A new friend in Ca Mau invited me to Ms. Hai Dang’s house near the Chong My Canal, Cai Nuoc District, about 50 minutes from the center of Ca Mau by motorbike. This area is famous for its immense fields of cattails, creating the brand name “Cai Nuoc Cattails.” Ms. Dang’s house was built near the new roadway where her husband and youngest son, Tieu, are among the workers constructing this vast asphalt road leading to Song Doc town.
She joked with us that if the roadway had passed through their land, her family would have been rich a long time ago. I knew she was just kidding from the look in this over-forty-year-old woman’s eyes. I could see how happy she was living in this great land that nature had endowed with birds, fish, and fruit trees in the garden. Every morning, she just needs to pick a few sprigs of sweet leaf and collect some fish from the net she setup the night before to make a pot of aromatic spotted scat fish braised with slender water vine, enough to eat all day long.
Tieu, her youngest son, guided us through their land, opening more than ten bamboo traps that he set the previous night with tilapia bait, which was as big as three knuckles. He also picked some cattails for our lunch, rambling about the cattails fields that his family has been attached to for generations. When the rainy season comes, cattails grow fast. From then until the end of the rainy season, Tieu and his family harvest the young cattail buds for pickling.
We anxiously awaited lunch as Ms. Dang said that it was specially prepared for far-away guests: banh xeo filled with crab and cattails. Mud crabs freshly caught on the farm are boiled until red before the meat and crab roe are taken out. Ms. Dang put garlic and scallions into a pan with hot oil then stir-fried the crab meat and thinly sliced the young cattail buds. When the mixture was cooked, crab roe and spices were added to complete the fragrant banh xeo filler.
In fact, you can enjoy typical types of banh xeo everywhere in the Mekong Delta, but we had never eaten such a delicious version in the middle of a field full of the aromatic smell of reeds. Ms. Dang said that we could feel free to enjoy the meal here as all dishes were prepared with the eye-catchingly green vegetables freshly plucked from her garden. Sweet leaf, otaheite apples, longevity spinach with the smell of medicinal herbs, minced sour mango and some other vegetables rarely found in Saigon, make the banh xeo here incredibly special.
She also invited us to try tilapia wrapped in muop (sponge gourd) leaves and braised with fresh coconut juice. This signature dish is only prepared for intimate family parties or served as an offering to ancestors. When setting the table, Ms. Dang realized that they were missing something, so she called Tieu’s wife and told her: “Ask your husband to go to the embankment, climb to Uncle Ba Phi’s chili tree, and grab some to make the sauce for banh xeo!” Tieu’s wife smiled, looking at her mother in-law laughing loudly. At that time, we knew that they were referencing a funny folktale of Uncle Ba Phi about a chili tree so big that people could climb it.
Floating on the Mekong Delta’s Sea Lake
That afternoon, when the birds started to hurry back to their nests high in the mangroves, Tieu drove us to a lagoon about 20 minutes away from his house to experience vo lai (a type of small boat with a motor, popular in the Mekong Delta). The small motorized boat ran along the Chong My Canal toward Ba Tuong Lagoon. Being the largest natural lagoon in the Mekong Delta, this area is considered a “sea lake.” Located in the region of three districts, including Phu Tan, Cai Nuoc and Tran Van Thoi, it consists of three main lagoons: Dam Tren (Upper Lagoon), Dam Giua (Middle Lagoon) and Dam Duoi (Lower Lagoon); Middle Lagoon being the largest among them.
Heading to Dam Tren, the boat came to a sudden halt due to a big wave. Tieu tried to revive the motor but it wouldn’t jump because it was out of battery. He jumped into the water, making us think that he would swim to fix the machine. It turned out that the water was quite shallow, only reaching up to his waist. As the sunset began to dye a corner of the sky, Tieu motioned for us to sit on the boat while he pushed it toward a stilted house located in the middle of the immense lagoon.
Tien recommended that we stay at the roofless stilted house, enjoying the sunset and fishing while we waited for someone to help us. We agreed right away. I loved being in the middle of that immense lagoon where breezes ran through the stilted houses as we listened to people sharing happy stories and the pointless chatter of life. Sometimes, inspired by the scenery, someone would sing the harmony of a vọng cổ (a popular song structure from Southern Vietnam). All of that was enough to ease our weariness. Only smiles and fond memories remain from our travels to the end of our country.
After waiting for a while, we waved at another boat to help us connect the battery so we could get back home. By that time, the whole area was sparkling with yellow lights in the dark yet peaceful backdrop of night.
Song Doc in Transition
The following day, we woke up early and drove motorbikes to Song Doc – a busy beach town in the west of Ca Mau. Blessed by nature, Song Doc is surrounded by numerous landscapes such as Da Bac Islet, Cai Doi Vam Estuary and Hon Chuoi Island. It is the prime location that highlights the role of Song Doc in the region as the place that receives and transports goods as well as welcomes tourists.
Not only does it play a significant role in trading, Song Doc boasts numerous traditional villages famous for knitting nets, making dried fish, and temples as well. From Ms. Hai Dang’s house, we drove 25 minutes toward the beach then took a ferry to reach the town center – the bustling Song Doc Market. People were busy with their work both on the boats and throughout the harbor. The whole area was saturated with the songs of canaries. Canaries are raised in almost every high-rise house here. The sound of canaries making their nests is so noisy in this corner of the town. Canary farming is an example of the high-speed development of urban and residential areas here, transforming this once rustic and tranquil town.
We visited the house of Mr. Ba Men, owner of a seafood business in this rich coastal town. Mr. Ba happily told us that Song Doc was getting better. As Song Doc is a bustling and vibrant estuary, the fishing and seafood processing industry is at the top of the Western market. The town boasts the largest fishing fleet in the Mekong Delta with more than 1,400 ships. In the near future, Song Doc will become the industrial center of the Ca Mau Peninsula, a multi-purpose and integrated economic center in the west of Southwestern Vietnam.
Before saying goodbye to Mr. Ba, we promised to comeback to Song Doc one day to see the prosperous transformation that is not only built around natural resources but the hard work of locals.
Suggestions for a slow-living journey in the land of Uncle Ba Phi:
- 1-day itinerary: Ca Mau - Cai Nuoc - Thi Tuong Lagoon - Song Doc - Ca Mau
- 2-day itinerary: Ca Mau – Nam Can – Dat Mui – Crossing the national park – Tu Na bird park – Thi Tuong Lagoon – Song Doc – Ca Mau
- 3-day itinerary: Ca Mau – Thi Tuong Lagoon – Song Doc – Fishing experience with locals – Ca Mau.
From Ca Mau, you can rent a motorbike to go to Nam Can, turn right at Rau Dua crossroads then go straight about 5 km to the house of Ms. Hai Dang. Her house is located next to Chong My bridge. From there, you can enjoy interesting slow-living moments with simple yet delicious local dishes prepared by the owner of the house. You can rent a boat to visit Ba Tuong Lagoon, taking in the beauty of a local sunset before heading back to the house to taste crab soup and listen to folktales. The next day, rent a motorbike to Song Doc, travel with local fishermen to experience fishing at the bottom of Vietnam.
Text & photos: Nhung Buoc Chan
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