Life in the Mekong Delta

Each morning, a floating market arrives at Can Tho, a city of 1.2 million on the banks of the Mekong River. Hundreds of small boat owners buy products from farmers up river and then drop anchor in the middle of the river near downtown so that retailers, hotels, restaurants and families can row or motor their own or hired boats to the water-based mall.

A man on the supply boat hands pumpkin after pumpkin to a buyer on a smaller boat. He repeats the process with melons. The buyer hands several dong notes to the man on the larger boat and receives change. On a nearby boat, a man reaches over to grab a sack of onions and pays the boat owner.

Tourists now visit the floating market and make small purchases, three dragon fruits or two mangosteens (plum like fruits) at prices higher than locals pay. They also purchase Ho Chi Minh T shirts, locally made jewelry and even books. We buy a pumpkin and a watermelon; twenty cents-without bargaining.

Our Vietnamese guide, a university student, says that the floating market is an old institution, but in the last twenty years has gained renewed vigor. I notice women on shore step down from their river front houses to wash their clothes and faces in the moving well of pollution that flows south from Tibet for some 2,000 miles. Women from the market that faces the river wash vegetables in the visibly filthy river water. The Vietnamese guide, studying to be an English teacher, shrugs her shoulders. “That’s the way they’ve always done it,” she smiles apologetically.

The people of Can Tho have not always hustled tourists, however. Leaving the hotel, I inure myself to the pleas of children selling anything from bottled water to Vietnamese phrase books to miniature Ho Chi Minh statues. Tourism in Southeast Asia means rich visitors travel to poor, developing third world countries to buy goods and services for bargain prices, or take a quick look at something exotic so they can tell stories when they return home. This sets up a confrontation between those seeking the unusual and poor people trying to survive. Rich tourists and poor locals — a scenario for degradation!

In early March, a Vietnamese court found former British rock star Gary Glitter, age 61, guilty of sexually abusing two preadolescent girls. Sex trafficking is well underway. In late March, police in HCMC busted a ring that had lured hundreds of women from the countryside under the guise of getting them guest worker jobs abroad. According to Vietnamese News Service, some were sold to Malaysia; others were forced to work as prostitutes in Vietnam as well. The government reported that “since 1998 4,527 women and children have been traded.” Almost 6,500 more are missing and “are believed to have been trafficked.” Many more unemployed rural people seek jobs and the predators know it.

Most of the visible hard sell, however, takes the form of legitimate services like rides on the backs of motor bikes or in tiny carriages; or restaurants. A young woman smiles, blocks your path and invites you in to eat the “best food.” But tourism comprises a small part of this country’s growth leap.

We travel by car, from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho, and take a short ferry ride across the Mekong River from Vinh Long Province. Trucks, busses, cars, motorbikes and bicycles sped aboard. Ten minutes later, they race off. A Japanese company is building an enormous bridge to reduce crossing time.

Can Tho, like HCMC, is booming. New homes and apartment complexes dot the extending suburban area, which has invaded ancient rice fields. A growing industrial park and new hotels also adorn the landscape of this sweltering Mekong River city.

We hire a small speed boat to take us to Chau Duc, close to Cambodia. The captain ties up near a small warehouse at a jerry-built dock, where rice is stored in plastic sacks. Boats routinely stop and load the rice for market in Can Tho. Other boats carry farmed fish, vegetables and fruits that each farm produces. Manual labor and primitive machinery!

Rooted in the river mud by long bamboo poles, stands a weather-weary gray shed emitting smoke. My wife and I stop and film three men pouring material into a noisy, motor driven grinder that renders it into pellets. The processed rice leftovers and fish parts smell foul, but they provide food for the catfish being grown in pens of water adjacent to the rice field. Another man loads the straw baskets of ground fish pellets into an ancient wheelbarrow. He takes it to the fish ponds where another man tosses the pellets to the hungry swimmers below. Hundreds of fish leap from the shallow water to get their ration. In an adjacent pond, a man aerates the water, which allows thousands of fish to share a small space. They won’t endure the crowded conditions for long.

“They grow in weeks from eggs to marketable size catfish and birdfish,” says the captain, translating literally. He didn’t know the English word. We tried one for lunch. Yum!

“I’m 78,” the wiry, whiskered farmer tells me through the captain. “The secret of longevity,” he confides with a chuckle, “means working every day in the rice field.” Beats the South Beach diet, I think to myself. He returns to weeding the recently harvested rice field. He foresees good markets for his peas and sesame seeds. The farm also has papaya, banana and mango orchards, alongside chili plants and lemon grass.

“Lemon grass repels poisonous snakes,” the boat captain explains. Snake catching and eating had become so popular that the rat population multiplied and chewed seriously at the rice crop. Snakes eat rats. So, the government outlawed commercial snake killing.

A young man missing his front teeth hauls a pesticide tank on his back, connected to a thin dispensing rod. He doesn’t want his picture taken. “People in America have mechanized pesticide dispensers, not primitive things like this,” motioning to the machine on his back and chuckling.

In the fish food factory, a woman sweeps away the remains, to leave no temptation for rats. Next to her, a two burner hotplate cooks fish and ice ­ lunch for the extended family. Two dogs sleep on the floor. A small boy runs around one of them. “Some dogs catch rats,” the captain explains.

The little factory room also contains a TV set and an empty pack of Marlboros. Indeed, we have seen TV antennas on most of the plumbing-free small farm houses along the Mekong. In villages without electricity, people power TV sets with car batteries. This extended family lives in a new cement house with five bedrooms.
“Life has improved,” the old man explains. “During the war,” he says, answering my question, “I heard shells landing. But I was lucky. I didn’t see it or join it.”

Back on the river, the captain tells me his father worked as an interpreter for the US forces and spent a year in a re-education camp after the war. “My father didn’t have to fight. But now he receives no pension.” Like most of the people we met, the captain has relatives in the United States, most of them in either Orange County or San Jose, California or the Houston area.

Along the river, crane-operated dredgers haul mud from the bottom of the Mekong River onto barges. Mekong farmers buy this rich soil additive since their land has grown more salinated from the steady dumping of factory and lumber mill waste. China plans to build a large dam on the Mekong, another future headache for those down river.

As the boat nears Chau Duc, we see sugar cane, a nearby sugar refinery and rows of brick ovens with smoke pouring out. Teenage girls haul heavy loads of bricks on their backs to small waiting boats.

In Chau Duc, a city of about 60 thousand, we see our first mosque ­ under repair. I ask one of the workmen: “Muslim?” He grins. “Assalamu alaikum,” I say.

“Wa’alaikum assalam,” he replies.

“Imam?” I ask

He says something in Vietnamese, which I interpret to mean the Imam is not there. Two other men near the mosque drive by on motorbikes wearing kufis, prayer caps. Children hover around us. Curiosity! We take the return ferry and find the motorbike hustlers eager to show us around town. The temperature feels 100 degrees with almost equal humidity. We decline and retire to the air conditioned upscale Victoria hotel to sample the local fish and Pho, Vietnamese noodle and meat soup, served with mint, other greens, chilis and nuc mam (pungent fish sauce).

After two weeks traveling from Hanoi to Hue to Hoi Anh to Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho and Chau Duc, we rate the food from superb to very edible.

In the morning, we take a boat to Pnom Penh.

SAUL LANDAU, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author of Pre-emptive Empire and The Business of America.




SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.