The Mekong River surges into Vietnam in a muddy race to the South China Sea. The world’s 12th longest river, the Mekong begins as a trickle of snowmelt that winds its way down the Tibetan highlands, passes through Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and crosses the Vietnamese border rushing full steam ahead. But before it reaches the open sea waters, the mighty Mekong slows to a comparative crawl, splinters into smaller finger-like tributaries, and drops millions of pounds of silt each year to form the Mekong Delta.
Arriving at the Delta
It was late evening when our bus pulled to the side of the road. The driver pointed out a foot path and, with broken English and lots of gestures, instructed us and seven other international tourists to walk down to the river, which was obscured both by darkness and by distance. (A few times on this trip I’ve been acutely grateful for a particular item in my pack; in this episode, I was glad to have my headlamp to help Zach and me and our tourist comrades navigate the 500 meters to the boat launch.) There we met our host, who motored us 30 minutes downstream to his home on the banks of the delta’s backwaters. As we moved out onto the water, the sound of traffic grew faint, and in its place a chorus of frogs lifted its collective voice to such a volume that it could be heard over the boat’s motor.
We awoke to scenery that reinforced the stereotype I held of the Vietnamese countryside. Blue smoke curled out of tiny tin chimneys atop thatch houses. A family of ducks searched for their breakfast in the palm-fringed canal. A woman in a conical straw hat paddled past, a pile of coconuts in the bow of her sampan.
Home on the Water
Less than one hundred kilometers south of Saigon, life on the delta is a world away from the smog and skyscrapers of Vietnam’s humming industrial center. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Can Tho’s floating market, where produce buyers and sellers come together every day in a colorful confusion on the river. Sellers advertise their wares–yams, mangos, pinapples, and more–by stringing a sample fruit or vegetable up on a tall pole that can be seen above the throng. Not unlike an American baseball game, concession vendors wind their way through the crowd in smaller, more nimble boats. They exchange greetings with their customers as they hand over steaming bowls of pho.
Many people in rural Vietnam live exclusively on the water. Up the delta from Can Tho, we visited a floating fish farm not far from the Cambodian border. The fish are bred and raised in nets beneath individual huts anchored a mile or so offshore. Our guide explained that each farm requires substantial startup capital, but can bring in money on par with an American middleclass salary once established. All you have to do is 1) live in a floating hut in danger of becoming unmoored whenever the weather turns bad, 2) manually clean and repair the underwater nets each week in 30-foot deep murky water while breathing compressed (and perhaps diesel-tinged) air through a long plastic tube, and 3) inhale stinky rotten fishiness (a smell that almost made me vomit) day in and day out.
If fish farming doesn’t appeal, you might consider rice cultivation. Over three quarters of the Mekong Delta’s 17 million inhabitants work the irrigated rice fields, making Vietnam second only to Thailand in rice production. We visited the farm of a jovial old man and his daughter. After a brief encounter with some pigs, the farmer offered me rice wine. I thought it would be like sake, but instead it was a fireball descending my throat into my stomach, burning my insides in a way I had not thought rice capable. The farmer asked me if I liked it, and laughed good naturedly when I whispered, “It burns!”
The Mekong’s Future
The watery way of life seems more authentically Vietnamese than Saigon’s concrete jungle, but both are the real Vietnam of 2013. With the growth of capitalist industries and influx of Western businesses into urban centers, I wonder how the Mekong and other rural parts of the country will be affected in the coming decade. While I don’t think the traditional way of life will disappear, I’d bet good money there will be a KFC within a mile radius of the floating market come 2023.