Deep Dive in the Mekong Delta

Over on Twitter @regeslawless there are more observations and photos. In the second week of my exchange here, we took short trips around the Mekong Delta region, based in the small city of Chau Doc. Business trips included meetings at local government offices, farms, and temples. For cultural exchange, we hiked in the mountains, sang karaoke, and enjoyed a wide range of local foods.

This post has some more detailed observations and analysis, as Mr. Thai and I studied the Mekong Delta ecology, economy, and government more closely. An Giang Province faces environmental, economic, and social challenges related to the health of the Mekong River and its distributary streams. I see opportunities for a sustainable blend of traditional and modern farming practices with ecotourism.

We visited a remote farm area, accessible only by boat, where families cultivate floating rice in the old way. Floating rice is the ancient, traditional crop of the Mekong Delta. It grows as tall as American corn, but mostly submerged in the floodwaters of the marshes. It takes about eight months to grow and harvest, providing shelter and habitat to innumerable fish and birds. The traditional, biodynamic farming method does not require industrial fertilizer or pesticide. Drawing nutrients from the alluvial sediments, the floating rice grain is high in protein and minerals: traditional medicine uses it to effectively manage adult-onset diabetes. Floating rice was the sustainable foundation and staple of the Mekong Delta society for centuries.

Unfortunately, floating rice cultivation is nearly extinct in Vietnam. National policy in the 1990s replaced the traditional marshes with high dyke infrastructure. Roadways on top of the dykes created a fast travel network for trucks and motorbikes. Flood control enabled a highland rice monoculture, with triple crops annually, higher commodity yield, and export revenues. Negative externality effects include pesticide pollution, loss of fish and bird habitat, loss of folk culture and traditional foodways, and risk of extreme flooding damage due to poor stormwater management. Climate change brings land subsidence and salt intrusion, as well. National policy is now, very gradually, changing to encourage crop rotation and controlled inundation of the enclosed farmland.

I see opportunity to expand ecotourism related to organic farms and wetland environments. Floating rice does not yet command a price premium sufficient to compete with triple-crop highland rice monoculture: tourism is a way of pricing the external value of biodiversity, folkways, and aesthetics. The Vietnamese government and private sector increasingly understand ecotourism and agritourism as growth sectors, valuable for rural job creation and economic development. But there is long way to go in terms of foreign language education, and basic tourist services such as maps and bike or boat rentals. For now, visiting this rural area without a guide is not practical.

Several of our key meetings were with local government staff. The equivalent role to my town administrator position is chair of the commune people’s committee. However, this role is both political and administrative, combining my job with the elected mayor’s. It was not easy for me to explain the nonpartisan, apolitical values of my job. The local chair runs the technical services of street repairs and agricultural extension. They also lead the farmers union, youth committee, and other Communist Party organizations. The office building in every town has a similar architecture, and they always fly two flags at equal height: the national flag of red field with yellow star, and the party flag of red field with yellow hammer and sickle.

Mr. Thai’s work at the public university connects closely to local government efforts. Local government corruption is a problem I heard a lot about, but many local staff also have good legitimacy and trust relationships. The farmers’ unions, for example, provide a clear channel for both technical assistance and political influence. Vietnamese law places stiff barriers against the NGO sector, so the main institutions I saw were government, schools, and Buddhist temples.

The temples surprised me, as did the depth of religiosity in what I had read was an officially atheist regime. Many homes and cafes have a small shrine; many heavy truck drivers display flowers or incense for protection on the road. Temple complexes are common, large, and well-funded, and many have construction improvements in progress. I read that in the years after unification, religion was officially suppressed. The government found a civil society solution by re-chartering the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam (the monks’ organization, like an archdiocese) as an allied group to the Communist Party. Religion and patriotism can now be linked without political risk. Accordingly, I visited temples along with school groups, and temple pilgrimages are important tourism during springtime festival seasons. I also saw southern Vietnam’s religious diversity at a handful of Christian churches and a few mosques belonging to the Cham ethnic minority.

We drove back to Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday, and I felt ready to go home but also eager to learn more and keep in touch. I gained perspectives that will immediately help with my work in Scottsville. Travel like this helps us understand that our way of living is not the only possible way. I look forward to helping my An Giang University colleagues with their rural development work. The people of southern Vietnam were uniformly hospitable and kind. I hope to help with further tourism, university study, or business relationships in the future.

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