The Mekong Delta is a beguiling mix of wilderness and extreme habitation. It’s a landscape that morphs from watery jungle to dusty urban sprawl with remarkable ease. Imagine New York City forklifted up and set in the middle of the Florida Everglades and you begin to get the picture. The “Rice Bowl of Vietnam,” the Delta is the country’s greatest agricultural region. Yet, it houses the entire population of Australia within its densely populated backwaters. It’s a thesis on the color green from the water to the bush and up the mossy vines to the glowing treetops above. However, it is also a place of business – a place where commerce occurs equally on land and afloat and the river highways are as bottlenecked as the pavement above.
Vietnam’s southernmost region, The Delta dangles into the South China Sea like a piece of graph paper skewed and distorted – each blue line is a river and the white spaces in between are dyed green with fields of rice. Cradling the mouth of one of Asia’s greatest rivers, the Mekong Delta is the final escape for a trickle that begins high in the Himalaya and carries all the storied sediment of Southeast Asia to the Vietnamese shore. It is at once a final resting place and a new beginning.
Pt.1 -Deb on the Delta
I arrive in Can Tho by bus from Ho Chi Minh expecting an escape from the city, but Can Tho is no escape. Rather, it is a reemergence into the bustle of urban Vietnam. I navigate through the chorus of flopping fish, past rows of vegetables heaped on the bare pavement and beyond the disorder of the riverside market to the one hotel in town frequented by foreign guests not on package tours. I sit to eat, vaguely annoyed by the lingering smell of sundried fish from the nearby market, and find that the snakes, caged in the corner, are listed on the menu. Wondering what the less touristed hotels have to offer, I order fried rice and a beer and wait for the chef’s brother to come to arrange a riverboat.
A sunglasses inside kind of guy, the brother procures a private boat for four of us to depart at sunrise the next morning and walks off into the busy street with an unmistakable swagger. Content, I spend the afternoon roaming the riverside market planning imaginary meals and plotting escapes for the gasping creatures.
We are repeatedly assured an English-speaking captain, but at dawn we meet Deb. Short and fat with a gap-toothed smile, Deb doesn’t speak a word of English. Luckily, she is vivacious enough to follow along. She leads us down an alleyway to a small dock and we drift away into the rising sun.
Like the veins of an old hand, the Delta’s rivers slither and intersect, fighting their way to the South China Sea. Orchards and rice fields edge up against the water, competing for space with stilt huts. On the river’s edge, a woman swoops her baby over the water to pee while another washes and carves her vegetables. The river is both the means and the end.
I have entered the lush, tropical Vietnam of war movies. Papayas and durians drape over the water and as workers tend to the orchards, merchants row the produce downriver for sale at floating markets.
Boats bestow mountains of fruits piled so high you’d swear they’d topple the craft. Watermelons, pineapples, bananas, and stinky durians – each boat a different fruit. Deb barters some green grapefruits from a passing vendor, peels them, tosses the scraps in the water, and passes the parcels around. Later, she dices a pineapple to perfection.
There are vegetable vendors washing their produce in the trash-littered water. There are tea, coffee, and pho hawkers. There is even a floating minimart in this strip-mall of drifting depots.
We turn off the main river and into an estuary where patient fishermen check their recycled green-tea-bottle fish traps. Deb docks the boat and takes us on an increasingly wacky tour to a pig farm, a rice-paper production plant, and a funeral. Further down river we follow the sun-carved shadow of three cone hats to a small village on the edge of an electric-green rice field. Deb points, we say “pig,” “dead person,” “rice field,” and she smiles. It’s like an educational TV show come to life.
We loop around the backwaters, passing boatsheds hidden in the bush and barely-there docks for the local villagers. Tiny shacks sit next to boxy cement houses in this jumble of uneven development. A basic bridge provides just enough space for bicycles above and boats below to mingle in harmonious choreography. As we reemerge onto the main waterway, an arch of leaves, bunched like cornucopias, flaps above my head.
Approaching Can Tho, the houses give way to factories, industry trumping jungle exoticism. We dock in town, clamor through the small alleyway, and step back into the frenzied street stalls.
From market to market, life on the water imitates life on land. In this intertwined society, the two occur in mirrored fashion. The Mekong Delta, it seems, is a life of reflected juxtaposition.
***Check back later this week for Pt. 2 My Fatalistic Love Affair with the Motorbike