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Reporter’s diary: a journey to Vietnam’s southernmost tip

On a muddy motorbike ride towards the edge of the Mekong Delta, my driver spotted a man sweating as he pushed his broken-down bike. The connection between the engine and the petrol tank had broken, and my driver said we needed some rope. I found a piece of nylon cord, and after about 15 minutes my driver managed to re-establish the connection. The bike started up again. “You have a heart of kindness”, I told my driver because the effort he had made for a complete stranger. “Everyone here has a heart of kindness,” he replied.

This was one of a number of incidents that reminded me how tough life is on the delta. The region is a little like my back yard, as I have visited much of it before and I lived there from 2006 to 2008. When Future Earth asked me to go there report on the sinking of the delta, I told them I needed to go all the way to the southernmost tip, about 300 km from where I live in Ho Chi Minh City.

The roundtrip took a total of 31 hours by an assortment of vehicles – including a rainy 1.5-hour canoe ride along a river, which left my ears ringing from the din of the motor.

The difficulty of getting around explains a lot. Firstly, it’s one reason the region is still fairly undeveloped. But, while life is often hard, people help each other.  As a result I was treated with great generosity by some of the poorest people in Vietnam.

When I met Huynh Van Gio, the fisherman, he had just spent four hours at sea without catching a single fish, something that has become increasingly common in the past three years. But he still offered me some baby shrimp he had caught.

I told him I was concerned that he had not got any fish to earn money for his  eight family members. He laughed and said: “There’s no point in worrying, my daughter. Being worried every day kills you more than anything else.”

Few people on the delta understand the problems caused by sinking and erosion. Government efforts to raise awareness have had a limited impact. Though elementary school is free, it’s usually a long walk, and some parents prefer their children to help them fishing or farming. Only one person I met on my trip had finished junior high school.

People often recognised me quickly as an outsider. Partly that was because I was carrying a backpack and camera and looked like I was going somewhere with a purpose. But I also stood out as the only person on a crowded bus to complain about smoking. Normally I take only non-smoking buses, but that was not an option for an eight-hour ride from Cà Mau to Hon Dat.

The driver went very fast, screeching to a halt when people on the roadside signalled they wanted to get on. Because they were all able to pay, he let everyone on – I counted 35 people squeezed into a 15-seat bus, with children sitting on their mothers’ laps. Some women were squashed so much they were vomiting, and the driver had to stop to buy extra plastic bags. Adding to the stench were the smells of seafood – on the way to market – and a chicken, which an old lady was taking back home after being given it by her daughter. There was no air conditioning – though we were in the tropics.

Then men started lighting up cigarettes, and this was too much for me. I said to one man: “Uncle, there are children in this bus, so please don’t smoke.” But he ignored me and carried on smoking. The other passengers were used to smoke-filled buses. Some told me not to complain, as the driver was smoking the most of all.

Phạm Thị Hồng Vân  is based in Ho Chi Minh City where she was a freelance writer for the biggest national daily newspaper, the Tuoi Tre daily and before that, a staff writer since 2005.

She writes about environmental issues in the region, with a special focus on the Mekong River and hydropower dams.