THREE HUNDRED YEARS – THE MEKONG DELTA AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE VĨNH TẾ CANAL

“All theory is grey, but the golden tree of actual life springs ever green.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe / Faust 1808 Studierzimmer

NGÔ THẾ VINH

To the Friends of the Mekong Group

 

THE DRAGON AND THE CẦN THƠ UNIVERSITY

We had a rendez vous to meet for the first time in Cần Thơ early in December. Actually, we already knew each other “by reputation” through our common concern for the ecosystem of the Mekong River and Mekong Delta.


Picture 1: from left, Lê Phát Quới PhD, Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS, Phạm Phan Long PE, Lê Anh Tuấn PhD, Ngô Thế Vinh MD, Dương Văn Ni PhD, Nguyễn Văn Hưng MD. On the stone was inscribed the date of 03.31.1966, the day General Nguyễn Cao Kỳ signed the official decree to establish Cần Thơ University, with Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ as the founding President. [photo by our driver Sang]

We were 7 in our group.In the morning, we planned to leave early but the author suggested that we spend some time to turn around and pay a visit to Cần Thơ University, with the newly established DRAGON – Mekong Research Institute for Climate Change whose Deputy Director Mr. Lê Anh Tuấn PhD is a member of our group. It can be said Cần Thơ University has a most spacious and beautiful library run to American standards. On its third floor, is located the Phòng Truyền thống/the Tradition History Room that contains materials on the founding of the University and the photographs of all its Presidents from the first to the present. [after 1975 the title is changed to Principals] [Picture 2]


Picture 2: Presidents of Cần Thơ University from the first day till now; from left: (1) Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ, 1966-1970; (2)Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân, 1970-1975; (3)Mr. Phạm Sơn Khai, 1976-1989; (4)Professor Trần Phước Đường, 1989-1997; (5) Trần Thượng Tuấn PhD, 1997-2002; (6) Lê Quang Minh PhD, 2002-2006; (7) Professor Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, 2007-2012; (8)Hà Thanh Toàn PhD, 2013-2017 to the present day. [photo by Lê Anh Tuấn]

What is new, from my previous visit, is the addition of the new Research Institute for Climate Change/ DRAGON - Mekong Institute. [DRAGON: Delta Research and Global Observation Network]to Cần Thơ Universisty. The Institute was officially established on 11.20.2009. During the Inauguration Ceremony, Professor Nguyễn Anh Tuấn then President of Cần Thơ University and the current American Ambassador Micheal W. Michalak jointly signed an Agreement laying the foundation for the cooperation and sharing of experience on the Mekong and Mississippi Rivers’ basins, focusing on the research of climate change and the measures to mitigate and adapt. On that same day, the inauguration ceremony of the Research Institute for Climate Changeoffice took place on the campus of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Cần Thơ University. It can be said that this event is an early implementation of the LMI [Lower Mekong Initiative] by the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton five months ago which resulted initially in the setting up of “The Mekong River Commission and Mississippi River Commission Sister-River Partnership” (07.23.2009). [3]

The Research Institute for Climate Change Cần Thơ University, is a multi-discipline organization aimed at evaluating the impacts of climate change on the ecosystem; social environment; production of agriculture, forestry, industry and the service sectors. In addition, it plans strategies to adapt and alleviate the impacts of climate change for the different local areas in the Mekong Delta. The Institute also coordinates the training, scientific research inside the country and overseas in particular between Cần Thơ University and local organizations in the Mekong Delta in the common efforts to adapt and mitigate the impacts from climate change.[https://dragon.ctu.edu.vn]


Picture 3: Before departure time, the observation group on the ecology of the Mekong Delta taking a picture in front of the Research Institute for Climate Change/ DRAGON (the sign was hidden by the  cluster of green trees), from left: Dương Văn Ni PhD Department of Natural Resources Management CTU, Lê Phát Quới PhD Institute of Natural Resources and Environment - National University HCM City, Ngô Thế Vinh MD, Lê Anh Tuấn PhD Research Institute for Climate Change CTU, Phạm Phan Long PEViet Ecology Foundation, Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS Expert in Wetlands, Nguyễn Văn Hưng MD. [photo by our driver Sang]

A GLIMPSE OF CHÂU ĐỐC

The ride from Cần Thơ to Châu Đốc was pleasant and took about 5 hours. We drove along the banks of the Hậu River, past the city of Long Xuyên where An Giang University is located. Its founding president Võ Tòng Xuân is now serving as president of the private University of Nam Cần Thơ.  He is also known as "Hai Lúa." Though in his seventies, on many occasions, he flew to Sierra Leone in Africa to introduce the technique of “wet rice farming / văn minh lúa nước” from the Mekong Delta to Africa with the desire to help this continent maintain a sustainable development and avert famine.

Each visit to the Mekong River and Mekong Delta to me is like an enticing call, a homecoming in search of lands and sections of the Mekong River whose entire ecosystem is being incessantly degraded and natural resources depleted by unsustainable development. A day will come when the next generations will no longer have the opportunity to see the diverse but extremely fragile habitat of a river that has turned into “The River of the Past” and expatriates will continue to dream of a “come back to Sorrento” to visit their birth places or the green fields of old. 

Along the road, we could observe a number of telltale signs of landslides on the banks of the Hậu River. A stop at Ô Long Vĩ to look at the dykes built to plant three crops of high-yield rice per year. Our group reached Châu Đốc at noon.

Châu Đốc, the former name of a province, is now the name of a city in An Giang Province close to the Vietnamese - Cambodian border. [the capital city of An Giang is Long Xuyên]. The population of Châu Đốc estimated at 150,000 consists of the Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese), Chăm, Chinese and Khmer. They belong to different faiths: Buddhism, Catholicism, Cao Đài, Hoà Hảo, Protestantism, Tứ Ân Hiếu Nghĩa faith, and Islam. The lion’s share of the Chăm Châu Giang lives on the Hậu River’s banks, along National Route 91.

Approximately 900,000 Khmer live in the Mekong Delta. They are followers of the Theravada branch of Buddhism and congregate mainly in the three provinces of Sóc Trăng, Trà Vinh and Châu Đốc that are now known as An Giang Province. The dwellings of the Khmer remain modest as always but the most impressive constructions are the magnificent golden roofed pagodas. Not far from the pagodas stand the stupas containing the ashes of the departed. The Khmer people do not use cemeteries.  

Past the park, at the confluence of  the Châu Đốc River stands erect the 14-foot high Monument to the Ba Sa Fish /Tượng đài cá Ba Sa. The statue of the fish alone weighs almost 3 tons and its silver color makes it shine under the sunlight. It pays tribute to the fishermen farmers of the Mekong Delta who succeeded in farming a high quality delicious fish species to replace the river fish living in the wild  that are facing extinction. The scientific name of the Ba Sa is Pangasius bocourti. The fish has a smooth, scaleless skin and is extensively farm-raised in the Mekong Delta as well as the Chao Phraya River basin in Thailand.


Picture 4: The Ba Sa fish has the scientific name Pangasius bocourti, it has a smooth scaleless skin and is extensively farm-raised in the floating villages of the Mekong Delta.

The Ba Sa fish account for more than half of the farm-raised fish in the Mekong Delta each year. Thousands of floating villages at the head of the Hậu River in the two provinces of An Giang (Châu Đốc), Đồng Tháp (Hồng Ngự) are struggling to expand to meet the growing demand for the fish. Moreover, fillets of Ba Sa have become a brand name favored in many markets of the world. [Picture 5]

From the foot of the monument, looking across the river, one can see a large island where about 12,000 Chăm build their home – A historical relic. Locals call them Chà Châu Giang, on account of their dark skin and Islamic faith.

After the Nguyễn Lord expanded the border to Châu Đốc, Thoại Ngọc Hầu was assigned the task of building the Vĩnh Tế Canal. A number of Chăm was sent to the site. They proved very proficient in supervising a work force of 80,000 Khmer laborers. The work went on day and night under very arduous conditions for 5 long years with heavy losses of lives. The project was completed to the great satisfaction of the Huế court that considered it an outstanding achievement. To show his appreciation for the Chăm’s contribution, Emperor Minh Mạng allotted them lands to set up seven villages. The village of Đa Phước was added to the list at a later date. Nowadays, the Chăm lead a rather secluded existence specializing in the planting of mulberry plants and raising silk worms to weave silk.  For that reason, the island is called the Silk Island / Cồn Tơ Lụa / Koh Kaboăk. They are able to preserve their culture from Champa. Dohamide is an old friend of mine since the day we wrote for Bách Khoa magazine prior to 1975. He saw life and grew up at that village. His writings on the Chăm culture and history have earned him the reputation of a respected author. There is a rumor going that his Vietnamese name Đỗ Hải Minh was given to him by Mr. Ngô Đình Nhu. Dohamide is now residing in the United States.

Looking at the blue sky, like in a flashback, I could never forget the feelings that overwhelmed my heart as I stepped into the boat and bid farewell to Đa Phước, that historic village so imbued with memories of the past. [1]


Picture 5: At the foot of the Momument to the Ba Sa fish, the symbol of the development of fishery in Châu Đốc. Ba Sa is a popular fish that is now crossing the ocean to the four corners of the world [photo by Nguyễn Hữu Thiện]

THE GRANDMOTHER WITH AN IPAD

Bidding farewell to Châu Đốc, our car left the national route and went into poorly asphalted rural roads too narrow for two-way car traffic.  They were mostly meant for motorcycles and bicycles.  We stopped at the Vĩnh Châu Village. The thing that caught our attention the most is the sight of a grandmother squatting on the ground with an iPad in her hand talking to her grandchild living in distant South Korea. Her daughter is married to a Korean and the couple is well-to-do enough to send her money and the iPad so that she can stay in touch with the grandchild and doesn’t miss her too much. This may be a case of a fortunate girl of the Mekong married to a man living in a faraway land. The couple is well to do enough to allow them to help her family, take care of her mother as well as of her siblings at home.

Long gone the familiar dear images of grandmothers, in hammocks, holding their grandchildren in their arms and singing lullabies to lull them to sleep. Or this very popular proverb but no longer heard:

Mother don’t marry me to far away lands
The bird’s chirping, monkey howling, how can I find my way home

Nowadays, many a girls of the Mekong no longer have the patience to wait for their mothers to find suitors for them.  They take matter in their own hands and find for themselves husbands from very distant lands like Taiwan, Korea or China... but then, with their iPhone or iPad they know exactly where their mothers are and how far away. However, we must also take into account the unlucky ones who meet with misfortune and lead lives of despair and misery without any hope of returning home.


Picture 6: the grandmother squatting with an iPad in her hand and talking with her grandchild in faraway South Korea. Her daughter is married to a Korean who continues to send her money and the iPad so that she can talk with her grandchild and does not miss the grandchild too much. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]

In reply to our inquiry, grandmother told us the water she uses comes entirely from the well. This is also the concern of Dương Văn Ni PhD from Cần Thơ University: the water is all around but not usable while the source of underground water is not limitless. It is depleting with passing days. Nguyễn Hữu Thiện MS, expert in wetlands, more than once referred to alarming statistics: "In the countryside of the Mekong, people only use underground water; there are approximately 1 million dug wells from which about 2 million cubic meters are drawn per day to be used for everything. Consequently, the delta is sinking ten times faster than the sea level is rising." Will it be the government or the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment that would come up with the definitive solution to this "water crisis" in the next decade.

For Dương Văn Ni the issue is how to keep the surface water from being polluted and Phạm Phan Long is how to raise the level of underground water. This is also the concern that lingers heavily in our mind throughout the trip.


Picture 7: the farmers plant three crops per year but still keep to the traditional labor-intensive method; from left, (a) drying grains on earthen courtyards, (b) the long grains of high-yield rice, (c) still the backbreaking way of carrying rice to the warehouse. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]  

A VISIT TO THE TWO SPILLWAY RUBBER DAMS IN TỊNH BIÊN DISTRICT

Returning to the National Route 91, driving along the Vĩnh Tế Canal to Tịnh Biên District. Our group made a stop at the two spillway rubber dams of Tha La and Trà Sư.

Dương Văn Ni PhD walked to the foot of the Trà Sư Dam, then started to explain: "The two dams of Trà Sư and Tha La are of the spillway rubber dam type. At the initial design stage, it is planned to discharge the water depending on the rise or fall of the water upstream. Consequently, the “air bag/phao khí” type is used meaning if you plan to discharge the water early, less air will be pumped into the bag. On the other hand, in case you want to discharge the water later, you inflate the bag with more air. However, since the time the air-bag system was installed, the year 2000, the dam is either closed or opened.  The system has never been used as designed. This is the question that has been raised in regard to the operation of the spillway rubber dams. Probably, because this dam is only closed or opened – to discharge the water - in the past and the rubber air bags have now aged, we have before our eyes the repairs that have been made to the dam.”

Dương Văn Ni continued: "Not only the spillway rubber dams but the entire network of dikes and roads running along the Vietnam-Cambodia border have reduced the flow of water into Đồng Tháp Mười and the Quadrilateral of Khu Tứ Giác Long Xuyên, to allow for more land to plant three crops a year in the Vietnam side. However, at the same time they caused flooding in Cambodia. As a result, we have received many complaints from our friendly neighbor." [Picture 9]


Picture 8: Dương Văn Ni PhD walked to the foot of the Trà Sư Dam, Nhơn Hưng Village, Tịnh Biên District; and explained: "this is a spillway rubber dam, it prevents floodwater to flow over from Cambodia into our side so that we have more land to plant three crops of high-yield rice a year. " [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]


Picture 9: Lê Phát Quới PhD stood at the bank of the Vĩnh Tế Canal, on the opposite side of the border water rich in alluvia and fish is rising all over the land, the image of life and nature  in its full vitality. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]


Picture 10: left, no more floodwater, on this side of the border a canal with polluted stagnant water and clusters of hyacinth floating everywhere; right, farmers still diligently plant three crops of high-yield rice a year, their hard work does not guarantee them enough to eat much less a comfortable life. [photo by Ngô Thế Vinh]

THE DISCHARGE OF FLOODWATER AT THE TWO SPILLWAY RUBBER DAMS OF THA LA AND TRÀ SƯ

The two spillway rubber dams of Tha La and Trà Sư were built and went into operation since May of 2000 to regulate floodwater upstream from Cambodia flowing into the West Sea, Gulf of Siam. The spillway rubber dams are designed to prevent floodwater from flowing to the south of National Route 91, along the Vĩnh Tế Canal, in order to allow for the planting of three crops of high-yield rice a year in the depression of the Quadrilateral of Tứ Giác Long Xuyên consisting of the provinces of An Giang, Kiên Giang and Cần Thơ as called for by the Food Security Plan.

The statistics collected by the Irrigation company / Công ty Thuỷ Lợi in An Giang showed that the water level upstream in Cambodia at the Tha La Spillway Rubber Dam was 2.95m and 2.05m downstream –  difference of 0.9m; while at the Trà Sư Spillway Rubber Dam it was 2.94m upstream in Cambodia and 2.15m downstream – a difference of 0.8m.

The water discharge at the two spillway rubber dams of Tha La and Trà Sư is handled depending on the state of floodwater upstream in conjunction with the water need downstream in order to ensure the planting of three crops, especially the Fall-Winter one. This floodwater discharge washes away the acid and alum in the soil and at the same time removes pollution from the Quadrilareral of Tứ Giác Long Xuyên and its vicinity. It has the added benefit of bringing alluvia – that rich natural fertilizer – to the more than 20,000 hectares of farmland. For that very reason, the farmers in the region look at the floodwater discharge as a happy occasion. The people of An Giang Province flock to the two spillway rubber dams to watch the floodwater discharge in a festive way. [Picture 12]

The newspaper Tuổi Trẻ reported there were two floodwater discharges over the last couple of years: (1) in the morning of 10.22.2016, at the two spillway rubber dams of Tha La and Trà Sư. (2) in the morning of 09.22. 2017. The water in the two spillway rubber dams of Tha La and Trà Sư was discharged, one month earlier than the previous year, in response to the fast rising floodwater on the Cambodian side.

The farmers believe that early discharges of floodwater are much more advantageous: floodwater cleanses the fields, washes away the alum and acid in the soil, but most importantly brings in alluvia that result in a more “plentiful harvest”.  The torrential floodwater swirls in bringing with it fish and shrimps to the great joy of the elated crowd. Farmers bring out their hoof-lift nets to greet the floodwater and catch the fish. A single person can net 5-6 kg of fish in one day, enough to prepare a meal rich in protein for several families.

Lest we forget, those spillway rubber dams allow for the planting of three crops a year but at the same time also deplete the water in the two natural bodies of water of the Quadrilateral of Tứ Giác Long Xuyên and the depression of Đồng Tháp Mười that provide a crucial source of water to the entire basin during the dry season.


Picture 11: in the morning of 09.22.2017 floodwater in the two spillway rubber dams of Tha La and Trà Sư in An Giang Province was discharged one month earlier than the previous year in response to the fast rising floodwater upstream in Cambodia. The rubber tubing running across the width of the dam is an “air bag”. [source: Tuổi Trẻ Online 22.09.2017]


Picture 12: In great joy, the people of An Giang converged to the dam to watch the discharge of floodwater. They believed the early discharge of floodwater would be much more beneficial: the floodwater cleanses the fields, washes away the alum and reduces the acidity in the soil, and most importantly brings in alluvia to produce a more “plentiful harvest”.


Picture 13: At exactly 8:00 AM on 09.22.2017 the Tha La SpillwayRubber Dam began to discharge the floodwater to be followed by the Trà Sư Spillway Rubber Dam an hour later. The people could not hide their excitement watching the torrential floodwater swirl in bringing with it alluvia and fish to the fields.[source: Tuổi Trẻ Online 22.09.2017]

THE HISTORICAL VĨNH TẾ CANAL

When discussing the history of the Vĩnh Tế Canal, Dương Văn Ni adds a tinge of humour to his remark: "Vĩnh Tế is the name of Thoại Ngọc Hầu’s wife. Yet, some people explained that its name means the canal of strategic economic importance..."

Thoại Ngọc Hầu, birth name Nguyễn Văn Thoại, was a native of Điện Bàn Quảng Nam. He became a very early and much appreciated follower as well as supporter of Lord Nguyễn Ánh. In 1818, he was appointed Defender / Trấn thủ of Vĩnh Thanh where he succeeded in mobilizing the local militia to dig the Đông Xuyên Canal. Because of its enormous economic contributions, the emperor changed the name of that canal to Thoại Hà and that of the nearby mountain Khâu Sơn to Thoại Sơn after him.

In 1819, Emperor Gia Long once more ordered Thoại Ngọc Hầu to construct a far bigger canal linking the city of Châu Đốc in An Giang Province to the city of Kiên Lương in Kiên Giang Province and ending into the Giang Thành River. The latter flows all the way to Hà Tiên and ends in the West Sea by the Gulf of Siam.

Throughout the construction of the canal, Thoại Ngọc Hầu was seconded by his totally devoted wife Châu Thị Vĩnh Tế, a native of Vĩnh Long. Together they commanded the militia to work night and day for 5 years until the canal was completed in 1824. Emperor Minh Mạng deeply appreciated her contribution and named the strategic canal kênh Vĩnh Tế and the nearby Sam Mountain Vĩnh Tế Sơn in her honor. Moreover, Emperor Minh Mạng had a picture of the canal and the phrase “Vĩnh Tế hà / 永濟河” engraved on the Cao Đỉnh Incense Burner, the first of the Nine Incense Burners / Cửu Đỉnh casted in memory of the Thế Tổ Cao Hoàng đế or Emperor Gia Long. [Picture 14] 

The Vĩnh Tế Canal runs parallel to the Vietnam - Cambodia border. It is almost 90 km long, 30 m wide, and 2.5 m in average depth. This canal is not only an important irrigation work bearing significant economic benefits but more importantly, it is a strategic moat used in the defense of the land along the border.

A visit to the Vĩnh Tế Canal is also a time to recollect a period of history lasting almost 200 years marked with blood, sweat, and tears.


Picture 14: Vĩnh Tế is a man-made canal of over 90 km long running from Châu Đốc to Hà Tiên. This colossal endeavor is associated with the name of the famous Thoại Ngọc Hầu. Emperor Minh Mạng had the image of that unique project and the phrase “Vĩnh Tế hà / 永濟河 engraved on the Cao Đỉnh Incense Burner. Cao Đỉnh is the first incensed burner cast in memory of Emperor Gia Long, Thế tổ Cao Hoàng đế. In 1835, Emperor Minh Mạng ordered the casting of 9 Gigantic Incense Burners / Cửu Đỉnh to commemorate his nine predecessors. The project was completed in 1837. Nowadays, they still stand in the courtyard in front of the Thế miếu within the Imperial City of Huế. [source: Báo Ảnh VN, photo by Trần Thanh Giang] wwww

KHMER HISTORY FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE

To the Khmer, the almost 200-year history of the Vĩnh Tế Canal represents a true nightmare. The Khmer people are still being reminded, either through oral or written materials kept by the Cambodian monks, of the horrible stories of the tens of thousands of their compatriots being forced by Bảo Hộ Thoại Ngọc Hầu to work as hard labors in the digging of the Vĩnh Tế Canal linking Châu Đốc to Hà Tiên. The Cambodian workers suffered atrocious pain and death while constructing that canal they named Canal de Prêk Yuan. And then, there is that grotesque story told by the French about "the mandarin of the Nguyễn court Trương Minh Giảng who had three Khmer buried up to their necks alive in order to make a tripod to cook."

True or not, that story has been repeatedly told by the Khmer who do not like Vietnamese as proof of the cruel treatment their people suffered at the hands of those they disparagingly called the Yuon. [Picture 15]

The Grapes of Viet-Khmer Wrath. Even going into the late XX century, anti Vietnamese campaigns still took place in Cambodia. For a long time, the Khmer are conditioned by a sense of unending insecurity and obsessive fear of expansion by the Vietnamese in their Southward March. Therefore, any anti-Vietnamese campaigns conducted under any circumstances would to some degree respond to the Cambodian psyche. For the Khmer politicians, demagogic or not, any accusation leveled against the Vietnamese would show proof of patriotism.

It is thus not surprising that every now and then a terrifying incident of “cáp duồn” or decapitation of Vietnamese in the land of Angkor would make the news and shock world opinion. Hundreds of headless and disemboweled corpses including those of women and children would be seen floating down the Mekong River

Even in the time of Lol Nol, a pro-American leader, a most terrifying wave of mass arrest and "cáp duồn" of Vietnamese took place. Under the Khmer Rouge, a great number of Vietnamese was massacred during their ethnic cleansing pogrom. In plain sight, in downtown of the capital Phnom Penh, one could see graffitis calling for the slaughter of Vietnamese in the land of Angkor in both French and English for the benefits of foreign correspondents the like of: "We must kill all Viets in Cambodia."  The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot ordered the killing of not only Vietnamese but also the torture and execution of many Khmer suspected of being Vietnamese sympathizers. They were being vilified as “Khmer bodies with Viet souls.” and looked upon as wild weeds that need to be eradicated. Going one step further, Pol Pot pointed the finger at the Vietnamese accusing them of being the real culprits behind the countless skulls that dotted the Killing Fields in Cambodia. There were quite a few who believed him.

Even though they have lived in the land of Angkor for many generations, they cannot escape the suspicion or hatred of the local population. “Cáp Duồn” is the act of decapitation committed by the Khmer against their Vietnamese victims. On their part, the cruel and violent Khmer never let go of a chance to decapitate countless Vietnamese. The “Mùa Thổ Dậy” or the Uprising Season when the Khmer rise up and kill the Vietnamese does not happen uniquely in Cambodia but in the Mekong Delta as well. Those atrocious acts forever remain carved in the mind of the people


Picture 15: left, (a) the French book with the title "The Annexation of Cambodia by the Vietnamese in the XIX Century" with the book cover  depicting a caricature of a "Mandarin of the Nguyễn Court and three Khmer buried alive to the neck with their heads being used as a tripod to cook"; (b) right, "The worst is gone,"  "We must kill the Yuon – meaning the Vietnamese" those were the anti-Vietnamese slogans under the time of Lol Nol;


Picture 16:the diagram of the Canal de Prêk Yuan, the name the Khmer use to call the Vĩnh Tế Canal, with the French legend: Canal de Prêk Yuan ou Canal de Vinh Te Reliant la Rivière de Chau Đoc à Hà Tien, page 394 of the referenced book. [private collection Ngô Thế Vinh] 

How many Vietnamese are now living in Cambodia? Is it 200,000, 400,000 or even one million? It’s anybody’s guess. The majority of the Vietnamese expatriates live with the Chăm along the banks of the Mekong River, Tonle Sap River or around the Tonle Sap Lake. They dwell in temporary shacks built on stilts that can be dismantled and put on boats to be reassembled at different locations depending on the water levels of the lake. Most of them earn their living as fishermen or hired hands at fish farms. They lead a hard life but have come to a land which is easy to come to yet difficult to leave. A popular saying has it:

                      Nam Vang lên dễ khó về
                      Trai vô bạn biển, gái về tào kê

                      Phnom Penh is a place you come with ease
                     Young men come to work as fishermen
                     Young girls go home as ladies of the night

To oppose the Vietnamese by using any story –true or false – is a sure card to garner votes in an election campaign in Cambodia. It is rare to find a Cambodian who speaks well of Vietnamese living in his land. A member of a human rights group told a reporter from the FEER / Far Eastern Economic Review (1994): “If given a choice, the majority of the Cambodians would kick the Vietnamese out of Cambodia.” The Cambodians may be a divided lot but they are always of one mind in their “historic hatred” for the Vietnamese.

GOING TO TRI TÔN ON THE ROUTE OF BLOOD AND TEARS

From Tịnh Biên District on National Route 91 going south past Chi Lăng was the old Training Center / Trung Tâm Huấn Luyện under the Republic of Vietnam. Leaving behind the Núi Cấm Mountain range, heading west. The route leading to Tri Tôn was lined on both sides with lush green palm trees and the imposing gold pagodas built in the Khmer architecture.

But to come visit Tri Tôn one must use a route drenched in blood and tears. It’s impossible not to think of places like the town of Ba Chúc and the Phi Lai Pagoda, those Cánh Đồng Chết / Killing Fields, as if it just happened the day before. The massacres of Vietnamese at the hands of the Khmer Rouge took place at a stretch of land extending from the left bank of the Vĩnh Tế Canal to Hà Tiên then all the way to the Thổ Chu Island. 

_ 04.18.1978: Khmer Rouge attacked Ba Chúc Village, Tri Tôn District, An Giang Province and killed 3,157 civilians
_ 04.20.1978: Khmer Rouge went to the Phi Lai Pagoda and killed another 150 civilians who sought refuge there.


Picture 17: top, Cánh Đồng Chết/The Killing Fields in the vicinity of Núi Tượng and Núi Dài town of Ba Chúc district of Tri Tôn province of An Giang April, 1978; bottom: Ba Chúc Tomb to commemorate the 3,157 civilians killed by the Khmer Rouge [source: báo Kiến Thức & Wikipedia tiếng Việt]

[Any mention of the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge would not be complete if one does not refer to an earlier one at the Thổ Chu Island.  On 05.12.1975, the Khmer Rouge attacked across the border and occupied Thổ Chu Island in Kiên Giang Province.  They killed all its 515 inhabitants including the author Phùng Thăng and her daughter. In the words of the writer Trần Hoài Thư, a classmate of Phùng Thăng, she became famous thanks to her book "Câu Chuyện Dòng Sông" she co-translated from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha with her older sister Phùng Khánh. Phùng Thăng and her child met a horrific death on the small island of Thổ Chu, at the distant south-west of Phú Quốc Island. She was only 32 years old and her daughter Tiểu Phượng 9 at the time.]

DISPELLING THE CURSE: THE MEKONG – RIVER OF HEALING

Crossing the threshold of the Third Millennium and during the time of globalization, it becomes apparent that borders between nations are more virtual than real. Similarly, no border exists within the ecosystem of the Mekong River. That river is not only the lifeline of the Vietnamese and Khmer, it also acts as a link uniting nations to live in harmony not in discord.

Whether living inside or outside of the country, we share the same concern for the Ecosystem of the Mekong River. We set our sights on the same common denominator: design a plan for a sustainable exploitation of the Mekong River’s natural resources, strive for an overall development of the entire basin with a regional instead of national vision.

An example: In his conversations with Vietnamese experts and Mr. Senglong Youk, Deputy Executive Director at Fisheries Action Coalition Team, FACT) and Spokeperson for the Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper (TSW), Pham Phan Long PE suggested that in order to save the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia and Vietnam need to work together to bring about an overall coordinated operation plan of all the dams on the Mekong River to assure that the Tonle Sap Lake receives the required 80 billion m3 of floodwater to restore its ecosystem. In addition, there should be enough water left for the Mekong Delta to sustain the people’s daily life as well as fight droughts or salinization during the dry season. As estimated by Professor Trương Đình Dụ and Trương Thu Hằng MS the water need for the Mekong Delta in the dry season is put at about 10 billion m3 while Lê Anh Tuấn PhD of the DRAGON Institute calculated the current flow rate needed to counter the effects of salinization at 10,000 m3/s. 

Another example: Phạm Phan Long P.E. along with a number of members in the environmental conservation organizations are working on the promotion of feasibility projects to generate renewable energy to replace the 7 hydroelectric dams in Laos and 2 in Cambodia. In that way, a win-win situation could be achieved for the entire Basin in lock step with the trend of the time vis a vis the green power in the world. (5)  

Neutralizing the hatred between the Vietnamese and Khmer – a historical fact - is extremely challenging but indispensable for a brighter future for all. The sine qua non condition is to have, on both sides, strong leaders with a vision of history, political will, popular support and brave enough to open up old wounds which have caused so much pain but still offer hope for healing.

2018 will be the year to heal old wounds, restore faith, cooperate in the “Mekong Spirit.” It will set a common clarion call for all interested parties to develop together, walk hand in hand toward a prosperous future for all and peace for the whole region.

IN LIEU OF CONCLUSION: A MOMENT OF PEACE


Picture 18:  Dương Văn Ni PhD and the author helping the innocent children pick the muntingia fruits on the leftbank of the Hậu River, near a section of the river damaged by a landslide. Hopefully, their generation will still be able to live in a green environment. But then, who will be the people willing to carry the fight to preserve the motherland so overflowing with life for those children? [photo by Phạm Phan Long] 

NGÔ THẾ VINH
Châu Đốc - Tân Biên - Tri Tôn
12.2017

Reference:

  1. Cửu Long Cạn Dòng, Biển Đông Dậy Sóng. Ngô Thế Vinh, Nxb Văn Nghệ California 2000

  2. Vực Dậy từ Tro Than, Đi qua những Cánh Đồng Chết. Ngô Thế Vinh. Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch, Nxb Văn Nghệ California 2007

  3. The Mekong and Mississippi Sister-River Partnership: Similariries and Differences. Ngô Thế Vinh, Viet Ecology Foundation 09.09.2009; http://vietecology.org/Article/Article/58#

  4. Xả lũ hai đập tràn Tha La, Trà Sư tạo phù sa cho hạ lưu. Tuổi Trẻ 22.10.2016. Xả lũ hai đập tràn Tha La, Trà Sư thu hút hàng trăm người dân trong tỉnh đổ về xem. Tuổi Trẻ 22.09.2017

  5. Blowing away the curse over the Mekong with its own Wind and Sunlight. Phạm Phan Long; Viet Ecology Foundation 01.2018
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