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Life on the Mekong River

Article and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Spirit Eyes floats on the Mekong River
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 breath.

Floating markets on the Mekong River
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 on the Mekong River
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.

Young paddler on the Mekong River
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
Brushing teeth while on the move.

Chest of drawers on the Mekong River
Carrying a huge chest of drawers with a tiny dugout on the Mekong River.

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
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
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 pig on a motorbike
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 partner.

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 of Vietnam.

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.

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