By the time it reaches Vietnam, the Mekong River has already covered more than four thousand kilometres from its source high on the Tibetan Plateau; en route it traverses southern China, skirts Burma (Myanmar), then hugs the Laos–Thailand border before cutting down through Cambodia and into Vietnam – a journey that ranks it as Asia’s third-longest river, after the Yangtse and Yellow rivers. Flooding has always blighted the delta; ever since Indian traders imported their advanced methods of irrigation more than eighteen centuries ago, networks of canals have been used to channel the excess water, but the rainy season still claims lives from time to time.
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of the river: the lifeblood of the rice and fruit crops grown in the delta, it also teems with crafts that range in size from delicate rowing boats to hulking sampans, all painted with distinctive eyes on the prow. These continue an ancient tradition and were originally intended to scare off “river monsters”, probably crocodiles.
One of the many advantages of the Mekong River spanning multiple countries is that the activities vary from place to place. In Laos, tubing is popular, especially in Vang Vieng where travellers ride the currents of the river on inflatable tubes. In Vietnam, it is popular to have a local guide meander you along the river in a sampan (Vietnamese narrow boat) and to visit the local floating markets, particularly impressive in Cai Rang and Cai Be.
The Mekong River is full of life no matter what time you visit. During the wet season from September to December flooding is guaranteed meaning boats are used for all purposes for the local people. The high flood waters bring plenty of fresh seafood, a yummy delight to the taste buds and a haven season for fishermen on the Mekong. Farmers are also pleased for the high waters, as these replenish their soils making them high in minerals and fertile for the upcoming harvest.
During the dry season from May to August the fruits and flowers are in full bloom, ideal if you wish to visit orchards and try the variety of sweet and tropical fruits fresh from the branches. February is a colourful and fun time to visit, as the local people are preparing their homes for the Tet festivities (Lunar New Year), expect to see flowers covering boats and homes and people full of joy and love.
People have been living on the trans-boundary Mekong River for roughly 4,000 years. Today, the lands are home to some 300 million people and over 100 ethnic groups, of which 60 million procure their livelihoods from farming, fishing and tourism along the river. The Mekong River provides 70% of tropical fruits to Vietnam alone and makes up for 60% of the countries rice, so it is easy to understand why the local people rely on the fertile and rich soil from the Rivers plains for farming.
One of the many charming characteristics of the Mekong River is those who choose to live on the River. Yes, people actually live on the River in floating homes or shabby houses made on high wooden stilts (to withstand frequent flooding during the monsoon season) and are so accustomed to this lifestyle that often they do not set foot on land for days at a time. Floating farms are also not unusual, often used for net fishing in which a net is simply left in the water and then raised to catch unsuspecting fish - the smaller fish are released back into the water so they can grow to be caught another time.
The Mekong River is a Kingdom of biodiversity both in its waters and on its banks. With roughly 1,100 freshwater species including the Giant Catfish and the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin, fish thrive in the waters alongside plant species such as various forms of algae and even some carnivorous plants. Plenty of bird species also loiter around the River, hoping to catch some fresh fish. A good way to learn about all the wildlife in the Mekong is to talk to your local guide, they know the waters best and can point out the different species.
Featured Image, Mekong Delta in Vietnam © Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock