The great rivers flow down from the foothills of the Himalayas, pouring and winding through the deep gorges that they have forged, turning into rapids between the high mountains of the Annamite Range (Dãy (núi) Trường Sơn). Swollen by the heavy rains, they descend to the plains where they slow to a lazy speed, spreading out in their broad beds, through the rice terraces edged with clumps of giant bamboo. The heavy load of silt is borne along, the colour of ochre and burnt sienna. As the rivers approach the deltas, the waters lose their strength and run out of power. Attacked by the tides, their course reverses, the coastal waters pushing deep inland, capsizing craft twice a day, as if they were children’s toys.
The rivers mirror the country’s history. Each has its own story; the chronicle of Vietnam is imprinted along with the courses of the great rivers. The Red River basin (Hồng Hà) does not merely contain a waterway; it is the cradle of a whole civilization.
Originally, all the towns and cities depend on the network of waterways, for trade, strategic defence in wartime. Some of the names of these towns and cities are intimately connected with their rivers. One example is Hà Tiên (Provincial city in Kiên Giang Province, Mekong Delta), which means “river-dwelling of the fairies.” Some rivers have been given human names, or perhaps the opposite is the case, and the daughters and sons of the sampan-owners (small wooden boat, skiff or canoe-like coastal craft typically propelled by oars), have named after these rivers.
Thanh Hà (Clear River), Trường Giang (Long River): these magical syllables recall poetic and sensual images of the waters glistening like mirrors, gentle as warm breath. Small streams, waterfalls or mountain rapids, narrow rivers, slow-moving powerful waterways, a tangle backwaters between palms and mangroves: there is water everywhere. It filters between the chequerboard of the paddy fields, a lifeline in the Vietnamese countryside. All these rivers flow east towards the sea, their speed change with the seasons.
Some bridges are as famous as the rivers they span. Some symbolize an era or a historic event, like Hà Nội’s Doumer Bridge (now the Long Biên Bridge) or the USSR-Vietnam Friendship Bridge (now the Thăng Long Bridge). Huế boasts Stone Bridge, Thanh Toàn bridge and the Trường Tiền bridge, its riveted metal curves design by Gustave Eiffel.
Ferrymen hold a special place in the provinces of Vietnam. There are so many canals and rivers but not enough bridges, so often the only way to get across is to go by boat. There are now car ferries that link the major routes, enabling cars and trucks to cross. But on the smaller rivers, people rely on small boats that the ferrymen or ferrywomen row in their own style, whether with a single paddle, a pair of oars or even moving the oars with their feet.
Once the children are ready, Mrs Hương sets off from The Saigon River (Sông Sài Gòn). She is leaving to paddle close to the quay that runs beside the Lê Lợi Boulevard, a stone’s throw away from the big hotels. With her three words of English, she offers to take tourists on a boat trip along the river. She does not sing the traditional boatmen’s shanties like the sampan-owners of the past, or does she wear the áo dài, a baba, loose pyjamas that women wear as work clothes. Mrs Hương wants her daughter to do well at school so that one day the family will be able to live on land and have a more secure future. As for her daughter, she lives cosy inside the boat. She loves the round of the sampan, feeling her brothers and sisters clinging to her, rocked by the waves. In the evening, she dreams of the river fairies as she listens to the water lapping softly against the hull.
A floating market in the Mekong Delta (Miền Tây). In the village of Cái Răng (urban district of Cần Thơ in the Mekong Delta region), a few platforms are raised above the water. The houses stand on stilts; the villagers meet as the site of their marketplace. The floating market held on barges, sampans or rowing boats, offers a range of local produce, including limes, shrimps, and both sea and freshwater fish. In their rowing boats, housewives come to do their daily shopping. All the services that the market traders need are available on the water: one boat sells noodle soup, another offers banh mi and the boat that sells drinks doubles as a telephone booth.
The Hội An River has changed the destiny of the city that now bears its name. Formerly known as Fai Fo, Hội An was once a port but for centuries it has been unable to accommodate ships. Sand and silt carried down by the river were pushed inland by the strong currents of the sea, blocking access to the port. But the docks still exist, behind the homes of the wealthy Chinese merchants who have contributed to the city’s fortunes. Their solid architecture, influenced by the seafarers’ native cultures, has now become a tourist attraction, turning this port city into a living museum. Thousands flock here every year in Việt Nam, to witness the pearl of the Hội An River.
On the canals and rivers, life stretches out onto the waters. In the backwaters of the Mekong Delta (Miền Tây), the owners of the floating market arrive and set-up their stalls with the first light of the day, selling fruits, vegetables, and mud crabs. The women even come to do their shopping in rowing boats. Beneath a modest iron bridge that spans a tributary of the river, water buffalo wallow in the muddy shallows. Mischievous children are perched on their backs, pretending to race each other; clutching the huge horns of these gentle beasts like handlebars, they lean over dangerously as they negotiate imaginary bends.
When evening falls on the Perfume River (Sông Hương), the sampans huddle together into improvised villages. A fisherman mends his net, a young girl prepares water spinach for dinner, a tangle of children giggle and play. The fragrant scent of freshly cooked rice rises from the sampans as their owners prepare for the night.