Wish You Were Here: 24-Hours in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

by Carolyn Sotka

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The bustling streets of Saigon are like a living organism – connected via a central hub, with its different parts moving in unison, yet seemingly disconnected. The beat of the city is palpable, but close by lies the mouth of the Mekong River and Delta, and its serene and slower pulse.

The only way to truly experience the Mekong is to get on it, and submerse yourself in the tales of old, of sea monsters and boat people, and of war and peace. From high-end, private sampan voyages to a night on a converted rice-barge to a rowboat, there are endless possibilities to choose for your voyage.

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Selfie on the Mekong, a day trip with the wonderful Le Cochinchine guide, Dang Ngoc Loi who shared with me many of the stories in this article.

So began my 24-hours on the Mekong, tucked into Le Cochinchine’s beautiful 4-cabin, luxurious rice-barge. To some travelers, the waters seem dirty, ruddy and lack appeal – but to me, they hid secrets beneath the opaque surface. The tour company Le Cochinchine, offers an authentic experience with a mixture of history, geography, ecology, culture and culinary delights.

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Le Cochinchine’s boats range in size from as little as two guest cabins to up to ten cabins and provide an eco-friendly way to explore the Mekong River. Photography by Carolyn Sotka

On the boat we learned how to make fresh spring rolls and shared recipes over Mekong sake (80 proof “wine”). Off  the boat, we rode bicycles through villages, gardens and markets to get a glimpse into Mekong life. Even during downpours the rain did not deter our experience. The huge raindrops sounded like croaking frogs when they hit the dense river, with the blurred lights from shore and other boats as a magical backdrop.

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The Mekong Delta is known in Vietnam as the ‘Đồng bằng Sông Cửu Long’ and translates to ‘nine dragon river delta’. The mouth of the Mekong is considered to be the mouth of a dragon, with nine river outlets to and inlets from the sea.

The Mekong River is the main artery of Southeast Asia. It begins in the Tibetan plateaus, runs through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia to southeastern Vietnam – where it empties into the South China Sea via a dendritic tributary network. The lower Mekong is home to over 50 million people, with at least 4000 years of recorded history.

All aspects of daily life float on the Mekong or along its shore banks. From markets, goods transportation, industry and tourism to houses, schools, and temples. The labyrinth of rivers, canals and streams serve as waterways instead of roads, and the waters ebb and flow with a tidal influence. The brackish waters support one of Vietnam’s most important fishing and aquaculture regions and are framed by a fertile patchwork of green rice paddies.

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The floating markets of Cai Be.  The items sold are put at the top of the poles to show what is ‘in stock’. 

Photography by Carolyn Sotka

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The night market along the riverside in Sadec has endless rows of fresh, local seafood – most still alive in oxygenated tanks – squid, shrimp, clams, and fish. Photography by Carolyn Sotka

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Transporting rice along the Mekong River. Photography by Carolyn Sotka

The Mekong is a river of Buddhism. The folk narrative of its origin varies between countries but most believe the river was created by Lord Buddha; who separated the Himalayan Mountains to allow water to flow to the sea and benefit humankind. Here, the river is deeply revered and provides food, safety, a sense of spirituality and connectedness. The God of Sea, God of Fish, God of the River and the ‘river monster’ all reside in its depths.

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One of the gorgeous converted rice-barges in the Le Cochinchine fleet. Photography by Carolyn Sotka

There are many cultural beliefs, myths and superstitions. Every boat, from rice barges to smaller delta freighters are painted with two eyes at the bow. These eyes are meant to allow the boat to see ahead and look for danger but also to ward off dangerous creatures like the river shark or other monsters. If a fisherman is killed, it must be the river monster; if a boat sinks, it must be the river monster.

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The eyes of the boats of the Mekong. Photography by Carolyn Sotka

The ‘boat people’ believe if one sees the God of Fish, they will be blessed with good luck. The ancient tales paint a story of river fish that will save someone from drowning and river monsters, whom when angered, can create turbulence and tip boats. In areas of rough waters, temples are built to worship the Gods, and on the 16th of every month – in timing with the lunar calendar, offerings are made to the Gods of wine, beer, rice, fruit and duck. Every boat has a spirit house to welcome the gods. This belief translates to the dinner plate as it is bad luck to turn a fish over because it means the boat will tip over too.

The floating markets of Cai Be. Video by Carolyn Sotka

These beliefs and myths – like most tales of sea monsters — have a root in the existence of a unique or bizarre, bottom-dwelling creature. In the case of the Mekong, it is home to the biggest freshwater fish ever caught and recorded, the giant catfish, that can reach lengths of 9 ft. and weigh close to 700 lbs. Similarly, the river hosts the giant freshwater stingray (14 ft. in length), the giant soft shell turtle and the freshwater crocodile.

The Mekong is one of the richest and most diverse rivers in the world, with new species being discovered all the time. The Mekong Region contains 16 of the 200 World Wildlife Fund’s designated ecoregions that harbor exceptional biodiversity, and has the greatest concentration of ecoregions in mainland Asia.

The Mekong is also a battleground. It has borne witness to thousands of years of war and revolution. Scenes from ‘Apocalypse Now’ paint a region ravaged by war and cloaked in mist, with waters muddy and blood red. Today, the biggest threat to the Mekong is the huge rise in population density, infrastructure and tourism since Vietnam’s borders opened 10 years ago. Now, a different battle is being waged – to meet economic development and growing demand for water and energy both in the burgeoning region and upstream from big brother, China.

The Mekong is at a crossroads and tasked with weighing the benefit of hydroelectric dams and energy production versus the cost of blocking fish migration, which would result in the loss of protein and income derived from a river that flows free of impediments. All of this, combined with an astounding lack of adequate environmental impact assessments, presents a potentially daunting future for the Mekong.

Given the low-lying, expansive nature of the Delta, and its proximity to the sea, the Mekong is especially vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise. The biggest threats come from the mixed fate of non-seasonal flooding and drought to bank erosion and loss of crops. Some provinces of the Delta are expected to be under water by 2030 in light of the current sea level rise predictions.

For now, the daily life on the Mekong continues – and natural, intermittent flooding can bring new life, much like fires or controlled burns do in forested areas. The floods continue to inspire cultural events and rituals throughout the Mekong.

Definitely give yourself more than 24-hours, it will be a sensory treat for any water lover. -CS

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