The Mekong Delta encompasses approximately 15,000 square miles. Its land area made up nearly a quarter of South Vietnam’s 67,108 square miles. The delta begins on the outskirts of Saigon and extends 193 miles as the crow flies to the southernmost tip of Vietnam, at the Ca Mau peninsula. In the 1950s and 1960s, the delta possessed the highest population density of any area within South Vietnam. And in 1970, U.S. intelligence estimated that the three delta provinces immediately surrounding Saigon, Long An, Hau Nghia, and Gia Dinh, each had districts that held populations in excess of 1,810 persons per square mile [“Indochina Precipitation and Monsoon Airflow Map,” 1970, Bergerud, Tropic Thunder, 136]. Even the rural areas of the central delta, which included the paddy country surrounding My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho and Long Xuyen, contained populations of between 520 and 1810 persons per square mile. The only other area within Vietnam that contained such a high population over such a large area was the Red River Delta of the North. The least populated, most remote, regions within the delta existed in the Ca Mau peninsula and U Minh Forest. Both of those areas held only 2.6 to 26 persons per square mile. Not coincidently, those two isolated patches of territory served as Viet Cong base areas during the First and Second Indochina wars.
A combination of factors contributed to the delta’s high population density, not the least of which were poverty, illiteracy, and the intensive labor requirements of rice production. But soil fertility and climate also fostered a high population. The arable cropland in the delta consisted of alluvial soils laid down over thousands of years by the Mekong River. In some locales, that alluvium is hundreds of feet deep [Vietnam Studies, Base Development, 5]. Each year, during its annual flood, the Mekong River deposited a fresh layer of alluvium across the low-lying regions of the delta. Rich in minerals and organic matter, the deposited sediments produced bumper crops. In a recent study, author Jennifer Soong noted the role of flooding in assisting the rice farmers of the delta. She wrote, “Because there is no dike system like that of the River River Delta, the Mekong Delta soils are replenished annually by the nutrients deposited by river floods. Farmers in the Mekong Delta have learned to live with the flood, and have adopted cropping strategies to deal with the benefits and costs of annual flooding” [Soong, Soil Fertility Mekong Delta, 11].
Precipitation patterns also aided the growing of rice. Annual rainfall amounts are fairly consistent throughout the Mekong Delta. There is little variation in the amount of precipitation from one region of the delta to the next. The bulk of the rain falls with the Southwest Monsoon during the months from May through November. During the monsoon season, thick, dark thunderclouds can drop several inches of rain during a single mid-day downpour. As a result, rainfall amounts quickly add up. In the mid-twentieth century, Saigon received an average of 77.5 inches of precipitation annually. Khanh Hung, located in the lower delta, received 74.2 inches of rain per year. Ca Mau was the wettest area in the delta. Ninety-one inches of rain fell there each year. That is the equivalent of 7.5 feet of water. Steady warm temperatures also facilitated the growing of rice. The Mekong Delta has warmer average temperatures than the Red River Delta. For example, Saigon highest average temperature occurs in April at 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Its lowest average temperature is recorded in December at a still-balmy 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, Hanoi’s highest average temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the month of June. Hanoi’s lowest average temperature is 58 degrees Fahrenheit in January. What all of this means is that the Red River Delta’s cooler temperatures limit rice yields.
The delta’s fertile soils, abundant precipitation, and warm temperatures allowed delta farmers to harvest two rice crops per year. After the introduction of “miracle rice” in South Vietnam in the late 1960s, some delta farmers grew three rice crops per year. A shorter growing season limited the rice harvest in the Red River Delta to one or two crops per annum. The rice, in conjunction with an abundance of fish and crustaceans in the delta’s canals, estuaries, and rivers, supported a burgeoning population. David Halberstam, who reported for the “New York Times” on the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, estimated that 25% of South Vietnam’s population lived in the upper half of the Mekong Delta alone [Halberstam, Quagmire, 48].
During peacetime, the delta’s fecundity made it possible for southern Vietnam to produce a rice surplus. In 1939, before the agricultural disruption brought on by the back-to-back Second World War and First Indochina War, the southern zone of Vietnam exported 1.5 million tons of rice. On the other hand, the northern zone was required to import 250,000 tons of rice that year [Fall, Last Reflections, 51]. Northern Vietnam’s inability to feed its own people continued in the years after the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) gained its independence from France in 1954. The rice harvests from the Red River Delta proved to be insufficient to feed the rapidly rising population in the north. In order to make up for the shortfall in rice production, the DRV had to import rice from its communist ally, the People’s Republic of China.
Bernard Fall, who wrote several of the most insightful books on Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, theorized that the DRV had to achieve reunification with the south or face a worsening rice deficit in the coming decades. Without the Mekong Delta and its surplus rice production, the citizens of the DRV would either go hungry or they would have to rely on Mao’s China for rice imports. Food dependency would impinge upon the DRV’s political and economic independence. The members of the Hanoi regime wanted to avoid any such dependency on China.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during the Kennedy administration believed that the DRV’s need for rice represented a primary justification for its war against the U.S. backed Saigon government. Chairman of the JCS, L.L. Lemnitzer, in a talking paper for a meeting with President Kennedy on January 9, 1962, noted that China and the DRV both suffered from rice shortages. Consequently, the communist conquest of South Vietnam, and with it the all-important Mekong Delta, would alleviate the food insecurity of those two countries. Lemnitzer wrote, “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 and the standard Marxist-Leninist concept of peripheral aggression and pressure, the main communist threat in the Western Pacific appears to be directed at Southeast Asia” [Pentagon Papers, Volume II, Document 105, 654].
Fall and Lemnitzer correctly emphasized the importance of the Mekong Delta and the southern zone’s rice surplus in the DRV’s calculations to reunify Vietnam. However, the DRV’s desire to acquire South Vietnam’s rice surplus is only one of the many reasons Hanoi sought reunification. But understanding how the Mekong Delta factored into the DRV’s policy toward reunification raises several interesting questions. For instance, could the war have been avoided altogether if the United States and the Saigon government had been willing to export the Mekong Delta’s rice surplus to the DRV? Or, would the DRV have been willing to limit its support to the insurgency in South Vietnam had its food insecurity been alleviated by the Allies? Had the U.S. recognized the DRV’s food insecurity and been willing to end it, would the Johnson administration have been able to pull the DRV away from its alliance with Beijing and Moscow? In a sense, U.S.’s unwillingness or inability to recognize the DRV’s rice problem put the DRV between a rock and a hard place. If it accepted the division of the country, and its food insecurity continued indefinitely, the DRV would have suffered a loss of sovereignty. From Hanoi’s perspective, reunification represented the only means of achieving food self-sufficiency and the independence that went with it. Unfortunately, Johnson, and his mediocre Secretary of State Dean Rusk, never allowed the DRV a way out of its quandary other than war.
The Mekong Delta is a water world. Its residents are never far from that liquid. Water is either falling from the sky, spilling through canals, standing in stagnate pools, sloshing around in knee-deep rice paddies, or flowing down the branches of the Mekong River. Because of the absence of dry land, residents move across the delta in a variety of watercraft. The two most widely utilized vessels are sampans and river galleys. Sampans are long, narrow vessels with slightly rounded hulls. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, Vietnamese employed oars, paddles, and poles to propel their sampans. But by the 1960s, many South Vietnamese were using outboard motors to push their sampans through the delta’s muddy waters.
The slender sampans were perfect watercraft for moving on the delta’s different watercourses. The boats drew only inches of water, which enabled them to move into shallow, marshy areas without grounding. Sampans could also be used on the biggest rivers and canals because the rounded hulls provided buoyancy when the boats were tossed about by wind and high waves. Additionally, the outboard motors utilized on sampans in later years possessed long shafts running from the motor housing to the propeller. The shaft allowed for the use of the boats in every conceivable water depth, from the shallowest canals to the deepest rivers. The shaft only needed to be raised or lowered depending on water conditions. The number of sampans working the Mekong Delta was inestimable. The vessels were found on every canal and river. The boats were even used to navigate across the Plain of Reeds or through the dark recesses of the U Minh Forest. Sampans represented the workhorses of the delta. They carried every imaginable cargo, from potbellied pigs to rice.
River galleys were the largest vessels to ply the waterscape of the Mekong Delta. The delta’s river galleys resembled the keelboats once used on America’s rivers. In the United States, keelboat navigation ended in the 1840s when steamboats became the dominant vessel on America’s big mid-continental rivers. But keelboats have been in use in the Mekong Delta since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. They were still being used in the 1960s and 1970s.
Although one would consider a 19th century vessel horribly outdated for use in the later half of the 20th century, in fact the river galleys were a superb adaptation to the delta’s waterscape. The keels were of a narrow width and relatively short length, which enabled them to maneuver in and out of the delta’s constricted canals and small local harbors. The vessel’s slightly rounded hull allowed it to float over shoals and to navigate canals during the low water season. Most keels in the 1960s and 1970s were motorized. But when the keel’s motor failed or it could not be used in the shallows, the boats could still be propelled forward by rope, poles, or oars. The keel was a versatile boat for a variable environment. Oh, and it could carry tons of rice in its cargo hold. Both the sampan and the keelboat were adaptations to the varied water conditions of the delta.
Because of the Mekong River’s annual floods and the soggy character of its soils, the delta was the last region of Vietnam to be settled. Vietnamese settlement began in the early 19th century and accelerated after the French built an extensive canal system across the delta. The construction of the delta’s canals became one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken by any nation. One writer noted, “The region abounds with tributaries and canals of which the French constructed some four thousand kilometers to aid in the transformation of 4.3 million acres of swamp into arable land – a feat surpassing the magnitude of digging the Suez Canal” [Vietnam Studies, Base Development, 5]. The French canals did three things: they drained the surrounding land for agricultural production; provided transportation routes for the produce of delta farmers; and created high ground (from the slurry resulting from dredging) adjacent to the canals for the placement of villages. One writer described the French network of canals through the delta as resembling a spider web. If the French transportation system was a spider web, it was a web that was very effective in capturing the delta’s plentiful food supply and directing it outward through the delta’s main port – Saigon.
In the 1960s, American soldiers found the Mekong Delta’s environment inhospitable. Unlike the Vietnamese, the Americans had difficulty adapting to the delta’s flat, wet expanses and steamy climate. David Hackworth summed up the feelings of many soldiers toward the delta when he wrote, “Dry season or wet, the place was a tropical hell where the grunts were always soaked, either from rain, wading across canals and rivers or from sweat. During the monsoon season, May through September, standing water greatly hampered airmobile operations. Mud from the waterway banks and swamps coated communications equipment, fouled weapons and made infantry operations a soggy, slow-motion nightmare.” [Hackworth, Steel My Soldiers Hearts, 15]