the trip. She said she understood why they did that: to guarantee tips to the drivers and to allocate passengers to guides and excursions, but that there were ways around that. For example, and this would make dad especially happy, they could include all tips in the cost of the cruise. Similarly, they could make individual groups first-come, first serve, so that when one filled up, you would take the next one. You could also divide people according to interest or ability: e.g., a slow-walkers group, etc.

We also talked about what we liked about this cruise: the rooms are very well appointed, and the excursions have been excellent. I'll write more about my overall assessment of the cruise in a later post.

This morning we had a terrific excursion. On paper it might look really dull: tour a brick-making factory. In reality, it was a lot of fun and very interesting. Here on the lower Mekong River, the water level is affected by the tides. At low tide, it was somewhat difficult to land, but eventually we made it. Here we watched them shape and form the clay tiles, fire them in enormous kilns fed by rice husks (for two months), unload the finished tiles, and stack them for export. The kilns are huge three story, brick monstrosities, using technology from the 19th century or earlier.

All the workers this morning were women and children (they work the morning 8 hour shift; the men work the afternoon and night shifts). We saw children pushing large and heavy barrels full of clay bricks. We asked two how old they are; the older one was 16, his younger brother was 14. No one wore safety equipment or helmets, and dad thought an OSHA inspector would have a heart attack here. I heard Frau Fabissiner debating child labor with Bob. She apparently grew up on a farm and thought there was nothing wrong with children helping their families out. Otherwise, she state, they end up on drugs or become criminals. I asked her if she thought those were the only two options: child labor or drug dealing.

After that we headed over to Sa Dec, where we toured the local fresh food market, and where I finally got to see live snakes for sale (they were right next to the live eels and the skinned rats). After that we visited a Chinese Buddhist temple. One thing I noticed is that since we left Cambodia, we have seen few to none Buddhist temples. This one serves the local Chinese community. One thing that stood out was the swastika image behind one of the Buddha statue. This was the image Hitler stole for his movement, but then reversed it for his usage.

Our final stop of the morning was the house of Marguerite Duras' chinese lover in the 1930s, and the setting for her novel, The Lovers. It was built in the French colonial fashion in the 1880s, and was the home of a prominent Chinese merchant family. After that we returned to the boat for lunch and now we're about to head to to see the floating village in Cai Be and a candy-making factory.

[Update: 5:05 pm]

This afternoon, we took our last boat excursion. Cai Be is famous for its floating market, but apparently most of the action is between 6 and 9 am; by the time we got there, there were less than a dozen boats. Still, you could see what people were selling by what was hanging from the pole in front: turnips, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, etc. If you want to buy, you sail up to the seller and get your merchandise.

Instead, we cruised along the canal looking at the homes open to the water. Small children bicycled along the small road near the water; people washed with the canal water; others motored by on their sampans. Some individuals have opened warehouses or factories on the canals. You can tell which ones are prosperous by the large, prominent house that has been put up behind the warehouse.

I asked the guide what happens when a storm or typhoon hits, and he said that the residents of the Mekong Delta believe themselves to be blessed and protected from such events. In fact, such storms only seem to hit once every 50 years.

Kathy asked about the designs on the front of the boats. He explained that originally, boats had a dragon design on the front and back. Now, many centuries later, they draw the two eyes on the front as a way of scaring the river monsters below the surface and bring good fortune to the ship.

We moored by a factory making various forms of candy. We walked through one shop, across a small lane and into the bigger shop. There we saw them pressing coconut and cooking the coconut milk and paste into a kind of caramel candy. We tried some of the fresh candy while it was still hot.

Next door they were puffing rice. To do that, they heated a giant wok to about 200 Celcius, and added black, river sand to it. Once the sand was the proper temperature they stirred in the rice. A few swishes and the rice popped white. Then they ran the sand and rice through a wire mesh that allowed the sand to pass but kept the puffed rice. After that, they shook it to remove the rice husks (which they then use as a fuel). After that, the coat the puffed rice in caramel. I tried the finished result; it was kind of like caramel corn, but a little drier.

After that they offered us tea and sweets. I had a piece of candied ginger and a small cup of jasmine tea. I browsed the souvenirs but they seemed to me rather overpriced. I was really happy, though, to finally see something I had heard about a week ago: snake wine.

They take a cobra or other venomous snake, kill it, and then dessicate it (which shrinks it). They then put it a bottle with a narrow spout, add the wine (and possibly snake blood) and then seal it. The wine causes the snake to rehydrate and expand, creating an illusion of a snake magically transported into a small bottle. Supposedly, the snake wine works like viagra. Sounds like snake oil to me.

We went back on the tender and went from there to the town's Catholic church. We arrived just as the school children were leaving for the day, so we saw the nuns arranging them in rows. Inside the church, they seem to have picked up a trick from the Buddhists and have added neon to the crucifix (we've heard the Buddhists have done this for the tourists).

Outside, I heard some high-pitched shrieking and we found half a dozen gibbon monkeys in cages. I watched someone feeding them, but kept my distance. Then it was back on the boat to return to the ship for our farewell dinner. Those of us staying the extra day in Saigon will have another farewell dinner Monday night. Tuesday will then be on our own.

Mr. Thinh, the cruise director, didn't have dad and my name down for transfers to the airport on Wednesday, but we assured him that his print out is out of date and the problem has been fixed. He's going to double check as well. I gave him our departure time and it turns out we will be sharing the transfer with Frau Fabissiner and her husband. I started to laugh and he said yes, he knows. I'm not sure if he meant, yes, he knows she's very fabissiner, or yes, he knows I think she's very fabissiner.

Meanwhile, many of the passengers remain confused over tipping. On the boat, I heard people continuing to ask how much to tip the guide and how much to tip the boat driver. We don't tip Mr. Thinh until tomorrow night, so that will give us a chance to pull out some money from an ATM (if we need it).

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