The low-lying Mekong Delta is well and truly shrinking thanks to a number of different factors – rising sea levels, soil degradation and upstream dams just a few of them. However the thing I love about the Mekong only second to the rich farmlands of mud are the ferries that connect them. Like the dwindling fleet of Cyclos and motorbike taxis in Saigon, replaced by taxi’s and grab bike, the ferry’s of the Mekong are quickly being replaced by bridges.
Over the past few decades Vietnam has been a rapidly developing and is still pushing forward at an incredible pace. Progress, especially in regards to infrastructure opens up corridors for business, economic growth and better livelihoods for those who have been out of reach to the global markets for along time. Often though, as many of my local friends are beginning to realise that sometime you have to sacrifice something you love to gain something else. You might loose a part of who you are, maybe some memories, traditions or others comforts could get pushed aside for the more convenient, more profitable and faster pace of life.
With the disappearance of the ferry, from the perspective of an occasional user and traveller is the loss of a 15 minute window of time to slow down, look about, relax and not rush to my next destination.
The numerous ferry crossings still seen on the banks of The Delta remain the efficient fleets of boats busily criss-crossing back and forth like clockwork. There maintenance schedule and training must be great because I’ve never seen a failure of any kind – although driver error saw a Vinh Long ferry I was on almost collide with a barge mid-river.
One thing I’ll miss when all the ferries are gone is that feeling you get that you’re all travelling together. Hoping off your motorbike for that short journey across the river gives you a chance to buy something from the ‘stowaway’ sellers that weave between the compression of cars and bikes offering you anything from fried bananas to cigarettes. That little break in your trip allows you to rest in the shade while you turn to chat with some students, pull a funny face at a kid or just gaze downstream.
If I had a Vietnamese Dong… actually make it 1000 Vietnamese Dong for every time I had an enjoyable time with a friendly local, I’d probably only have about, well, US$5. But people always seem surprised to see a foreigner on the ferry and often they are keen to practice their English. On separate trips I have been offered a job, snake wine and invited to a wedding. Even though many passengers on the boats don’t talk to others or interact much they silently keep each other company as they share the same goal for the next 10 minutes – reaching the other bank of the river whilst remaining cool yet dry.
I’m not sure what the street vendors and shop keepers do once the ferries and ticket booths are closed. People won’t stop as they head up and down the large access ramps to a free and ticket-less bridge. However they also won’t have the time to feel the cool breeze, take in the views or interact closely with their fellow man like you do on a Mekong car ferry. Everyone will be in much more of a rush to get where they’re going. That closeness is what will disappear when all the car ferries disappear.
One day it’ll be remembered fondly by some.