Day of the Dead. Legends for the Living.

I used to look forward to All Saints Day when I was a child. In Catholic schools, All Saints Day was a religious holy day of note, which meant that we had another day off school. November the first blurred into November the second, Melbourne Cup Day, which is a State holiday in Victoria, and if the days lined up nicely with the weekend, even better. The beginning of November meant horses, saints, holidays and good weather, with only one down side, the traipse up the road to Church, a small price to pay for another day off. I don’t remember much about those saints or what the day was about. To me, it all seemed a bit morbid and sinister so I conveniently blocked it out.

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Pane dei Morti di Siena

It was in the tenth century that Odile, the abbot of Cluny in medieval France, transmuted the Day of the Dead, Samhain, the ancient Celtic feast of ancestors, into a Christian holy day, All Souls Day. Curses and blasphemy, I missed out on all the Celtic fun and got Odile’s version, made extra ominous by the Irish nuns who taught me. At least in modern Italy, the day still goes by the name I Morti, the dead, and the practices are more in tune with traditional pagan legends than the version I grew up with, though I’m sure there’s a bit of Church attendance involved. Going to mass in Italy often means chatting through the service and ducking out for a smoke. Other than the widows up the front, Italians often don’t seem to take church too seriously. Church is a local catch up and a ritualised prologue to a good lunch.

In Sicily, legend has it that on the evening of November 1, departed relatives rise up from their tombs and rollick through the town, raiding the best pastry shops and toy stores for gifts to give to children who have been good during the year. Children write letters to their dead relatives, just like the Christmas letters written to Santa. On this day, ancestors and relatives “feel an attraction to the living and hope to return for a visit and families set the table for ancestors returning from their graves.”

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Small loaves for the day of the Dead. One for now, one for the freezer.

What a wonderful legend. Just to think that you might have a visit from your dearly departed loved ones for a fleeting moment in time. When it comes to a good Celtic legend, adapted along the way by some wily Siciliani, I’m in. Time to write a letter to the dead and make some sweet things for  I Morti

Pan co’ Santi – A sweet bread from Siena to share with I Morti.

Makes two small loaves

  • 300 gr raisins
  • 1 ½ cups tepid water
  • 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 25 gr sugar
  • 3 Tbls lard or olive oil
  • 500 gr unbleached plain flour plus 2 -3 Tbls for the raisins.
  • 8 gr sea salt
  • 1.25 gr freshly ground pepper
  • 100 gr walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 1 egg yolk for glaze

Soak the raisins in the tepid water for at least ½ hour. Drain the raisins, but reserve 1 1/3 cups of the soaking water. Warm the soaking water to 105-115 degrees.

By mixer: Stir the yeast and sugar into the raisin water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the lard or olive oil in with the paddle. Add the flour, salt and pepper and mix until the dough comes together. Change to a dough hook and knead until firm and silky, for around 3 minutes.

First rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, 1¼ to 1½ hours.

Filling. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Without punching it down or kneading it, pat gently with your palms into a 35 cm/14 inch circle. Pat the raisins dry and toss with 2-3 Tbls flour. Work them and the walnuts into the dough in 2 additions.

Bread dough with sweet filling

Shaping and second rise. Cut the dough into two pieces. Shape each piece into a round, tucking the ends of the loaf in and trying to keep the raisins and walnuts under the taut surface of the skin. Set each loaf on a lightly floured peel or on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover with towels and let rise again until doubled, around 1 hour and 10 mins.

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Fruit and nut stuffed dough before rising.

Baking. Heat the oven to 220° C fan forced. With a razor or sharp serrated knife, slash the dough with 2 horizontal and 2 vertical cuts. Brush the loaves with the egg yolk, then bake for 5 mins, then reduce the heat to 200 F and bake for 30-40 minutes more.

Also see these little sweet biscuits for the dead.  https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/fave-dolci-biscuits-for-the-dead/

 

A Walk in the Daintree Rainforest

The tropical Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia is one of the most complex on Earth. Its plant diversity and structural complexity is unrivalled on the Australian continent. Descendants of plant life can be found today with many of their ancestors’ primitive characteristics, some dating back 110 million years. Carefully designed walkways through the forest enable the visitor to enjoy this diversity, to see plant life transmogrify, evolve, die, smother, climb, submerge, compete, rot, and re-emerge within this unique UNESCO world Heritage site.
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Fave Dei Morti, Biscuits for The Dead

If you’re not Siciliani or Greek, you’re probably wondering what fave or broadbeans have to do with biscuits and the dead. Fave beans are the emblematic dish of death,

“The ancient Greeks saw the black spot on the petals of the broad bean plant as the stain of death and used the beans in funeral ceremonies but refused to eat them. Pythagoras thought that their hollow stems reached down into the earth to connect the living with the dead, and that therefore fave contain the souls of those who have died. The Romans honoured their connection with death but cooked and served the beans as the most sacred dish at funeral banquets.” ¹

Fava( broadbeans) flowering late in my garden.
Fava( broadbean) flowering late in my garden. They look beautiful and a little spooky too.

The day of the dead, I Morti, is celebrated in Sicily on November 2 with Fave dei Morti, little sweet biscuits formed to look like broadbeans,  as well as other sweets such as ossi da morto, bones of the dead, and sweets shaped like human figures. For many Siciliani, a tablecloth is laid out on the family tomb, complete with chrysanthemums, the flowers of the dead, and the family gathers for a picnic. This may sound rather morbid until you consider that on the day of the dead, I Morti, ancestors and relatives sneak back into the living world, back through that fissure in time, to be with the living again.

Fave dei Morti
Fave dei Morti

Given this fine Italian tradition ( not to mention its connection with similar Celtic practices), I went in search of a few customary and very simple recipes, from Siena to Sicily, to leave a few sweet things on the table or the grave, come November 1 and 2.

Fave  Dei Morti

These tiny, crunchy biscuits are easy to whip up and are wonderful dunked in something strong. Despite their simplicity, they taste festive and are very moreish. I need to make another batch for the otherworldly ‘visitors’ on November 1.

  • 100 gr almond meal ( or almonds finely ground to a powder)
  • 100 gr sugar
  • grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbls rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 70 gr unbleached plain flour ( AP flour)

Place the ground almonds in a bowl with the sugar, lemon zest, egg and rum. Mix until well blended. Add the spices and flour and stir until the dough is well blended.

Divide the dough into four pieces. Flour a work surface very lightly and roll each piece into a log the width of a finger. Cut into 4 cm ( 1/12 inch) pieces and place them on a baking paper lined tray. Flatten each piece slightly.

Heat oven to 175ºC and bake until barely browned, around 16 minutes. Makes around 40 pieces. Dust with icing sugar and store well in a tin.

Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.
Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.

¹ Celebrating Italy, The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods. Carol Field. 1990

Shining on the Perfume River, Hue. Vietnam

If you take a stroll down the banks of the Perfume River at night, you will come across a scene of flood lit bridges, sparkling dragon boats and a little commerce as the locals, along with a few tourists, enjoy the fresh evening air after a hot and humid day. One of the delights of that stroll is watching the lights change colour on the Truong Tien Bridge, making the river shine and glow. The open space, parklands, good walkways and absence of motorbikes makes for a pleasurable night out for families and young couples in love.

Shining Bridge of Hue, the Truong Tien Bridge
Shining Bridge of Hue, the Truong Tien Bridge

In 1897, the French Resident Superior in Central Vietnam, Levecque, assigned Eiffel of France (known for the Eiffel Tower in Paris) to design and build the Truong Tien Bridge. The construction was completed in 1899. In 1946, 1953 and 1968, this beautiful bridge, symbol of Hue, was destroyed due to mines and bombings in the French, then American wars. The bridge was finally renovated in 1991-5 and the lighting system was installed in 2002.

More evening cruise boats along the banks of the Perfume River, Hue, Vietnam
More evening cruise boats along the banks of the Perfume River, Hue, Vietnam

The Perfume River (Huong) is named after the flowers from orchards upriver which fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma. The River flows to the northeast to Huế and passes the palaces and tombs of the Nguyễn emperors. After a day touring the tombs of the Nguyen emperors in the countryside, I can recommend a slow trip down the river, a relaxing end mesmerising way to end a long day.

DRagon boat ready for business on Perfume River, Hue
Dragon boat ready for business on Perfume River, Hue

My other posts on Hue: https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2016/08/04/almost-vietnamese/  and https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/hues-culinary-surprises/

The Hand Built Finn. My Sourdough Diaries.

The other day I ran out of bread. I can’t eat ‘white death’ or spongy packet bread of any colour, dosed with preservatives to make it last forever. Neither can I eat the fake sourdough marketed to look like the real thing sold in a well-known supermarket or the stuff from hot bread places. I perused the specialty bread section of the supermarket where racks of famous city bakers display their tempting loaves,  Dench, Baker D Chirico, La Madre, Phillipa’s: there’s not much change from $10 for an ‘artisan’ loaf, rivalling the smashed avocado as the real cause of inner city hipster poverty. We went without bread that day.

Home made Finnish Rye. Just add smashed avocados.
Home made Finnish Rye. Just add smashed avocados.

I hurried home and hastened along my trusty starter, Sorella, another offspring of Celia’s Priscilla, a consistently reliable sourdough starter in any weather.  It’s important, when baking your own loaves, to seek out variety in flavours and flour combinations. I often get stuck in a groove and make the same loaf over and over again, especially when I can make it on autopilot now.

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Overnight rise High Hydration loaves. Our regular loaves. 80% baker’s white, 20% wholemeal.

Recently I returned to the Finnish Rye loaf which I have written about before. Now that I’m hand building this loaf, thanks to the demise of my stand mixer, I’m finding it far more successful than before. For sourdough bread makers out there, I urge you to give this one a go. It stays moist for three days or more thanks to the linseed. Forget about my previous method- this one makes a superior loaf. Linseed is full of omega 3, so this loaf is healthy but doesn’t taste heavy at all. It is soft, earthy and easy to digest. You could live on it.

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The recipe makes two small batards

The Finnish Rye Loaf, recipe courtesy of Craig Gardiner, baker extraordinario.

The Ingredients

  • 288g white bakers flour
  • 144g wholemeal flour
  • 144g rye flour
  • 365g water ( filtered or tank water, not treated water)
  • 173g sourdough starter (100% hydration). Make sure it has been refreshed three times and is bubbly before use.
  • 60g molasses
  • 18g salt
  • 140g flaxseed ( linseed)
  • 154g water to soak flaxseed.

Mixing the Dough

  1. Begin by soaking the flaxseed in the soaking water for at least 30 minutes in the water. ( last two ingredients on list above)
  2. Put the starter, water and molasses together in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add the flours and bring the dough together by hand.
  4. Cover the dough and leave for 15 minutes.
  5. Add the salt, mix through the dough and let stand for 1 minute or so.
  6. Add the soaked flaxseed along with the soaking liquid and squelch through with your hands, making sure the liquid and all the seeds are distributed through the dough. The mixture will be very wet.

    The dough will look like this after the seeds and soaking water have been mixed in.
    The dough will look like this after the seeds and soaking water have been mixed in.

Resting and stretching

Let the dough stand for 30 minutes. Put a few drops of oil on your bread working surface and spread out with your fingers. ( I use a silicon mat which has been a great investment). Scrape out the wet dough using a pastry scraper, then stretch and fold the dough. Return dough to the bowl and cover.

Let the dough stand for another 20 minutes, repeat stretching and folding, returning dough to the bowl and covering.

Repeat steps one and two.

That’s four stretches in all. If you do two or three, the bread will not mind. I always have sticky hands and so have not been able to photograph this method. Where is Mr T when you need him? If you need a little visual version of this method, check Celia’s video here.

You will notice the dough tightening with each new stretch. Now cover the dough and leave in a warm spot for around 4-6 hours, depending on your room temperature. Basically it needs to double in size. Don’t overprove this bread.

Final shaping.

Scrape the contents of the bowl onto a floured surface, using a pastry scraper. It will be sticky so flour your surface well.

Now pull up one side of the dough and stretch it up as far you can and fold this long piece over the rest of the dough. Do this with the other side. Then top and bottom. All the surfaces will now be lightly dusted with flour and will not be so sticky. Cut the dough in half with a pastry scraper. Shape the loaves into round balls for another short prove. Cove the dough balls with a tea towel.

Turn oven on to 250c Fan Forced.

After 30 minutes or so, the oven should be ready and the loaves slightly risen. Now gently shape the loaves.  Do not overwork them at this point. treat them like soft babies. I like to make batard shapes. Place the loaves onto baking paper, then slash the tops well, using a serrated knife or a razor blade. Lift the paper with loaves into enamel baking tins and cover with lids.

Put the two roasters into the hot oven ( if your oven is large enough to take both) reducing the temperature to 220c. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lids, and bake for another 15-20 minutes at the same temperature. Usually the time here is 20 minutes but these loaves are a little smaller than the usual loaf size.

Cool on wire racks.

The Finn
The Finn

I am indebted to two baking mentors here- Craig for the original recipe, and Celia for the method and for the brilliant idea of using enamel bakers for a more consistent result in the home oven.

The Finn, a moist loaf.
The Finn, a moist loaf.

Simple Seafood Paella

Paella is an uncomplicated and quick dish to prepare at home, once you get to know the basic ingredients and keep a few of these on hand. When a bag of mussels and a handful of fresh green prawns saunters my way, I now turn to Paella. It’s easier than risotto, with no stirring involved, and can be made on a regular gas stove.

The basics for Paella
The basics for Paella.

In the pantry you will need these standbys:

  • a small container of commercial pre-made fish stock, or home-made frozen stock or one vegetable stock cube
  • some good quality Spanish smoked pimenton ( paprika )
  • Calasparra rice- no other rice will do for this dish
  • saffron strands

Some other desirable ingredients for a seafood paella for two people are:

  • some left over calamari wings, stashed in the freezer*
  • some green prawns, three large or 6 small per person
  • mussels, around 6 per person
  • one green or red capsicum, sliced
  • one finely sliced onion
  • one finely chopped garlic
  • good olive oil
  • parsley

You don’t need a special paella pan for a no fuss paella for two people. I use a heavy based frying 20-25 cm frying pan with a glass lid. My other paella pans come out and are used for bigger gatherings. Just double or triple the quantities for your larger pans and seek out an even and very large heat source.

Pictorial recipe instructions follow.

Fry the onion, garlic and red capsicum in two tablepoons olive oil.
Gently fry the onion, garlic and red capsicum in two tablespoons olive oil for around 5 minutes or until softened but not coloured.
after the onions have softened but not browned, add the rice and stir about until opaque
Add one cup of Calasparra rice and stir about until opaque
Grind one generous pinch od saffrom with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt in a mortar and pestle and add to the pan.
Grind one generous pinch of saffron with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt in a mortar and pestle and add to the pan. Add a little water to the mortar and add remaining saffron water to the pan.
Add the sliced strips of calamari wing and smoked pimento to the pan along with 2 1/2cups of stock.
Add the sliced strips of calamari wing and 1-2 teaspoons of smoked pimento ( I like mine smoky) to the pan along with 2.5 cups of stock. Commercial fish stock packets usually contain two cups. Add extra water if needed, or use a stock cube. Cover the pan with a suitably fitting glass lid and cook on low to medium heat for 15- 20 minutes. Relax.
after 20 minutes, add the mussels to the pan, and cover.
When the rice has swelled and most of the liquid has been absorbed, add the mussels to the pan, and cover. After another five minutes, add the prawns and cover until cooked. Check that liquid has been absorbed and the dish should now be ready to serve.
Serve in the pan, with finely chopped parsley
Serve in the pan, with finely chopped parsley
The bottom will have formed a slightly golden crust. The soccarat is the best bit.
The bottom will have formed a slightly golden crust. The soccarat is the best bit.
More than enough for two, with some leftovers for breakfast or lunch.
More than enough for two, with some leftovers for breakfast or lunch.
The big fellas used for larger crowds. Not so suitable for stove top cooking.
The big fellas, used for larger crowds are not so suitable for stove top cooking

After preparing fresh calamari for another meal, stash the wings in the freezer for occasions like this. They defrost very quickly and add depth of flavour to the rice as it cooks. I have also used a small fillet of Dory in the same way.  I learnt this trick from Sandra at Please Pass the Recipe and the habit has stuck.

Local Joy, Local Madness

There’s nothing more local than a home garden. I often wander around with my camera, capturing seasonal change, growth and decay. The garden takes me away from my moods, my inner chatter, my inside world. In any season, il giardino is quiet and full of sensory pleasure.

Another ock for my buddha
Another rock for my old Buddha

This Buddha sits close to our house. It is the stone Buddha from our old garden, one of a handful of surviving objects from the Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009 which destroyed our home. When I find an interesting looking stone or rock, I add it to Buddha’s feet. Bushfire is a hot topic in the local area, with extremely divergent views on how to deal with the bush. One local plant, Burgan, is at the centre of this debate, a bush known by the CFA, a fire fighting association, as ‘petrol bush’. Due to its high flammability and tendency to spread like an invasive weed, most locals like to keep this pest under control on their bush blocks. Permit requirements to clear Burgan were dropped by our local shire council (Nillumbik) after the Black Saturday bushfires. Seven years after that fire, which razed a quarter of the shire, with 42 deaths within the council’s borders and hundreds of homes destroyed, the local council plans to reinstate permits to clear this bush on privately held land. Our local Council has become wedded to an extreme ideology which is at odds with reality. Local Madness.

front
View from my front door.

View from my front door. A dam is a wonderful thing and was the first improvement we made on our land after arriving in our current home almost 7 years ago. It is our local water supply for the vegetable garden, a local water supply for the CFA fire brigade should they need it and is also a local watering hole for native animals and birds. Can you believe that our Local Council does not approve of dams on private property? New local planning laws have become fraught with red tape. A line has been drawn on a map which includes this wonderful dam. It is now part of a Core Habitat zone, which, in effect, prevents us from removing any local plants from its perimeter or fixing the walls should it spring a leak, without resorting to a lengthy and expensive local permit process. Local madness.

Echium
Echium in flower.

Planting in purple and blue attracts more bees to the garden. The local bees have been sleepy this season as the weather has been too cold and wet. Now that the sun is shining and the Echium are out, the bees are returning. This blue flower is often completely covered with bees.

Borage in Flower
Borage in flower

Borage flowers can be used in salads, but more importantly, bees also love borage. Many of these flowering shrubs, because they are not native to the district, are viewed as weeds by some prominent local environmentalists. Without bees, our vegetable and fruit supplies would vanish very quickly. There are also many native Australian flowering bushes in the garden. Bees like diversity and so do I.

a xx
A purple native Grevillea plant and the winter flowering Hardenbergia violacea in our garden. More bee attractors.

Three Years of Almost Italian

It has been three years. No, not since my last confession, but since I started this blog, Almost Italian, although there are some parallels. Just like in that pontifical wooden cubicle, I get to confess some indulgent practices here in the form of eating, drinking and travelling. Like many other bloggers, an anniversary is a time to reflect, despite all the daily, monthly and yearly graphs and statistics provided by WordPress, the daily view bar graphs, views by country, statistics by post, best day of the week and time of day. This information is enlightening and addictive. I am constantly amazed at the success of some posts and the dismal failure of others.

So here are my top three posts:

This lovely tart recipe, written in 2013, continues to be popular with 1,099 views this year. (2,560 in total).

  https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/apricot-almond-cake-with-amaretto-easy-frangipane/

easy
Easy frangipane apricot almond cake
Lilla Pantai at night
Lilla Pantai  by the sea at night. Sanur Bali. One year ago.  Now so busy.

That’s one party, one recipe and one restaurant review. Sounds like a famous blues song involving lots of drinks. All these posts are from previous years, all contain simple and easily found titles, keeping them high on search engines.

The other bit of navel gazing that I have indulged in today are the stories and recipes that didn’t make it onto my blog due to poor photography in low light or sloppy appearance. I am blaming Melbourne’s weather for this. Here is a mosaic preview of some good recipes in the last month with lousy pics.

You, dear reader, get to choose which one of these tasty dishes to redo and post, now that daylight savings has arrived and the light is longer and there’s a chance of eating in the great outdoors again. Open each pic separately, choose the title and tell me in a comment. And thankyou for reading my ‘confession’, subscribing, liking and commenting. Your interest keeps me going. F xxthree-1

Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre

This weekend, Ailsa, an Irish blogger who inspires with her words and photos, wrote the following:
“No matter where you are in the world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the cesspit of filth currently masquerading as a presidential election in the US. It is downright depressing to be bombarded daily with examples of how low mankind can sink, and frankly bewildering that such a base, unevolved, malignant individual has been allowed access to a world stage from which to disseminate and normalize his poisonous views. I have of late found myself drifting towards cynicism of humanity at large, guilty by association by simply belonging to a species capable of producing such monsters. To counteract this bleakness, I have resolved to actively seek out all that is enlightened, noble and beautiful about being human – and that’s what this week’s travel theme is about. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the joy of the human condition”
 Following this sensational rant about the sad state of American politics, which I share wholeheartedly, Ailsa includes many joyous photos of dance and celebration, of innocent children and messages of love, of life enlightened and invites others to add their own.
Before I add a few special photos, I must share my favourite poem with you. Many will know it. Written by W. B Yeats in 1920, these words resonate loudly in these strange times. What rough beast heads towards the presidency of the USA, and what rough times will be inflicted on the world should he succeed? Mere Anarchy?

 The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? W. B. Yeats

Children sleep, a picture of innocence and supreme love.
Children sleep, a picture of innocence, trust and love.
You can read this literally or metaphorically. I love to plant seeds of all sorts.
You can read this literally or metaphorically. I love to plant seeds of all sorts.
A sign outside of a Yoga School in Sanur, Bali
A sign outside a Yoga School in Sanur, Bali
Moving Meditation. Enlightened practicioners of Tai Chi in Chengdu, China
Moving Meditation. Enlightened practitioner of Tai Chi in Chengdu, China

Floating Market, Cần Thơ, Mekong Delta.

There are two floating markets near Cần Thơ in Southern Vietnam. The first market, Cai Rang, around 6 km from the town by boat, is the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta. This is a busy wholesale market, with vegetable and fruit vendors indicating what they’re selling by attaching the item to a long pole above the boat. It’s best to arrive there by 6 am.

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Boat vendors, floating market, Can Tho, Vietnam

To get to the markets, make a booking the day before with a local tour company such as Mekong Official Tours Information Bureau, opposite the Ho Chi Minh statue in town, or organise it with one of the boat ladies at the Ninh Kiều pier in the town of Cần Thơ.

On the Hậu River, the bigger branch of the Mekong River.
Life on the Hậu River, the biggest branch of the Mekong River.

It’s best to take a small sampan, a small four person low-lying boat that can weave in and out of the water traffic at the market and navigate the narrow canals in the countryside. The boats are safe and the women are skilled pilots, though you may wish to check that they supply safety jackets as well. It’s nice to know they’re there, even if it’s too hot to wear them.

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Things get busy on the water at the floating markets near Can Tho.

You meet up with your guide just after 5 am, as it takes 45 minutes by boat to reach the first market. Take a few morning snacks for the journey or buy fruit and snacks on the river. There are many floating restaurants and small snack vendors en route. Usually the driver will peel and shape a sweet pineapple wedge for you, and the guide will supply you with a bottle of H2o for the trip. Our hotel made us a breakfast pack of filled baguettes and pastries, which I swapped with our guide for something more local and delicious.

Women boat vendors at Phong Điền market.
Women boat vendors at Phong Điền market.

We opted for a 7 hour tour on the water. This included Cai Rang and Phong Dien Markets, a trip up some canals to visit a farm, a visit to a rice paper and noodle making business, and a snake farm. The snake farm was the most disturbing feature of the trip. Huge pythons, kept in tiny cages, are force-fed, then tied up and massaged all day by snake farmers who walk up and down on their bodies, making their skin softer and more pliable to remove after they’re killed. The skins are dried and sold for fine leather. Avoid this visit at all cost.

skilled navigators
Skilled navigators of the Mekong.

Can Tho is four hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City.  The bus company Phuong Trang has the largest number of services to Can Tho daily. There is a stop for 30 minutes in the large Phuong Trang highway service and restaurant point, which is huge and well supplied with all sorts of snacks and clean amenities. When you arrive in Can Tho, a shuttle bus will bring you to your final destination, if you have the address of your hotel ready. This is included in the price of your ticket. Cost from HCMC ( August 2016) is 100,000VND/$5.90 AU. The seats are comfortable, the bus is air-conditioned, the obligatory DVDs are not too intrusive, and the views of the Delta region and glimpses of Vietnamese country life are absorbing. I recommend the bus over a private car for this trip. The Phuong Trang bus company is in District 6, HCMC, a small taxi ride from the district 1 hotel area.

Our amazing guide for the day. Funny, affectionate and informative.
Our amazing guide for the day. Funny, affectionate and informative.