While my freshly baked husband and I were in Vietnam we travelled to Can Tho to visit the Mekong Delta. I wanted to see the famous Floating Markets, so we booked a boat trip while buying dinner at a street stall (which is a whole other story) for the following morning.
Much to my husband’s surprise we actually got picked up from our hotel at 5h30 as arranged and walked out of our air-conditioned hotel into the already steamy early morning dawn. Not only was it a shock to my system, but also to my camera which hadn’t quite adjusted to the outside temperatures when we arrived at the “jetty” to catch our boat for the day.
It didn’t take very long for the sun to rise to full power and for the mist on my lens to clear.
The world that opened up to us that morning was so different – I could have never imagined it. It was hot, humid, busy, full of colours and smells… a feast for all the senses!
After whooshing through the busyness of what felt like a gazillion boats of all shapes and sizes, we turned into a much quieter side arm and made our way to what our guide referred to as a “Rice Noodle” factory. This was one of the many highlights I was extremely excited to experience, not really knowing what to expect. While slowly navigating the narrowing waterways, and distracted by more unfamiliar sights, I let my eyes wander:
When our boat stopped, we hopped off onto the rather overgrown river bank, onto a small pathway which led past a house, over some kind of courtyard and finally to a building:
And voila! A Rice Noodle Factory. Well, I guess the word “factory” can be very misleading for a “Westerner with no South-East Asia travel experience” like me. It was a building with two or three work stations, about 8 workers and lots of “what’s its” lying around…
At first, nothing I could take in made sense, but our guide slowly explained the work processes and things became clearer after a while. It was hard for me to concentrate on our guide’s explanations because my eyes were so distracted by all the beautiful light flooding into the building:
Eventually, I understood that the workers were taking a batter made from rice and tapioca flour, steaming it on drums until the batter set in the shape of an oversized pancake. These were then taken outside to dry.
Once dry and hard, the pancakes were taken back inside to their final station for a shape and a trim.
For the first time since our arrival in this factory, my eyes catch a familiar sight: rice noodles!
Rice noodles are, as we experienced during the rest of our trip, a staple food in Vietnamese cooking. They come in all shapes and sizes. I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know how they were made. I am sure that there are actual factories where rice noodles are mass-produced elsewhere in the country. This wanna-be-almost quaint kinda factory, however, was set up for an all-manual process where there was time for a bit of chit-chat and the occasional cigarette. The man who carried the trays outside was actually smoking while doing his work.
I may have painted an overly romantic picture here and so I need to clarify that the work is by no means slow and workers are all but lazy.
After our official tour was done, we asked the workers a few questions which our guide translated since nobody there spoke any English. We learned that the people work e v e r y d a y. Yes. EVERY day. No rest on a Sunday. No weekend. Just work. They are already busy by 5am and just keep going and going. Not once, during our entire trip, did we ever come across any person just sitting around. Everybody is always busy with something.
In answer to our question – if they ever take time off to go on holiday – the rice noodle factory workers all looked at each other with rather bewildered looks on their faces. What do you mean a holiday??? “I’ve been to the big city of Can Tho once!”, answered the one lady.
Privilege just took on a whole new meaning for me…