We slip down a rain-slicked muddy bank to board our rust-bucket ferry from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc in Vietnam. We are the only passengers bar a few locals who jump on at the last minute for the ride – a potentially interesting diversion to their day. Most people nowadays travel to Vietnam on the newly built highway, but I wanted to stick with the Mekong, which we have followed faithfully since northern Thailand.
But how different the river is now, from the liquid crease folded into the mountains of northern Thailand and Laos. Here, the Mekong is fat and deep and hurtles along to the South China Sea like a migrating fish on its urgent journey south. We pass a few houses, but mostly the banks are taken up with vegetable plots and occasional fishermen. It’s strange how deserted the river seems here.
We cross the border into Vietnam and the river splits into islands and channels – the Vietnamese call the Mekong the dragon with 9 tails. The two main tails are the Bassac and the Lower Mekong. At Chau Doc, we select the Bassac and are deposited at the main market place. The houses here are raised on stilts, out and above the river. Reaching the bank means walking along wobbly boards tied together with ropes, a balancing act that comes so easy to these people that they do it carrying bundles on their heads and shoulders. Probably they could walk their planks in darkness too. Most journeys are done by boat, of course. And the boats here are wooden canoes that are rowed with two oars, usually by women in pyjamas and straw conical hats against the sun.
Several new bridges are mid construction on this stretch of river but for now people cross from one side to the other on these little canoes, which dodge the larger wooden (or, occasionally, steel) cargo vessels with the skill of the practiced. Among them all are the buzzing motor boats that whizz by, making us shout our conversation above the resonating din.
Nearby to the floating cafe where we slurp our noodles is a stilted house with a young family that is bathing in the river: mother, father and then each of two toddlers. Next the laundry is washed by the mother, sloshed in the river and slapped on their bamboo deck. Then it is the bowls and plates that must be rinsed. The river also supplies their food, although, like all the stilted houses here, they have their own fishmonger beneath their home. A net, suspended under the house holds the fish farm, and they feed the fish through a hole in the living-room floor. Getting dinner is as simple as raiding the fridge.
The town is not as charming as the river, we find on our stroll later. For one thing, it is residence to an extraordinary number of people with mental illness and other disabilities. It is little visited by tourists, perhaps, because we are big attractions as we wander. Many of the older generation speak some French, but few people here know English. One man is desperate to practice his French with me, even though I tell him that I am not a native speaker and surely make mistakes. He wants to show me a cultural centre he has set up, with French posters and books, but we don’t have the time.
We travel further onwards to Can Tho, the capital of the Mekong Delta region, a bustling town with industry, pollution and fewer pyjamas. We rise early here, at 5 am, to boat to the floating markets. I was last in this region 15 years ago, and I remember the floating markets as an enormous medley of hundreds of boats, over-spilling with vibrant produce. This time the markets are smaller. There are few boats at the height of the markets’ activity (6 to 8 am) and the fruits they sell are limited to grapefruit, melons and satsumas. There is still buying and selling underway, but in this region the bridges are now constructed, with just two in mid-build. I think the famous floating markets will soon disappear completely, replaced by large land-based ones that the new motorbike-owning community can easily journey to.
Our boatman, an old man of few words and fewer teeth, is nonetheless a skilled oarsman and charms me easily with his palm leaf origami, making me a spinning propeller fan from two strips of leaf, and then a bouquet of rosettes from another. We wonder what he will do when river traffic is replaced by roadways in the Mekong. Here, it is government policy to fill in the smaller channels, to guard against flooding (which seems contrary) and to move the ancient fishing communities of Cham (Muslims), Khmer and Vietnamese into factory work, fish processessing or at least rice farming. The area is the third most productive rice region in the world, after the US and Thailand. And it is also an extremely important fish-farming area. But over-fishing, pollution and sediment build-up from dams upstream and from sea-level rise are all contributing to a decline in fish numbers. Vietnam is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. The government’s policy of building sea defences against the rising waters will, scientists believe, exacerbate rather than relieve the impacts felt by people living here who rely on the floods and dryouts for their livelihoods.
In the toil towards alternative energy, Aulis Ranne from Finland is working towards producing biodiesel from fish oil at the Hiep Thanh Seafood Company, just outside Can Tho. The first diesel will start pouring later this year, they hope, using waste products from the fish farm (where the fish are fed on rice husks). Aulis is pretty confident that it will revolutionise the industry here. Maybe it will.
We leave the Mekong Delta and head to Saigon, once also a Venice of a city, but now a metropolis teeming with motorbikes whose many canals are filled with earth and concrete.