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MEKONG DELTA BLUES

Rice rats and romance on the ‘River of Nine Dragons’

by Hugh and Midori Paxton

The rusty boat farts, coughs and chugs slowly along the narrow river channel, a skinny boy perched on its prow shouting directions back to the captain (who does almost as much farting and coughing as his geriatric craft). There’s the slop and slosh of oily water round my boots. Three rice rats are busy in the bilges.

On each side of the smooth, coffee-brown water, exuberant subequatorial vegetation leans out, at times forming a tunnel that smothers the sunlight.

Doomed monologue

This is what I wanted. The Mekong Delta. Romance. Adventure. But as we progress, I note dismally that my guide is diligently confirming all the Mekong Delta boat trip tips that I gleaned during research in Saigon; the man, like many a Mekong guide, is a thoroughly seasoned pain in the rear end.

Instead of offering any remotely interesting information, he’s maintained a doomed monologue regarding his unrelenting financial and family problems for well over two hours, and if there were still crocodiles in this part of the delta I’d have thrown him overboard after 10 minutes.

Unfortunately there aren’t.

Estuarine crocodiles still cruise the coastal mangroves — and if you want a bit of peace, these immense, potentially lethal reptiles remain a guide-besieged tourist’s best friend — but irritatingly in most of the delta they are gone.

Chuck this guy into the Mekong and he’d just doggy-paddle after the boat listing the high costs of dry cleaning his clothes. Or the little runt would drown and I’d end up joining Gary Glitter’s “gang” in a prison cell (not an enticing prospect).

So I forget the guide! Tune out the persistent quacking! I just take in the view.

Some view! This is just how a Vietnam boat trip should look. A perfect location shoot for “Apocalypse Now II” or, God forbid, another crummy “Rambo” movie.

Jungle. Muddied waters. The swirl of huge catfish in the tangled mangrove roots.

Adventure!

The Mekong River is one of the big ones, and like other Southeast Asian giants its source lies in yeti country — the high plateau of Tibet.

Breakup and dissolution

Snowmelt heads first into China, then reorganizes its itinerary to take in the sights of Indochina. It flows between Laos and Myanmar, then crosses Laos and serves a second turn at border demarcation, this time between Laos and Thailand. It then checks out Cambodia before rounding off its grand tour in Vietnam, where it splinters into countless channels before emptying into the South China Sea. The Vietnamese name for this final breakup and dissolution is Song Cuu Long, which translates as “River of Nine Dragons.”

Strictly speaking, given the number of channels that snake through the mangroves, it ought to be called the “River of Innumerable and Constantly Changing Dragons.”

En route from Tibet, the Mekong accumulates a tremendous quantity of silt, that it leaves behind in the form of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is advancing into the South China Sea at a rate of 80 meters per year, making it one of world’s largest deltas. And, thanks to the river silt, one of the most fertile areas on earth.

This is Vietnam’s “rice basket.” Over half is under cultivation, and the paddies not only feed the domestic population (with the help of the Red River Delta in the north) but also provide the country with a significant export crop. Thailand still remains the world’s largest exporter of rice, but Vietnam is now, despite decades of incompetent communist administration and moronic agricultural collectivization, number two.

This may change. The Vietnamese, some experts warn, are overdoing the fertilizers, pesticides and paddy-building, and are overtaxing the productive capacity of the land.

Killing snakes for meat or traditional Chinese medicine isn’t helping either. My three fellow travelers, the rice rats, are reproducing at an alarming rate. Their chief opposition, snakes, are declining at an equally alarming rate.

But for the time being at least, rice remains omnipresent. While the rice paddies glow green and the water buffalo and laboring women in their conical “mushroom” hats are picturesque, it is the wilder bits of the delta that are the most interesting to explore.

Vietnam’s had a rough time of it, ecologically speaking. Almost the entire country was once engulfed in forest, but for several thousand years humanity has been working hard to stop that sort of nonsense.

Despite the onslaught of machetes, chain saws, Agent Orange, population growth, pesticides and so on, the country nonetheless still routinely throws up surprises. Scientists discover new species on a regular basis, and there are still a few tigers, wild elephants, forest ox, leopards and bears.

But you need a proper guide to find them. Not some wheedling extortionist like the one I hired.

And your best bet is to look for them near the Laotian border. Not in the Mekong Delta. The wildlife here is mainly under water, in the air, or on the run.

Or — I should have known it — in a restaurant owned by — but who else? — a friend of my guide.

We hit Dragon Island. Nice enough. Makes an effort to interest its visitors by showing them how to brew (and buy) banana wine and make honey and candy. Exhibits different and rather exciting locally grown tropical fruits.

Stuffed into cages

But stuffed into cramped cages are a python, a monitor lizard, a huge freshwater turtle and some cobras. All prey on rice rats.

“This a zoo?” I inquire. “If so, it sucks.”

“No,” answers my guide. “You eat them. I get you good price. The Taiwanese they pay more because they are Chinese. You are American!”

“British,” I correct him sternly.

“You can pay in pounds!”

Timing is important when planning a delta excursion. At the height of the dry season many of the smaller channels and canals are so shallow that access by boat is impossible. During the rains, which start in May, the Mekong rises. Thanks to rampant deforestation in Cambodia, recent years have witnessed flooding, submerged roads, mass evacuations and hundreds of fatalities. The upside to the deluge is that boat travel is easy.

Not much consolation to the seasonal refugees, admittedly.

But first and foremost, this column advises that no matter what time of year you plan your delta exploration, you hire a guide. Hopping on the boat when his back is turned, bribing the captain to clear off ASAP, and marooning the monster on Dragon Island will make the rest of your trip so very, very enjoyable.