Published in Deccan herald on 17 Sep 2017, Sunday
A DAY OVER THE LUCKY 'NINE DRAGONS'
It was 9 am on December 26 when I left my hotel in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The young English-speaking guide, Lam, was taking me towards the boat point at Ben Tau near My Tho, capital of the Tien Giang Province in southern Vietnam, for a day over River Mekong.
My Tho was founded in the 1680s by Chinese refugees fleeing Taiwan after the fall of the Southern Ming dynasty. Its economy is based on tourism, fishing and cultivation of rice, coconuts and many tropical fruits (bananas, mangoes, pineapple, papaya, dragon, passion, longan (lychee) and citrus fruits). Astride the entire route lies the Mekong Delta.
In Vietnamese, the river is called ‘Cuu Long’, meaning ‘nine dragons’, as nine is their auspicious and lucky number, and the river, flowing 220 km through Vietnam, has nine branches in South Vietnam like dragon’s limbs, though two are silted. Mekong also means Mother River.
Here to stay
Our first halt was at the beautiful Buddhist Vinh Tràng Temple, a few kilometres short of the boat ferry. An amalgam of Asian and European styles, and constructed in 1849, it has been renovated four times and reconstructed once. The main triple gate (a central steel gate and two side-gates made from concrete and styled like a fortress); statues of various Buddhas including Amitabha Buddha, Gautama Buddha (in bronze); various arahants (in wood) and bodhisattvas; the garden with potted plants; and a sitting (laughing) Buddha are worth seeing.
We reached the boat ferry within a few minutes. Being entitled to a separate motor boat for the 2-½ hour ride, we had to wait for one. The weather, extremely pleasant all along, became sunny. Luckily, boats had roofs. Lam got me an ice cream and briefed me here, so that I could spend my time photographing views from the boat. Most boats are rowed/driven by women, and they don’t even ask us to wear life jackets, the fearless Nadias!
River Mekong lies between My Tho and Ben Tre Province.
There are four islands short of the far bank: Dragon, Unicorn, Phoenix and Tortoise, all names sacred to the Vietnamese. The boat arrives and Lam playfully asks me to request the boatwoman to take off her face mask (protection against the sun), and she obliges with a smile; well, isn’t she pretty!
I see floating homes (which stay at least six months afloat) and fishing boats. During March and April, the saltwater season, red snappers weighing at least 500 gm each arrive in plenty. The fisherfolk stay for two weeks at a stretch to catch, sort out the fish and send them across to the market near the ferry. They spend over $ 35,000 annually for fishing.
I wondered if they get just dividends for all their risks and investments; Lam assured me they do. I saw net traps for freshwater fish and learnt that basa (a type of catfish) is exported to Australia and the US. Yellow and black sand-dredging by ships/boats was going on. In 30 minutes, we skirted the Tortoise Island and entered the Xep Channel.
We then took a row boat across the channel creek, with mangroves on either side, full of waterpalms, and a major river route once used by the Viet Cong. Getting off near Quoi An Village, we took a walk through a jungle track via an orchard full of fruits, watching a crocodile farm en route. On reaching the road, a horse cart arrived and we went for a kilometre ride.
After a short walk later, we reached Ben Truc Orchard where we tasted five to six types of sliced and decorated fresh tropical fruits: pomeloes, jackfruit, dragon fruit, pineapple & watermelon, besides green tea with honey and lime, and local music. We arrived at the Mekong Riverside Restaurant: a huge thatched-roof dining hall seating over 300-350 tourists at a time. Word had been sent that I was a vegetarian. Still, it took a long time for my food to arrive. After lunch and more briefing, we took a row-boat to the exit point of the creek and got into the same motor boat, where the woman smilingly welcomed us. She took us to the Coconut Candy factory on the island, where they explained candy and cookie making, besides various uses of coconut to me, a South Indian.
On the way to the hotel, Lam taught me four-five Vietnamese phrases, which I tried both on her and the hotel staff and the driver for the next two days... Among them was ‘chúc may man’ (good luck or wish you well)!
The caption of the photo above as published says: Woman driving a boat in the Mekong delta. But you can’t see a woman!
I had sent many snaps but only one was used; here are more for you
The last snap is of Ms Lam, my guide.
There were a few tidbits which were NOT published due to lack of space; do read them if you feel inclined.
TRIVIA AND TIDBITS
-Vietnamese are friendly and Indians are liked.
-The guide whose name and mobile No are given to you in advance receive you outside the Baggage carousal, but NOT for getting a visa on arrival but stay with you till departure at the airport.
-Getting a Visa (EVEN with pre-approval) is a major chaos & delaying (an hour) factor.
- Vehicles are mostly left hand drive and driven on the right of the road, like the Americans whom they dislike.
-‘1 US’ ‘5 US’ etc are phrases used for prices of items in $, which is used widely.
-Tips are expected. Indians usually give $10 to a guide, 5 to a driver per day but at the end of tour, at the airport where they see you off. 5 $ for a motorboat woman, 2 for a rowboat woman and 1 to a concierge. Many foreigners give double. But I noticed some rich Asians being miserly.
-Most places are not disabled-friendly; India seems far better.
-Loo is called ‘Happy Room’ and usually very clean, as one is supposed to feel happy, after its use!
-For a personalised/customised tour for a single person, hotel-room, guide, car with driver and boats are all exclusive.
-A small cubicle pulled by a 120cc two-wheeler accommodates 2-3 perons & is called tuk—tuk.
-Traffic moves very slow; there is no honking and mostly, no overtaking even on highways.
-Most cars are registered in Phnom Penh, as those registered in other places are looked upon as of ‘doubtful’ ownerhip.
MORE INFORMATION ON THE MEKONG DELTA
It is 40,150 sqkm ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam swathed in various shades of green and landscapes, with a few hills in the north and west. To the south lie the flat flood-plains. Till Vietnam’s Independence in 1965, a part of Cambodia called Southern/Lower Cambodia, the Delta is a major rice-growing area and was the scene of heavy fighting during the Vietnam War.
7th longest in Asia and with its headwaters in the Three Rivers Area of Tibetan Plateau (China), the river flows approximately 4,220 kilometers,before emptying into the South China Sea (locally called defiantly as the Eastern Sea), after flowing through 5 more countries: Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam (the Deltaic region). Upstream water usage and development of 11 dams is posing a threat to the delta. 16 of total 94 million in Vietnam depend on the river for their livelihood. Its tributaries provide a comprehensive network of 5,000 KM of natural and artificial canals to carry water to the fields. I was surprised to learn that there are no monkeys and elephants in the deltaic region but rats and cobras are plenty! Like it’s said in Tamilnadu that they have only three seasons: Hot, Hotter and Hottest, in South Vietnam they have only two: Wet/Rainy (May to Oct) and Dry (the rest of the year) and the river flows in one direction in the wet season and the opposite direction in dry. In the dry season, the water level goes down and people in rural areas have really rich soil to plant high-yielding riverside gardens
2.6 (out of 4) million ha in the Mekong Delta are used for agriculture, which is one fourth of Vietnam's total. Just 3 provinces produce11 million tonne rice together; it is also Vietnam's most important fishing region. As rice doesn’t fetch much money, farmers are shifting to a single crop with lot of fertilzers and the rest of the time to shrimp and fishing. Reeds, though not high paying, grow the year around and give a steady income; so many have turned to it too. Some grow tropical fruits, such as Dragon fruit.
While the towns hum with commercial activity, the countryside gives a lazy-sleepy look, with buffaloes wallowing in rice paddies, coconut- and fruit-laden boats floating slowly along the mud-brown waters. Floating Markets are a way of life here. There are mangrove forests teeming with birds and the remains of Viet Cong bunkers, and beautiful Khmer and Buddhist pagodas.
‘Lonely Planet’ rightly calls Mekong "A World Afloat”: a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong, where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries. It hosts over 1,000 animal species (including species of hitherto unknown plants, fish, lizards, and mammals and more recently, the Laotian rock rat. It is rightly called, "biological treasure trove".