The Mekong Delta is a water world of dizzying, dazzling, ‘spit-in-your-eye’ greens, long-stemmed vivid fuschia water lilies, and purple water hyacinth. It’s a world of boats, floating houses, markets and fish farms. A world where rivers, canals and streams outnumber the patches of land. It’s a world where everything bobs gently up and down, and sways slowly. A world of plenty. The people of the Delta produce one of the most bountiful rice harvests on earth and the range of fruit, coconut and sugar cane available is staggering. The area is rural, but intensely populated – hectic, but also charmingly chilled.
This was the Mekong as we’d never seen it before. The wooden houses of Laos and Cambodia gave way to corrugated iron – leaning tipsily over littered waterways, little homes practically stood on each other’s shoulders – life in the Mekong fast lane. No space -a higgeldy-piggeldy sprawl of habitation, jetties, landing stages, stilted houses, plant-pots, caged song birds and clothes hanging out to dry. We could feel the difference. A buzz in the air. A constant coming and going. Boats of all shapes and sizes. Dredgers. Wooden row boats – local ferries taking people to the opposite bank.
A Sea Of Water Hyacinth. In the Delta they row standing up – crossing the oars in front of their chests, working out like they’re in training for the olympics. Huge barges, lying low in the water, laden with rice and fruit. Men lolling on their loads, nearly all with a cigarette hanging from the corner of their mouths. Women held up and waved children’s hands and shouted hello. Men and women swung in hammocks in the shaded cabins of houseboats, or washed themselves and their clothes in a steady stream of bilge water on a tiny shelf hanging out at the back, sometimes hauling cappucino-coloured Mekong water up in a bucket. From narrow wooden boats men threw nets, or lowered giant nets fixed to bamboo poles. Fully clothed, they immersed themselves in the water, sometimes only head and shoulders visible. Tiny silver fish jumped and flopped, trapped in gauze, breathing their last. Unloading barges, thin, muscular men, their chests glistening with sweat, threw sacks casually over their shoulders and trotted over wobbling gangplanks – precarious strips of wood, placed at alarming angles to the river bank. And from the prow of every boat, Mekong eyes glared out at us.
If the waterways are a blaze of activity, the back-roads are a lazy dream. Shaded, leafy, lovely. Small winding paths, bicycles and fruit in abundance. Local life. The ice vendor. The feather duster salesman. Women in conical hats pushing hand-carts laden with vegetables and meat. The waterways become smaller. We cycled under great clumps of bananas, dangling jackfruits bigger than footballs and small red bell-shaped apple-like fruits that decorated the foliage like Christmas trees. We pedalled alongside tiny sage-green waterways moody with overhanging trees and dark inpenetrable looking places; and over tiny arched concrete bridges. We passed Catholic churches and almost Mediterranean-looking houses, coloured in pastel shades, with cool tiled interiors; people eating on straw mats outside, using their fingers as spoons to bring the contents of their bowls to their mouths. “It’s beyond lush”, said Jim, “it’s lusher than lush”.
When we were too hot to cycle further, we stopped to sip on sweet sugar-cane juice – poured over an iceberg of ice crammed into long glasses or asked for ‘cafe sua da’ – dark velvety coffee drips, drop by drop, ever so slowly, through a filter, onto a thick layer of almost beige-coloured creamy sweet milk. It’s a drink that requires patience. In a tall glass nearby jagged chunks of ice melt slowly, awaiting the cascade of coffee. Coffee on the rocks – rich, thick, incredibly sweet – the colour of caramel – wonderful. At these stops we met locals who offered us chunks of fruit and were hell bent on talking to us even though they could muster only a few words of English. No matter, smiles are universal.
The Mekong Delta was a great way to – almost – end our encounter with the Mekong – at last the Mekong bursting with life, local colour and abundance. For so much of our journey it was wild, or inaccessable and remote – beautiful but distant. Here the Mekong showed a different face and we loved it.