written by Todd DePastino

We often say there was no one Vietnam War. There were many.

A unique version of the war was fought in the Mekong Delta, today’s destination.

The Mekong Delta juts out from the southern end of Vietnam’s curvilinear land form. It’s an anomalous part of the country, a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, 50-feet, on average, below sea level, and crisscrossed by thousands of canals and streams. The rest is largely mangrove, swamp, and marsh. During the rainy season, 70% of its land is covered by water.

Map of Mekong Delta in Vietnam with provinces, flood-prone areas, and brackish areas

Map of Mekong Delta with provinces, flood-prone areas, and brackish areas (4).

Yet, this seemingly uninhabitable terrain is home to 20% of Vietnam’s population. It’s also the agricultural powerhouse that has fed the country for generations.

The rice grown in the Delta accounts for 10% of all rice shipped globally. It’s also home to Vietnam’s largest fisheries, much of its coconut, and a lot of its commercial fruit production.

Vietnamese fishing boat floating past homes along the Mekong Delta

Daniel Berthold, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Our first stop was the old provincial capital of My Tho, 70km southwest of Ho Chi Minh City on National Route 1. From there we boarded a boat and chugged downstream—at least, I think it was downstream—to Ben Tre, Vietnam’s coconut-growing capital.

Local resident and guide "Cute" speaking to VBC tour group

“Cute” speaking on board our boat. Note her khăn rằn around her neck. It’s a checkered black-and-white scarf distinct to the Mekong Delta. During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas adopted it as their signature garment. So did the infamous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

A local resident named “Cute”—that’s what it sounded like to us—described life in the Delta and also showed us how the Delta’s “coconut candy”—a sticky, taffy-like confection—is made.

VBC tour members on a Sampan - or long canoe - in Vietnam

We also boarded sampans—large canoes—while a boat pilot steered us down impossibly narrow canals.

View of front of sampan going through a tight canal

Buried deep within the Delta, sheltered above by arching palm-like foliage and dense vegetation on either side, you get a sense of how impossible it would be to fight a war here.

In the 1960s, there were at least 30,000 Viet Cong insurgents living in the Delta. The only way you could find them is if they attacked you. No wonder why some of the US’s most imaginative tactical innovations—like the joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force—happened right here, to fight guerillas in the Delta.

A three-wheeled "tul-tuk" vehicle turning the corner with lots of passengers in the back

Our group traveled to lunch at a village in the Mekong’s preferred mode of transportation: the three-wheeled “tul-tuk.”

The Mekong Delta faces imminent peril. By the end of the century, this whole jutted landscape could be gone, drowned by the ocean, which wages war daily on the Delta.

The only thing that has saved the region from disappearing under water is the 150 million metric tons of sediment deposited from upstream each year. To stay above water, the Mekong Delta must keep adding sediment in a desperate race against ocean tides.

The fundamental problem is that the Mekong River begins 3,000 miles away on the Tibetan Plateau. The river snakes through five countries—China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia—before emptying out in Vietnam.

That means Vietnam is last in line. China has pinched the fresh water flow over the past two decades by building 10 massive hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River. These dams also create reservoirs that trap the sediment that the Delta depends on for survival.

With less fresh water and alluvial soil washing downstream, the Mekong Delta is sinking under the salty East Vietnam Sea (South China Sea).

Making matters worse are the Vietnamese themselves, who harvest the Delta’s sediment for sand used to make concrete.

Sand barge on the Mekong River

Sand barge on the Mekong River (Shankar S., Flickr)

As we sailed along the river, huge barges, the likes of which you don’t see elsewhere in Vietnam, chugged alongside. Every other one was filled with sand destined, probably, for export or delivery up North.

If you care to see one of the great and most diverse ecosystems in the world, you should probably do so soon before Vietnam’s agricultural powerhouse disappears forever.