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Nostalgia for the countryside at Ca Mau

As the rainy season approaches the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta in southern Viet Nam becomes a wildlife sanctuary, providing relief for animals after a dry six months.

Blessed by nature with a large diversity of resources, the waterway still remains largely unaffected by human interference and industrial development. Old folk from the southern-most province of Ca Mau remember a time when the Mekong Delta was teaming with fresh water fish, frogs and eels and locals spent their nights hunting and setting traps by moonlight. Three decades later these men and women sometimes yearn to turn back the clock and relive those memories and perhaps offer tips to younger generations.

Back then, when the first rains started to blanket the region, marking the start of the rainy season, Ca Mau locals flocked to the fields to receive nature's gifts. The long-awaited rains arrived after a long period of strong winds sweeping the fields. Dark clouds billowed and thunder and lightning occupied the afternoon sky as rain saturated the land.

Locals call this natural phenomenon "hard-going heaven labouring". By nightfall millions of frogs could be heard croaking in chorus, prompting locals to arm themselves with acetylene-fuelled lamps and baskets to comb the fields. A festive atmosphere filled the air as the army of rural residents worked through the night, their lamps glittering like a city of lights.

Frogs often started to look for a mate by midnight. Many of the smaller species of frogs gathered near water holes in saline land. The Ca Mau locals did not even bother to pick up one frog after another, but swept them into large baskets they had brought with them. After a short period of time these woven baskets would become so populated with frogs that they would be almost too heavy to be carried home.

The larger frogs inhabiting the fresh-water streams were not so easy to catch. A few loud frogs would be kept in a bamboo basket in a suitable location to act as a decoy. Young locals would take their time, chatting or courting for one or two hours before returning to their baskets and re-igniting their lamps only to find numerous frog couples around their baskets, courting just like them.

The mystery of this natural phenomenon is that everything, fauna and flora alike, seemed to perish in the six-month long dry season and reappear as soon as the first rains come as if by magic. Besides frogs, fish like snakehead, anabas and catfish were also seen leaping in the ankle-deep fields in search for suitable places to reproduce.

It was an easy task for Ca Mau locals to catch these animals, even bare handed. In deeper places, knives were used to slash the fish. Larger catches included turtles, eels and snakes who were also taking advantage of the early rains to hunt for their food. Charmed by the light and tired after the dry season, many would not even try to escape from the hunters. This is perhaps the reason why it was normal for locals to come back home with full baskets, each up to ten kilos, after a night's hunt.

A little further into the rainy season when the fields were submerged waist-deep in the water, locals would prepare the fields for rice cultivation. By then the fish were still small, so eels became an alternative. After years of experience, the people of Ca Mau developed various ways to catch eels: trapping, spearing or even catching them with bare hands. U Minh Forest in Ca Mau Province is known as the home of eel trapping, a job even children as young as 10 years old can do. The traps were made from bamboo internodes about 1.2m long with a one-way lid at one end and were placed in fields covered with reed or cajeput in the evening.

The eels, attracted by the fragrance from fried fish used as bait inside the traps, could not escape from these contraptions and were retrieved the following morning. Spearing was even less painstaking: hunters would plunge their spears into the mud and if an eel was hit, it would shake the spear.

Even spear-throwers had to admit that the most skilled and admired hunters were those who could catch the slippery creatures with their bare hands. Eel-catching specialists would thrust their arms into eel holes discovered on the banks of the fields, trapping them inside. With wild plants available in the same fields, locals were able to make good dishes for their daily meals from the eels they caught.

Fishing techniques from the Ca Mau region could fill a whole book. However, the most popular way was to plant a fishing rod, the upper end of which is whittled down to become flexible, into the water at nightfall. Particular types of bait were used to attract different preys: live small frogs for snakeheads and worms for catfish. The fish would remain hooked overnight until collected in the morning.

As peasants wait for their rice to ripen, the rainy season drew to a close and sea water started to encroach on the fields. This was the time when the fish rush to water holes deep in the forests in search for refuge during the dry season. The locals would start digging ponds connected to streams, with tree branches placed inside to create the appearance of an ideal hide-out for hundreds of kilos of fish to jump in.

The arrival of the dry season in the second and third lunar months does not mean an end to fishing activities for the Ca Mau people. The province is known as the home for various bogs that remain wet all year round, creating an ideal refuge for the fish waiting six months for the rains to return. Locals often favoured the bogs during the dry season because of the high concentration of fish, many having survived several seasons.

Some bogs were so heavily infested that locals set up tents to continue digging for several days, during which they used buffalo carts to carry the catch home. The arrival of such a huge supply of food was met with cheers of happiness from the village.

Grilled fish or turtles, washed down with rice wine around a fire in windy and boundless fields, was an unforgettable party to the Ca Mau people who often recall these sweet memories with pride and nostalgia.

VNS - (29/06/2004)

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