"Ceaselessly the river flows, and yet the water is never the same, while in the still pools the shifting foam gathers and is gone, never staying for a moment. Even so is man and his habitation." -- Kamo no Chomei (poet, 1155-1216)
The Mekong Delta’s tributaries in southern Vietnam, between Ho Chi Minh City and the Cambodian border (Kampuchea), transfer huge volumes of water drained from the Himalayas and passing almost 5,000 kilometers (2.5 thousand miles) through China, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. Much of Vietnam’s rice and fish comes from the delta region. Inhabitants include Khmer, Chinese, Cham and Vietnamese people.
The Mekong Delta provides 70% of the fruit consumed throughout Vietnam. My hike along the maze of dirt paths shared by bikers and pedestrians skirts plenty of fruit orchards laden with mango, grapefruit, guava, apple, jackfruit, dragon fruit, mangosteen, plums, and durian. Flowers are cultivated and distributed among the jungle plots of land that sometimes are surprisingly large and luxurious.
Snakes (venom is produced for export) and catfish are available for sale to eat or to medicate. Crafts and other small entrepreneurial enterprises are secreted here among the mangroves, orchards and jungle brush.
If the sun is shining, a walk in this perspiring land is magical and rich in interaction with the flora and residents. If the sun is not shining, and monsoonal rain and thunder threatens, then seek shelter on the patio of a nearby home, tucked away along the pathway. If you are in the middle of a large body of the murky river’s main branches, then pray or rev up the motor and hope to reach shore before the front passes.
At one point I nervously watched a sheet of white rain sweeping up the river toward our modest sampan-like wooden vessel — as our group jetted toward the opposite shore. Thunder and lightening added more drama, as I worried. Our boat bumped up against the land, we scrambled into an adjacent pottery factory, and the wind, water and light-show rushed past with only moments to spare.
I asked our guide later what it would be like if we had not beaten the blast of monsoonal rain that pounded the area just then. Her response was simply, “We would have been in trouble.” Nice to know.
The wonders of Vietnam’s watery and densely populated breadbasket are not far from Ho Chi Minh City. Day-trippers can reach the largest floating market and some of the ethnic enclaves in two-three hours. I was fortunate to be a part of a group that could savor the delights of this still palpable adventure over a period of two days, spending one night under a mosquito net within a well-appointed mansion-like B&B (bed and and dinner and breakfast) accommodation.
School-bound children are common sights in Vietnam's countryside
The Mekong is also known as River of Stone, Dragon Running River, Mother River Khong, and Big Water. The longest river in Southeast Asia is the the 12th longest in the world and the 10th largest in terms of volume. It feeds approximately 60 million people and disgorges 475 billion cubic meters of water each year into the South China Sea. The Upper Mekong features turbulent rapids, steep gorges and long sections with no people. The Lower Mekong River is more placid and very wide in some places - and densely populated.
Gas station, diesel anyone?
My launch motored amongst a local river population intensely preoccupied with making a living. The river(s) are murky but change color in tune with the variability of the sky and clouds. Some day maybe the many floating vehicles can be powered by solar energy or some quieter energy resource, thereby finally displacing the grinding noisy gasoline-engine barges, sampans, and houseboats. Life will go on in any event, as this marshland and puzzle of tidal streams reflect nature’s great plans to renew that life.
Tours that I was part of both in Vietnam and in parts of Cambodia (see a future blog on Cambodia) also include demonstrations of mushroom/herb cultivating, incense-making, soy-paper-manufacturing, silk manufacturing, sugar refining (and candy) , silkworm breeding, pottery- and mat-making and rice wine production. As mentioned above, people’s homes feature daily chores and produce crafts as cottage industries.
rice paper patties
To be continued (Vietnam's Mekong Delta (II)) -- will be final blog 2018.