In a three-part series exploring the sleepy Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam, “Life Along the Mekong” follows a traveller’s journey to some of the Delta’s most magical destinations that are still well off of the tourist trail. Floating markets, dusty villages, emerald rice paddies and flooded forests all adapt to the ebb and flow of the river that is still central to the livelihoods of Delta locals. See what the Delta has in store on in-depth Mekong Delta journeys into the heart of this agricultural epicentre.
If it hadn’t been for the tiny face peering out from a small window in the hull, it would have been easy to believe that every last inch of space aboard the dusty blue boat that flanked our sampan was occupied only by goods to sell. Rocking gently in the current, its wooden hull moaning with the strain of tired joints, this vessel was just one of dozens that swarmed like flies every morning and afternoon in this cramped corner of the Mekong River. Watermelons and mangoes soared over our heads as they passed between decks, the pitchers chattering away as they bargained their prices. Compared to the mass of beat up blue rice barges that surrounded us, our own weather-worn sampan looked tiny and out of place.
Multiple generations often live together in amphibious houses, travelling to land only to sell goods or go to school.
Most boats here are packed to their rafters with stacks of vegetables or fish, intermittently trading their cargo with neighboring boats in the early morning mass before motoring back off to their distant docks. Apart from the rare passenger boats that visit from the nearby hotels, these designated areas of the river are reserved for the migratory markets made up of barges, rowboats and rafts. If it weren’t for the sway of the current under our feet and the sputter of propellers, this flurry of buy-and-sell could have been mistaken for any other street market in Vietnam.
But here – in the heart of Chau Doc, a Vietnam-Cambodia border town ruled by the mighty Mekong River – local livelihoods are at the mercy of the currents and the generosity of the tides. In the Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam, doorways are traded for docks and roads for rivers – everything, including the morning markets and family homes, float.
Homes on the water are not so different from those on land – but are built of lightweight metal, wood and bamboo rather than concrete with hatches in the floor to feed fish below.
People of the River
“Most of the families here will spend more than half of their lives on the water,” says our guide, a Chau Doc local with a crooked smile and his own pair of hearty sea legs. “Until they go off to university, many of the children will only leave their boats when they go to school on land. They’ll sleep, eat and study on board the rest of the time.”
For the families that don’t make their living off of a rice barge or rowboat will never live far from the river’s edge. Fishing families live in homes more akin to an iceberg than a house – three quarters of their structures are below the water’s surface, usually enclosing thousands of fish that live beneath the floorboards. Every few months, these families raise thousands of eggs to become thousands of fish that fetch about a dollar and a half per kilogram. The families here feed them through hatches only metres from their beds.
Stilted homes along the banks of the Mekong River are built from bamboo, wood or metal, and rise to the highest point of the tide.
Even the riverbanks are lined with stilted houses that rise precariously from the water’s edge. Like hundreds of top-heaving flamingos, these gravity-defying structures battle the rise and fall of the river’s tide by simply existing above it. As the tide rises, these doorways double as docks for the boats that sail between them, transferring goods along the way. Dotted intermittently between homes, shops and schools are stilted gas stations – aquatic trucker stops where boat drivers fill their floating vessels and sip a beer.
Low tide makes traditional propellers dangerous. Many Mekong boats will use motors attached to long metal bars that move faster in shallow water.
A double-decker boat rumbles toward our sampan, the shudder of the propeller nearly drowned out by the squawk of its passengers with feathers painted a bright pink. “Those boats belong to the duck farmers,” says our guide. “The rice farmers need to get rid of the bugs that plague their crops, and the ducks are the best way to do it. Each duck farmer will load their onto that boat to move them from one rice field to another. They paint them different colours so they can tell their own ducks from someone else’s.”
These kinds of river-bound farmers make up much of the region’s agricultural backbone and drive the successful harvest of the Delta’s most important export – rice. It’s the river that makes the region such an important agricultural hub for Vietnam – the minerals and moisture that the river’s water provides keeps the land here ready to yield multiple harvests of rice per year.
Boats in the Mekong are often painted blue and red, with black “eyes” believed to fend off malicious spirits in the water.
Even so, the river itself makes traversing the region more complicated than other parts of the country. Locals here have learned to work with – not against – the temperamental river and its flood pulse. The result is a destination that’s epitomised by the rumble of boat turbines and an emerald horizon of rice paddies. The region is not so unlike the rest of Vietnam – only here, life moves at the rate of the river’s flow.
Discover the floating markets of Chau Doc on a brand new 3-day Mekong Delta tour to the region’s most unique destinations well off of the beaten track.