Nguyễn Văn Ngưu

Mekong Delta, Vietnam: Cycling to work


The mild winds have passed and then the raindrops fall in the late afternoon at the end of October. The rain is usually light and short as the rain season comes to an end, but they bring fresh air and the local people welcome the change. The flood waters have receded, but there is still water in the fallowed rice fields. The people in the village go to the fields everyday in the early morning to hunt and catch the fish that are trapped in the rice fields. Only the very young people and elderly people like Aunt Lam remain in the village. The older children are in school. Today, Aunt Lam is looking after her youngest grandchild, while waiting for the people to return from their work at the end of the day.

Olden and golden days

Throughout Aunt Lam’s life “rice and fish have been like a mother and daughter”. It is her favorite phrase and she reminds everyone that rice and fish have always been in pairs – day in and day out – joining her in every meal. Rice and fish have been the pillars of the wealth and stability for her family as well as people in her village in the low-lying part of the delta of the Mekong River. In the olden times, her father would plough the dry fields and broadcast the rice seed in late March. The seed would then wait for the rains to germinate and the seedlings to grow. The rice crop grew to maturity as the rainy season advanced. The water in the fields became deeper hemmed in by the bunds and the river and canals around her village also swelled with the flow of water. Toward August every year the water that came from far upstream broke the banks of the Mekong River and flooded most of her village. The rice plants would elongate to keep their heads above the water, which was sometimes up to four to five meters deep.

The people in her village at that time said “we are rich as the rice is in the fields and the fish in the water.” The habitat of the flood plain in her village was favorable for the reproduction and growth of snakehead fish, broad-headed and walking catfish, climbing perch, swamp eel, shrimp, crab, frog and other aquatic animals and living organisms. As a young girl, Aunt Lam always preferred snakehead and climbing perch. These carnivorous fishes ate the insects, the young weeds, and other small animals in the rice fields and they were normally very fat just before being captured at the time when the rice plants were swollen or heavy in seeds in October, when the flood would recede and the people in the village would harvest the golden panicles of rice.

The harvest of floating rice crop was poor and yield per hectare was low. However, as the population of the village was still small in those days, the harvest would be enough to provide rice for everyone in the village. The people in her villages and surrounding towns had lived with this annual flood as far back as people could remember, and they called it the Season of Rising Water. Although these floods could sometimes be destructive, they brought the fish, shrimps and other aquatic life that provided local people with diversity and choice of foods. In addition, they brought the alluvial soils that enriched the land each year, which was good enough to provide nutrients for the rice and other crops that were successfully grown in the following seasons.

People in the village where Aunt Lam grew up as a young girl were always busy in October – harvesting the rice and catching the fish that were trapped in the fields after the water had receded. And there were plenty of fish too – snakeheads, marble fishes, catfishes were the favored species. They were either kept for home consumption with surplus sold into the markets, while the big ca hoc were soaked with salt and fermented, sun-dried, and smoked. Aunt Lam’s village was known for the delicious fermented ca hoc or mam hoc. In those days, her family would never lack fish to go with rice at mealtimes.

Nature is constantly changing!

Given the choice over time, nature usually selects the most stable diversity that a given environment can support. Nature, of course, is never static — but dynamic, for like most systems in the natural world, change is inevitable and to be expected. This is particularly so when the composition of a species (or selection of species) in a natural system has changed significantly. People, in this respect, are no different from any other species and this was much the case with the village where Aunt Lam lived. Thanks to the “rice and fish” richness provided by the river and its annual flood, the population of the village grew steadily over time and reaching to the point that the harvest of the floating rice was no longer enough to feed everyone.

It was time to make changes! The village sought the help of the Provincial Agricultural Office and technicians who have provided the village with information, technologies, materials and equipment to enable them to introduce improved drainage, irrigation, and, importantly, new higher yielding varieties of rice. They argued that yields of rice had to increase to keep pace with the demands of people in village. However, many issues arose. The modern varieties of rice are shorter in stature, and they mature earlier than the traditional floating varieties of rice and wild flooding was no longer acceptable. Consequently, the construction of additional engineering works to cater for the drainage and irrigation was required as a measure of protection for rice crops.

Growing shorter rice means that the depth of water had to be reduced and this directly affected the aquatic environment for production of fish and other life that had previously flourished in the rice fields. Furthermore, the new rice varieties were not tolerant as local varieties to a host of pests, and regular spraying was essential. The fish population was further reduced substantially with the introduction of pesticides. In addition, fertilizers were applied for higher yields as the new varieties of rice quickly outstripped the nutrient supply that the reduced flooding could provide.

Intensification of rice production continued with the growth of the population, from one season of floating rice crop each year to one irrigated rice crop, and then two irrigated rice crops each year. Because irrigation water is available, people in the village could now prepare the fields during periods which had earlier been considered “out of season.” They did land preparation with small tractors – which had also been introduced for replacing the more traditional buffalo – and plant the first rice crop in December. The people called this crop the “Winter-Spring Crop” and it was ready for harvest in April. As the Winter-Spring crop was harvested, the people prepared the fields again and seeded a second rice crop, which they harvest in August – before the arrival of the floods. The people call the second rice crop the “Summer-Autumn Crop.” People in the village remained well fed with rice, but quickly recognized one downside of the intensification of rice production – the lack of diversity available from other traditional food resources. People today can still find and catch fish, shrimps and other water life, but the selection of species and the number of fish caught had declined as fish are only available during the short period of the season of rising water and when the water is receding in October.

You can never step in the same stream twice

Although Aunt Lam is happy that more rice is available, she misses the delicious snakehead and climbing perch fish from the rice fields and especially the giant bug that used to come during the time of rice flowering. The giant bug gave a special aroma for and the flavour to the mam hoc when it was dried and incorporated into the mam. Pesticides have, however, banished the giant bug and it is now rarely seen. Aunt Lam and others in the village have also noticed the frequent illness of the young children in the village. There is a sense that people were “healthier” in older times.

Technicians from the provincial town visited the village and people were quick to realize that the deficiencies in nutrition were causing poor health, much of which could be attributable to the change in diet over recent years. People were no longer eating fish each day. Families have plenty of rice with which to feed themselves but lack the protein that fish used to provide.

The old proverb “rice and fish have been like mother and daughter” has substantially lost its meaning to the village. There is a paradox here, however, for Old Aunt Lam and her villagers know well that they cannot have the richness of choice that they had during the old days, when the population of the village was not crowded and the flood plain was rich in biodiversity.

Change was inevitable!

What to do about it?

The people in the village want to bring back the diversity of food sources and supply, while still having more rice. The Mekong River still provides the flood plains around the village with plenty of water. Could the wealth of fish in the rice field be restored? Acting on advice from the Provincial technicians, some families in the village already dug mall ponds in their rice fields to provide places in which fish can grow. They are adapting parts of their fields to the depth of water required for their preferred fish species.

Last season, some of the people tried growing high yielding, but tall stalk varieties of rice with a deep level of flooded water in selected plots. It is early days on this one, and changes will once again be required of the drainage and irrigation structures in the fields (to deepen the water) if these varieties are successful, but the people are optimistic that fish can be encouraged to return to their rice fields. The village is also trying to improve the growth of the freshwater mangroves forest that have remained close to the village to provide a sanctuary, where the fish can be encouraged to breed. The people hope that the efforts to bring back some of the aspects of the old habitats in the village may result in improvement of the biodiversity in the flood plain to safeguard food supplies. This will also help to retain the meaning of the old community proverb “rice and fish have been like mother and daughter.”