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Dispatch from Vietnam: Mekong Delta

3.21. 2008 Posted By: Tim Nafziger

posted by Tim Nafziger on 03/21/08 at 11:45 AM

canal in Mekong delta

This morning, a little before 9 a.m., we headed south from Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) towards the Mekong Delta. Along with Dale, we were accompanied by another Vietnam veteran and his Vietnamese wife. They were friends of Dales who happened to be visiting Vietnam at the same time as us and invited us along on a boat trip on the Mekong river.

As we got on the main highway to the Mekong Delta, Dale and his friend Greg commented on the huge changes they saw. Instead of a bumpy dirt road, we traveled on a eight-lane toll road. On either side, major new housing developments were springing up. These developments continued with surprising density all along our route. The demand for new construction is so great that it outstrips the available construction equipment, so we saw a number of stores sellin back hoes and other heavy equipment during our ride. There were a few rise paddies along the way, but for the most part it was shops and houses for more then 40 miles.

We arrived at the port and boarded a boat to go out into the Mekong and visit some of the islands. The tour itself was an interesting arrangement. But before I describe it in detail, let me give some background. While I was in Colombia, I talked with a tour guide who led groups to Vietnam regularly. He told stories of villages that had completely opened themselves up to tourism. This had often led to damage to the social fabric, such as children dropping out of school to sell stuff to tourists and traditional work being abandoned for the tourist trade. But some villages had done planning and set up specific areas for tourists away from the rest of the village where they could learn about local culture, eat food and spend their money.

The second model was what we saw on the Mekong. The local tourist agencies had set up various stops for tourists on islands in the river. At the first island we tasted fruit and listened to regional music. At the next island we watched coconut candy being made by local women and then had an opportunity to buy some. Further along the same island we tried some of the local honey straight out of the combs. All along the way we had the opportunity to buy souvenirs.

Before talking with the tour guide in Colombia, I might have seen this as a bit of a rip off, an artificial touristy trip. But given his observations about the effect of tourism, I realized that this arrangement was quite helpful. It put control back in the hands of local people. Rather then bursting in on their homes or living space, we had minimal social impact while bringing the economic benefits to the community in an organized way.

When we got back to Saigon, we walked along the port and Dale showed me the gate on the river where he used to work as a clerk. We looked for the hotel where he lived in the alleys nearby, but couldn’t find it. The landscape has changed dramatically since he was here.

It’s such a privilege to get to walk through these places and spaces with Dale. He’s got stories and memories for so many of them. He’s also brings the wisdom of experience to our discussion of the politics and economics here in Vietnam (more on that to come).

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