A fruitful expedition

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Foreign tourists cycle along the National Road 57 in Cho Lach District, Ben Tre Province / PHOTO: TRONG VAN

I had been to Cho Lach District a couple of times earlier, but I did not remember much apart from bad roads and weak bridges. There was nothing to write home about. 

However, on a recent trip to the place with a group of friends, I saw the district in a new light.

The district is located about 144 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre. When we requested the Center for Ben Tre Tourism Promotion to help us spend some time with farmers in the district, they recommended that we visit the Dai Loc eco-tourism site belonging to Nguyen Cong Thanh, better known as Tu Thanh, in Son Dinh Commune.

It was late in the evening when we arrived at Thanh's place. Ben Tre's reputation as "the land of coconuts" is well deserved and we were not surprised to see coconut palms with 50-70 fruits each right at the entrance.

Thanh, a middle-aged man, took us to a restaurant on the banks of the Cho Lach canal.

We started our dinner with a sweet-sour, lightly fragrant white smoothie. Called ca cao dằm Ä‘á (cocoa chipped with ice), the drink was made with cocoa flesh. Suitable for almost every kind of soil, cocoa is quite popular in Ben Tre, where, apart from its main use as raw material for chocolate, all its parts are used the flesh is made into a fresh fruit drink or wine, seeds are powdered, and the fruit's outer layer is used as food for cattle.

Since he received 600 cocoa saplings from the HCMC University of Agriculture and Forestry in 2001, Thanh has successfully developed eight strains of cocoa and every year he provides more than 500,000 seedlings to farms nationwide.

After the refreshing drink, we were treated to bánh xèo hến (deep-fried pancake, or sizzling cake, stuffed with mussels) cooked by Thanh's wife.

Having had the pancake at many different places, I can confidently say it was one of the best I've enjoyed. The sweetness of mussels, the fattiness of coconut milk and fresh milk, the fragrance of home-grown mushrooms and mung beans, the dipping sauce - fish sauce mixed with lime, sugar and coconut juice, and fresh herbs picked from Thanh's garden, are tastes that will linger on our tongues and in our minds for a long time.

Other dishes on the menu included freshwater apple snails that were cooked into seven different dishes, sour hot pot with swamp eels, and braised small cyprinids fish with a toothless jaw that do not have stomachs. These dishes were accompanied with sips of cocoa wine. 

The dinner ended with durians, another fruit that Thanh is famous for. Nicknamed "the durian witch," he was the man who brought the famous Mon thong durian variety from Thailand into Vietnam during the 1990s and successfully grew it here.

I would highly recommend a boat ride with Thanh along the canal that runs through his garden. He will provide the best form of "entertainment," introducing you to many facts about the many fruits that are grown in his four-season garden that covers more than two hectares. Guests are free to collect ripe durians that fall on the ground and eat them. Or, at the coconut area, just tell Thanh, and he will pick whichever fruit you like and you can enjoy it on the spot.

We decided to spend the night at Thanh's place. Contrary to our initial belief that it would be a homestay experience, we ended up staying in bungalows built in the garden to serve guests. There were no mosquitoes, but the pleasant breeze was cooling and comforting.

The next morning we visited the Cho Lach Market, which can be reached either by motorboat or bicycle.

The sight of vegetables like sweet potatoes and taro, seafood like prawns, snails, and fish, as also a variety of dried foods, made me want to buy them all. In the end, however, I just bought the ingredients needed to make the tapioca noodle soup (bánh canh) with mussels and coconut milk that Thanh's wife was going to teach us to cook.

Besides Thanh's eco-tourism site, there are many other places to visit in Cho Lach: a sandy beach on the banks of the Co Chien River in Son Dinh Commune; the Ba Ngoi and Tam Loc fruit gardens in Vinh Binh Commune; the Nam Cong ornamental garden with nation famous plants in Vinh Thanh Commune; the Cai Mon tourism area with fruit gardens and one of the oldest churches in southern Vietnam.

On this trip, I felt Cho Lach is a good match for Thailand's Suan Supatra Land, which is considered a paradise for fruit lovers. If local authorities could improve the infrastructure and promote its attractions, this place can be a big draw for tourists.

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