The mighty arterial Mekong River in Vietnam provides a fascinating vein through which the lifeblood of Vietnam flows.
As we motor along the Mekong, through small villages, between trading barges and floating markets it can only give us a brief insight into the resources concealed within that influence the daily lives and culture of over 60 million people—people who depend on its water for transportation, fishing, trade, manufacture, cooking, irrigation, cleaning, and sanitation for their livelihood.
The river rises in the Tibetan Highlands of China, crossing the country and continuing through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before finally flowing into Vietnam and to the Mekong Delta. As such it has become incredibly divisive in the fate of each country.
In Cai Thia region of the Mekong Delta we’ve settled ourselves at Phuoc Long village on the Ham Luong River tributary; at ‘Mekong Home’ a delightfully stylish ten room lodge that truly proves to be ‘home’ for a couple of days.
We arrive at dusk, as the last light seeps away from the sky and silhouettes of fishing boats head for home along the sleepy river. Set in an idyllic grove of palms and tropical plants, Mekong Home’s gardens segue easily into the surrounding jungle so that we feel very much part of the surroundings.
The welcome we receive is warm and inviting and within minutes of arrival we’re chatting away to our hosts with a beer in our hands and in no hurry to head for our bungalow. Much of the experience at Mekong Home revolves around participation in the day to day life of the area, whether its investigating local crafts or cooking and food preparation in front of the open plan kitchen.
Our bungalow is nestled amidst pools and palm groves adjacent to the river and is both spacious and comfortable with a picture window that frames the lush landscaping.
Although we’re tempted next morning to settle with a book onto our veranda, or the platform that overlooks the Mekong, we’re here to explore the area and immediately ask to borrow bicycles in order to investigate.
As it happens, there are few guests who wish to do the same and one of our hosts offers to guide us around. The bicycles are old style but in good condition and well maintained; ideally suited to a leisurely cycle around the flat terrain.
Although we’re obviously visitors, the fact that we’re getting around by the same method as many of the locals, rather than in a chauffeur driven car, the welcome we receive wherever we go seems that much more genuine and inclusive.
Our first stop is at a local coconut processing shed, where frenetic activity by both men and women chops, peels and slices coconuts by the hundred, with their husks launched into the air towards and ever increasing mound of whiskery shells.
The narrow concrete-surfaced lanes lead us to a fish farm, where workers on a barge throw meal into water that boils with frenzied fish jumping and squabbling to be first to feed. Although this is a farm, more than two-thirds of the rural population in the lower Mekong basin are engaged in wild capture fishery.
We’re never far from the mighty Mekong and we’re soon at its riverbank where we board the small Sun Phu ferry full of locals on foot or with their own bikes, motorbikes and tricycles.
As we navigate the wide sluggish green expanse of the tributary, several fishing boats and laden barges cross our path with agricultural or industrial products and raw materials – reminder of how crucial the river is to Vietnam’s survival – even today it provides more than one-third of Vietnam’s food and makes Vietnam one of the largest rice producers in the world.
The earliest settlements along the river date to 2100 BC with the first recorded civilization—the Indianised-Khmer culture of Funan—dating to the 1st century. In many ways, little has changed in the life of the rural communities but industrialisation has brought both prosperity and intrusive impact to many areas of the delta.
Traditional trade in small boats links river communities; however the river is now an important link in international trade routes, connecting the six Mekong countries to each other – and the rest of the world.
The Mekong is not just about trade and subsistence, boasting a higher level of bio-diversity than any other river worldwide, bar the Amazon.
No other river is home to so many species of very large fish- including the Mekong giant catfish; growing up to 660 lbs in weight and almost 10 feet long.
We return across the river by another ferry, the Hung Phong ferry and make our way back home for a home-cooked meal that’s prepared in front of us and an early night as darkness falls.
The new day finds us on a long motorboat plying the channels and tributaries of the delta, weaving between the boats of the floating markets, whilst enjoying a lunch of golden spiked fish, followed by a ‘dugout’ canoe meandering through narrow waterways to get to the heart of this rural area.
During the Vietnam War, the Mekong provided a basis for raids against the advance of the communist armies concealed within its tropical web of greenery. Although there’s still a legacy of this with many sunken live munitions along its length, the Mekong today conceals more rural crafts than insurgents and every bend in the river uncovers a different mystery.
We disembark to spend time in a little village where a ‘pop-rice’ facility uses a charcoal fire to heat sand that violently activates the rice equivalent of popcorn.
Around a corner and we find a rice wine still and are invited to sip a glass of ‘snake-wine’ – so called as a pickled coiled cobra with its head raised and fangs bared offers a mute threat, with a strike pose that will only ever inflict alcohol poisoning now.
An even more controversial sight is the live python being reared in a small cage, until it reaches sufficient length to provide many hundreds of dollars for handbags.
It’s easy to forget that as ‘educated’ westerners who visit these impoverished places that our critical judgments about their way of life have to be equated with the perspective of why they do so – a direct reflection of the world’s insatiable and never-ending demand for the products they produce.
It’s this sobering fact that indicates a rapidly developing hiatus on the Mekong.
The greatest threat globally of war over water is just over the horizon. Rising hostility over the resources of the Mekong River that are increasingly tapped for power, sand extraction and irrigation will affect millions of people through natural disasters, famine and regional instability.
This concerns all of its stakeholder nations of China, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia but none more so than Vietnam, at the end of the line.
The bright green Delta water on which we now float serenely along is set for dramatic change, one that is dependent upon the will of nations to resolve.
In the meantime, if your aims are more short-term, then a brief stay at delightful Mekong Home will expose you to all of the hidden mysteries of local life, an insight into why the Mekong flows through so many lives and the resources that offer their bounty to us all.
Mekong Home is not a boutique luxury lodge but a unique and exceptionally comfortable base for participation in local life; which imparts an understanding and appreciation that uncovers the puzzle of local, regional and global influences in an highly engaging way.
We recommend that you stay for two days at Mekong Home but you’ll learn more about Vietnam and its people in those two days than any number touring the landmarks of this fascinating country.
If you’d like to combine a visit to the mighty Mekong in Vietnam with your own adventure to anywhere in Southeast Asia, then why not ask us to arrange your own tailor-made travel – to immerse yourself in the wonders of this world?
Why not download the TLC World guide brochure or give us a call today on 01202 030443, or simply click ‘enquire’ to submit your own personal itinerary request