The quote: There is nothing so good for the human soul as the discovery that there are ancient and flourishing civilized societies which have somehow managed to exist for many centuries and are still in being though they have had no help from the traveler in solving their problems. (Walter Lippmann)
Mekong, the River of Life
The Mekong is certainly a river, in the geographic sense of the word, but my 3 day stay in the surroundings of its waters, where I navigated in 10 different boats, really made clear to me that geography is a small part of what Mekong really means for its inhabitants.
Paddling Boats on the Delta.
The Mekong River is one of the longest ones in Asia, with 4909 kilometers (3050 miles). It starts on the Himalayas and after crossing Tibet, it goes through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam where it flows in to one of the worlds largest Deltas.
Even though it may seem incredible being in the satellite era, the Rivers source is still questionable.
Floating Market in the Delta.
For the Chinese the springs are in the Jifu Mountains, 5.200 meters among sea level, and on the contrary the adventurous French Michel Peissel situated them in the Rupsa-La pass, 4.975 meters (3 miles) high.
He tells us in a good book that I recommend you, “The last Barbarians”.
Half of his expedition is trough China and Tibet, where he is called Dza Chu in Tibetan, and Lancang in Chinese, which means the turbulent river, as it works its way through deep throats and it descends rapidly, so fast that when it abandons China it gets only above 500 meters (1600 feet).
Throughout the next 200 kilometers (124 miles) it forms the border between Myanmar and Thailand, and in the famous gold triangle it finds its tributary, the Ruak River. Here the low Mekong begins.
The Mekong creates a new border between Laos and Thailand, and then it goes into Laos, where it’s known us the Menam Khong.
A freshly cut pineapple.
It gets wider and once it goes by Luang Prabang in Laos, it gets up to 4 kilometers wide, and 100 meters (328 feet) deep on the rainy season.
It defines once again the Laos-Thailand border near Vientiane; it goes back into Laos forming the Khone Falls near Cambodia’s border.
In Cambodia they call it Mekongk or Tonle Thom (great river), near Phnom Penh it meets with Tonle Sap the principal tributary in Cambodia.
After Phnom Penh it divides into Bassac and the proper Mekong, they flow to the south of Saigon (Ho chi Minh City) forming the Delta that resources the Vietnam’s rice dispense.
In Vietnam they call it Song Long (great river), Cu Long (nine dragon river) or Me Kong. About a hundred million of people live on its shores.
boats in the delta
This long introduction, nearly as long as the river, I’ve done so you can get a hint of what it means to live on its banks.
When the rainy season arrives the river can grow up to 3 meters (10 feet), that’s why many houses are floating. The ones that are not floating are built like palafitos or have 2 stories so they can move upstairs. Of course they all have a TV in them, Thin says that it’s the best birth control method.
This can dramatically change in the future, and not for good, because in all the countries that the river goes through have or will have projects to build reservoirs that can create energy and control its flow.
Palafito houses, with TV.
Vietnam needs the Mekong to survive, the River is the home, roads, market and dispense for Vietnamese, and I have to say that it’s also the garbage dump for millions of Vietnamese.
The journey took me first on a speedboat from Saigon through the river that’s also named Saigon, for about 2 hours until it joins to the Mekong River.
Ferry to cross the river
On the first part of the trip we pass through hundreds of boats that where so loaded with sand that the water was nearly touching the upper rail, by very few centimeters, with a high risk of sinking.
Others where loaded with bamboo that they use for scaffoldings in construction sights, and many of them where carrying fruits and vegetables for the Saigon markets.
All boats have two painted eyes on their bows that should scare the rivers demons away.
The Piton Scarf.
Many boats sail at night with no lights at all and the painted eyes make them visible.
The truth is that if there is no River God there must be something that protects them because the majority of these boats conditions, intense traffic and floating obstacles make sailing in the Mekong nearly as dangerous as moving around Saigon’s streets.
In My Tho we swap the speedboat for a wooden one where the 16 people group that we were, could barely fit with our luggage, because some of us continued the journey to Cambodia.
Rice Noodles Factory.
The boat slowly took us through the narrow and a calm canal, trying to avoid the enormous palm tree leaves that where planted on the shores to prevent the erosion.
When we crossed other boats it was inevitable to bump into them, the canal was that narrow.
It was a shame that we could barely hear the birds singing as the motor on these boats is on the open air, most of them belonged to trucks, they’ve been reconverted and are really noisy.
We visited an artisan coconut sweet factory, the sweets where absolutely delicious and we where invited to tea that was sweetened with honey that came straight from the beehives.
For the second time in my life I had a piton snake on my neck, stepping in to the factory the guide put it on me.
House with a garden.
It happened to me before, in Bali, I look like I’m not afraid of them or I must look like a reptile, since there was 16 of us and once again I was the chosen one.
The snake was relaxed, although the scarf was a bit tight on me, and maybe it had a stomach problem or his gastric system was starting to function because it may of wanted to eat a tourist, as it was dribbling so I gave it back to the audacious guide.
We went back to the speedboat on paddling boats, handled with ability by women covered with conic hats and a scarf over their faces. The way to paddle is rather interesting because they do it standing up, with the paddles crossed and every time they paddle they forward one foot to get impulse.
The guide told us that it’s very difficult to paddle that way, so the women do it because they have much more ability than men. I’m thinking men are just lazier, because when it’s about motorboats, they get to be the captains.
We ate in a restaurant on the riverfront, delicious fish cooked in coconut sauce, for dessert they took us to this pavilion to have tropical fruits, while a group of several singers, always women, and various musicians, always men, showed us some of their traditional folklore
The share of duties in Vietnam is still traditional, there is no women working as tourist guides and very few work as cycle or motor taxi drivers.
Later we visited a rice noodle factory, even though everything was artisan and hand made, they where able to produce a few tons of noodles per day. All of the family took part in this duty.
We took a bus to get to Can Tho, the biggest city on the Delta, with close to to a million inhabitants.
We had to take the ferry, as with so many flowing rivers it’s to expensive to build bridges between all of them.
We did cross a hanging bridge that was almost 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) long, built by Australian as a compensation for their participation in Vietnams war, the guide also told us that Japanese were building one for access to Can Tho.
Sun Set on the river
The Danish government gave many of the ferries on the river.
The hotels in Vietnam are a prolongation of their architectonic style, as their houses usually are very narrow and high.
In Hanoi I had slept in a hotel that only had 2 rooms in each level, in Can Tho I stayed at the sixth floor with 4 rooms per level.
The lift was really an ornament, but it was still worth the visit, because the view of the river and the city at night was gorgeous.
Early in the morning we went to visit a floating market, that just like any normal markets, had everything, the difference is that the shop comes up to the client.
As soon as we got near, the Coca-Cola boat appeared, and it wasn’t painted red, because to paint a boat over here it’s a luxury that they cant afford, but a red fridge was ostensibly showing the logo.
Also the supermarket boat came by us, and just like the old fashion drug stores in Spain, in a minimum space they’ve got everything.
The abundance of boats made them bump into each other and get their paddles tangled up, but in contrast with the automobile crashes, here they didn’t look like the were concerned by the collisions.
We got near to a fruit store boat, they pealed us some pineapples right there, they cost 0.20€.
After 2 hours going around the market with our boat, we went back to Can Tho to have lunch.
I became conscious in the restaurant about what the guide, “Thin”, told us regarding one of the consequences of the US chemical war, its that there is a large number of mentally sick people, and on the way in to this restaurant there was a man that tried to sell to me tobacco and other things that I didn’t need, and then he started to go bizarre and insulted all of us.
On the boat
I saw some of these people on the streets, and also the mutilated people that come up to the bus, showing you their mutilated members, as soon as the bus stops at a crossing, make it hard to travel through Vietnam. I wont tell you about my visit to Saigon’s War Museum because even the hardest stomachs get weakened there.
After lunch we got on a new boat, this one was enormous for the few people we were, but Thin told me that the one they normally use for this excursion was under repair.
The Cham’s Mosque
The sunset gave us an idyllic image of the river, were misery and filth disappeared, as the water turned golden from the suns reflection, the kids that where swimming in the river where greeting us with shouts and dived in in our honor.
Almost 4 hours navigating, the last hour was with total darkness, they dropped us of in Chau Doc, very near the Cambodia border, and we stayed in a Cabanas Resort.
The flood level of the year 2000, nearly 3 meters up.
The third day started of with deep heat what augured a hard journey to Cambodia.
First we visited, in a paddleboat a fish farm, one of the best businesses as for the chicken virus, the price of fish has doubled.
They are floating platforms and homes at the same time, with nets that go all the way down to the bottom of the river and have thousands of fish in them. They feed them with a stinky mix of rice flour and other products processed right there.
From there we left to go and visit one of Vietnams minorities, the Cham people, originate from Malaysia and Indonesia, they are Muslims and they’ve got a rather big mosque in their village. Not all the women wear a veil, and it seems like a more relaxed Islam than in other parts.
A woman was knitting silk sarongs in an old wooden loom that functions totally manual, but it sure does its job perfectly, at least that’s what it seems like when you see the sarongs they are selling.
That’s where the tourist visit ended but the real adventure began, since to get to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, we had a long journey ahead of us, not in distance but in time.
The first place we went up to the Vietnamese border in an old boat where the fans moved but only to spread the hot air around. The paper work at the border took us almost an hour, including the luggage control through scans.
We past the Cambodian control too quickly, and that’s because for some reason the passport stamping and the luggage control its done somewhere else, so we had to come back of the boat with all our luggage again, go up this really steep ramp through a really narrow wooden pass and go through the whole process again.
Once we got to Cambodia, we had another 3 hour navigation, that I spent on deck, because even though the sun was beating down, it was still less warm that inside the boat.
The river and the palm trees.
The last part of the trip to Phnom Penh was on a bus, along a road that announced what I was going to find in this Country, as we where jumping all the way to the Capital, that has many unpaved roads.
From the hundreds of agencies in Saigon that offer tours from 1 to 4 days in Mekong’s delta I choose Delta Adventure Tours, because you get more time on the river than on the bus, although we did have to be jumping from one boat to another adapting to each type of visit.
They are also quite flexible about letting you stay a few more days in the Delta before continuing the journey to Cambodia.
In the hotel where I stayed they had ‘Killing Fields’, the fantastic movie that tales the story about the genocide that the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, but that’s a story that I’ll tell you about some other day.
Click to see the Mekong’s Delta pictures.
If you have any comments on this diary you can send them privately to Carlos, or publicly at the bottom of the diary or in the forums.
See you soon!!
From Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 20th, 2005
Translated by Natalia (firstname.lastname@example.org) on May 15th, 2005
Published: 03/01/2008 00:00
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