Life on the Mekong River
Article and photos by James
|The Spirit Eyes
floats, with fishnets prepared, on the Mekong River.
Spirit eyes, painted on the bow of our
boat appear otherworldly to the children waving at us from
the shore through morning mist. We fade in and out of that
velvety haze on Vietnams’ Mekong River, cutting through
the fog of coal fires and burning trash that hangs like
a gauze curtain between the passing jungle and ourselves.
Humidity drapes over us like a blanket,
and whenever our boat slows, insects swarm us for our salt.
In a shoreline eddy, whippet thin fishermen hand haul nets
through the current filled with catfish, and the sunrise,
filtered through a thousand coal fires, blurs the jungles
edges, as though we are sailing through an impressionist
painting. Even riding the vastness of open water, we are
surrounded by the crush of humanity that is Southeast Asia.
Mekong is a western term and a perversion
of Mae Nam Khong, loosely translated from its Thai/Lao origin
as “Mother of Water.” Born on the Tibetan Plateau, its source
belches up through a rock spring to gravitate south for
2700 miles, (4350 km) through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand,
and Cambodia before merging its essence with the South China
Sea in the marshy delta of southern Vietnam. The Mekong
is the main trade route that unites these seven nations
in a round the clock whirlwind of commerce that words are
hard put to define. Think of the world’s largest open-air
market and social gathering that never stops to catch its
|One of many floating
markets on the Mekong River.
Three and four generations of families
live together on small boats, venturing ashore only out
of necessity. Toddlers learn to swim and walk at the same
time. Likewise, it seems that almost from birth they paddle
a dugout as easily as they breathe. Dugouts are made without
nails, using ancient tongue and groove techniques and passed
down through decades, not only as transport but also as
family heirlooms. Time ceased long ago on the Mekong. There
are no watches or clocks to be seen. It is a self-contained
water world within a separate reality where a committed
visitor may step into the past as far back as they wish
to go. Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam, but the Mekong remains
the Indochina of Joseph Conrad's dark vision.
|Paddling young children.
I met my guide Duc at Can Tho, a rickety
series of loading docks rising out of the delta swampland
about 50 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. Born and bred
on the river, Duc is one of those who left the old world
behind to venture into the vast new one. He only returned
in order to show people like me how people like him actually
live. Duc is one of the Mekong boat people. He has chartered
an aging rust bucket straight out of the “African Queen.”
I question its worthiness to stay afloat until our final
stop at Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “Little bit of adventure,”
he tells me.
No sooner am I onboard than a lovely
young girl paddles up to me in a plastic washtub using a
palm frond as an oar. “Merican?” she inquires, and when
I nod my head yes, she flashes me the peace sign and paddles
away. I did not fight in what is known locally as the “American”
war, the final coda of two millenniums of invasions and
incursions on this land, but I am the age to have done so.
My fear of coming to this country is that I will be perceived
as a returning enemy. The young girl has just done much
to allay my fears, and that friendliness will be the norm
during my entire stay.
|A very young paddler
on the Mekong River.
The docks are a beehive of activity
as we motor into the main channel, snaking our way between
heavily overloaded commercial vessels, both large and small.
Hundreds of seagulls fall like dive-bombers taking floating
refuse from the waters’ surface. Some engage in a mid-flight
dogfight over large chunks of fish. Families sit cross-legged
on sun bleached decks, eating their morning noodles with
chopsticks. Then they brush their teeth with river water,
before defecating over the sides with a complete lack of
inhibition. Freshly caught fish sizzle on charcoal braziers.
While moving at 5 knots on a passing scow, a man dips his
dog into the river as a moveable bath. An elderly couple
in a tiny dugout is paddling furiously against the current,
hauling an immense chest of drawers that could overturn
them at any moment. If you can fit it on a boat, even if
it is larger than the boat, you will see it on the Mekong.
|Brushing teeth while
on the move.
|Carrying a huge
chest of drawers with a tiny dugout on the Mekong
Neighbors chat noisily while hopping
from deck to deck. Happily screaming children cannonball
into the ominous looking water. Racks of clothing hung on
wooden dowels on the rear of boats are outdoor closets,
swaying rhythmically with the rocking of the water. A porthole
opens and an old man hacks his morning snuff onto the water,
and then blows his nose loudly holding a finger to one nostril.
It is a vibrant community getting ready to disperse its
commerce in all directions that will reform at each new
port of call; one giant family of water gypsies, seemingly
interchangeable as chess pieces, that act as a unified whole.
|Family closet on
the Mekong River.
We pick up speed with Duc manhandling
the large wooden tiller, deftly maneuvering us around the
countless dugouts. The manned dugouts are everywhere to
bring boatmen out to their ships from their palm frond hovels
that line the shore. The water is a sludge gray/brown that
most would associate with a sewer clog, and it is choked
with the detritus of an immense society that drinks, washes,
and defecates in it. Yet this river gives life to countless
millions, and regularly gives up half a ton of catfish to
fishermen with the strength to haul them ashore.
|Mekong River housing.
Large woven rattan funnels channel small
fish to shoreline eddies where they are corralled in nets
of hand tied river reeds. Awaiting, the women and children
in round conical hats wrestle them onto the muddy bank.
In this caste-conscious society, light skin is equated with
idle wealth, and thus beauty. Therefore, women cover up
from head to toe, as suntanned skin defines one as a common
laborer. With their facemasks, rubber gloves, and knee boots,
they bring to mind toxic waste workers. When removing their
hats for a second I notice the flawless, nut-colored skin
that seems to have blessed many young Asian women, but also
may betray them quickly as they age. On the crumbling riverbank
ten feet above us, several motorbikes honk their way through
traffic. Live pigs larger than the drivers are lashed and
struggling to the rear racks on their way to market squealing
not out of fear of death, but due to being tied on their
backs as no pig wishes to be. Watching five or six of these
going down the highway is like a porky pig dance review
with all the high kicking.
|A huge unhappy pig
on a motorbike.
The constant beeping of thousands of
motorbike horns jockey for space on tiny dirt trails, their
riders all wearing the ubiquitous uniform America has gifted
the world: baseball hats and sun glasses, or what seems
to be our primary cultural contribution to developing countries
after cigarettes and fried chicken. All of this is absorbed
by the immensity of the jungle that towers over this giant
ballet of life mere yards away. The jungle is a giant primal
sentinel of natural growth standing as a bulwark against
the encroachment of modern man. Should the people disappear
for only a few days, the intensely aggressive horticultural
herd would choke the mighty Mekong into a struggling stream.
It is nature co-existing with man, but nature toned down
to sub-combat speed out of deference for its inferior planet
Each night we put ashore wherever dusk
finds us and follow kerosene lamps to simple rooms in the
jungle, usually four concrete walls covered with friendly
orange or purple tinted geckos, a low sleeping futon, and
a dinner of rice or vegetables and fish. Dinner goes down
with small thimbles of Cobra whiskey, fermented as its name
implies with the venom of its namesake, a liquid fire that
lasts through the night. It was then that Duc would begin
to tell his tales, some ancient, others recent and personal.
All of them revealed a vibrant culture that can take or
leave progress on its own terms. Each night, under the sequined
mantle of an indigo sky invisible from beneath the jungle
canopy, the cacophony of countless Cicadas, frogs, and endless
invisible creatures escalates into a nightly symphony that
cradles me peacefully until the dawn. I turn on my headlamp
to read and instead find myself spotlighting innocent geckos
like escaping cons, freezing them blind on the side of a
wall like day-glo refrigerator magnets.
Before we embarked, Duc told me the
river would answer all my questions about his country. As
we crossed the border into Cambodia, I saw him smiling at
me from the bow and sagely nodding his head. He was right.
The Mekong is the artery through which the lifeblood of
a nation flows, and the river had revealed to me the essence
James Michael Dorsey is
an explorer, award winning author, photographer, and
lecturer. He has traveled extensively in 45 countries,
mostly far off the beaten path. His main pursuit
is visiting remote tribal cultures in Asia
and Africa. See his bio for
more about James and his articles for Transitions
Abroad. Visit James Dorsey's website at www.jamesdorsey.com.