#23 The Mekong Delta, and the culture of rice, and the ride thru it

Post #24 from SE Asia
The Mekong Delta and rice
March 2nd,2010

A rice field in the Mekong Delta

Growing rice in South East Asia is not a crop.  It is a complete culture and belief system. It is incredibly labor intensive. The dikes, drainage, the flooding, the immensely difficult stoop labor, done mostly by women, are a way of life. There is probably 10 times as much labor per amount of grain as compared to corn. So with rice farming comes high densities of population. Even though there are now water tractors that assist in rice farming, the very nature of rice growing limits mechanization. The plots of land must be level and cannot be too large, or one family could not do all the work. Because of this intensive bond of labor to the crop, rice growers are intimately attached to their land. They know their plots and stay with them. They have developed a culture and belief system to support this.
The Mekong Delta may well be the MOST fertile agricultural area in the world. Its 15,000 square miles produces over half of Vietnam’s rice,enough to feed the entire country.
In the late 1970’s, Vietnam tried to collectivize rice-growing in Vietnam. By the early 1980’s, Vietnam, with 40 million people, was a rice importer. Out of simple pragmatism, Vietnam quit its attempt at collectivized rice-cultivation and went back to private plots. And now, in 2010, Vietnam with 90 million people may be the world’s largest rice exporter.
There are additional reasons for this high production. In the Mekong Delta they can get 3 crops a year. The Mekong River itself flows relatively freely across the delta. Every year during the floods, it deposits a rich new layer of topsoil. The coastline of the entire Mekong Delta is extending each year roughly 80 meters. This is very unlike the channelized Mississippi River Delta, which is shrinking each year because the channels and dikes do not allow the sediments to be deposited.

Each year the Mekong River highs drops

But all this stands to change. China is bringing at least 12 new dams up river. (See my post #7) The second issue is the potential for rising sea levels. I refuse to use the term ‘global warming’. I prefer ‘disruptive climate change’ instead. But if we are to see any rise in the oceans, the Mekong Delta will be the very first to be hit. For none of this 15k square miles is over 4 meters above sea level. The combination of greatly reduced river flows and rising seas portend the salinization and loss of the delta. With this in mind, I am surprised to see no evidence that the Vietnamese are concerned about rising ocean levels. But then they, like most people, are concerned with much more immediate issues.

an iced coconut and a hammock. Ahhh

They have evolved with the heat here. At the restaurants in the Mekong, most tables have a hammock next to it. After you have had lunch, you can siesta an hour or so until the heat breaks. I have really used this feature.

In one day, I down 10 quarts of water, 4 coconuts, 3 mangos, 2 sugar cane drinks, 2 beers, 1 whole watermelon: (and I just urinated twice in 14 hours)
So on day 2 of my ride into the Mekong Delta I set out at 6:30 am. A good start. But it got hot quickly. I have learned to remind myself to drink before I sense thirst. Luckily, the Mekong Delta is densely populated and I can buy a cold liter of water every 5 kms or so. In this heat, it is essential to set out early and try to have at least half of your distance under your belt before noon. I made another mistake on the route and added 10 additional kms. to my trip. But when I got to Cantho at 7 pm, I had covered 120 kms. A good day for me in the heat. Just 2 weeks ago I was shivering in the cold rain south of Hanoi.
I stop at Cantho for a day and I take the tour of the floating markets.

a pineapple boat at the floating market

The boat people here have evolved a system of doing major amounts of work, commerce, and living off of boats. I paid $15 for a 6 hour tour of the floating markets. We were on the water before 6 am. We motored far upriver. What I saw was a bulk market, with many of tons of pineapples, tubers, and bulk crops being traded. There were small boats weaving about selling everything from coffee to packaged lunches. Then we hiked the canals for a few hours, watching life along the river. This was worth it.

For the next two days, I rode hard to the Cambodian border. My visa was running out. So I get to Chau Doc, Vietnam. I have a one-month visa. The visa says from February 1 thru March 1. Well, when I got to Vietnam, it was February 3rd. It was hard for me to arrive on the exact date simply because I could not be sure how far I could make it on bicycle. But I have a 1 one month visa, and February only has 28 days, so surely they will let me leave on March 3rd. It made sense to me.
I check into a hotel, take a shower, and get settled in. I hear a knocking on my door. The owner says I must leave the hotel NOW. My visa has expired and if the police find out, they will fine the hotel $200, which I will have to pay. So they, in the early evening, kick me out of the hotel! Fuck. I ask if there is any way I can sleep here, since I have all my things here, and my boat will be leaving from here tomorrow.  I offer to sleep on the roof, away from the police inspectors.  No way.  She says I must go.  So I pack up. But now she wants me to pay anyway.  Well it was her bureaucratic mistake that let me into her hotel in the first place.  So no way do I pay.  It looks like I will have to sleep outside tonight. But where? It’s dark.
I look at my visa. It does say March 1st. So I gently alter the ‘1’ to look sort of like a ‘3’. Then I go to a guest house with my money out. They take the money without checking a the visa date. Good. I have a room, albeit a really small one.

Up the Mekong on the boat top

I get up at 5:30 am and pack my bike up. Time to GTFO out of Vietnam. I buy a boat ticket up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I have had just about enough of Vietnam anyhow.
The boat heads off up the Mekong. It is crowded, uncomfortable, hot and noisy down below. Along with that, the Europeans are smoking cigarettes and complaining of the conditions. So I climb onto the roof of the boat and lay out on it for hours, watching the river go by.  Ahhh life is good.

The boat does have cold beer. The price is high, but, I don’t see any other competition. So I drink beer on the boat top. When I have to piss, I just let it fly from high atop the boat.  The original golden arch, merging with the river.  Drunken power pissing.  Now don’t fall in Dwight.  I don’t think I hit anyone — or put out their cigarettes. No one came complaining to me anyhow. If they would have, well, piss on ’em anyhow.   🙂
We have to get our exit visas from Vietnam. The Vietnam customs guard and the boat agent notice that I am, by their measure, one day late. I explain that I have just been in Vietnam 28 days.  They confer.
“Yes. But you were in Vietnam in both February and March. And that is 2 months. You must now go back to Saigon and rearrange your visa.” Then he smiles, like a crocodile.
“WTF????????  Ok ok. How much?”
We bicker around for a while. But I realize he’s got 4 aces. We settle on $35. I get my exit visa stamped.

I am out of Vietnam, and relieved to be gone.

As I get finally into Cambodia, a uniformed man comes up to me.  “Can I help you?”  he asks.  I look at his badge and it says TOURIST POLICE.  He is extremely helpful.  I later discover that Cambodia has a special branch of police whose sole purpose is to protect tourists from scams and hassles.  What a difference from Vietnam.  They have a special branch of police whose job appears to be harassing and extorting tourists.  And Vietnam wonders why tourism is dropping in their country.

5 Responses to #23 The Mekong Delta, and the culture of rice, and the ride thru it

  1. i went up and down the river.two sister Ben Tre and My tho.i never power pissed tho.

  2. The slow crocodile smile…hahaha. What a way to leave.

  3. I DON´T LIKE TO MUCH THE HOT WEATHER;but i love asia!!1
    i see that you where verry hot!!!
    JAJAJAJAJA

  4. Wishes a trip to Mekong Delta River. Wish!Wish!Wish…

  5. hi!,I like your writing very much! share we keep in touch more about your article on AOL? I require an expert in this space to resolve my problem. May be that’s you! Having a look forward to look you.

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