Over the 3rd and 4th days of Tet Lisa and Mimi and I travelled south to B?n Tre province to spend a couple of days with Ms. Tam and her family. Ms. Tam has been in our employ now for about the last twenty months and she has been a total delight to have around the house. Never have I seen this lady without a smile on her face and she performs her domestic magic with an air of a truly happy person. We will miss having her around and not just because she keeps our house like a new pin.
Her 12 year old daughter Ms Diem became a favourite of ours during school holidays when she came up to S?i G?n and spent a lot of time at our house which enabled us to spoil her rotten. We had not seen Diem for many months so we were looking forward to catching up with her and meeting her brother and the rest of the family.
Ms. Diem learning to use my computer in our home office
B?n Tre province is about a 3 hours drive from S?i G?n and it is actually a large island formed by arms of the Mekong River as it empties into the South China Sea. The district capital is the town of B?n Tre which is located at the north western end of the island not far from the ferry crossing from My Tho. But we were headed another 34 Kms to the small village of Ba Tri located only a few kms from the ocean.
In recent times I have often said that the countryside out of H? N?i is prettier and neater and altogether more pleasing than the countryside out of HCMC but I now have to eat my words. It is true that travelling to My Tho is still boring and akin to travelling through one large industrial estate, but that all changes when you disembark from the ferry. The countryside is beautiful. Groves of coconut trees interspersed with large sweeping tracts of paddy fields and houses with incredibly neat and manicured hedges as front fences with fruit trees shading their yards.
It is beautiful country to drive through and, as usual, the people proved to be as friendly and hospitable as I have come to expect Vietnamese people to be. It was obvious that not too many foreigners get down into these parts by the surprised expressions on local faces when they saw who we were and on more than one occasion a double take caused someone to take a spill from their bicycle.
We were going to ride our motorbikes down there but Mimi’s parents were worried about the traffic conditions so we opted to call up our driver mate Mr. Nhut who sent along his brother Mr. Vinh and off we went. We were able to borrow motorbikes from some of Ms Tam’s neighbours so we could come and go as we pleased and explore all we liked.
We opted to stay at the only guest house in Ba Tri because we knew that Ms. Tam’s house would be full of family and also we like to have a bit of our own space to retreat to. The guest house was clean, inexpensive and the large room was ample for the 3 of us although we had a shared bathroom at the back of the house next to the kitchen. It was fortunate that it was acceptable as it is the only one for miles.
When we arrived at the guest house Ms. Tam told us that usually they only rent out rooms by the hour and as she mentioned it I noticed a lot of couples coming and going, mainly heading upstairs. The ladies always had the face masks on that they use when riding motorbikes so I could only see their eyes. Oh well, couples have to have somewhere to go when houses are so overcrowded I guess.
Ms Tam’s house sits amidst rice paddies on a gravel road and you must cross a small bridge to reach it. Compared with other houses in the area it is well appointed with tiled floors and a new (1 month old) toilet and bathroom block they have constructed out the back. It is constructed of brick and concrete with fibro roof although the back section which houses the kitchen has only dirt floors and palm thatch walls. Many other local houses are completely made of thatch and have only dirt floors.
Ms. Tam’s house. Actually it belongs to her husbands family.
We arrived laden with gifts for the family for Tet. A large food basket done up in fancy cellophane and ribbon, two cartons of beer and one of coke and two piggy banks, one for each child, that we had filled with all of our small change both coin and note over the past 9 months or so. Ms. Tam used to wonder what we were doing with these two pigs when she saw them around the house so it was a pleasant surprise for her. We had already given Ms. Tam an extra months salary in a red lucky envelope so we felt that we were not going to be too much of a burden on them over this already expensive time of year.
Ms Tam’s mother in law prepared a delicious meal for us and we sat down to eat fish caught in the canal in front of the house, duck that were bred in the same canal and many many other dishes. The old mother spent all of her time looking after us and making sure that we had plenty of food and enough ice for our drinks. It was great.
Ms. Tam’s mother at work in the kitchen while Mimi looks on in anticipation.
Great food from a very basic kitchen.
Ms. Tam, her husband Tau and Ms Diem guided us around the place and we spent a lot of time riding around through villages and countryside. We all went down to the port and looked at the fishing fleet and walked through a mangrove swamp where we watched lung fish hopping around the mud flats and Ms Tam admitted that although she had been born there and lived close to the ocean all her life, this was the first time she had visited these places.
There were a couple of special highlights that we did not expect to happen. The first was when Ms. Tam took us to see where her rice paddies are and show us where the house is in which she was born. At this time the rice is growing and is very green and subsequently the paddies are full of water, so we ended up out in the middle of a vast expanse of rice knee deep (literally) in mud. Mimi and Lisa were horrified at the way it felt squelching up between their toes and the snails that they were squashing underfoot and made a big fuss but we were all laughing very hard the whole time, especially as Mimi kept slipping into big holes and losing her sandals in the mud.
The other special thing for me was to do with the breakfast that was prepared for us on the morning that we came back to the city. Crabs, prawns (shrimp), fish, chicken, vegetables, rice, beer, it was a feast for sure. The rice farmer across the road who had invited me in to drink tea supplied one of his own chickens as he realised that Ms. Tam’s house did not have any. Also, neighbours dropped in to visit and inspect the strange foreigners and the Saigonese girl who were visiting.
Getting ready to eat breakfast.
It was made apparent to us that everybody in the area was aware of our visit and knew who we were and why we were there. It also became apparent that we were the recipients of something very special in that there were not many occasions when non family members had been invited to their house and I felt particularly humbled when I realised that the day before we got there they had prepared a big party for their family with a lot of food that needed cooking, then they had turned around the next day and done it all again for us.
We will certainly miss this family and the simple pleasure of eating, laughing and drinking with people who we love and respect.