Cockles and Fried Fish
Bonding Over Rice Wine
The Coarse Salt
Our boat pulled up alongside the small fleet of 7 river boats all tethered securely together to form one huge floating platform. This gave them stability on the river and one could walk on the boats without feeling the motion of the waves too much. Also, these families care and share everything so one can imagine soya sauce bottles being passed around... plates of fried fish... and it wouldn't be easy to pass things around from boat to boat if the boats floated separately.
All I expected to do was to snap a few pictures of the mounds of coarse salt. To be polite, I waved at a smiling lady in purple samfoo. She is the matriarch... the oldest on the boat and the one that all defer to because of her seniority. It seems to be that she rules the roost with smiles and laughter. Before long, she waved us over so that she could see us up close too. I suppose we are as much curiosities to her as her salt boat was to us. We had an easy conversation facilitated by Khoa, who translated. After a bit, a vibrant looking fellow all sinew and tanned leather from the sun appeared with a bottle of rice wine. He invited us to his boat for a drink.
We were hesitant. We're almost teetotallers you see... not very much into alcohol and it was 9am in the morning but I thought the man looked hurt when we declined... so, against our better judgment, we climbed onto his boat. A while later, the whole group congregated on his boat... a plate of boiled cockles appeared... a plate of crispy fried fish... soya sauce augmented with chilli. It was delicious!! These are the simple foods the villagers obtain from their land teeming with fish and bursting with every fruit and vegetable imaginable... plus some unimaginable ones. The cockles are the sweetest I have ever tasted. Small but sweet.
For some reason, I was reminded of a fireplace in a brightly lit room, with my feet lost in a deep plush carpet and the warm chatter of coffee conversation. Different décor here on this boat, but same feelings in the heart. It was an experience that money cannot buy. You cannot buy that kind of welcome and warmth. They expected nothing from us, these simple folk... but treated us to the best they had to offer. We left them with a Singapore $2 note that had value not as money but as a curiosity they could bring home and show the families at home. In a Singapore where parents teach their children to get ahead no matter what... and that ends justify the means... in a Singapore where those who are at the top fight tooth and nail to get even higher, caring not at all for those less fortunate... I don't think you can find people like these anymore.
At one point in the conversation, mention was made of the China-Vietnam territorial disputes. They worry, these people, but they smile gently and shrug off the future uncertainty... "We, the Vietnamese are good fighters. We will join the army and protect the motherland." They say it with confidence, after all, they've been protecting this land for thousands of years and beaten opponents vastly more powerful. They say it as if that's the most normal thing in the world to go to war. It's amazing.
Thank God for people like that... the humble salt of the earth. This then, is what Vietnam is really made of.
The boat folks sell coarse salt. Anyone who wishes to buy raw sea salt can get in touch with Khoa. The boat folk don't speak English so Khoa would have to translate. Khoa can be reached at (0084) 987 485 984 firstname.lastname@example.org too.