Nine Dragons of the Delta
The moody tides of the murky Mekong River Delta are so controlling
that people who live here exist at is mercy, revel in its power
and call it the "Land of Nine Dragons."
carries stalks of sugar cane
in Mekong Delta "factory."
The little girl peeked curiously behind the jungle palm. I showed
her my camera, wiggled my finger. "Picture?" I asked, though I knew
the word meant nothing. Shyly she ventured forth, a cupid smile
lighting her face, joy dancing in her eyes as she tugged at her
skimpy shirt. For a split second I wanted to hug her, whisk her
home, cuddle her in the warmth of my family life. But emotions were
one thing, practicalities another.
Such is the world of the Mekong Delta.
The Mekong River meanders 4,000 kilometers (26000 miles) from the
lofty plateaus of Tibet down through South East Asia to Phnom Phen,
Kampuchea (Cambodia), where it divides. As it rushes toward the
South China Sea, it branches to nine tributaries that flood the
coastal plain, creating an alluvial delta. So controlling are the
moody tides of the murky water, that people who live here exist
at its mercy, revel in its power and call it the "Land of Nine Dragons".
The surrounding landscape is lush with vegetation: rainforests
that culminate in gnarled mangroves straddle the sea on spidery
roots, nurturing fish and tiny sea animals; jungles of exotic plants
provide everything from herbal medicines to resilient leaves for
shelter; hectares of emerald rice paddies produce the sustenance
of life. Modern illusions of Vietnam focus on burgeoning Saigon
and Hanoi, yet over 80% of the population exists on these coastal
plains, eking out life much like their ancestors centuries ago,
gathering anything feasible to sell at the market in My Tho, the
biggest coastal village, 70 km southwest of Saigon.
Throughout the journey to My Tho - two hours on dusty roads - flashed
vignettes of Vietnamese rural life. Spindly young boys bearing shoulder
yokes with pails on each end led fat water buffalo along well-trodden
paths. Straw-hatted farmers, knee deep in water, bent to harvest
rice in fertile paddies. Clusters of roadside markets bustled with
locals selling produce, fish and golden baguettes.
En route we passed small villages, some with brick houses, most
with bamboo huts capped by palm fronds or tin roofs. Near every
village, makeshift awnings shaded tiny "bistros" decked with brightly-covered
tables and plastic chairs sitting Paris-style facing the road. Traffic
was swift, dead center on the road, swerving aside often for oncoming
girl peeks from behind
Mekong Delta jungle vegetation.
Our eager group included a friendly Saigonese guide; the French
captain of Song Saigon - the junk that cruises the Mekong Delta;
an American writer based in Phnom Penh researching life on the delta;
and an American photo-journalist. When we arrived in My Tho, a crowd
of Vietnamese jostled round, hustling chewing gum and postcards.
The tide was low, causing the wooden skiffs that would carry us
to Song Saigon to bob in shallow water twenty meters below the sea
wall. We had no choice but to shinny down, gingerly toeing crevices
The water was brown, the air a shimmering haze of heat and humidity.
Two spry boys navigated each skiff toward Song Saigon. Thirty meters
long, with sails furled tightly in the stagnant air, she loomed
deep in the delta, a queenly junk of gleaming mahogany with "lucky
eyes" painted on her bow. When we scaled the rope ladder the crew
greeted us with hot towels, then cool concoctions of coconut milk
and vodka. Surprisingly elegant.
The scenery was mesmerizing. Rows of wooden huts, perched high
on stilts at the water's edge, gave way to communities of thatch-roofed
houseboats with mothers and babes huddled on decks. The men and
older children were waist deep in water, tossing sinewy nets in
the nearby fish farms. We passed many rice paddies, velvety green
stretches that terraced into distant hills; occasional factories
with smoke-stacks spewing the dark curls of heavy industry; the
vine-covered skeleton of a modern high-rise bombed during the war;
and, near a group of teetering grass hovels, a neat clearing with
rows of pristine white tombstones glinting in the sun. Strange vessels,
by North American standards, plied this watery highway. Bandy-legged
men and women stood to paddle flat boats laden with fruits and vegetables.
Wooden trawlers transported shiny motorcycles, bicycles or other
wood huts built on stilts perch
along the water's edge, where fishing and
rice paddies provide staples for the local diet.
Two cheery "hostesses" appeared from the kitchen to present a mouth-watering
array of salads, shrimp, tamarind crabs, crusty breads and fruit
for lunch. Lounging in the shade of the palm canopy, we felt mellow,
full of the delicious meal, almost lazy, when the captain suggested
we visit a sugar cane factory. "A factory on the delta? Why bother
to see it?" we asked.
"It's interesting," he said in sparse English.
Those who dared climbed down the ladder and into the skiffs. We
scooted across the water to the jungle coast, slowing to enter a
canal so narrow we brushed against palms on each side. Tall leaves
meshed to form canopies overhead, filtering the sunlight. The air
was moist, fragrant with heady jungle aromas. At a tiny clearing,
a wizened old man and teenage mother nursing her infant crouched
on the mud outside a pitiful grass hut.
We threaded our way through the labyrinth of foliage, ducking under
drooping branches, marveling at monstrous butterflies, accompanied
all the while by an invisible orchestra of birds. A barking dog
alerted us to a couple of children giggling behind the greenery
that camouflaged their miserable dwelling. Absurd, we thought: they
had enough to feed a dog.
Finally, as the air turned sweetly pungent, we came upon a clearing
with a wide open barn: the sugar cane factory. We hitched to a tree
and stepped onto the spongy soil. A few meters away amid a broad
earthen pit, we saw a gang of boys, perhaps twelve years old, hacking
at tough stalks of canes. Their faces, scarred by the razor sharp
leaves of sugar cane, were curious. But we knew they didn't dare
halt the backbreaking rhythm. Inside the barn, two boys dripping
sweat took turns feeding canes into a crunching machine that sent
sparks and wild flames into the air. One boy, we noticed, had lost
an eye. A pretty teenager swept away the residue at the other end.
Her complexion was pocked from burns.
We had little to say as we walked away, and felt but a moment of
cheer when the little girl peeked out of the jungle for a picture.
Long after we reboarded Song Saigon, my mind fumbled with images
of my own three sons grappling with academics and social affairs.
The sun began its descent, turning golden, marking rush hour on
the Mekong Delta. Hundreds of long boats carried workers across.
Whistling and hooting, they waved cheerfully. Dark clouds rolled
in, unleashing torrents of rain just as we descended to the skiffs.
Back at My Tho, high tides reached the sea wall where we crossed
wooden planks to shore.