A feast for all the senses

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Children play in a lotus pond that is situated within the Gao Giong eco-tourism site in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap 

The Gao Giong eco-tourism site is located in a cajeput forest in the commune of the same name, about 15 kilometers from Dong Thap Province's Cao Lanh Town.

To reach it, one must row a boat through canals that wind their way through vast rice fields and small thatched-roof houses.

Doing the rowing for us was a young woman in a pink áo bà ba - traditional, simple loose-fitting shirt often worn by women in the Mekong Delta and a black pair of long trousers. She was also wearing a nón lá, the traditional conical hat, and a khăn rằn - another traditional piece that is like a bandana.

After some time, the scenery changed, and the canal's banks were lined by high cajeput trees that had white, fragrant flowers. Duckweeds covered the water surface in a carpet of green.

As she rowed, our tour guide also sang traditional songs known as vọng cổ (literally - "longing for the past").

It took us around 25 minutes to cover more than two kilometers and reach the center of the eco-tourism site.

As soon as we arrived, we were invited to lotus tea and snacks that were also a gift from the lotus plant, like roasted nuts.

Then we were taken to an observation tower that is 18 meters high to view a vast area of cajeput trees where various wading bird species could be seen, from common ones like the white stork to red-listed ones like the purple heron (Ardea Purpurea).

The area is aptly called the "stork garden." White storks outnumber any other species. The storks would make loud noises when disturbed by the appearance of some visiting boat, but the liveliest time is at sunrise and sunset when the birds fly away and return after food hunting trips.

Our tour guide told us that during the "floating season," visitors would be able to see lotuses bloom in a pond that is situated within the site. Also known as high-tide season, the special period begins during the seventh month and ends in the tenth month of the lunar calendar when more water from the Mekong River flows into its tributaries in Vietnam the Tien and Hau rivers.

The joy of observing thousands of birds and the enjoyment experienced as the boat goes through rice fields and cajeput forest are by themselves worth a visit to Gao Giong, but there is no point in not enjoying the icing on the cake as well - snakehead fish grilled in young lotus leaves.

First, the fish is washed clean and seasoned with salt. Then, still alive, it is placed in a basin that is carefully covered. The fish's struggle to escape cleans itself of its oil, we were told. 

Later, the fish is covered with lotus leaves before being grilled on charcoal. When the leaves get burned, the fish has been cooked. This way, the fish is not burned, our guide said. 

Following her instructions, we put a piece of fish together with vegetables, rice vermicelli, thinly sliced pork meat and cooked prawns into a young lotus leaf and rolled it as we usually do with rice paper when we have fresh spring rolls.

Finally, we dipped the roll into mắm nêm (sauce of fermented fish) and took a bite.

The sweetness and fattiness of the fish combined with the acridness of the leaf make for a taste that will linger on our tongues and in our minds for a long, long time.

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