Some things stay the same in Phong Dien

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A man picks dau Ha Chau in a garden in Phong Dien District, the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho / PHOTOS: CONG HAN

It was a trip laden with nostalgia. I revisited Phong Dien the other day with old friends I had not met since we graduated from university more than 10 years ago.

All of us wanted to revive memories of camping trips we frequently took in the area when we were students.

Now a popular eco-tourism destination in the Mekong Delta, Phong Dien has gone through many changes since we saw it last.

But, overall, it is still home to fruit gardens, simple yet tasty, homemade food, and vong co (southern traditional music whose name is literally translated as "longing for the past") songs.

Situated more than 16 kilometers south of Can Tho's center, Phong Dien can be accessed through Road No. 923, which starts at the foot of Cai Rang Bridge. The road is now asphalted and no longer a rough path strewn with pebbles and stones, but along its sides, the fruit gardens still stand. 

As we drove along, we were most impressed by clusters of dau Ha Chau (literally Ha Chau berry), the specialty of Phong Dien.

According to some accounts, the fruit was bred and developed by farmer Le Quang Minh in the 1960s. At that time the land's most famous fruit, cam mat (a kind of orange that has very small seeds and light yellow juice), was dying of a disease called citrus vein phloem degeneration.

Looking like Burmese grapes but rounder, with a thin skin and sweet and slightly sour flesh, dau Ha Chau soon gained popularity not only in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia.

It is now planted across Phong Dien and during its season, the fruit is practically everywhere, from gardens to street stalls, with average prices at around VND20,000 per kilogram. The fruit is a common souvenir for visitors to take back to their families and friends. 

We visited a local garden to enjoy the grape, lying on hammocks and chatting away. We also had wines made from local fruits like grapes and cocoa.

Someone played vong co on a disc player or a cassette player afar, inspiring us to sing a couple of songs. But, none of us could do it as well as a local. Public venues where people sing vong co with proper music bands are everywhere in Phong Dien. Locals just love this music and sing the songs quite often and so well that it is not an exaggeration to say that vong co is in their blood.

After spending half a day in the garden, we headed out to enjoy the most famous local specialty, banh xeo (sizzling cake).

Compared to its cousin in the central region, the deep-fried pancake in Phong Dien is much bigger. Its middle part is soft thanks to the stuffing consisting of pork, shrimps, hulled mung beans and bean sprouts. Meanwhile, the side with only rice flour is thin and crispy.

Even though the cake is fried in a considerable amount of oil, it does not taste oily at all when eaten with a variety of leafy vegetables.

In fact, a good balance is struck when we place a piece of banh xeo on a big mustard leaf, then add smaller leaves like mango, and finally dip it into nuoc mam (fish sauce mixed with vinegar or lime, and sugar).

We also had a hotpot made with salted ca linh (a fish species under the same family with carps), numerous home-grown flowers like dien dien (Sesbania sesban), sung (water lilies), and so dua (Agati grandiflora, or agati), and different kinds of leafy vegetables.

Dien dien and ca linh are specialties of the floating season in the Mekong Delta. Starting in the seventh month and ending in the tenth month of the lunar calendar, the off-the-book season happens when more water from the Mekong River flows into its tributaries in Vietnam the Tien and Hau rivers.

Later, we cycled along local roads that were shaded by trees to enjoy the last pure breezes of the countryside. As we left again for crowded and polluted Ho Chi Minh City, we all agreed that, nostalgia or not, Phong Dien should be a frequent rendezvous for us.

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