Every time I am lucky enough to visit Asia, it offers up fresh ideas and continuing interest. My latest visit included exploring new ground, a gem hidden in a favourite city and a familiar place seen from a different vantage point.
The Red River Delta
I arrive in Vietnam, excited and keen to explore an area new to me, the Red River Delta to the south of Hanoi. This is a region rich in agriculture and my visit coincides with the end of the harvest, a time of year I love at home. Here they experience the same four seasons as we do and while the smells and temperatures may be different, the processes are just the same.
The harvested crops are drying for storage and the fields are being readied for the next crop. The area is crisscrossed with dykes and irrigation systems and now is the time to repair the channels and banks. In the lull between the two annual rice crops, the paddy fields are joyously invaded by the ducks and chickens who have been restricted during the growing season. The sonorous buffalo too enjoy the freedom before being pressed into service to plough.
Nothing is wasted as I discover when I visit a mushroom shed in a small village. Dampened rice straw is combined with sawdust and then coated in ground rice husks, permeated with mushroom spoors. Columns of these parcels are strung up in the darkened shed creating a useful cash crop.
The area is perfect for exploring on foot or by bicycle; it is wonderfully flat. The rustle of dragonfly wings, as they dog fight above the water, and the warblers singing from the cut rice stems keep me company as I walk between the harvested paddy fields. I realise how much life this landscape sustains, in addition to the twice-yearly crop. The dykes are a source of protein, enriching the local diet with fish, frogs and snails. My eye is caught by clusters of bright pink eggs, which I later learn belong to the Golden Apple or ‘yellow’ snail, a species introduced to Vietnam in the 1980s from South America and now a major pest to the rice farmers. Education and research are helping but it is a sobering lesson in the vulnerability of our ecosystems.
Saigon’s Bird Club
Early on a Saturday morning I am taken to the corner of Tao Dan Park, a large green space in Saigon’s District One. Arriving on bike and foot, around me are men balancing covered bird cages and soon I understand why. As I enter the park there is a chorus of loud birdsong coming from the lines of cages hooked over permanent rails, set in the concrete for this daily gathering. My immediate reaction is, “How awful”, (I have always disliked birds in cages) but Dat, my guide, explains what it’s all about.
The role of a songbird fancier is not for the work shy. The care and training can only be managed by those that are home based and have time. These pet birds must be constantly watched; they are served three meals a day and taught to take a daily shower.
It would be easy to think the men in the park are sitting around just gossiping and drinking coffee, but they are constantly vigilant, moving their bird here and lowering a cover there.
The purpose of the club is twofold; the men to have the opportunity to discuss, learn and share their wisdom about the skills needed to train and tame the birds. The achievement they are all striving for is for the bird to comfortably perch on the keeper’s finger. The birds, mostly Chinese Hwamei, Magpie Robins and white rumped Shama, are also there to learn from each other. The old hands can teach the more nervous youngsters how to behave with decorum and, with the close proximity, they compete to improve the length and sweetness of their song.
The Aqua Mekong
Travelling by water is always an adventure and awakens a pioneering thrill in me. It is with great delight that I board the Aqua Mekong, a stunning modern take on a classic riverboat. My journey begins in flourishing Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and a city so grownup from my first visit in 1996. Traditional Cambodia and colonial and more recent history is still very much in evidence, now alongside some sky-scraping architecture.
Having settled into my cabin, with views out through my floor to ceiling windows, I meet my fellow adventurers in the lounge. The ice is broken as we laughingly struggle into our life jackets and head toward the exits during our emergency practise drill. Throughout the voyage the staff are brilliant, attentive and helpful but allowing space and privacy.
Time slides by as I gaze out across the river at all the exotic crafts that pass by, some so laden with cargo that they ride dangerously low in the water. However, my introspection must end as there is a busy schedule ahead. Each day we venture out on the ship’s launches with our local guides to walk, talk, cycle and explore. As an active person the chance to stretch my legs with a daily cycle is brilliant. There is so much industry around us; on the river are the floating fish farms and on land drying, weaving, frog farms and markets.
Back on board, a dip in the pool to cool off and a massage before a delicious dinner helps prepare me for the next day’s adventure.