Tag Archives: Can Tho

Fisherman’s Village

Residents of Fisherman's Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

Residents of Fisherman’s Village fly kites in the afternoon in the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. The once thriving fishing community has declined with the loss of wild fish stocks in the Mekong river.

“Sure, you get to play the hero,” Gareth said as he watched me try to persuade a group of passing children to accept the rainbow coloured ice cream cone. The afternoon sun had been sapping our energy for the last few hours and the ice cream had seemed like a wonderful idea until the moment we discovered it was durian flavoured. Gareth, who loathed the spiky fruit with all his heart after having it regurgitated unceremoniously into his lap by an intoxicated man on a Thai train several years ago, looked crestfallen at the discovery and had handed it off to me to with the resigned sadness of a child forced to give away a favourite toy.

We were in Can Tho, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the de facto capital of the Mekong delta. We had based ourselves out of Can Tho for nearly a week, driving into the surrounding countryside each morning and afternoon, but had spent very little time exploring the city. With a population of nearly 1.5 million people straddling the Song Hau river (one of the main Mekong distributaries running through the delta), Can Tho was a logical place to investigate the stories of the river in an urban context.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. 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.

Locals board water taxis in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

The most obvious place to start had been the Cai Rang floating market, a fixture of the city and one of the main tourist draws. We had chartered a small boat to drive us through the floating maze of fruit and vegetable wholesalers, hoping to hear some first hand stories about the role the river played in daily life, but after an hour on the water we were thoroughly exasperated. In contrast to the friendly openness of nearly everyone we had encountered on our journey thus far, the vendors in Cai Rang seemed weary of foreign cameras – and for good reason.

There were more tourists in the market than legitimate customers, it seemed, and everywhere extendable selfie sticks thrust Go Pro cameras into the faces of the marketeers. Ranging from single-passenger boats no bigger than a canoe to ten metre barges packed to the limit with zoom-lens toting photography enthusiasts, the tourists seemed like digital vultures picking over an exotic animal. Since most of these people had not been interested in buying any of the proffered produce, an antipathetical mask was settled over the faces of the majority of vendors: Take your pictures and leave so there is room for real shoppers. 

Considering that the entire purpose of our trip was to visually document the lives of people living along the Mekong, we were in no position to criticize anyone over a passion for photography. But in terms of a place to tell authentic stories about the interaction between people and waterway, Cai Rang was a disaster. We cut the tour short, much to the delight of the boat driver who had been guaranteed a fixed price, and made for the opposite bank of the river to a community known as Fisherman’s Village.

When the ferry dropped us off an hour later, Gareth had pointed excitedly to a small cart near the jetty: “Some ice cream would be amazing right now.”

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. 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.

Passengers disembark from a water taxi in the city of Can Tho, the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta.

Fisherman Without Fish

“When the electric nets arrived, the whole village went down together,” a 70-year-old man (whose name has been lost to a wet notebook) told us. Fisherman’s village had been named (somewhat ironically as it would turn out) because of its location next to a prime fishing ground, but the introduction of electrified fishing nets in the 1990’s had ravaged stocks to their breaking point. Though the government had long since made the nets illegal, the retired fisherman told us, more than twenty years later the wild fish population still hadn’t come close to rebounding.

“We used to be able to catch fish with our bare hands,” he continued, “but now they have to be farmed. [Though] wild fish are worth more and taste better, there are not enough of them to make a living from.”

Later we met Phuong, a 52-year-old former businessman who had left his job for the simpler lifestyle of fish farming, and he reiterated much the same thing; there were no fish left to catch. By contrast, under the damp floor planks of the wooden structure that floated above his fish pens were around 20 000 silver pompanos. To keep them healthy in such large numbers (he said there were roughly 200 of the fish for each cubic metre of space), Phuong had to regularly dose them with antibiotics. But as the prospects of river fishing were all but non-existent, this was a small price for him to pay for a dependable source of income.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

Phuong, 52, is a former businessman who left city life behind to farm fish on the Mekong in Can Tho.

A floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. Throughout Vietnam's Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

A floating fish farm in the city of Can Tho. Throughout Vietnam’s Mekong delta, locals report drastic decreases in the numbers of fish being caught in the river, and some are abandoning the Mekong altogether to build more profitable fish farms further inland.

With the absence of fish, Fisherman’s Village had evolved into something akin to a retirement community rather than a haven for hardworking fishermen. Though we came across several small engine repair shops and boat repair facilities, the vast majority of the area was residential. In an attempt to rebrand itself as a quieter alternative to Can Tho’s main tourist district, those residents of the village whose properties faced the river had constructed flower gardens in the space that was once occupied by fishmongers. And people flew kites.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commerical hub of the Mekong Delta. 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.

A woman is framed by two caged birds on her houseboat in the city of Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong's banks in FIsherman's Village, Can Tho.

A quagmire of plastic and styrofoam washed up on the Mekong’s banks in FIsherman’s Village, Can Tho.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. 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.

A man takes a bath in the Mekong in the city of Can Tho.

Kite flying, a popular pastime throughout Southeast Asia, was particularly prevalent in Vietnam. In Fisherman’s Village, they were everywhere. Young children and grandparents alike lined the riverfront in the afternoons, squinting into the setting sun as they tugged at the lines, fighting for height. From cartoon likenesses of sharks to incomprehensibly complex splashes of colour, there was no shortage of variety among the fluttering shapes.

Children gather along the riverfront promenande in the neighbourhood of Fisherman's Village in the city of Can Tho. Can Tho is the economic and commercial hub of the Mekong delta. 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.

Children gather along the riverfront promenade in the neighbourhood of Fisherman’s Village in the city of Can Tho.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young boys play along the Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Ultimately Can Tho was a city very much connected to water, but when more than a million people draw on a river’s resources without oversight or planning, things cannot end well for the river. In Fisherman’s Village we had seen that there was only so much a waterway could give before it faltered, leaving the people who once depended on it with little to do but fly kites.

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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, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |

The Price of Productivity

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

Passengers disembark their vehicles shortly after a ferry crash outside the city of Can Tho.

When it became clear the boat was going to crash into us, it was too late to do anything but grip the ferry’s guardrails tightly and exchange a few fleeting looks of disbelief with Gareth. Had there been more time, our translator Mi, who could not swim, may have had the chance to look suitably terrified, but as it was she was barely able to fix her face with a look of mild surprise. Pablo, who held the dubious distinction of being the only member of our team to have been involved in the sinking of a boat, had already returned to Phnom Penh to start editing the footage he had shot. With him gone, Gareth and I assumed we would be safe from nautical disasters. But as the much larger vessel bore down on us, we knew we had been mistaken.

Ten metres, five metres, one metre; the closer the ships came to each other, the more unreal the situation seemed. From the bow of the approaching vessel, a sturdy looking woman shrieked curses at the pilot of our ferry – until the moment she was drowned out by the concussive thud of hull-to-hull contact and the ensuing groans as the ferry’s metal canopy twisted and warped. As the woman continued to hurl obscenities, working frantically to separate the ships, I glanced back at the driver of our ferry to see a mask of absolute calm on his face. He hadn’t even stood up from the hammock he used as a captain’s chair, a half-smoked cigarette still dangling from the corner of his mouth.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

A ferry captain tried to recover control of his boat moments after crashing into another vessel.

Safely on the shore ten minutes later, we pieced together the sequence of events. The ferry captain, who successfully navigated the five minute river crossing at least a hundred times a day, had been so distracted by the presence of two foreigners in his sleepy community that he’d taken his eyes off the waterway to watch us. Not paying attention to the river traffic, he had taken us straight into the path of an oncoming boat.

I would have felt badly for the man had he not looked so utterly unconcerned. Considering the incident had been completely his fault, he managed to maintain an air of the upmost dignity as he received new passengers. Without another glance in our direction, he spun his boat around and set off again for the opposite bank, head held high.

“What just happened?” Gareth asked no one in particular.

We had come to the village of Tan Thanh on the outskirts of Can Tho to try and gain insight into the relationship between the Mekong and Vietnam’s rural poor; a boat crash had not been part of the day’s agenda.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Dan, a follower of the Cao Dai religion, walks up a ferry jetty on his way to visit his ailing sister on the outskirts of Can Tho.

Looking for Light

Huynh Thi Ba was 81-years-old and completely blind. Though her left eye retained some of its original dark brown colour, the right was completely clouded by an eerily vibrant blue cataract. When we entered her bedroom she seemed to sense our presence, reaching a skeletal hand towards the shadows we cast over the room. Taking her hands in turn, Gareth and I attempted to greet her, but it was obvious she was almost totally deaf as well. Yet she seemed pleased by the human touch and spent several minutes tracing her leathered fingers over our hands and forearms, confused in equal measure by both our digital watches and foreign arm hair. When she reached our faces, heavily bearded after two weeks of travel, she drew back and barked a question that needed no translation: What is this?

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Mung and her family live in a small home outside Can Tho, donated by a local religious temple. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years.

Ba’s younger brother Dan had brought us to the home when we’d asked him if he knew of any people in the area who struggled to find reliable access to clean water. A follower of the monotheistic Cao Dai religion who had returned to live in the faith’s nearby temple so he could be close to his ailing sister, Dan’s kindly face belied the strong emotions he must have felt at the sight of Ba’s feebleness. Through his family, we learned just how precarious water security could be, even in the heart of the Mekong delta where it seemed most abundant.

“Before the water was better. I don’t remember when exactly, when they started harvesting rice three time a year [instead of once] they had to use a lot of chemicals and fertilizers, which made the water unfit to use,” Ba’s 49-year-old daughter, Mung, told us. We had spent the last few days in rural communities and had already learned that the widespread use of agrochemicals was seriously affecting the quality of the river water, but this particular situation was more dire than anything we had previously encountered.

Fifteen years ago, the family – Ba, Mung, and Mung’s 25-year-old daughter, Mit – had been labourers for hire, living in a tent and drifting from farm to farm in search of piece work. With the introduction of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, however, rice cultivation required far fewer workers per hectare. As a result, Mung had not found regular employment for fifteen years. At roughly the same time, Ba, who had gathered taro leaves that Vietnamese traditionally used as food packaging, had been made obsolete by the introduction of plastic bags: “Before the era of plastic, we used leaves for bags,” Mung told us, “but when plastic came, [my mother] lost this job.” Shortly afterwards, she went blind.

Ba, 84, lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba lies on the floor of her family home near the city of Can Tho, Vietnam. She has bee blind for 5 years and is unable to leave the home unsupervised.

 

Though the Cao Dai temple that Dan belonged to had recognized the family’s plight and donated enough money to replace their tent with a small cement structure, the situation remained desperate. With all three members of the household unable to earn income, Mung and Mit turned to scavenging for tin cans which they could sell to local recycling facilities for a small profit. This required both women to be out of the house for long stretches of time, leaving Ba to fend for herself in her own personal darkness.

Levels of Purity

Despite their extreme poverty, food was not the most serious problem for Ba’s family. The Cao Dai temple donated rice periodically and neighbours pitched in vegetables when they couldn’t afford to buy enough. Ultimately it was clean water – or the lack thereof – that presented the biggest challenge to their health.

“We’re not afraid of the dirt,” Mung said of the Mekong tributary that flowed past their house, “the dirt is natural. It is the chemicals [that are a problem]. A few months ago I tried to take a bath in the river and I got a rash.” When we asked her why she thought the water affected her skin so badly, she again referred to the increased use of agricultural chemicals over the last two decades.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung, 49, stands at the front door of her family home.

Mung ranked water quality by sorting them into four categories. The highest quality (bottled and treated) was exclusively for drinking – but the prohibitively high price meant that they could not afford to buy it regularly. One level down was piped water, which, while not as pure as bottled water, was of a quality high enough for drinking and cooking. Unfortunately, the pipes required for access to such water were not connected to their house, and the $100 price tag for installation was well beyond their means. Next was well water, which was technically deemed fit for drinking and cooking, but still contained too many pollutants to be considered healthy. In theory the family had access to such a well as the government had installed a pump and tap on their property a year before, but Mung said it was often broken and that it often took weeks for a repairman to make it to their house. Lastly was the river water – judged unfit for anything other than washing clothes and dishes.

Yet though Mung knew water from the river was dangerously laden with chemicals, for most of the year she had no choice but to use it. Judging by the rashes, headaches, and stomach problems Mung told us her family often suffered from, their domestic use of the river’s water was taking a toll. And, she said, it was not just humans that were being impacted.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung fetches water from a tributary of the Mekong.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

Mung washes her face with water from a tributary on the Mekong, though it causes her severe skin rashes.

“There used to be so many fish that you could catch them with your bare hands,” Mung said. “Now, even with modern equipment, you can’t find any fish.” Though she was perhaps exaggerating slightly, the conspicuous lack of fishing related activity in such a rural area suggested that she was right: the river was profoundly unhealthy.

How many other families in the area were using contaminated water for their daily needs, we wondered? If this was happening here, it stood to reason that it was happening elsewhere as well. How many people along the Mekong were being poisoned by the very river that had sustained life in Southeast Asia for millennia?

With these heavy questions looming large in our thoughts, we said goodbye to Mung and her family to board the ferry that would shuttle us back towards Can Tho. Thankfully, this time, the captain kept his eyes on the water.

———

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, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , , |