Before our journey to Vietnam my daughter, Magnolia, asked me about my childhood activities. What did I do in Vietnam when I was her age? Coincidentally, I was about her age when my dad left Vietnam with my brother, Hien, and I in tow. I told her about swimming in the river, riding water buffaloes, catching bettas in the rice paddies for pets and various forms of fishing: noodling for small cá lóc, fishing from a raised porch during monsoon season and fishing with electricity.
cá lóc or snakehead fish
These things intrigued her and she pleaded with me to help her experience these activities herself. What is a father to do but feel a tremendous sense of duty to realize her wishes.
We thought about swimming in the river but unlike 30-years ago the river is now much more polluted, due to the rising population with human waste and trash going directly into it. How contaminated is unclear and we did observe residents swimming in it. We didn’t want to chance it given that Magnolia was not born here and may have fewer defenses against potential contaminants. It’s the same precautions that we took early on with drinking water, where we eased into drinking rain water and having ice in our drinks.
Over the years, mechanization of farming equipment has changed the role of the water buffalo and its use for tilling soil is less prevalent today. Farming related machines can now be rented as needed. Although I haven’t had it, I’ve also seen buffalo menu items that aren’t buffalo wings. So, it was surprisingly difficult to find a water buffalo to ride. We have seen them while on the road but not where we can actually get on. It will continue to stay on our to-do list.
One of the factors in the recent success of rice farming has much to do with the increase use of pesticides. In Vietnam, rice can be harvested every 3 months and up to 3 times a year. During the growing season, it may require 15 to 30 (or more) pesticide spraying sessions. Unfortunately, the heavy use of pesticides and other chemicals have negative ecological consequences, which includes killing off small fishes like bettas that thrive in the shallow and stagnant water of rice paddies. Magnolia ended up getting a betta from one of our relatives who raised them to sell. She loved it and fed it mosquito larvae that were in abundance in any water container.
We tried fishing the traditional way with hook, line and sinker on a bamboo stick with poor results since the bamboo pole was too heavy for her. We couldn’t find any modern fishing gear in the area but we did catch a small catfish that we cut up for bait.
But Magnolia was most excited about fishing with electricity which is illegal today. I remember as a child, observing my father and uncle, Doan, fishing with this method. It was fascinating because the fish would be stunned and floated to the surface. After a minute, the fish would revive only to find itself in ones basket. Illegal but that doesn’t stop people from still doing it and in particular, on their own property. I spoke to my cousin about it and he decided to show me how it’s done today by borrowing the kit from an unknown neighbor. He gave us a demonstration in this video.
It was hard work and while my cousin was in the water, he said he felt the electric current — “tingly”. Our catch was decent but certainly not enough for a little party. So, we complemented the catch with duck soup and this exotic dish in the video (blood alert!!!).
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