The Mekong River ultimately becomes Cuu Long – Nine Dragons – as it powers across the almost flat land south of Kampong Cham, disgorging into the South China Sea via its (supposed) nine river mouths. Comprising approximately 49,500 square kilometres (only a little over 6% of the Mekong basin), the Delta is the child of the Great River, being entirely composed of alluvial deposits – some to a depth of 200 metres and more. Despite that, the Delta’s average altitude above the level of the South China Sea is only about two metres.
The landscape is a lacy pattern of bright green paddy fields interspersed by the pale mauve flags of ripening sugar cane, ubiquitous banana and coconut palms. Hairy red rambutans, strung like Christmas baubles down deeply sagging limbs headline an array of tropical fruits of every description, from spiky pineapples to aromatic durian – and market gardens full to overflowing with the abundance of the season. Dissecting this profusion are the spangled waters of its nine rivers and thousands of streams and canals – the lifeblood of the Delta, providing fresh silt, and water for irrigation and transport. Although the recent economic development of Viet Nam is changing the face of the Delta to some extent – new roads and new bridges, new settlers and new industries – and new problems – the pulse of the Great River continues to exert its timeless, unalterable, schedule on the land and its people.
Diversified farming practices developed over centuries of ‘shaking hands with the flood’, form the basis of today’s agriculture, which is having to adapt rapidly to the demands of population growth, and recent ecological developments that have unbalanced the delicate sweet/salt water system (which I attempt to describe in A Thrilling Force of Nature). The construction of dozens of dams upstream on the river and its tributaries has significantly reduced flow levels, which is allowing tidal inundation to encroach further upstream than has traditionally been the case. In addition, mangrove and Melaleuca forests have contracted significantly – beginning with the use of “Agent Orange” during the war – leading both to loss of natural landfill (geologically estimated at 150 metres a year) and increased tidal erosion, and to an increase in acid sulphate soils.
Nevertheless, the wetlands of the Delta support a population of 16 million people who produce 16 million tonnes of rice – from up to three crops – per year. In fact, the Delta produces half of Viet Nam’s agricultural output, and contributes over 27% to the nation’s GDP. Fruit and coconut plantations, shrimp and fish farming, forestry, and poultry and pig farming are also highly developed industries, and the Delta’s market gardens supply vegetables and ornamental plants to much of southern Viet Nam. Here, doing the marketing is an aquatic affair!
Nowhere else on the Great River does one see such a profusion of water craft, commerce and activity as in the Delta. From container ships to tiny ‘tinnies’, ferries to grain carriers and moving fish farms, the Nine Dragons, and myriad canals, are the major arteries of the region, transporting produce and people throughout the Delta, despite a growing road network and 50 new bridges. The Mekong River Commission estimates that 350,000 family boats move an estimated 20-25 million tonnes of cargo on the Delta each year. In addition to the major floating markets at Cai Be, Phuong Phiep and Cai Rang, floating markets can be found also at innumerable junction towns across the Delta, selling everything from hardware to chickens and ducks, watermelons to durians (their barges always segregated, however so as not to overwhelm neighbouring shops!).