Down In The Delta…The Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta is a water world. Water permeates the place. It falls from the sky, it drips through thatch roofs, it spills through canals, it hides in stagnate pools, it sloshes around in rice paddies, and it flows through the many branches of the mighty Mekong River. The absence of dry land, especially during the monsoon season, forces people to take to their boats.

The sampan is an ideal watercraft for moving across the delta. The vessel is normally two or three feet wide, ten or fifteen feet long, and draws only inches of water. Its sleek, buoyant design allows it to slide atop shallow, marshy bogs, slip through narrow ditches, and push steadily upstream against the weight of the Mekong. Delta residents employ the sampan to carry every imaginable cargo, from pot-bellied pigs to bok choy.

The river galley, also known as the keelboat, is one of the largest vessels to ply the waters of the Mekong Delta. In the nineteenth century, French colonists introduced the keelboat to Indochina. The vessel is a superb adaptation to a diverse waterscape. The average river galley is relatively narrow and short, approximately ten or fifteen feet wide and thirty or forty feet long. Most of them draw between three and six feet of water. These dimensions allow the river galley to easily manuever in and out of constricted canals and small local harbors. Additionally, the vessel’s gently-rounded hull enables it to float over shoals and to navigate canals, even during the low-water season. Today, most Vietnamese keelboats are motorized. But when a galley’s motor fails (not an uncommon occurrence in Vietnam) or when a vessel enters shallow water, the boat is propelled forward by a crew pulling on ropes, pushing poles, or swinging oars. The river galley is the delta’s heavy-lifter. It carries the region’s rice to market.

Before the nineteenth century, the delta was a massive swamp that served as a refuge for bandits and the Cambodians displaced by the southward advance of the Vietnamese. But in the 1800s, the French remade the delta into an agricultural breadbasket. Corvee laborers, overseen by colonial engineers, transformed the region. Dragooned Vietnamese and Cambodian men dug canals and ditches through the delta’s mangrove forests and mud. By the turn of the twentieth century, a total of 4,000 kilometers of canals crisscrossed the delta.[1]

The canals accomplished three things: 1) they drained 4.3 million acres of land and opened those acres to agricultural production; 2) they provided delta farmers with a means of sending their produce to market, and; 3) the muck piled up next to the canals during their excavation offered settlers dry village sites. Eventually, the delta filled with Vietnamese peasants – the majority of whom rented a couple of acres of alluvium at usurious rates.

An early observer of the Vietnam scene described the French network of canals, and the French exploitation of the Vietnamese peasantry living in the delta, as resembling a spider web. The web captured the delta’s plentiful food supply and directed it outward through the market center of Saigon.

The Mekong Delta has long possessed the highest population density of any rural area within Vietnam. In 1970, U.S. intelligence analysts estimated that the three northern delta provinces of Long An, Hau Nghia, and Gia Dinh each had districts that held over 1,810 persons per square mile. The rural areas of the central delta, which included the paddy lands surrounding My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho and Long Xuyen, contained populations of between 520 and 1,810 persons per square mile. As a point of comparison, New Jersey, the most densely-populated state in the United States, has a population density of 1,225 persons per square mile.

The Ca Mau Peninsula and U Minh Forest held the fewest people in the entire delta. Those two flood-prone regions contained only 2.6 to 26 persons per square mile, which is similar to the present population density of the Great Plains state of Nebraska. Not coincidentally, in the 1960s, the Vietcong built base camps across the Ca Mau Peninsula and U Minh Forest.[2]

A combination of factors fostered the delta’s high population density, not the least of which were poverty, illiteracy, and the intensive labor requirements of rice production. Soil fertility and climate also encouraged births.

The arable cropland in the delta consists of soils laid down over thousands of years by the muddy Mekong. In some locales, that alluvium is hundreds of feet deep. Each year, during its annual flood, the Mekong spread a thin layer of silt across the flat, low-lying lands of the delta. Rich in minerals and organic matter, the deposited sediments produced bumper crops.[3]

Heavy precipitation also aided the growing of rice. The delta receives most of its rain between May and November during the Southwest Monsoon. Thick, dark thunderclouds can drop several inches of rain during a single mid-day downpour. Not surprising, rainfall amounts quickly add-up. In the mid-twentieth century, Saigon received an average of 77.5 inches of rainfall per year. In the lower delta, Khanh Hung recorded 74.2 inches of rainfall per year. The Ca Mau Peninsula was the wettest region in the delta. On average, 7.5 feet of rain fell there annually. All of that rainfall spurred the growth of rice.

Steady warm temperatures nurtured the growth of rice too. The Mekong Delta has warmer average temperatures than northern Vietnam’s Red River Delta. For instance, Saigon’s highest average temperature occurs in April at 93 degrees Fahrenheit; its lowest average temperature is recorded in December at a still-balmy 72 degrees. Meanwhile, Hanoi’s highest average temperature is 90 degrees in June, while its lowest average temperature is 58 degrees in January. What all of this means is that the Red River Delta’s cooler temperatures limit rice yields; while the Mekong Delta’s warmer temperatures contribute to higher yields.

Fertile soil, abundant rain, and warm temperatures provided delta farmers with two rice crops a year. After the introduction of “miracle rice” in the late 1960s, some delta farmers harvested three crops per year. All of that rice supported a burgeoning population.[4]

During peacetime, the delta’s fecundity produced a rice surplus. In 1939, before the market disruptions brought on by the World War II, southern Vietnam (known then as Cochinchina) exported 1.5 million tons of rice. In contrast, northern Vietnam (Tonkin) had to import 250,000 tons of rice during that year.[5]

Northern Vietnam’s inability to feed its own people continued in the years after the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) gained independence from France. Rice harvests across the Red River Delta proved insufficient to feed the rapidly rising population north of the 17th Parallel. To make up for the shortfall, North Vietnam imported rice from Communist China.

According to historian Bernard Fall, North Vietnam’s need for rice went a long way in explaining why its leaders sought to reunify their country. Without the Mekong Delta and its surplus rice production, the citizens of North Vietnam would either go hungry or have to depend on Mao’s China for rice imports. Both of those scenarios spelled trouble for the Communist leaders in Hanoi. Starving peasants often rebel, and a reliance on China for rice would limit North Vietnam’s political and economic independence.[6]

Top U.S. military officials agreed with Bernard Fall. In 1962, General, L.L. Lemnitzer, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Kennedy administration, noted, “Today Communist China and North Vietnam are suffering from the effects of failure of their communes to produce adequate amounts of food to feed their peoples…Southeast Asia, primarily South Vietnam and Thailand, is a food surplus area in normal times. Because of this…the main communist threat in the Western Pacific appears to be directed at Southeast Asia.” Simply put, China and North Vietnam, according to Lemnitzer, had to have South Vietnam’s rice. Otherwise, both Communist countries risked social instability.[7]

Fall and Lemnitzer correctly emphasized the importance of the Mekong Delta and southern Vietnam’s rice surplus in Hanoi’s decision to wage war. However, North Vietnam’s need for South Vietnam’s rice is only one of many reasons Hanoi sought reunification. Nevertheless, understanding how rice factored into Hanoi’s decision to go to war raises an interesting question. If the United States had offered to alleviate North Vietnam’s food insecurity, would the Hanoi leadership have abandoned its support of the insurgency in South Vietnam?

The U.S.’s unwillingness to help the North Vietnamese with their rice deficit put Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues on the Politburo between a rock and a hard place. From Hanoi’s perspective, reunification offered the only means of achieving food self-sufficiency and the independence from China that went with it. Unfortunately, neither President Kennedy nor President Johnson offered the North Vietnamese a way out of their rice quandary other than war.


[1] Carroll H. Dunn, Vietnam Studies, Base Development in South Vietnam 1965-1970, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1972), 5.

[2] Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, “Population Density, 1970, Vietnam,” Map in Indochina Atlas, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1970).

[2] Dunn, Base Development, 5.

[3] David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 48.

[4] Bernard B. Fall, Last Reflections on a War: Bernard B. Fall’s Last Comments on Vietnam, Fall, (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2000), 51.

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 654.

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