Monday, September 25, 2023

A day on the Mekong Delta

A visit to Vietnam would not be complete without a trip to the Mekong Delta. in southern Vietnam. You can spend days, even weeks, visiting the region in southern Vietnam. With only a day to visit from Ho Chi Minh City during our recent cruise, we a second visit to this incredible (and expansive) area would be worthwhile.

Boats take locals and visitors between islands and 
the mainland.

Fifth largest in the world, the Mekong River starts in the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet. The resulting delta is a vast maze of rivers, swamps, and islands. Boats are the main means of transportation, and floating markets are popular among locals and tourists.

Fish lunch prepared by a local lady

Life in the area revolves around water with farming and fishing supporting 20 million Vietnamese. The Delta is renowned as the “rice bowl of Vietnam” because more than half of Vietnam’s rice (and fish) comes from the region. For this reason, the Delta is essential to the Vietnamese economy and diet.

With this background, I will describe our most recent excursion through the small waterways of the Mekong. Upon arriving at the Delta, we took a boat ride to Thoi Son Island, one of several in the area where people live. After disembarking we walked to the village where we planned to interact with and learn more about the unique life of the locals.

Bee pollen tea and fried banana strips

Bee keeping is popular and useful as we learned when we were served a snack of tasty banana strips fried in honey and tea flavored with honey bee pollen. Flowers and fruits were plentiful--among them the durian, a very stinky Asian fruit that people either love or hate.

Dorian is a "love or hate" fruit.

Making coconut candy
Coconuts are a staple food in Vietnam. Every part has a use, from food to lotions to cleaning supplies. Our guide broke open a coconut and showed how the milk is saved and processed into candy and other products. All processing is done by hand—no machines are used. We watched a local lady make coconut candy by flattening the mound of cooked coconut and then cutting it into strips. The result is a sweet, chewy treat that is the consistency of peanut butter. Ultimately other ladies cut the candy strip into pieces which were individually wrapped by hand for sale.

Assortment of tropical fruits

Later a group of locals sang traditional songs for us while we enjoyed pieces of different tropical fruits and jasmine tea. What a treat it was for some of our group to be invited to dance with them.

Typical houses on the island are very basic, possibly with open sides, perhaps a small porch, and equipment for outside chores nearby. Yards as we know them were nonexistent, Stepping stones made paths to keep shoes and feet from getting muddy with frequent rains. Colorful flowers and edible plants seemed to grow wild.

A typical home on the island of Thoi Son

After these experiences, we boarded a sampan (like a canoe) for a journey down the Mekong River. Our boat was paddled by a “little old lady” who sat cross-legged and barefoot as she deftly maneuvered through palm trees lining the banks. For protection from the sun she wore a wide-brimmed had made of rice straw, which we learned was waterproof and would last about two years. We made sure to sit as still as possible in order not to tip the boat (the water was not inviting), even while sampling fresh coconut milk.
Sampan ride down the Mekong River

Ferries transport people and goods from one island to another during the day. However, residents are able to provide for most of their needs on their own island, meaning they live a very simple, almost cloistered,  lifestyle. As we returned to the mainland we passed various fishing boats, many adorned with “eyes” intended to keep evil away.

Fishing boats

Vietnam remains a poor rural country. Farmers and fishermen face many challenges in the Delta these days, including sea level rise, land subsidence, increasing salinity, and shifting water regimes. It’s not an easy life—far from the bustle and hustle of ever-growing cities that may be all some visitors see of the country.

However you arrive in Vietnam, by land or sea, plan to include some time on the Mekong Delta.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Friday, September 15, 2023

San Antonio's hidden gem

What do you do with an abandoned limestone quarry and cement factory?

Park officials in San Antonio, Texas struggled with that scenario in the early 1900s as they pondered possibilities for converting a bare but rocky landscape into something beautiful and relaxing for the city and for visitors.

The result is a hidden gem we discovered years ago and have visited many times. Inspired by the popularity of Japanese art and fashion in the early 20th century, city officials transformed this spot devoid of anything attractive into a lush oriental-style garden.

One of our favorite features is the rows of stone paths and walkways that meander through abundant foliage and flowers. It’s the perfect place to wander leisurely, stopping at the stone arch bridge for photos, skipping along well-placed rocks, strolling past an island, or marveling at koi swimming in a lily-pad pond. The 60-foot waterfall is another place to stop and medidate. Because of its construction on multiple levels, parents find the garden an excellent place for children to explore and expend some energy.

Known as Japanese Tea Garden or Sunken Gardens, it is located on the northwestern edge of Brackenridge Park, near the San AntonioZoo. If you have time, you can easily visit both places the same day.

At the city’s invitation, Kimi Eizo Jingu, a local Japanese-American artist, moved to the garden with his family in 1919. A recognized tea expert, he lived in the park and maintained the garden until 1941, when feelings toward anything Japanese declined.  Thus, during the World War II years, the garden was renamed Chinese Tea Garden to prevent vandalization and negative repercussions. In 1984, the original name of Japanese Tea Garden was restored by the city.

Today the site is on the National Register of Historic Places as it honors San Antonio’s history of limestone quarrying and its cultural diversity. I highly recommend visiting the Japanese Tea Garden, located at 3853 N. St. Mary’s Street in San Antonio, Texas.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Montmorency Falls is a must-see when in Quebec

Montmorency Falls near Quebec City, Canada
(with suspension bridge visible over the top)

A highlight of our recent stay in Quebec, Canada was a visit to Montmorency Falls. This spectacular waterfall is more than 2700 feet tall. While crashing water dominates the landscape of Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, there are also historic and geologic features for those who wish to dig a bit deeper into its importance.

A good view of the boardwalk and stairs

Upon arrival we learned there are different ways to view the base of the Falls. Passing over the river, the old railway crossing has been replaced by a long, wide footbridge providing pedestrian access and series of platforms on various levels. This is the shortest route to beautiful views.

On the east side of the basin is a concrete walkway that has been refurbished, widened, and raised, with a mineral garden lining the walkway.

On the west side, a new wooden trail offers a completely different feel, and this is the path we took to get closer to the waterfall. It takes about 15 minutes to walk on the trail, depending on how often you stop to take pictures and admire the Falls from each new angle.

Long staircase from the top to the bottom of the Falls.

Arriving at the base, we could see the suspension bridge high over the waterfall, which seemed to be calling our names. We marveled at the panoramic staircase on the side of a cliff, with its 487 steps leading from a concrete promontory at the bottom to great views at the top. Although there are specialized occasions that people are allowed in the water at the base of the Falls, we observed young folks apparently on some type of excursion seemingly having a good time in the chilly water.

Larry by the window of cable car
Originally expecting the wooden trail to be our primary focal point, after trekking back to the Visitor Center, we decided to take the cable car up to the top (where the suspension bridge is) for even better looks at the waterfall. This was a bit risky as we were on a tour with limited time and knew we’d have to rush to make it back in time.

Stay at the hotel, and your walk to
the bridge is much shorter.
By the time we bought tickets for $15, waited for the cable car to fill, then took the short ride up, and disembarked at the Manoir Montmorency (an English style country inn), we truly had to push ourselves. But it was worth it!

Starting from the Inn, there’s a fairly long boardwalk along the cliff leading to the suspension bridge. On the way, I stopped briefly at La Baronne Observation Deck to admire the panoramic scenery. 

Quite a view for zip liners as water
flows under the bridge.

Because of our limited time, we skipped other magnificent lookout points. At the Suspension Bridge above the Falls, we watched the water plunge explosively into the St. Lawrence River. We could hear and feel the roar of the water as it tumbled over the cliff.  And it was fun to watch adventurous zip liners racing across the river. What a memorable experience!

Watching the water rush over the cliff at the 
top of Montmorency Falls.

With more time we would have read about historical and geological characteristics of the surrounding territory to gain a greater understanding of this important feature. As it was, we hurried back to the downward cable car and were only slightly late to meet our waiting group. Although we could have spent an hour or two on that excursion, I’m still glad we took a chance and did what we could.

 Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier