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Tuesday, October 29: Day 190 – Mekong River

We had a wonderful experience on our tour of Vietnam with G-Adventures. Our tour group of 16 was fun and engaging.

Law was an amazing ambassador for his country. We learned so much.

He made a video of our unforgettable trip together. Watch it here:

We’re up early to join a two-day trip to My Tho, Ben Tre, and Can Tho on the Mekong Delta. This area is threatened by dams on the land side and rising sea levels on the water side. We want to learn more about this important river that is halfway around the world.

Tam is our guide and grew up in the Mekong but now has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for 10 years. He will always call himself from the Mekong. He moved to find employment. He has been married for one year. His parents picked out his wife from a village ten miles away. He is pleased with their choice. They did not know each other while growing up.

Many marriages are arranged from an early age. You have a boy, we have a girl. Families stay in touch. A baby further connects the families. More children, more happiness, more land, more workers, more security for the future.

The Mekong Delta consists of 173,000 acres. Mekong weather is hot, very hot, and terribly hot. Highway 1 connects the major cities in Vietnam.

Fifty percent of rice consumed in Vietnam comes from the Mekong Delta. This is rich, fertile land also grows coffee, rubber, and tropical fruits. It is often referred to as the second Amazon River due its great biodiversity.

The Mekong River runs through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The Mekong has different names in different places. In Vietnam the Mekong means the mother of water.

Vietnam is the most affected by dams and water problems as it is the furthest downstream. Mangrove forests control sea level and prevent erosion in the lowlands from typhoons. Some are natural; some are manmade. They have also built dikes to protect the coastline.

Five million people live along the Mekong and rely on the river. It is over 3,000 miles long and connects communities by boat. The boat is the river’s motorcycle.

The Mekong people come from diverse backgrounds. This area is home to many minorities.

Up until the 17th century the land was full of tigers and crocodiles and was uninhabitable. People from the north were escaping China, and it took 700 years for the people to migrate from northern Vietnam to the Mekong. Hindu people moved in as well. The Mekong used to belong to Cambodia. However, when a Cambodian king married a Vietnamese princess, he gave the Mekong to Vietnam.

Two thousand years ago the Mekong River was under water. In the 12th century, the water subsided.

The Mekong is called the Kingdom of the Catfish, Kingdom of the Coconut, and the Kingdom of Tropical Fruit.

There are fish farms and gardens along the river. Catfish, giant gourami, and the mudskipper are three fish found here.

Two thousand rivers and canals form the Mekong Delta. Canals were built during the Nguyen dynasty in the 18th century.

There are upper and lower Mekong Rivers that run parallel. Today we were on the upper Mekong and spent the night on the lower part at the largest city on the Mekong. Cần Thơ is the fourth largest city in Vietnam with a population of 2.2 million.

While the Cần Thơ Bridge was being built, it collapsed killing 52 workers and engineers from Vietnam and Japan. A temple shrine was erected by Japan as a memorial.

November to April is the dry season here. May to October is rainy. August to October (or the lunar month) is the flood season.

The people of the Mekong love singing. Every river has its own song sung by the people. Mekong River Music was recognized by UNESCO in 2013.

Food in the south is different from food in the north. Mice and rats are fat because they eat the rice in the fields. These animals are eaten along with snakes that live in the papaya trees.

The people in the south would never eat a duck. Eating ducks in the north is influenced by China.

The Mekong people keep ducks as pets. They decorate their houses with duck images. They consider them friends. The duck protects the family by alerting them of an intruder similar to a dog.

According to Tam, people in the north speaks fast and have a reputation of being stingy and rude. People in the south are known to be gentle, generous, and good natured. Everyone that we have met in Vietnam has been wonderful.

When someone dies, they are buried next to the house in a good location in rice fields. Feng shui is important for burial and considered for future generations.

When the rice turns yellow, it is time for harvest. A perfume rice is grown here.

Water, fertilizer, and seed are needed for crops to grow. Sea water kills everything and prevents crops from growing. The land will be useless for farming from that point on. They are concerned about rising sea levels.

There is a very large freshwater lake in Cambodia, Tonlé Sap, that is connected to the river system. Its size increases and decreases due to the rainy season. The Great Cambodian Lake controls the direction of water flow necessary for the fisheries nursery.

Farmers in the Mekong need to supplement their income. One way is producing honey.

Honey in the Mekong is made from the tropical fruit so it has a different taste. Here is Tam holding some bees. Male bees stay in the hive. Instead of using the term, man cave, one could say, man hive!

Bee pollen is good for the liver and stomach.

Royal jelly is produced by the worker bee to feed the larva and the queen and has a multitude of uses. It is recommended for freckle or age spot removal and to look younger. I bought some and told my group that I was sure that it would be so miraculous that they would not even recognize me tomorrow.

We were served tea. Juice was squeezed from half of a kumquat, then they added honey and green tea. It was yummy.

Another way that farmers are supplementing their income is by making charcoal or growing coconuts. They use all parts of the coconut – the water, the milk, wood, and the stringy straw – to make broomsticks, mats, candy, cosmetics, and oil. There is a coconut festival every two years.

We boarded sampan boats to travel to a coconut farm.

Coconuts from the Mekong are naturally sweet.

Coconut candy is sticky and is wrapped in edible rice paper. I am going to use this eco-friendly idea on Grandpa’s peanut brittle.

They even have snakes at the coconut shop. We both tasted snake wine. All wine tastes like medicine to me!!!

Rob does not like snakes so I was surprised that he let one whisper in his ear.

There is a snake farm established in 1975 that used to be a US Army base. Hmmm. They raise king cobras. The Viet Cong had a stronghold on the Mekong during the Vietnam War.

Traveling from Ho Chi Minh City we cross many bridges over many “Mississippi-like” rivers. This bridge over the Mekong is over a mile long.
It was built by Vietnamese workers from 2002-2009. Other bridges have been built by Japan and Korea.

Tam struggles with the word, bridge. It sounds like the word, rich. He told me that the language of the Mekong was made up of simple sounds and few words. I told him that this is a word that he needed to say correctly as a tour guide that talks about many bridges!! We practiced the word together during the tour.

There are fish farms in the river. Some are big cages under their houses. Mekong River is a tidal river so the houses float. They catch fish in nets and cages along the river.

There are four islands in the Vietnamese Mekong – Turtle Island (known for pomelo juice), Dragon Island, Phoenix Island, and Unicorn Island. The latter is the largest island and is known for lychee fruit.

We had fish for lunch. He looked like he swam into the cooker!!

Mekong provides the Vietnamese people with 50% of the rice, 65% of the fish, and 85% of the tropical fruit.

The greatest problems facing the Mekong are overfishing, dams, pollution, and lack of income. If there are no fish, there are no jobs. Because of dams, fish migration cannot take place. There are no ladders for the fish to swim upstream.

It is hard to make money growing rice selling for ten cents per pound.

When the sea level raises one meter, 1,000,000 people will leave because 50% of the Mekong will be flooded.

My Tho is an important city in Buddhism. This pagoda is a mix of French, Vietnamese and Cambodian. The builder was inspired by Angkor Wat.

The pagoda was built in 1849. In 1904 this area was flooded by a typhoon, so in 1907 the structure was raised up 1½ meters.

Two types of Buddhism: one worships one Buddha, the other one worships many Buddhas.

We can see three Buddha poses: lying down (present), standing (past) and sitting (future). The latter is known as Happy Buddha.

Caodaism is another religion that is popular. It’s main feature is the Divine Eye of the Creator.

When one buys coffee in one of the roadside cafes, one can lie in a hammock. I guess that I could lie in one even if I don’t like coffee!!

Earlier this year the Mekong was at its lowest level in 50 years due to the cascades of dams and reservoirs. The tallest dam is as tall as the Eiffel Tower. This is a fisherman’s nightmare as it will permanently affect water flow.

The source of the Mekong is Tibet. The energy hungry will destroy the Mekong. The Mekong irrawaddy dolphin population is severely threatened.

Save the Mekong!

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