Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Heart of the Mekong Delta

                                         by Jim Goodman

river scene in Vĩnh Long province
       Travelers to the heart of the Mekong Delta—the three popular tourist destinations of M Tho, Vĩnh Long and Cn Thơ—find themselves impressed with how well organized, developed and thriving everything seems to be.  They see roads and waterways busy with traffic, farms neatly laid out on the lands between the canals, orchards filling the river islands, bustling city markets and boats of all kinds lining the piers. 
       Four centuries ago, though, this very same area was mostly swamps, peat bogs and thick forests, very sparsely populated by a few stray Khmer villages and river trading posts, mostly run by Chinese down from Cambodia.  That was true of most of the rest of the Delta at that time.  The only heavily populated parts were at the mouth of the Mekong, today’s Sóc Trăng and Trà Vinh provinces.  Khmer communities had lived there for centuries, but the next nearest concentration of Khmer settlements was close to today’s Cambodian-Vietnamese border.  The salient feature of the Delta in those times was its under-population.
boats at the pier in Mỹ Tho
       That began to change from the middle of the 17th century, due to events far to the north of the area.  In China the Ming Dynasty fell to the Manchu from the north, who founded their own Qing Dynasty.  The Qing did not establish authority over the entire country at once, but by the 1670s had vanquished the last of the Ming loyalists in the south.
       In Vietnam, the decades-long, off-and-on war between the Trịnh Lords of the north and the Nguyển Lords of the south came to a halt in 1672 with a formal truce and a fixed boundary at the Gianh River in today’s Quảng Binh province.  While they still kept a wary eye to the north of their realm, the Nguyễn Lords were now free to turn their attention south.  With peace and its resultant prosperity and population growth, the Nguyễn Court began to conceive its southern ambitions.
Vĩnh Trang Pagoda, Mỹ Tho
       Central Vietnam, the part of the country under Nguyễn control, was too narrow for the kind of agriculture associated with the Red River Delta in the north.  Rice cultivation could never be sufficient to support its increasing population.  But if the wilderness of the Mekong Delta could be tamed and transformed into a rice production area, that would solve the problem. 
       Before the Nguyễn Court could formulate a cohesive strategy to satisfy this ambition, though, a contingent of 3000 Chinese Ming Dynasty loyalists, recently defeated by Qing forces off the south coast of China, arrived in Nguyễn territory seeking asylum.  The Nguyễn Court was uneasy about allowing an armed body like this too near the capital, but arranged for the refugees to be settled in Biên Hòa and Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta.  Ostensibly this required securing permission from the Cambodian regime, which had nominal jurisdiction over the area.  But the Cambodian Court at that time was favorable to Vietnamese interests and so agreed.
Mekong Delta mudskipper
       The Nguyễn regime assumed that by settling the Chinese refugees in the south they could count on them to, in return, develop the commercial potential of the region and promote Nguyễn interests.  This proved to be true in Biên Hoà, but not in Mỹ Tho, where the Chinese established pirate gangs that preyed on the river commerce.  They even allied with a new, anti-Vietnamese Cambodian king and the Nguyển side had to send down a military force to drive out the Cambodians and subdue the Chinese pirates. 
       To insure the safety of ever more Vietnamese immigrants to the area, the Nguyễn regime took over the administration of both Mỹ Tho and Saigon before the end of the century.  Things more or less settled down after that and in the 18th century a regular influx of Vietnamese pioneers came to clear swamps, cut forests, make farms and set up villages.  Permanent settlements began to spread between Saigon and Mỹ Tho, then down to Vĩnh Long, Cần Thơ and further upriver. 
Delta riverside houses of split palm leaf
       This slow and steady conquest of the tropical wilderness continued on into the 1700s despite the steady disintegration of the Nguyễn Lords regime after mid-century.  But after the outbreak of the Tây Sơn Revolt, the capture of the Nguyễn capital and the flight of the royal family to Saigon, a new phase of history developed.  The Tây Sơn forces pursued the Nguyễn family, eventually caught up with them and killed all but one in 1777.  The sole escapee was Nguyễn Ánh.
       Organizing loyalists, over the next several years he led the recapture of Saigon, was expelled again, took it once more, and then was driven completely out of the country.  He took refuge in Bangkok, where he persuaded King Rama I to back his cause.  In 1784 the new ally dispatched 30,000 infantry and 300 warships with 20,000 sailors and marines in support of Nguyễn Ánh’s contingent of less than 4000. 
bridge over a Vĩnh Long canal
       After some initial success, the Siamese fell into a Tây Sơn trap on the river at Rạch Gầm Xoài Mút, near Mỹ Tho.  Tây Sơn forces destroyed the entire fleet, and then attacked the invaders’ infantry with such success that only a few thousand managed to escape and return to Bangkok. 
       Nguyễn Ánh also escaped.  But the Tây Sơn victors turned their attention to the north and soon conquered the rest of the country.  Meanwhile Nguyễn Ánh returned to Saigon again and this time made it his base in a long, relentless struggle with the Tây Sơn until his final victory in 1802.  Then he made Huế the capital of his new dynastic regime and turned over the administration of the Mekong Delta provinces to his favorite general.  
Cái Bè floating market and cathedral
       For a long time to come, though, this was still the least populated part of the newly unified country.  Most towns were hardly more than that, even after the French colonized the Delta in the 1860s.  In their own census of 1900, the population of Cần Thơ was about 9000.  But after taking control of the north, they sponsored farmers there to move south to open new lands.  From then on the population began to multiply at an accelerated rate.
       Today in the heart of the Delta it seems there is no place uninhabited.  The former tropical wilderness of past centuries has all but vanished completely.  The conquest of the frontier has meant a transformation into an intricate relationship between the use of land and water.  The best hints of this fascinating environmental interplay come with a boat ride from the piers of one of the three cities.  
making spring roll wrappers
canal in Vĩnh Long province
       Just 70 km south of Hồ Chí Minh City, Mỹ Tho today retains only a few square blocks of its Chinese quarter, on the other side of the Bao Đinh canal that divides the city.  The city lies on the Tiền Giang River, one of the main branches of the Mekong as it approaches the sea. Vietnamese have long dominated the population here and for them the great attraction of Mỹ Tho is the Vĩnh Trang Pagoda in the northeast part of the city.  The compound resembles a palace more than a temple, its buildings a light yellow color, with gold and orange trimmings.  In the park beside it are large images of a standing Buddha, seated Maitreya and Reclining Buddha, all in white.
Munirangsyaram, a Khmer temple in Cần Thơ
       The road west of the Bao Đinh canal flanking the river is the only other attractive part of the city.  It has its array of boats, a couple of colonial-era buildings and at night becomes filled with convivial outdoor restaurants.  Most visitors don’t stay the night, though, but take a boat ride through the canals of the province for an intimate look at rural life on the water.
       The ride takes the traveler out of the urban riverside environment into the backwaters of the area.  The cargo vessels carrying loads of sand or bamboo give way to medium-sized boats, with big painted eyes on the prow, carrying everything from furniture to fruit.  The tour boats inevitably stop at selected villages because they produce a special food or other product.  But on the walk through the woods to get there one can sometimes spot one of the Mekong Delta’ s most unusual creatures—the mudskipper.
Cái Răng floating market near Cần Thơ
       About 15 cm long, shaped like a torpedo, with disproportionately bulging eyes on its smooth head, it has a pair of thick fins resembling forearms.  In fact, it looks like a creature evolutionally transitioning from a fish in water to a legged animal on land.  They are certainly fun to watch as they scoot across the land, battle each other on occasion or sit motionless with their tails in the water to keep some part of the body moist.
       It is a fish, but spends much time on land, using its fins like crutches to slowly ‘walk’ across the mud or sand and even climb the trunks of bushes and thick plants.  If it wants to move quickly it uses its tail to help propel it forward.  On land they can breathe by mixing the air with the water still stored in the gills, but after a while have to return to water for a refill.  They are likely to be spotted anywhere shallow water meets dry land.
       Vĩnh Long, the next stop 72 km west of Mỷ Tho, is about the same size, just as bustling and with an equally pleasant, quieter quarter along the Cổ Chiên River, a branch of the Tiền Giang.  The riverfront road between the two canals flanking the town features a street market at one end, the boat and ferry piers in the middle, and a row of fine French colonial buildings past the piers.  A few km southeast is the Văn Thành Miếu, a rare example of a Confucian temple in the south.
business in the Cái Răng floating market
      The prime traveler activity here is to take a boat journey around An Binh Island to the floating market at Cái Bè, then back through narrow canals to Vĩnh Long.  The tour itinerary may include stops at a ceramics production village, making bricks, tiles, pots and other vessels and a ride through the floating market at Cái Bè.  This phenomenon exists in other parts of the Mekong Delta, but usually only in the early morning.  While more active in the morning, Cái Bè’s floating market runs all day.  Like other venues, here the boats tie a sample of the product they sell attached to a mast on the boat, as a signal to buyers in the area.  
       A prominent Catholic cathedral stands on the shoreline here and for the rest of the day’s journey the passengers will notice that there are as many churches as temples along the route.  In the 18th century, when Vietnamese immigration to the Delta was just getting started, a large proportion of the pioneers were Christians fleeing periodic campaigns of persecution by the Nguyẽn Lords’ governments.  Saigon actually had churches before it had any Buddhist temples.  
early morning at Cái Răng
       Since it’s an all-day tour the boats also make a lunch stop where the main dish is grilled elephant ear fish, so named because of its shape, and served mounted upright to show off that shape.  Boats also make stops at a snack-producing village making sweet cakes, popcorn and rice paper pancakes used to wrap spring rolls.  On the way back to Vĩnh Long the boat enters narrow canals full of cargo boats carrying longans, pineapples, coconuts and other products oft the many fruit orchards on the islands.  Some of the side canals are too narrow for the tour boats, but passengers can see the sampans on them, which sometimes stop to gather palm leaves along the shore, used for the walls and roofs of simple houses along the river, much like the Khmer dwellings at the mouth of the Mekong.    
Cái Răng floating market activity
       The third stop, Cần Thơ, 86 km southwest of Vĩnh Long, is the largest, sprawling along the south bank of the Hâu River, another major branch of the Mekong, with a population now exceeding 1.2 million.  The main attraction here is the floating market at Cái Răng, several km downriver.  Activity here begins at dawn and starts thinning out just a few hours later.  Like at Cái Bè, masts on the boats advertise the product for sale, but besides the far greater number of merchant boats here, the scene also includes innumerable small boats peddling snacks, drinks and other merchandise to those on the big boats.
       Other than the early morning floating market, Cần Thơ has a couple of Chinese temples, Chùa Munirangsyaram,--a  Khmer pagoda compound, plus the expected bars and upscale restaurants of a big city.  The outstanding feature of Cần Thơ, however, is its size and prosperity.  This is a place that grew from an overgrown village a century ago into the fourth largest city in the country.  Traveling in the heart of the Mekong Delta today, it is hard to realize that just two centuries ago it was mostly a swamp.  Mỷ Thơ, Vỉnh Long and Cần Thơ today represent the stunning legacy of those initial Vietnamese pioneers.

sampan on a Vĩnh Long canal
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Vĩnh Long is one of the stops on our cultural-historical journey through Vietnam.  See the itinerary at                   


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