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Riding the buses » Cultural travel, Travel itinerary, Vietnam » The Mekong Delta, where life revolves around the river

The Mekong Delta, where life revolves around the river

I have long wanted to visit the Mekong Delta, that vast triangular plain in South Vietnam where the mighty Mekong River branches into nine mouths—known as the Nine Dragons—as it makes its final push to the South China Sea. The Mekong River is one of the great rivers of Asia and I had been following it for some time, crossing it when I travelled from Thailand to Laos, travelling along it in Cambodia, witnessing its force in Tonlé Sap where houses have to be built on stilts because of it.

I was also curious to see the maze of jungle-bordered canals depicted in Vietnam War movies with US marines quietly making their way downstream until  spotted by Viet Cong soldiers; then all hell breaks loose and before we know it, American choppers are circling overhead. Maybe not reality but certainly suspenseful.

After a bit of research I realize the Mekong Delta is not remote but in fact heavily populated and  developed. It has some of the most productive agricultural land in Southeast Asia for the sun shines brightly, the average temperature is 28 degrees C and the sediment deposited by all the water flowing through it makes the soil very fertile. It’s not surprising that rice, sugarcane, fruit and vegetables are usually bumper crops here. The region also has one of the largest inland fisheries in the world.

Still, the attraction of the place is the water for life revolves around it. I made my way to Can Tho, the largest city and easy to reach by bus from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or by plane from Phu Quoc Island. I wanted to hire someone to take me out on a boat for a couple of days—a very small boat and I would return each night to my hotel. I wanted a craft small enough to negotiate the narrowest canals.

That person was Tây and her boat had a long-tail motor that she had to pull out of the murky water quite frequently to clean off the debris. But I didn’t mind the stops for it’s the sort of place where the pace should be slow and serene. The English-speaking guide who joined us tried to get me to buy them a very expensive lunch at a karaoke bar but I had been forewarned and would have none of it. So we all settled for cobs of corn and cups of tea that we bought from passing boats and fresh pineapple that Tây cut up.

We could have eaten one of the local specialties like sour soup with snakehead fish, roasted rice-eating rat or eels steamed with gourd but I prefer to stick with  food that I can recognize.

We left before the sun rose so it was still dark outside when the guide led me down the street from my hotel to the dock. We were not long on the water and heading towards the floating markets when the sky behind us turned a gorgeous, bubblegum pink. The floating markets, where everything is bought and sold from boats, are the biggest tourist attraction in the delta.

Our first stop was the wholesale market at Cai Rang. The boats there are relatively large for they need to hold enough produce for resale in smaller markets. What each boat was selling was easy to see for a sample was tied to a bamboo pole above the boat. They must find it difficult to manoeuvre in such a tight space but as soon as the buyer and seller pulled up alongside the produce was quickly inspected, the price agreed upon, and the goods efficiently transferred.  Our small craft could easily move about but we had to be careful so as not to be crushed for none of the bigger boats paid any attention to us.

The second market, a retail one at Phong Dien, was much smaller with lots of boats just like ours. Tây seemed to know just about everyone there and the atmosphere was friendly. The buyers carefully considered the produce, sometimes weighing it, other times hopping into the seller’s boat for a closer look. There was a boatload of Vietnamese tourists who were yelling and gesturing—totally caught up in the drama of it all.

Next we stopped at a Cao Dai temple, a religion that follows the teachings of Buddha, the Sages and the Saints (Confucius and Jesus) that was established in Vietnam in 1926. The temple is extravagantly decorated with dragons and seven-headed cobras and is multicoloured, yellow for Buddhism, blue for Taoism, and red for Christianity. There’s an eerie-looking eye at the front of the temple that represents god.

Over the two days we also visited a Buddhist temple run by nuns growing and drying medicinal herbs, a small noodle-making factory where large rounds of rice pasta are formed manually and left to dry in the sun, a brick-making factory that causes horrendous pollution and where workers toil in extreme heat. From time-to-time we left the boat and walked along narrow paths and through farmers’ fields.

What I enjoyed most was just watching everyday life along the narrow canals: women kneeling by the river to wash their clothes, children bathing in it, men fishing it for dinner. Bridges cross the waterways, some sturdy enough to hold a motorbike, others of flimsy bamboo that only an agile Vietnamese is able to manage.

The maze of waters seems to connect everything and everyone. When its too wide for a bridge then there’s a ferry to take people and their bikes from one side to the other. Sometimes the ferry is very small, just like the boat that I am in, and the passengers don’t take a seat but stay standing till they (often with a bike) get off on the other side. Understandably, everyone had a quiet chuckle when they watched me  scramble on both hands and feet to get on or off my boat.

When we went ashore, particularly where few outsiders went, locals often gave me a surprised smile and some older women even hugged me or patted my arm. In the heat of the day, Tây would raise the blue and white cloth roof as protection from the sun and a couple of hours later we would quickly and silently chug-chug into harbour.

Once we cruised into more open water to visit a fish farm and passed an enormous bridge that had collapsed in 2007, killing 50 people. So perhaps it’s best to stay on the water. After all, like many here you can have eyes painted on the bow of the boat to give you luck or at least to scare the crocodiles away.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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