As Mekong Rolls To The Sea, Turbulence On Its Banks The Mekong River is known as the Cuu Long, or Nine Dragons, in Vietnam, where the waterway splits and flows into the South China Sea. In the Mekong Delta, an economic boom has brought abundance for some, poverty for others, and worries about threats to the river.

As Mekong Rolls To The Sea, Turbulence On Its Banks

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan finishes his journey along the Mekong River. The trip has spanned nearly 2,700 miles and six countries, the last of which is Vietnam. That's where the river, known locally as the Cuu Long, or Nine Dragons, splits before disappearing into the South China Sea.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: U.S. gunboats used to work this stretch of the river during the war. Today it's tourist boats that bring the foreigners about three hours from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to the border with Vietnam.

(Soundbite of town)

SULLIVAN: A quick stop at immigration and a short ride to the Vietnamese river town of Chau Doc. It's a working town, not really geared to tourists, but there's lots to see - some of it what you'd expect, some not.

(Soundbite of prayer)

SULLIVAN: Midday call to prayer at Chau Doc's Mubarak Mosque, the town's oldest, largest and prettiest, the call to prayer still live, not on tape.

(Soundbite of prayer)

SULLIVAN: The sermon is in Arabic. The Quran, translated into Vietnamese. The congregation, small but devout. A rich mixture of Malay, Middle Eastern and South Asian faces, with a smattering of Vietnamese, too.

Seventy-five-year-old Mohamat Yosup says his people have been here for five generations.

Mr. MOHAMAT YOSUP: From Malaysia, from Indonesia, India. (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Others, he says have been here longer; Islam having come to Southeast Asia in the 11th century, brought by traders.

Muslims make up just a tiny fraction of the population in this largely Buddhist country, but they are a reminder of the Mekong Delta's rich if sometimes troubled history.

(Soundbite of motor boat)

SULLIVAN: Out on the river, fisherman Nguyen Van Hghia worries about the present. His lament, the same one heard upriver in Cambodia, a dwindling catch with more and more people competing for the fish that remain.

Mr. NGUYEN VAN HGHIA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: At least it's better than it was during the war, he says. Then there was an American base here and a lot of fighting. After they left, we had trouble with the Cambodians. Now there's peace. But that peace hasn't brought him prosperity - far from it.

Mr. HGHIA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I've got a TV, he says, but no money to pay for electricity. I've got a house, but not enough land to grow anything. And some days, he says, I can't even catch enough fish to pay for gas.

Vietnam's rapid economic growth in the past decade has lifted many out of poverty. But not so many here in An Giang province, one of the Mekong Delta's least developed, where a lack of jobs has led many to some hard choices.

Ms. PHUNG THI BAY: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: An hour's drive from Chau Doc, Phung Thi Bay tells me what happened when her husband went to look for work across the border in Cambodia. While there, she says, he visited sex workers and contracted HIV, then died shortly after returning home. She got tested and found out she was HIV-positive, too. She tells her story at an AIDS clinic not far from the border. A clinic, she says, where there's no shortage of patients.

Ms. BAY: (Through Translator) Some of the patients are women infected by their husbands. Other patients are drug addicts. And some are women who went to work in Cambodia and fell into prostitution and got infected that way.

SULLIVAN: But here's the good news: Phung Thi Bay and many here like her are getting treatment with funds provided by a former enemy.

The U.S. government is frequently criticized for doing too little to help Vietnam deal with the long-term effects of the defoliant Agent Orange. But the government doesn't get much credit when it comes to the help it does provide in other areas, like the $300 million spent on AIDS treatment and education; money that helps pay for anti-retrovirals for about half the Vietnamese now getting treatment, including Phung Thi Bay.

(Soundbite of town)

SULLIVAN: Three hours downriver, the bustling port city of Can Tho, another familiar name from the war with the Americans, now a fast-growing, wealthy and vibrant city by local standards, and a transportation hub for the delta. It's a city looking firmly to the future, but one where echoes of the past still resonate.

Thirty-five years after the war ended, students at Can Tho University spend the morning learning to field strip Kalashnikov assault rifles. The drills are mandatory, though less frequent than they were in the past. And these days, if the Vietnamese bloggers are to be believed, it's Vietnam's neighbor to the north, China, that's the enemy, not the Americans. Though commerce, not conflict, seems to be the priority for most here.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

SULLIVAN: Fishermen complain of a dwindling catch. But fish farming has grown dramatically in the past decade, and it's helped raise the living standards of many.

Ms. NGUYEN THI LOAN (Entrepreneur): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Feeding time. And entrepreneur Nguyen Thi Loan talks about how she started small a few years back with just a single cage. Now she's got more than half a dozen, and three full-time employees.

Ms. LOAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Her village, she says, used to be known for exporting its daughters as brides to lonely businessmen from Taiwan, but not so much anymore. Loan and her husband said they now make about $17,000 a year raising fish, an almost unheard of sum just a decade ago and one that makes them solidly middle class today.

Her main concern now is the health of the river. Overdevelopment, she worries, could poison the river and her business.

Unidentified Woman: Here's a list of other human activities that can damage delta ecosystems.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: In Can Tho, I stumble onto a conference about the Mekong and a more familiar river; a conference sponsored in part by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Dr. STAN PONCE (Central Regional Director, U.S. Geological Survey): The reason we're here is there's tremendous similarities between the Mississippi River system and the Mekong River system.

SULLIVAN: That's the U.S. Geological Survey's Central Regional Director, Stan Ponce.

Dr. PONCE. We feel we can learn a lot from what's been done on this river because it does not have the levies, it does not have the extents of the dam structure that we have. So as we look at long-term restoration of the Mississippi River system, we feel we have a lot to learn from what's going on in the Mekong River system.

SULLIVAN: It's a river system environmentalist Ky Quang Vinh says is now under threat, especially here in Vietnam.

Mr. KY QUANG VINH (Environmentalist): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: He says he's worried about overdevelopment and the dams planned or already built upriver in China, Laos and Cambodia. He's also worried about climate change and the effect rising sea levels and seawater will have on the freshwater of the delta ecosystem.

He's hoping the countries that share the river will work together to protect the river as a resource for the future.

(Soundbite of motor boat)

SULLIVAN: A few hours down river, we're close to the end of the journey in the delta town of My Tho. The sunrise is sublime and the mouth of the river - just an hour away, when the driver drops a bombshell.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: He says the river police won't let us go any farther. Foreigners aren't allowed that close to the mouth, he says, just local fishermen and even they get their papers checked. No amount of money will change his mind and with good reason: The cops here are a notoriously hard bunch, more so lately after frequent clashes with local farmers over land disputes.

In the end, we go back to shore and find an enterprising taxi driver willing to take us by land.

(Soundbite of water)

SULLIVAN: Two hours later, I make it to one of the nine mouths of the Mekong, where it empties into the South China Sea. Frankly, it's a bit of a letdown. There's nobody in sight. The beach is dirty and the light's too harsh for any good pictures.

On the other hand, it's a relief to finally be here, after two months, six countries and nearly 3,000 miles. It's also a relief to know the river is still, by most accounts, surprisingly healthy.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, finished with the Mekong for now.

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