Far south

At its verdant best the Mekong Delta is a riot of greens: pale rice seedlings deepen in shade as they sprout ever taller; palm trees and orchards make up an unbroken horizon of foliage. But at its muddy worst the paddy fields ooze with slime and sticky clay; grey skies, hostile clouds and incessant rain make daily life a misery and the murky rising waters, the source of all the natural wealth of the delta, also cause hundreds of fatalities.

Boat trips along canals and down rivers are the highlights of this region, as is a visit to Phu Quoc - Vietnam's largest island. Lying off the southwest coast, Phu Quoc remains largely undeveloped with beautiful sandy beaches along much of its coastline and forested hills inland.

The Mekong River enters Vietnam in two branches known traditionally as the Mekong (to the north) and the Bassac but now called the Tien and the Hau respectively. Over the 200 km journey to the sea they divide to form nine mouths, the so-called 'Nine Dragons' or Cuu Long of the delta. In response to the rains of the southwest monsoon, river levels in the delta begin to rise in June, usually reaching a peak in October and falling to normal in December. This seasonal pattern is ideal for growing rice, around which the whole way of life of the delta has evolved. Even prior to the creation of French Cochin China in the 19th century, rice was being transported from here to Hué, the imperial capital.

The region has had a restless history. Conflict between Cambodians and Vietnamese for ownership of the wide plains resulted in ultimate Viet supremacy (although important Khmer relics remain). From 1705 onwards Vietnamese emperors began building canals to improve navigation in the delta. This task was taken up enthusiastically by the French in order to open up new areas to rice cultivation and export. By the 1930s the population of the delta had reached 4.5 million with 2,200,000 ha of land under rice cultivation. The Mekong Delta, along with the Irrawaddy (Burma) and Chao Phraya (Thailand) became one of the great rice-exporting areas of Southeast Asia, shipping over 1.2 million tonnes annually. During the French and American wars, the Mekong Delta produced many of the most fervent fighters for independence.

Today, the Mekong Delta remains Vietnam's rice bowl. The delta covers 67,000 sq km, of which about half is cultivated. Rice yields are in fact generally lower than in the north but the huge area under cultivation and the larger size of farms means that both individual households and the region produce a surplus for export. In the Mekong Delta there is nearly three times as much rice land per person as there is in the north.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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