Monthly Archives: October 2015

Erosion, Pollution, and Millions of Shrimp

A boy jumps over a pile of burning lemon grass on the island of Phu Thanh.

A boy jumps over a pile of burning lemon grass on the island of Phu Thanh.

Lottery ticket vendors mobbed us immediately after we boarded the ferry to the island of Phu Thanh, thrusting fistfuls of shiny cards at us and excitedly pointed out auspicious numbers they deemed might be of interest to us. When it became clear that we weren’t likely to play, most shuffled away, mumbling bitterly. A persistent few hovered at the periphery of our group, staring with a mixture of curiosity and entrepreneurial ambition. In a nation where gambling has been illegal since the 1970’s, the Vietnamese appetite for the state lottery seemed insatiable. I counted no less than five ticket sellers compared to only one car – ours.

Phu Thanh’s roads were not meant for cars. Narrow and often uneven, our Toyota (the only four wheeled vehicle we would see on the island in two days) bounced angrily and unpredictably as we navigated through the island’s interior towards its southern edge.

A local garbage dump burns at sunset on the island of Phu Thanh.

A local garbage dump burns at sunset on the island of Phu Thanh.

Despite the rough ride, we were all well aware that having a personal vehicle was a luxury. We knew that while Vietnam’s relatively developed infrastructure and road network made it more practical to travel by car than by boat, the further we got into our trip the rougher the travel would be. Bouncing around in Stephen’s car that morning, had we known just how exhausting things would get in the coming months we would have savoured every moment.

The River Giveth…

We had been told earlier by Ngyuen Than, a shrimp boat captain, that this area the Mekong no longer supported a wild fish population large enough to sustain the people plying its waters, necessitating the construction of inland farms for people too far from the ocean. It was these farms we were searching for on Phu Thanh.

After an hour of driving we had seen many such farms, comprised of a series of wide ponds with earthen banks; all seemed devoid of activity. Roughly one in five ponds was drained completely, their mud bottoms cracked and hardened by the tropical sun. Long axles lined with fan blades spun hypnotically in those ponds still containing water, but the people (the most essential component for documentary storytelling) were illusively absent.

As the sun dropped closer to the horizon we feared we would lose the ideal golden light for photography, so we decided to stop at the closest farm, empty as it looked, to try and make the best of the situation. No sooner had we done so when a lone motorcycle approached and turned into the farm.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimetre of his shrimp ponds. Coastal erosion and an increase in river borne pollutants have led to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimetre of his shrimp ponds. Coastal erosion and an increase in river borne pollutants have led to a 40% decrease in his farm’s productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Tan Van Vu (whose name we decided to change for his protection after learning Phu Thanh was a military controlled island, subjected to heavy media scrutiny), was a 51-year-old whose friendliness was evident from the first time he waved us towards his house. He seemed eager to speak with us, and quickly poured out cups of cooled tea as we sat down around a wooden table behind his house.

Unlike the ocean-going fishermen we had spoken to a few days earlier, we learned that away from the coast as we were, the river played a far more important role in people’s lives. “We live on the banks of this river, and we care a lot about its health,” Vu told us.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands in front one of his drained ponds. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands in front one of his drained ponds.

According to him, the Mekong’s health was not good. Checking the level of our tea cups and pouring more when necessary, Vu went on to explain the series of misfortunes that had drastically impacted Phu Thanh’s shrimp farmers. The dual forces of erosion and pollution, he said, had dropped his farm’s productivity by 40% since 2011 – surely an unsustainable rate of decline.

Washed Away and Poisoned

Leaving the shady comfort of his outdoor sitting area, Vu, joined by his neighbour Nguyen Van Boi, took us on a tour of his property to show us what he had been talking about. At the southern extremity of his farm, the part closest to the river, we immediately saw what he meant about erosion. A scant 5 meters separated his shrimp ponds from the river, and judging by the crumbling banks it looked like that buffer was lessening by the day.

“In 2009 a storm destroyed the mangroves [on the river bank] and now nothing holds the land,” Vu said, as he surveyed the damage. “These days the ocean tide comes much farther up the river, especially in the dry season, and washes the land away.”

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands on the eroded river banks of his shrimp farm. More than 10 metres of his land has been washed away by the Mekong river, threatening the banks of his farm. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp farmer Tan Van Vu stands on the eroded river banks of his shrimp farm. More than 10 metres of his land has been washed away by the Mekong river, threatening the banks of his farm.

The upriver encroachment of the sea, while necessary to provide the salty water he needs to pump into his shrimp ponds, had, in recent years, increased to unprecedented levels. Vu went on to tell us that the current of the river was not nearly as strong as it had been in the past – which from our research into the state of the Mekong we could almost certainly attribute to the multitude of hydro power dams upriver. The combination of a weakened river flow, combined with the rising sea levels caused by global climate change, meant that the ocean was overpowering the river and inching deeper inland – devouring the farmers’ land as it did so.

Not the type of man to sit passively as his livelihood was washed out to sea, Vu spent thousands of borrowed dollars driving cement pillars into the river bank in an attempt to artificially recreate the decimated mangrove root systems. It didn’t work.

Ultimately he decided to hire day labourers to plant new mangroves, a process he knows will be effective against erosion in the long run, but as the trees needed more than ten years to mature, it was likely too little, too late. “I lost a lot of money trying to fix this problem,” Vu said, admirably stoic given his dire circumstances. “If these banks break, my shrimp will be lost to the river.”

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp ponds. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp ponds.

A less clear cut problem, Vu told us, was water pollution. Lacking scientific testing kits to accurately identify specific pollutants, he can do little but guess what invisible chemicals were assaulting his farm. “In recent years the shrimp have been sick,” he said. After closing more than 10 of his ponds in less than five years – nearly half of his total – his situation was becoming desperate. “Farmers here need help and capital so we can check the pollution levels. Now, now, now,” he added, stressing the urgency.

As is the case with all ecosystems, whether natural or man-made, problems in one link of the chain are not self contained. The unidentified poisons afflicting Vu’s shrimp is being ingested by all farms in the area as they pump water both in and out of the Mekong. If his farm’s eroded banks burst completely, spilling 250-300 000 sick shrimp into the river, the results would be catastrophic for downstream neighbours  who would unavoidably draw tens of thousands of infected crustaceans into their own ponds.

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp farm on the island of Phu Thanh. A mixture of river bank erosion and water pollution has lead to a 40% decrease in his farm's productivity. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports

Shrimp farmer Nguyen Van Boi walks the perimeter of his shrimp farm on the island of Phu Thanh.

After a final round of tea and small talk, we left Vu’s home. Over dinner that night we reflected on the impossible unfairness of his situation. The river, the primary source of livelihood for farmers like Vu, was steadily becoming a destroyer instead of a life-giver.

Later in our journey, as we moved deeper into the heart of the Mekong delta, we would see firsthand just how many pollutants were floating downstream towards Phu Thanh’s farmers, but at that moment we were still blissfully ignorant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXkgQvghd1M

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , , , |

A River’s Tail: The Dominance of the Sea | Vietnam

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A shrimp fisherman stands on the gunnels of his vessel as it heads out to fish for shrimp in the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

“If I had to give this boat a name, I would call it Happiness,” Nguyen Than told us at four o’clock in the morning as he prepared his shrimp boat for sea. But the family owned boat, staffed entirely by an extensive network of brothers and brothers in law, had no formal name and instead went by the less evocative handle of TG1920.

We met his brother in law and co-captain, with the confusingly similar name of Thane, the previous afternoon in the town of Den Do, a small community of around 600 families that sits on the banks of the Mekong with a clear line of sight to the sea beyond. A short, swarthy man with a voice like a sand blaster, he seemed amused by our request to join his crew for a morning’s work, but granted permission nevertheless.

As we watched the members of the Nguyen family stumble bleary-eyed across the ship’s worn wooden deck to set about their morning tasks – coiling ropes, preparing tea, chain smoking Hero cigarettes – it became clear that TG1920 was one of the only boats still tied up to the shore. “I really didn’t expect you to be on time,” Than revealed, “so I told everyone to sleep in.” Barking instructions to his crew, he settled onto his haunches to watch us eat our breakfast of bland store-bought cakes.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years.

Twenty minutes later, the sun still well below the horizon, the ship’s engine rumbled to life and we began reversing away from the dock into the darkness of the river. “This exit of the Mekong is the best in the area,” Thane, the driver of the day, told us with an air of pride as he swung the bow around to point towards the sea. “There are many exits like this, but they are dangerous and full of criminals.” With no frame of reference, we had to take this statement at face value, though we suspected that hometown pride – he and his brother had been shrimping out of Den Do for 40 years – may have biased his pronouncement, and that the rest of coastal Vietnam might not be, in fact, a haven for pirates and thieves.

Motoring out of the river mouth and onto the South China Sea (or the Eastern Sea as the Vietnamese call it, disliking the implication of Chinese ownership for obvious reasons), a pot of hot tea was passed through a hatch in the cockpit roof where we sat with Than and Thane. “Fishermen drink their tea from bowls, not cups,” Thane stated, an ever-present Hero dangling from the corner of his mouth. When we asked why this was so, he shrugged impassively in the dark. “Tradition.”

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat.

We were headed to the Nguyen’s shrimp nets 30 km offshore, and with nothing to do but wait we tried to steer the dialogue to questions of the Mekong’s importance in their daily life. But our idealized notions of a people deeply connected to the river were quickly put down: “The river doesn’t matter to people here. It is only the sea,” repeated Thane in various ways each time I tried to rephrase the question in the hopes of drawing him out. Eventually he admitted that the river allowed them to transport their catch to the inland processing facilities in Den Do, but he was clearly determined to downplay the Mekong in favour of the ocean.

“I love the sea,” Than said between sips of tea, in support of his brother in law’s statements. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

At Home on the Water

After an hour of motoring, the rows of shrimp nets appeared on the horizon and the hitherto lethargic crew scrambled into action. Parallel rows of evenly spaced coconut logs had been somehow hammered into the seafloor and secured with guy-wires, jutting into the sky to resemble a series of telephone poles in the middle of the ocean. Intermittently punctuating the repetition were a few small thatched shacks, perched precariously above the gently rolling waves.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets.

Since none of our team had much in the way of shrimping experience, we were somewhat surprised to see shadowy heads popping out of the structures, silhouetted against the dawn sky. As Thane drew the ship closer, more men emerged to watch us approach. Whoops of humoured curiosity sounded out as they realized their resupply included a visit from three foreigners.

While Gareth, Pablo, and I moved into more advantageous shooting positions, Thane elaborated from his pilot’s seat. There were about twenty male members of the Nguyen family, with half allotted to boat duties and the remaining stationed in the remote fishing shacks for 8 or 9 days at time. Every morning the boats delivered fresh water and food to the isolated men, whose responsibility it was to maintain and bait the nets submerged in the sea below. At the end of their shift, the boat and net crews would switch duties and the men could return to shore to rest and visit with their families. Thane had pointed out earlier that this was one of the calmest days on the water in the last month; I couldn’t imagine the terror of weathering a storm in a two meter square wooden box in what might have well as been the middle of the ocean.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land.

For the next two hours the boat crew threw grappling hooks into the grey-brown water, snagging  the lines of sunken nets and dragging them out of the depths, hand over hand. Once out of the water, the nets were emptied into plastic baskets that lined the ship’s hold and given a cursory inspection; any particularly large or valuable fish were dropped in buckets filled with salt water to keep them alive, and plastic bags were separated from the tiny shrimp and thrown back overboard, likely to be hauled in again the next day.

When all the nets had been checked we turned back towards the coast, the men who would stay behind disappearing back into the safety of their stilted sanctuaries. And though the hold seemed reasonably full (again, none of us having any past experiences to draw on), Than revealed that all was not well on the sea. “Now there are less than half the shrimp we used to catch,” he said between puffs of his cigarette. “If the sea was good we could catch up to one tonne, but now it is much less.” When asked about the abundance of plastic, Than seemed as indifferent as he was towards the Mekong. “We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but all the fishermen and communities throw it into the river, so it probably comes from there.”

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Shrimp fishermen haul in a net to check for shrimp, 30km off the coast of Vietnam.

As we left the sea and churned against the Mekong’s current towards Den Do, I tried a final time to turn the conversation to the Mekong. Sighing, Than elaborated on his previous answers: “There aren’t many shrimp or fish in the river. The people who live there need to farm their fish, there are not enough wild fish left to live on. The river is not important here, we go to the sea.”

Whether because of overfishing, the presence of agricultural chemicals, or increased salinity, the Mekong, at it’s end, was no longer fishable.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of "fisherman's soup" - a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Nguyen Than prepares a meal of “fisherman’s soup” – a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions.

Shore Party

Many of Den Do’s shrimp boats seemed to return to land at roughly the same time, and we entered into a queue of vessels, each waiting to offload their catch. Groups of women wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hats stood along the seawall, on the lookout for whichever boat they were employed by. When it was eventually TG1920’s turn to tie up, the transfer of seafood was swift. In less than 5 minutes around 400kg of shrimp was loaded onto waiting flatbed motorcycle-drawn carts and driven off to a family owned processing facility where the shrimp would be sorted, dried in the sun and sold, or made into Ruoc – a salty paste and national delicacy.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Nguyen Than waits in a queue of vessels to dock in the town of Den Do.

Though we were exhausted, unaccustomed as yet to waking up at 3:30 a.m., Than was adamant that we follow him to his home for a meal. Over a suppressed hotpot of boiled squid (I was called out as “weak” for only eating 10 full squid), he explained that despite the challenges of living from an increasingly unproductive waterscape his family has no plans to change. “When I am an old man, my sons will take over this boat. There is nothing about this work that we don’t like, other than the storms. But we are used to them.”

After a round of boisterous handshakes we left the Nguyen’s, the first of encounter in what we hoped would form the basis of many fast friendships. To the southwest lay our next destination – the island of Phu Tanh, a 30km long mass of land pointed, dagger-like, into the Mekong delta.

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A River’s Tail: The Journey Begins

Passengers on the Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh bus watch Rambo II.

Passengers on the Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh bus watch Rambo II.

A River’s Tail started as few serious endeavours should – with Rambo II. Dubbed into Vietnamese by overly enthusiastic voice actors, none of the local passengers seemed bothered in the least by Sylvester Stallone’s killing spree through the Mekong Delta. Many chuckled periodically as their fictitious countrymen fell to Rambo’s merciless knife.

Col. Trautman: “Where are you going John?”

John Rambo: “I don’t know.”

As inappropriate as the film selection on a Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) bus route may have been, we found an unlikely counterpoint to our own feelings of uncertainty about the journey ahead in Rambo’s ever-stoic words. After months of endless preparation and speculation about how to best document the health of the Mekong River and the stories of the people living from its waters, we were less than an hour from the Vietnam border with no real picture of what lay ahead.

Looking across the isle of the bus, Pablo Chavanel, the project’s chief videographer, was shooting sporadic b-roll footage of the dusty Cambodian countryside while glancing indifferently at the blaring TV screen. In contrast, fellow photographer Gareth Bright – an unapologetic fan of the Rambo series – had his eyes glued to the film, impossibly uncomfortable though he was with our 20kg aerial camera drone wedged under his legs.

Children are splashing by a rogue wave as they hunt for clams int he cracks in a boardwalk along the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

Children are splashed by a rogue wave as they hunt for clams int he cracks in a boardwalk along the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

Where were we going? Perhaps more importantly, what would we do when we got there? Documenting the entirety of the Mekong from sea to source over a one year period seemed like a fairly straightforward idea during our project meetings in Phnom Penh’s coffee shops, but as we drove further and further from the comforts of our apartments, our best laid plans seemed meaningless in the face of the vagaries ahead.

When the middle aged Vietnamese man in the seat next to me turned his iPad to full volume, the bus’ on board wifi allowing him to stream Justin Bieber’s “Baby” to his heart’s content, I glanced back at my colleagues to see Pablo drifting into sleep. The French, it would seem, have little love for Rambo.

Looking South

The border station at Bavet/Moc Dai (the respective Cambodian and Vietnamese towns), provided subtle insights into the cultural and political differences between the two countries. While the Cambodian side was comprised of a relatively welcoming collection of squat pseudo-traditional tiled structures, the hard grey concrete of Vietnam’s immigration checkpoint – alternately adorned with the red and yellow of the Vietnamese flag and the hammer and sickle banners of the Communist party – seemed far more imposing. And while we passed through without any problems, save for a cursory (and surprisingly disinterested) inspection of our Star Wars-looking drone, officially arriving on Vietnamese soil made the start of the project all the more real.

Vietnamese tourists walk along a pier that extends into the ocean near the town of Den Do. The Mekong river branches into 9 major distributaries before exiting into the South China Sea, and is locally referred to as The River of Nine Dragons. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is one of the most fertile areas in all of southeast Asia, and an extensive network of irrigation canals allows the region to be the world's second largest exporters of rice.

Vietnamese tourists walk along a pier that extends into the ocean near the town of Den Do. The Mekong river branches into 9 major distributaries before exiting into the South China Sea, and is locally referred to as The River of Nine Dragons.

We entered Saigon a few hours later, changed our dollars into dong (Vietnamese currency), and secured a musty dorm room for the night. Our fixer/translator, Mi, arrived late that evening and after a quick meeting to get to know each other and discuss our departure time the next day, we took to our beds. With the approach of sleep the unanswerable questions returned – how exactly were we going to pull this off? Where were we going?

The next morning, over a bowl of wanton soup, Mi pointed out a few possible starting locations on her smartphone based on the minimal criteria we had given her: “We want to see where the Mekong ends.” After conferring over distances and travel times with the driver we had hired to help us move around the sprawling Mekong delta (a relentlessly energetic young man who asked us to call him Stephen) we opted to head for the coastal province of Tan Thanh. In theory, the plan was simple. Get to the sea and then follow the river back to Cambodia, meeting as many people along the way as possible.

A man checks his cell phone at a popular tourist rest stop on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man checks his cell phone at a popular tourist rest stop on the coast of the South China Sea.

Stephen, dressed smartly in dark slacks and a blue button down shirt (neither of which we ever saw him wear again, as he apparently discerned quite quickly we were not formal types), piloted his Toyota Zace 4×4 towards the ocean, stopping only once, at a gaudy roadside restaurant appropriately named The Mekong Rest Stop. As we stood around the car sipping terribly strong coffee, Stephen made the first quip in what was to become a profoundly unorthodox (and wonderful) working relationship. Staring at Pablo’s shaved head he noted gravely, “You look like Vin Diesel. I drive like Vin Diesel. Fast and Furious.”

The Eastern Sea

At its terminus, the Mekong and the sea are barely distinguishable from one another. The river’s sediment-laden water and the ocean’s chop blend together organically, and it is difficult to tell exactly where one ends and the other begins. The only noticeable difference was in the concentration of tourists – nearly all Vietnamese apart from us – who flocked around the coastal seawall, but seemed completely disinterested in the river banks.

We spent most of the remaining daylight bouncing back and forth between the river and the seashore trying to find the first traces of a story. Looking past the throngs of seafood-hungry tourists, our first impressions of the coast were mixed. A beautiful if aging pier extended a few hundred meters out into the water and made for an idyllic evening backdrop, while clam harvesters worked the beach, their backs hunched towards the sand. Stilted wooden houses stood above the tides, their windows opened to receive the sea breeze.

A couple walks above a plastic-strewn beach on the coast of the South China Sea. At low tide, the cumulative waste dumped into the Mekong and the ocean gather around the pilings of coastal houses.

A couple walks above a plastic-strewn beach on the coast of the South China Sea. At low tide, the cumulative waste dumped into the Mekong and the ocean gather around the pilings of coastal houses.

The scene would have been wonderfully picturesque had it not been for the plastic. An endless mottled mass of shopping bags and Styrofoam food containers in various states of decay were bunched around the foundational pylons of the community. After spending more than 12 years in Southeast Asia collectively, we were all aware that the economic realities of lower class life in the region prevent many people from making carbon free lifestyle choices. We understood it was neither fair nor realistic to expect that nearby farmers living near the poverty line could switch to reusable shopping bags or washable diapers, but the sight of such heavy pollution at the absolute start of a long trip was disquieting nonetheless. Where exactly was it coming from and where did it go, we wondered? What did it mean in relation to human and animal health?

Deciding that the touristic nature of the seaside made it an unsuitable place to question locals on the health of the water, we returned to the Mekong. In the quiet town of Den Do, we stopped at a concrete pier and chatted with a few men who were squatting idly, smoking cigarettes. Den Do, they said, was all about shrimp.

A shrimp boat pulls into harbour in the town of Den Do to offload its days catch. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A shrimp boat pulls into harbour in the town of Den Do to offload its days catch. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Workers sort the day's shrimp catch and sort the seafood before sending it to family owned processing facilites. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

Workers sort the day’s shrimp catch and sort the seafood before sending it to family owned processing facilites.

Twenty minutes later, a dilapidated wooden vessel pulled alongside and seemingly out of nowhere dozens of men, women, and children rushed out to meet it. In a frenzy of activity the cargo hold of the ship was emptied of it’s catch; shrimp did indeed seem to be the main business. Through Mi we learned that the community was entirely reliant on the ocean for their living and used the river solely as a means of transportation and distribution. Though it wasn’t exactly the Mekong-centric start to the trip that we might have imagined, we decided that if that was the reality, then that is what we would start with. With Mi’s help we secured the permission of a gravel-voiced boat captain to join his crew for the next morning’s fishing.

With a 3:30 a.m. wake up looming, we sought out an early dinner. Too tired to look for other options, we ordered from the first restaurant we could find. For a reason that never was made clear to us, the owner was strongly opposed to cooking by any other means than by boiling everything together in a single pot. Yet as we grumbled our acceptance, Stephen leapt into action, forcing his way into their kitchen and shouting for cooking utensils. Ordering three nonplussed cooks to prep specific vegetables and bring him pans, he deftly stir-fried three full courses of clams, shrimp, and squid. When he finally joined us at the table, he brushed off our bemused stares.

“I can drive like Vin Diesel. And I can cook.”

And cook he could. With seemingly half the ocean in our stomachs we found the closest guest house – a sparse and mildewy building shared by a family of dogs who barked furiously at our slightest move – and bedded down for a cruelly short sleep. The perfect start.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my half of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental Tagged , , , , , , , |