Introduction to the Mekong Delta

I’m writing from one far corner Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The big river spreads into “nine dragons” of delta region, about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland. Maryland and the Delta share an affinity for seafood. Where western Maryland has some mountains, so does the edge of the Delta near where I am now. Chau Doc is a small city at the Cambodian border. Down river, less than an hour’s drive, is the provincial capital of Long Xuyen, where Mr. Thai’s university office is located. Another two hours’ drive downstream is the hub city of Can Tho, the country fourth largest. Ho Chi Minh City is over on another river to the northeast; it’s still southern Vietnam, but not Delta.

I’ve been up and down one branch of the river twice now, in Mr. Dong’s Toyota minivan and on Mr. Thai’s Honda motorbike. The drive provides a case study in what urban planners call transect zones. As you go farther from the urban center, the population density drops, buildings get shorter and farther apart, and the feel of the environment changes, as do the economic patterns. Ho Chi Minh City has an 80-story tower and global investment; Can Tho has 20-story buildings and pulls young people out of countryside to work at the big hospital, port, and army base. Long Xuyen has 10-story buildings and busy docks, but in two days walking around I didn’t see another foreigner. Chao Doc has a big boost of tourism but fewer assets and services that come with being a government center. The urbanized corridor of the main road and river rapidly gives way to smallholding farms with canals running perpendicular, reminding me of US river valleys like Shenandoah and Napa. All this way, the main river road is narrow and slow by US standards, with heavy trucks sharing space with motorbikes and bicycles. The road is lined with shops and warehouses most of the way. Only above Long Xuyen do the fields come up to the road and the stars shine brighter. Chau Doc is Mr. Thai’s hometown, and I share his commitment to rural communities.

This week, we got to business. In seven meetings in professional offices or cafes, I learned about the Delta’s complex ecology and economy, and I shared comparative best practices from the US. On two organic farm tours, I saw the local versions of permaculture and small-scale intensive agriculture. These are impressive small businesses led by young, college-educated women and men. The core economy is high-yield rice monoculture, three crops a year on dry land enclosed with dikes. Twenty years ago a large national program established this dynamic to prevent famine and gain exports. But now the negative consequences are piling up –pesticide pollution, salt intrusion, land subsidence, depleted soil, lower quality crops, youth outmigration –and the academic consensus seems to be that land use practices must now swing back towards traditional, sustainable methods (Tong 2015). That is Mr. Thai’s mission.

And while I’ve seen vast cultivation of rice, the agribusiness sector is also impressively diversified, with room to improve. The Mekong remains a busy and important fishery: I’ve eaten local fish and shellfish at least once every day, sometimes at every meal. Fruit and veggie farming can be quite intensive, and includes banana, mango, guava, coconut, pineapple, beans, greens, herbs, and peppers. Diligent farmers diversify creatively. What do you think this building is? Out in the countryside, it’s the largest structure in view. I guessed a pump station or similar irrigation machinery.

It’s a huge birdhouse. In the wild, several species of swiftlet secrete saliva to make nests, valued as a healthful delicacy in China and Vietnam. Farming the birds and collecting the nests may protect the wild ones in caves. I now notice the swiftlets darting about everywhere, eating their share of mosquitoes! Unfortunately, I see far fewer wild waterfowl here than I’m used to seeing in the US wetlands, and I worry about environmental damage here (BirdLife). At the organic farms, we talked extensively about improving the water and soil quality, and avoiding pesticide and chemical fertilizer in favor of various composts and creative combinations of plants and insects.

The final piece of this story is neighbors’ relationships. Mr. Thai has a strong network of colleagues, young and old, dedicated to service in the region despite their travelling abroad to learn best practices. The university faculty in Long Xuyen and Can Tho work with Australians, Germans, Dutch, and Americans on the intricacies of flood control infrastructure and new rice cultivars. They also conduct outreach and extension with farmers and discuss new partnerships. Our case study for this was My Hoa Hung island, in the river across from Long Xuyen and accessible by ferry. Similar but bigger than Tangier Island in Virginia, My Hoa Hung has its own school, shops, and boatyards. About 120 farmers are organized into a union, which has led a transition from rice to more profitable orchards. They have also expanded their tourist sector, adding accommodations in the form of homestays rather than corporate hotels: here’s the booking site (AirBnB is rare in Vietnam).

The main tourist attraction, oriented to Vietnamese, is the birthplace and memorial of Ton Duc Thang, the first president after Ho Chi Minh. Thang has a mixed historical record in the difficult period 1969-80, but the symbolism of the place felt powerful all the same. It reminded me of Monticello in Virginia. I admired a collection of driftwood carvings, formal gardens, and a presidential monument in the style of a Buddhist shrine. The land and the water shape us, as we shape them. The places we love inspire us to service.

Next post: digging deeper in the Delta, sharing details and making friends.

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