The Mekong Delta
Đồng Bằng Sông Mê Kông
With a length of more than 4,500 kilometres, the Mekong Delta has one of the world’s largest rivers. It springs from the eastern Tibetan highlands about 5,200 metres above sea level and flows through China, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia into Việt Nam and then into the South China Sea. Shortly after entering Việt Nam, the Mekong splits into nine smaller rivers, hence the Vietnamese name of Nine Dragon River (Cửu Long Giang) comes about. These nine rivers, together with countless canals and tributaries, criss-cross the thirteen provinces making up the delta, which once was part of the greater Cambodian empire of the Khmers. In the eighteenth century, Vietnamese forces pushed from Sài Gòn into the delta, drove out the Khmer forces and annexed the region under Việt Nam rule. To this day, a sizeable part of the population is still of Khmer background, and Cambodia regularly demands a return of certain border provinces, but to no avail.
The Mekong (Miền Tây) is home to an amazing variety of fishes, with more than twelve hundred species identified so far. The most popular for the dining table are the cat and elephant fish. Breeding these species on the mobile fish farms is the latest growth industry in the delta. These farms are often not more than a barge with a corrugated iron shed and a three-metre net below where the fish are kept. This type of farming is particularly popular in Cần Thơ province where the currents are just right to provide the necessary nutrients, and fish farms are constantly being towed to different feeding grounds on the river.
Life in the delta revolves around the Mekong – a life force that nourishes not only the provinces of the region but the country as a whole. The river is crowded with boats of all shapes and sizes – small wooden boats rowed standing up, longtail boats propelled by noisy outboards, small houseboats called sampans, which incredibly, are home to extended families, and the squat wooden vessels built for carrying heavy loads.
Laden with mountains of mangoes, jackfruits, pineapples and pomelos, these boats crowd together on early mornings at the Cái Răng Floating Market about six kilometres south of Cần Thơ for business. This is a wholesale market where farmers from the surrounding villages bring their products to sell to stallholders from the smaller local markets throughout the city, or to the food factories on the riverbanks for distribution to the rest of Việt Nam.