Tag Archives: mekong delta

Looking Back on the Mekong Delta

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. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

After months of planning and preparation, when production of A River’s Tail started in Vietnam no one on the crew knew quite what to expect. We each had our own preconceptions of what we’d find in the Mekong delta, and after extensively researching the region we knew that there were a wide range of environmental issues affecting the Mekong. Yet until we’d physically gotten on location they were nothing more than speculations.

We decided to do A River’s Tail in the opposite direction of what logic might dictate, by starting where the Mekong ends and tracing it back to it’s source nearly 5000km away in the Tibetan plateau. The reasoning behind this decision was that we wanted to have a clear picture of the myriad of ways the river facilitated ecology, economics, and culture before we saw its origins. Like being able to travel back in time to visit one of the world’s great thinkers when they were a baby, we hoped that grasping just how important the Mekong is in the life of the 60-odd million people who live downriver would allow us to better appreciate the magnitude of its importance.

And while we started the trip with open (albeit journalistically inclined) minds, the more we explored Vietnam’s Mekong delta, the more concerned we became about the health of the mighty river. Starting on the coast, where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea, we found fishermen hauling in nets clogged with plastic bags. Moving inland we visited shrimp farmers who were experiencing massive losses as their ponds became increasingly infected with unknown poisons carried by the river’s current, killing up to 40% of their shrimp. Later we would witness the widespread dumping of agricultural chemicals into the water table, rendering the river unusable for most domestic purposes and irritating the skin of those locals who would attempt to bathe in it. River fishermen were abandoning their boats and instead constructing massive inland fisheries, telling us that plying the Mekong had long since ceased to be a viable means of supporting a family.

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. 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.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

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

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

We didn’t set out to find a broken river, and it must be said that there are a multitude of global initiatives (both from the government and non-profit sectors) that are working to ensure the Mekong has a productive future. Yet we couldn’t help but leave Vietnam with a feeling of sadness caused by the realization that the Mekong river delta, against a backdrop of great visual beauty and the vast cultural warmth of the Vietnamese people, was a greatly diminished version of its former self.

Even though it would be impossible to completely convey the powerful feelings we experienced after weeks of travel, this short film attempts to bring together some of our final thoughts on what we found during the first leg of A River’s Tail.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

———-

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, Video, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |

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.

———-

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 , , , , , |

How to Recycle a Coconut

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave the to dry in the sun.

The engine had been making odd noises for roughly twenty minutes before the smoke appeared. We had been chugging against the current of the Mekong for more than an hour, trying to reach a family-owned shipyard in the maze like network of canals surrounding the city of My Tho, and it finally seemed like the boat’s aging motor had given up.

Founded in the 17th Century by Chinese refugees fleeing civil war on the mainland, My Tho was once considered the principle gateway to the Mekong delta before losing the title to the much larger and economically more important Can Tho. We had come to My Tho looking for our first insight as to how the river affected people’s lives in an urban context, but after a cursory glance we decided instead to charter a boat to explore the waterways surrounding the city. If ever there was a city symbiotically bound to a waterway, My Tho was it.

Happy Accidents

When the boat gave its first signs of ill-health we were well away from the city. First, the water pump quit. The brown, sediment-rich river water slowly seeped into the engine compartment, hissing to a boil as it made contact with the overworked pistons. Acrid yellowish steam issued from the cracks in the floorboards covering the machinery, first in small spurts, and then in great billowing clouds.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The boat driver, who had seemed mostly unfazed by the mechanical difficulties to that point suddenly sprang into action. Killing the throttle, we drifted in lazy circles while he ran back and forth between bow and stern, checking cables and connections. The ship building yard we were attempting to reach that day was still out of sight upriver and it appeared unlikely that we would be able to fight the current to reach it.

After conferring with Gareth and Pablo, we made the frustrating decision to turn back, hoping to stumble upon something of interest on our way back to My Tho. We had passed a series of what looked like coconut processing facilities earlier that morning and we hoped that by working with the river’s flow, instead of against it, we could coax the struggling engine into cooperation.

Luckily, as is so often the case with in photography and travel, the unraveling of our initial plans led us to a story we likely would never have found otherwise.

Coconuts, Reimagined

Coconut Island, as locals colloquially referred to My Thanh An, was not actually an island at all. In fact it barely qualified as a peninsula. But none of us could dispute the inclusion of coconut in the name; what seemed like millions of the green husked drupes (the proper classificatory family for coconuts, according to Internet biologists anyways) were mounded along the river’s edges to staggering heights.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets. Coconuts are one of the biggest industries near the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets.

With an abundance of choice as to where to stop, we simply pointed towards one facility at random and asked the boat driver to drop us off. As we approached it was immediately clear that the facility was not built to receive tiny boats like ours, and as a result there was no clear way for us to clamber up the four metre tall cement pad that separated the land from water. Instead we had to awkwardly climb onto a waiting cargo ship, shimmy precariously around its gunnels, and cross a thin, wobbling plank to the shore. While it is often said that the photographer’s dream is to be invisible, at that moment we were anything but. Roughly thirty workers had stopped what they were doing to watch, and I suspected that at least a few of them were hoping for one of us, laden with cameras as we were, to stumble sideways into the water below.

Ultimately our steps were sure and we made it safely to firm ground, all eyes now turned towards us, wondering what on earth we wanted. Mi, our perpetually hard working translator, quickly located the operation’s manager who indicated, with a dismissive wave of his hand, that we were free to do what we wanted. The main obstacle now overcome, we were able to finally take in the scene around us.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Contrary to what we were expecting, there were in fact no whole coconuts anywhere on site; only the husks remained, piled densely on top of each other. Teams of sweating men endlessly loaded them into wire baskets, and after hoisting them onto their shoulders, carried them twenty metres over lumpy ground before dumping them into a blue steel hopper. Yet more men waited there, using pieces of scrap lumber to force the husks into the machine below where, judging from the metallic screeching noises and continual geysers of woody shavings that issued from its bowels, they were ground into fibre.

Out one end of the machine a conveyor belt carried the finer of the processed particles towards men who guided the material into cement bags, filling the fifty kilogram sacks at the rate of one every five minutes. The more substantial strands of husk travelled in the opposite direction, into a spinning steel-mesh tumbler, set at a thirty degree angle to the ground. When enough of the rough hairs built up inside the cylinder an aged looking woman, hidden under a conical hat and face mask, reached inside and pulled enormous fluffy clumps out with her cotton-gloved hands. After just fifteen minutes of being near the machinery my ankles and wrists were chaffed terribly against my shirt and socks, itching like fibreglass.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres.

Pairs of women arrived every few minutes with a cloth stretcher, onto which they piled an impressive quantity of the shredded husks before carrying it to a nearby concrete courtyard, at least a hectare in size. There, dozens more women, all identically clad in long sleeved shirts, face masks, and the ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hats, were hunched over as they separated the wiry strands with their hands. As visually interesting as the operation was, we still had no idea what we were looking at.

It wasn’t until we located the 57-year-old owner of the plant, Nau, that we were able to fully understand. A squat, friendly woman, Nau explained that this was relatively new method of coconut recycling. While the technology had certainly been long since available, it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that the process became commercially viable – mostly owing to an massive increase in demand for flowers in China. The fine dust we had seen stuffed into sacks was loaded onto boats and shipped down the Mekong to distribution centres, which then exported the material internationally as a cheap plant mulch. The longer strands were either woven into mats or used to insulate soundproof walls in recording studios and karaoke bars.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres.

Though perhaps not revolutionary technology, it was nevertheless a clever commercial (and environmental) innovation. A decade earlier, Nau told us, these coconuts would have been considered useless and burned to ashes. Now, the factory employed nearly a hundred people from the island, providing a clean and cheap product for both domestic and foreign markets.

In a single day more than 120 000 hollowed coconuts could be converted into a useful commodity, where before there was only waste. With the region’s coconuts being almost exclusively watered by the Mekong, and all incoming and outgoing shipping conducted by boat along the river, in a very real way flowers on a family table in Shanghai or Kunming might owe their existence to the Mekong.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we retraced our steps across the gangplank and scuttled awkwardly back onto our boat. The engine seemingly recovered we motored back towards the city. From the brink of disasters we had salvaged a fine morning of shooting, and furthered our appreciation of just how far reaching the Mekong’s influence could be.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building.

————

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 , , , , , , , |