Meandering Along the Mekong.
As the aeroplane carrying me to Ho Chi Mihn City banks to the right in preparation for landing I am presented with an astonishing, panoramic view of the spectacular Mekong Delta stretching, for hundreds of miles in all directions. For those who still believe that the earth is flat, perhaps they should relocate to this part of the world as here the landscape, as far as the eye can see is as flat as the proverbial tabletop.
Through these fertile lands runs one of the world's most incredible creations, the mighty Mekong River.
This giant body is a swirling mass of brown water peppered with large clumps of Hyacinth plants ripped from the banks by its powerful currents. Even the dirty brown colour sparkles in the soft late afternoon sun and resembles a giant artery snaking its way through this tropical landscape bringing life and fertility to all it passes as it makes its way to the sea.
Known locally as the Mae Nam Khong (Kong, the mother of water), the Mekong extends over more than 2,700 miles from its source high on the Tibetan plateau to the vast delta in Southern Vietnam, where its journey ends as it empties into the South China Sea.
The mighty Mekong is the world's twelfth longest river and the seventh longest in Asia with an estimated length of 4,350 km. or 2,703 miles. It drains an astonishing area of 795,000 sq. km or 307,000 sq. miles and discharges a whopping 475 cubic kilometers of water annually.
On its southward journey, it passes through China’s Yunnan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand Cambodia and Vietnam, eventually draining into the South China Sea. To put this into perspective, if this river were in the U.S., it would stretch all the way from Los Angeles to New York.
My excitement mounts as, in just a few days this watery colossus will carry me down to the Vietnamese border and from there we will snake our way north to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Pehn.
After a few days exploring the throbbing metropolis of Ho Chi Mihn, I am collected from the charming, colonial Majestic Hotel to take the four - hour road trip to Can-Tho. This bustling river town is one of the main ports for all of the tourist and commercial traffic travelling along this stretch of the river. This is my second visit to Can- Tho and it appears that in the intervening years the area seems to have benefitted from its hard work and diligence if the slew of high rise hotels and sprawling factory buildings is any indication.
I am dropped at the main port where the fleet of ‘Mekong Eyes’ cruise boats and their crews await the arrival of their passengers. My craft, ‘the Mekong Eyes 1’ looks to be the largest and the most comfortable and it turned out to be the case. A large double cabin, with a giant picture window complete with a cushioned window seat, a spacious balcony and generous bathroom means my time on the river will be more than comfortable.
Once everyone was aboard, we slipped anchor leaving behind the shouts of the busy souls who worked the piers and, within minutes only the peacefulness of the river permeated my senses. Over the next three days, I saw this glorious and majestic body of water in all its myriad of colours and moods. A deep chocolate brown and metallic grey at dawn then indigo blue and inky black after the sun had set in a fiery ball at the end of each day.
Travelling at a sedate six knots, life on the river passes gently by and, from the comfort of my bed or sitting on the balcony of the cabin I am afforded an up close and personal view of fisherman hauling in their catch or conical-hatted women tending to their crops along the fertile banks of this life-giving river.
Our journey will take us on a long, looping run via towns with almost unpronounceable names, Vinh – Long, Sa-Dec, Cai-Be and Cao- Lahn before we cross the border into Cambodia and a straight run to Phnom Pehn.
The boat, with its friendly crew, soon feels like home as I mix with my fellow passengers, who hail from various parts of the globe as we swap travel tales over sumptuous meals prepared in a rather cramped galley.
These Mekong cruises have adapted splendidly to the growing number of tourists who wish to ply these waters. The cruise company obviously feels the need to orientate the visitor to what life ashore is like and so the boat makes several stops along the way in order for us to visit “family businesses”
It did, however, offer the opportunity to stretch one’s legs and wander around several of the numerous islands that dot the wider stretches of the river, at times up to two kilometres across. Everything growing so abundantly on these fertile islands and along the banks is used for something. Leaves of various trees for salads and soups, water hyacinth for household goods and banana stems for rope, It is a virtual Garden of Eden with every type of fruit imaginable; mangoes, pineapples, bananas, coconuts and many I didn’t know but were simply delicious anyway!
The Mekong basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world with only the Amazon boasting higher levels. There are over 20,000 plant species, 430 mammals, 1,200 variety of birds, 800 different reptiles and amphibians, and an estimated 850 freshwater fish species.
The Vietnamese seem to work every inch of the land and the water. Every kilometre or so, we pass flat barges fitted with giant cranes which ‘mine’ the river bottom, dredging for the rich alluvial soil that has come from as far away as Tibet. Thousands of small fish farms line the banks and over the last decade or so this industry has become a huge export earner.
The river literally throbs with life as we pass small boats clustered together to form vast floating markets serviced by even larger craft ferrying in fresh produce to be sold from the boats to yet even more boats who arrive in droves to ‘shop’ once the market opens.
The Mekong has become a giant fish factory and irrigator and acts as an economic lifeline for tens of millions of people who live along its banks. Half of Vietnam’s rice crop comes from the delta as does the 48kg of fish that the average person consumes in this amazing self- sufficient country.
Once we reach the border, which entails disembarking at both border crossings we begin traversing the Cambodian Mekong which is altogether different to its neighbour. Here the river widens to become a vast body of water and runs in a relatively straight line towards the capital. River traffic on this stretch is light and the hustle and bustle that we witnessed on the Vietnamese side is all but non-existent.
As the Mekong enters Cambodia, over 95 per cent of its flows has already joined the river. From here on downstream, the terrain is flat and a little featureless. After a few hours or so the skyline of the city comes into view where a swathe of high rise apartments, all built in the last eighteen months now dominates the skyline.
It was sad to leave the boat and my new found friends but the lure of Phnom Pehn delights softened the blow somewhat.
At 2,700 miles long, the Mekong will offer me numerous opportunities to return and explore other stretches of this majestic river and, as I type this I am already consulting maps, making plans for my next trip!
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.