23rd.February, Mekong Delta 1 –Cai Be & Can Tho
The Mekong delta is a comma-shaped flatland stretching from Ho Chi Minh’s city limits southwest to the Gulf of Thailand. It is Vietnam’s rice bowl, an agricultural miracle that pumps out more than a third of the country’s annual food crop from just ten percent of its total land mass. Rice may be the delta’s staple crop, but coconut palms, fruit orchards and sugar-cane groves also thrive in its nutrient-rich soil, and the sight of conical-hatted farmers tending their land is one of Vietnam’s most enduring images. To the Vietnamese, the region is known as Cuu Long, “Nine Dragons”, a reference to the nine tributaries of the Mekong River, which dovetail across plains fashioned by millennia of flood-borne alluvial sediment.
Surprisingly, agriculture was introduced to the delta only relatively recently. Under Cambodian sway until the close of the seventeenth century, the region was sparsely inhabited by the Khmer krom, or “downstream Khmer”, whose settlements were framed by swathes of marshland. The eighteenth century saw the Viet Nguyen lords steadily broaden their sphere of influence to encompass the delta, though by the 1860s France had taken over the reins of government. Sensing the huge profits to be gleaned from such fertile land, French colonists spurred Vietnamese peasants to tame and till tracts of the boggy delta; the peasants, realizing their colonial governors would pay well for rice harvests, were quick to comply.
It was good to get out of Saigon city and into the countryside of the Mekong Delta. The roads are still quite busy and the towns which we stopped at were anything but small. The land is mostly cultivated with rice (3 crops per year) but also grows a huge range of exotic fruit and vegetables. Our first boat trip took us along the upper i.e.northerly branch of the Mekong and down some side channels. For the narrowest part we transferred to a sampan propelled by an elderly lady by stand-up rowing. We visited traditional pop-corn (rice) and sweet factories which turned out to be the same place. It was interesting to watch the products being made by hand and to sample them afterwards. We had a good lunch there after inspecting all the strange fruits in their garden. Another quite long drive to Can Tho followed. There the hotel was just as luxurious as the one in Saigon had been.