LIFE in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is fascinating to observe, if not always picturesque. In a place where people’s lives revolve around the waterways, the massive expansion of rice production and dangerous levels of pollution spell trouble.
Getting up at dawn to visit a floating market, the palely opaque water slaps against the sides of small wooden boats as they are manoeuvred deftly by standing vendors around the larger ‘shop’ boats.
Each store has a tall bamboo pole waving in the air and to this are tied examples of the produce for sale. Everything from turnips and pumpkins to dragon fruit and coconuts. Some boats specialise in just one item, some have 10 different types of produce waving for all to see.
A boat screams past loaded with at least 10 prone pigs tied in the bottom. Another boat passes soon after, this time with just one, standing pig enjoying the run of the whole craft.
At last I find the romantic Mekong Delta scenes I’ve been looking for. Cruising through the smaller waterways, bordered by the tough fronds of the water coconut that are commonly used for thatching houses, a bridge crosses to a tiny hamlet.
I look up past the arching palm fronds to see a straight-backed girl in a luminous white ao dai cycling sedately across.
Unhurried, with her skirt tucked carefully into the waistband and billowing out behind. She holds the two side panels of her dress with her hands on the handlebars, like wings.
White egrets wade in green paddy fields and women in the ubiquitous conical straw hat and blue shirts walk along the dykes, carrying rice seedlings for planting.
Two other women operate a swinging scoop to transfer water from one paddy to another. Still others bend their backs to work.
Where once there were two or three crops per year, now they churn out three or four with the aid of fertiliser. Muddy banks and refuse-strewn dykes border rice fields with the ugly stubbled look of mechanically harvested rice.
Everything on the water and on the roads is hurtling towards bustling Ho Chi Minh City, to feed a growing population and fuel Vietnam’s growing economy.