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Mekong Delta - The Floating Life


Anyone who had been to rural Tay Nam Bo (Southern Vietnam) knows that the best way to get around is by do duc, or riverboat. In the Mekong Delta, these boats are simply known as do.

The simplest boats are thuyen doc moc, a type of dugout canoe made from a hollowed-out log. Khmer-style boats, called nghe ngo, feature curved prows that slice through the waves. Even to this day, the town of Soc Trang in Mekong Delta hosts an annual ghe ngo race.

Since it is hard to find trunks large enough to fashion thuyen doc moc, river dwellers now build xuong ba la, a small boat made from three planks of wood. These slender boats are well suited to narrow canals and strong currents. The image of a Nam Bo girl rowing a xuong ba la has been immortalized in a song by Tran Thieu Thanh:

"A loose-fitting blouse on a very deep river
A small, fleeting boat appears vaguely ..."

Made from five wooden boards, the ghe nam la is larger than xuong ba la. These boats are often referred to as xuong or junks. Larger craft are called thuyen, or boats, while the Vietnamese word for ship is tau.

Today, river dwellers often travel by vo lai, small craft propelled by motors. Designed for speed, these boats are long and narrow with flat bottoms. Vo lai with stronger engines and longer bodies are known as tac rang. These craft can handle big waves and are even used on the sea. In northern Vietnam, speedboats are called bo bo, an onomatopoeic word derived from the slapping sound made by the waves against the boat's prow.

In the Mekong Delta, goods are often transported by chet, flat-bottomed ferryboats with curved sides. When used to transport passengers, these boats are called do ngang.

All of these boats have evolved to suit life in the Mekong Delta, which revolves around the rivers and canals that crisscross the area. Not only do the rivers nourish the crops and form transport routes by which farmers can take their harvests to market, they also serve as marketplaces. The biggest cho noi floating markets in the delta are Hang Be Market in Tien Giang Province, the Phung Hiep Market in Can Tho and the market in Cai Rang. Each morning, hundreds of junks and small boats congregate, will all trade taking place on the water, as the buyers and sellers haggle, the sounds of their voices and the splashing of oars carry over the water.

Vendors typically hang samples of their wares from a bar set above the boat's roof, while their stock is stored below deck. The most picturesque boats belong to the fruit venders, who string durians, pomellos and jackfruit over their junk's roof. Other junks serve as floating canteens, offering everything from cold drinks to plates of fried noodles. People in search of stronger refreshment can buy bottles of rice wine infused with geckos, river turtles and snakes.

Do doc, however, are not just used for commerce. Many families live on their boats, traveling throughout the delta. This drifting life seems to make people friendly and open hearted. Come evening, the boats raft together, with everyone sharing bottles of wine and plates of dried squid and enjoying the slow pace of riverside life. Wherever a boat stops there is someone waiting to help tie it to a wharf. It would be hard to find such an affectionate, easy-going welcome in a city.

At night, the canals seem especially romantic. The hum of a boat's engine fills the quiet, as some merchant sets off for a distant market. The darkness is thick, broken by a single flickering lamp. Sitting on the deck of a small boat in the dark, one is reminded of a line from a line by the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th century) Poet Truong Ke:

Setting off the moon,
The raven sounds in the dew.
The fire of a fishing hamlet,
The trees on the shore are as sad,
As the lake's dreams.

Author: Yen Ba



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