Phu Quoc: In the shadow of the dragon

Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island, located in the Gulf of Thailand, 100 kilometers off the southwest coast and administratively part of Kien Giang Province. In fact, Phu Quoc is nearer to Cambodia, which is just 15 kilometers away.  Philip and I took a short flight from busy Ho Chi Minh City to this tropical getaway which has become increasingly popular among the Vietnamese as well as foreign visitors looking for a place to relax. We were there at the invitation of a potential client who is hoping to build a resort that will be genuinely environmentally sensitive and sustainable.

A Village called 'Fishing'

The site that we were looking at was best seen from the water and our stepping-off point was from this village.  When we asked our host the name of this place he replied, simply, ‘Fishing’.  Perhaps he’d misheard our question. What’s this fishing village’s name? “Like I said – ‘Fishing’.”

The house in 'Fishing' where our boat ride would begin.

Many of the homes in this village were built on pilings on the beach, allowing easy and rapid access to the small fishing boats which made up the community’s fleet.

We embarked on our trip from this traditionally built home.

As I looked back at our embarkation point, I could see that we had been in a very traditional style of structure.  It was almost totally thatched while most of the surrounding homes in the village depended on tin roofs and sides for protection. Big thatched awnings protected the west-facing home from the afternoon sun. It was also nice to see the shade offered by the carefully maintained palm tree canopy along the water’s edge.

Mountain, forest, beach - a perfect combination overlooking the Gulf of Thailand

As we left ‘Fishing’ village, the coast became wilder and less populated.  The land rose quickly behind the beach and its forest. It was this small range of mountains that would form the backdrop of our ‘run’ along the coast to our destination at the mouth of a small river.

Larger boats shelter in the estuary.

As we entered the river estuary, we came across another fishing village.  Just as well; it transpired that our boat’s engine was misfiring and needed some running repairs. Fortunately, a  relative of our skipper lived in this village and would have the necessary tools at his house.

Taking a break for running repairs.

I managed to take a few pictures of the ‘business end’ of this waterside home, as our skipper and his brother-in-law fixed our boat. One of the passengers availed himself of the inviting hammock and nodded off within seconds.  Meanwhile, Philip bombarded our host and potential client with questions.

A weathered wheelhouse

Our craft was tiny compared to this more typical fishing boat, though what it lacked in size it made up for in tidiness and seaworthiness.  It was just a little lacking in the mechanical department but we were soon on our way again, heading up-river.

On the river's edge.

The village soon petered out and the river banks were untouched apart from one or two isolated homesteads complete with fishing boat. This scene reminded me of  northwest Florida’s the Intracoastal Waterway, which had numerous ‘hurricane holes’ for fishermen to take shelter as the storm approached.

At the bend in the river

 

We had the river to ourselves and as it narrowed it changed in character as mangroves became more prevalent. We were now in a part of Vietnam’s pristine National Forest which the government is keen to preserve as well as invite visitors to interpret and enjoy. We felt completely alone and at ease in the beautiful surroundings.

Why use your arms to row when your feet will do?

But we weren’t alone. Utterly relaxed, as if out for a quiet Sunday paddle round the lake, this lone rower was also on his way up the fast-narrowing river. Where was he going? Why was he using his feet to get there?  Here was an expert whose means of silent transport shamed our party, as we discussed the pristine ecology of the forest while puttering through it in a smoky diesel-driven boat.

The end of the trail for us. Time to turn round.

It was only as we turned round and headed back down stream that we realized the true majesty of the mountain range that formed the heart of this section of the National Forest.  The river had a special beauty but it was the mountain that was really awe-inspiring. It’s profile was magnificent and rose spectacularly from the flat, river delta. But it was the untouched stands of trees that made the biggest impression on me, living as I do in British Columbia one of the world’s largest sources of lumber.  Where I live, mountains don’t look like this because almost all of them have been logged, in many cases several times over the last 150 years.

In my face; this is the dragon.

The return trip along the river was truly memorable, with the mountain looming in front of the boat one moment and then lining one bank as we exited a  bend. We were immersed in nature, privileged to have been given  permission to sail in restricted waters. We were inspired by our surroundings and the opportunity to create a center for the interpretation of this National Forest.

Heading for Home

Philip and I were very lucky to have experienced Phu Quoc from a point of view to which very few of its visitors ever have access.  From the fishing villages, their unique buildings, across a beautiful secluded bay along a pristine river edged by mangroves to a mountain of stunning proportions; what a way to remember this island! As we boarded our flight to Ho Chi Minh City we vowed to return to this lovely place, hopefully to help it retain its places of peace and beauty.

Contemplating Phu Quoc

Harvard’s End of Year Report on Vietnam’s Competitiveness: Must Do Better

Improved training and education are central to Vietnam's continued economic transformation

Michael E. Porter and his Harvard-based Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness visited Hanoi in December to deliver the results of their 2010 Vietnam Competitiveness Report.  It makes interesting reading.  In Professor Porter’s words; “While the country can be proud of what has been achieved (over the last two decades), its performance is showing signs of fragility. Comparison with other countries reveals that Vietnam has not outperformed leading peers in the region.”  And when it comes to the importance of competitiveness, the Professor should know.  In the first half of the 1980s he wrote Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage, a couple of tomes that graced every aspiring manager’s bookcase and that confirmed Porter’s status as a management guru.

Harvard comes to Hanoi: Professor Michael Porter and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung

In a nutshell, Vietnam’s impressive growth over the last two decades has been due to considerable improvements in labor productivity, fueled by capital inflows associated with the nation’s structural change from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy.  Foreign investment has played a central role, providing much of the capital and driving up exports.  Imports have also grown, to meet the needs of Vietnam’s new manufacturers and an increasingly prosperous middle class.

Unfortunately, this positive economic base has been undermined by several factors that threaten to stall Vietnam’s growth and neutralize its primary competitive advantage of low labor costs. First, the country’s exports rely heavily on either imported supplies or consist of natural resources and agricultural products. In both cases, very little value is added by Vietnam’s cheap, poorly trained labor.   Second, productivity in non-manufacturing sectors is chronically low.  Third, government investment is often ineffectual, targeted for reasons of fairness at less wealthy regions rather than concentrated where wealth could be multiplied several fold by improved infrastructure and education. Finally, rising local input prices combined with relatively lackluster productivity are eroding Vietnam’s competitive labor cost advantage to the extent that countries like China and Taiwan, with their higher labor costs, are out-competing local producers.  All these micro-economic issues are exacerbated by the nation’s volatile currency, high inflation, troubled banking sector and weak government finances.

Local economists and policy makers recognize that Vietnam’s impressive social and economic transformation has reached a crucial juncture and it is no coincidence that Professor Porter delivered his message to an audience that included Hoang Trung Hai, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister who commissioned the study and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung who has just been re-elected for a second four-year term.

The Guru speaks: Is Vietnam ready for his message?

So, in Professor Porter’s opinion, what must Vietnam do to improve its competitiveness and continue its economic transformation?  Most observant visitors to Vietnam would not be surprised by the Professor’s prescription which he provides in his informative and detailed 68-slide Power Point presentation. Here’s a summary;

Enhance education and workforce skills. It’s no surprise that Vietnam has found it tough to keep up with the educational needs of its growing population, impatient to reap the financial benefits of rapid structural change and even less patient to wait for training and education to catch up.

Improve physical infrastructure. Summer power outages and crumbling, congested roads may be commonplace to the Vietnamese but they worry existing foreign investors and frighten away new ones. Moving people and products around Vietnam is enormously inefficient and efforts to improve the road system seem hampered by poor project management and quality control.

Money wasted: Deteriorating Infrastructure, installed too far in advance of the development it's designed to support

Improve the governance of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Vietnam’s SOEs absorb a considerable share of government investment but fail to deliver acceptable returns.  Vinashin, the national shipbuilding company, has become an albatross roubnd the governments neck, epitomized by its recent failure to meet foreign debt repayment covenants that in turn prompted Standard & Poor’s to lower Vietnam’s debt rating to a point now three levels below investment grade.

Do more to attract deeper rooted Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Even though Vietnam has been successful in attracting investment from overseas, it’s the quality of this FDI that concerns Professor Porter. First of all, the issuance of licenses to foreign investors appears to be a numbers game, indifferent to whether the investor has the financial capacity to follow through. Consequently, it is not unusual to see delays of several years between investment reporting and realization.  Second, foreign investment often has ‘shallow roots’, with hardly any impact on the local economy other than to create low-paying, low-skilled jobs.

Pursue a cluster-based model. ‘Clustering’ is one of the cornerstones of Michael Porter’s theory of national competitiveness.  By co-locating manufacturers, their suppliers, sub-contractors and investing in social and physical infrastructure like academic institutions and airports, governments can spawn and attract more competitive, innovative and cost-efficient enterprises better able to compete in the international marketplace.

It is this last of Professor Porter’s prescriptions that deserves further exploration. He identifies five locational clusters and specific initiatives that Vietnam should consider when deciding how to allocate precious government investment.  In the Hanoi region, an electronic and engineering cluster would be enhanced and grown by an increase in local supplier capacity.  A tourism cluster in the Central Region would be driven by an overarching marketing vision as well as improved tourist-related services. In the Ho Chi Minh City region, two clusters are proposed.  The first is a garment industry cluster, enhanced by improved workforce skills and the second, a logistics cluster underpinned by improved road, rail, seaport and air access.  The fifth cluster is proposed for Vietnam’s ‘rice basket’, the Mekong Delta, where an agro-processing cluster would be driven by value-added activities.

One can see immediately the importance of provincial ‘buy-in’ to these ideas, as well as clear- sited and realistic regional planning.  Every provincial leader could no doubt identify a unique local cluster deserving of investment but, as Professor Porter implies, Vietnam’s national government must make difficult choices, focus ruthlessly on the potential return on the nation’s investment and provide courageous leadership rather than spread the country’s limited financial resources across 58 provinces and five self-governing cities.

There is daunting work ahead for the newly re-elected Prime Minister.  He faces a raft of macro- and micro-economic problems at a time when the nations that surround Vietnam have solved or side-stepped similar issues and have made the transition to higher levels of social and economic development.  It is time once more for the people of Vietnam – especially its leaders – to face the country’s economic shortcomings with fortitude and the kind of iron will that its regional competitors admire and fear.

Nobody wants to see Vietnam's economy stall because of a lack of competitiveness.

The Red Road to Gia Nghia

It was an early start by any standards. So early, I can recall the time exactly; 4:20am.  Ho Chi Minh City was damp and very dark. But we had to be in Gia Nghia by 9:30am. Nevertheless, five hours to drive 245 kilometers seemed extraordinarily conservative, given that the entire journey would be along the four-lane Route 14.  Within an hour, I knew why the day had started in the middle of the night. It seemed as though the entire route was under construction; a muddy ribbon of red dirt, full of axle-breaking potholes, slow-moving trucks and buses. Sometimes the traffic thinned out enough to get a true sense of how road construction in Vietnam works…Lesson One: Don’t bother with detours, traffic cones or warning signs, just get on with it!

Gia Nghia is the capital of Dak Nong, a relatively new Province in the Central Highlands. The almost imperceptible climb from Ho Chi Minh City is marked by a welcome drop in temperature and humidity as well as a distinct change in the local architecture.

Wood construction replaces brick and stucco and roofs typically include deep overhangs of overlapping galvanized ‘sheds’. And that’s what they do; shed water quickly and away from the main structure of the house.

Sometimes, longer lasting tiled roofs are preferred by those who can afford them.  The mill work on doors and windows is also a distinctive regional feature and quite different from what we were used to seeing in Ho Chi Min City.

The red clay and rusting roofs are everywhere and leave a lasting impression when framed by the lush green backdrop of rubber trees and cashew nut plantations.

Hard against the highway, a daily market adds to the congestion but also provides a welcome respite from the discomfort of the trip. Unfortunately our schedule dictated that most of my photos had to be taken from a moving car. Sitting in the heart of my blurred image of busy shoppers is a stall-holder and her baskets of fruit. If only we could have stopped!

Highway 14 is an important national route through the Central Highlands, hugging the Cambodian border in places and eventually leaving the mountains and reaching the coast near Hue and Da Nang. Buses, therefore, are commonplace and mostly this size, carrying passengers efficiently (if not a little uncomfortably) between the main cities that punctuate the route.

But the cities on Highway 14 are quite a distance apart, so it would seem that there’s plenty of room for local enterprise – even if that means having to accept that your neighbors might not apply the same standards of window dressing as you!

And some places just seem to be waiting for the new road construction to be completed before carrying out their own face-lifts. We were getting used to seeing the incredible amount of road-side commerce that seems to characterize all of Vietnam’s main highways. Our partner, Phong’s Magical Mystery Tours were, I’m sure, deliberately designed to show us parts of the country most visitors never see. I think the Beatles would have approved…

Ca Mau’s Waterworld


Ca Mau is land’s end. As far west and south as you can travel in Vietnam. It was described by Phong as laid back; more relaxed and much wetter than the big city or even the Mekong Delta and its myriad waterways.  This we had to see! There are two flights a day at Ca Mau Airport; one in and, on the same plane, an hour later, one out. Which means that you have to stay overnight. We had plenty to see and several meetings to attend, so 24 hours in Ca Mau was not a hardship.


I had never seen anything like the apparent flooding, as we descended into Ca Mau.  The fields were saturated and what looked like roads were, in fact, canals and drainage ditches. I once flew over the south of England after serious flooding and was impressed by the water in the fields below but it was nothing like Ca Mau in its ‘normal’ state.

Once on the ground, and heading to our first meeting, we quickly understood how people adapted to the local conditions.  Roads were very narrow and ran along the tops of dikes. Homes were built on lower ground and were reached by bridges across the endless canals that ran either side of the dikes. So, for most people, the canal was literally their front yard.  Behind their homes lay cultivated, saturated fields.

The dikes acted as important barriers. On one side of the raised, packed-mud wall, the water was brackish and supported a considerable amount of shrimp and fish farming.  On the other, the fields were fed by freshwater, enabling a quite different form of agriculture. Rice, fruit and vegetables flourished in this hydroponic paradise.

Every region of Vietnam seems to have it’s own distinctive type of watercraft. Ca Mau’s shallow-drafted boats are ideally suited to the canals which, in fact, were far more important as a means of transportation than the impossibly narrow roads.The trees that line the banks of the canal are not only decorative, they provide shade, help stabilize the bank and, through their root system, absorb some of the moisture from the precious upland. We reached the sea at Song Do and found ourselves at the mouth of one of the region’s wide rivers.  This is one of Song Do’s main streets. Every home and business opens onto the river because everyone has a boat by which they earn their living, either fishing or by providing essential services to the fishing fleet.

A narrow service road serves the waterfront shops.  This clothes store, however, depends on the waterway for its business and so positions its shop front accordingly.

Traversing the ‘streets’ of Song Do was a fascinating experience. The concrete bulkhead in the background is the only protection from flooding for the homes built beside the canal system.


Not everyone visits the store by boat.  And this service road for the waterfront provides enough dry land to support a small daily market.

Hospitality is taken very seriously in Ca Mau. Even at 4pm.  It would be an insult to one’s guests to send them home with an empty stomach. This was our third meal of the day and was not our last. Everything on the table was grown or caught within a radius of a few kilometers. Forget the ‘100-mile diet’; this was a ‘less than 10-mile feast’!


Route One is Vietnam’s most important road and starts in the north at Hanoi. It runs the length of Vietnam, through all of its largest urban areas. Ca Mau is land’s end and the southernmost point of Route One.  This ferry is part of Route One and will soon to be replaced by a bridge. I felt a long way from Hanoi as I joined the evening’s ‘rush hour traffic’ boarding the ferry.

Hoi An: Another world.

After a rather depressing morning’s drive along Da Nang’s poorly planned water front, we left the beach and headed a little way inland along the northern bank of the Thu Bon River to Hoi An. What an antidote! In 1999, Hoi An was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This ancient trading city was once Southeast Asia’s most important port and has been visited over the centuries by seafairers from all over the world and settled by several diverse ethnic groups.

You have to buy a ticket to get into the heart of Hoi An.  It helps pay for the ongoing renovations and is the least you can do to contribute to the upkeep of this fascinating place. Our business partner, Phong from Ho Chi Minh City was somewhat insulted but kindly paid the $9 for his two guests to join him on a tour of the city.

The streets were quiet in September, no doubt much to the annoyance of the shop-keepers.  It was very warm and humid and there were thunderstorms most afternoons. But it was wonderful to experience Hoi An without the crowds and coach-parties.

Once upon a time, these were the homes of merchants.  Now they are shops that house merchandise. These buildings are fascinating, with their narrow fronts, deep wood-paneled rooms and internal courtyards that were essential in bringing natural light to the center of the homes. What were once bedrooms, now open onto a gallery that animates the upper floor.

Several layers into another of the former merchant houses, this bedroom is protected from the noise of the busy street. The windows have shutters but no glass. Deep overhangs protect the rooms from rain while enabling air to circulate through the internal courtyard.

Some of the most important homes faced the quayside which, in turn, overlooked a sheltered arm of the Thu Bon River.  The homes across the water are located on An Hoi Islet, once an island on the river delta. The ‘islet’ is now a peninsula. The waterfront market brings much-needed activity to a quayside that in former times would have been packed with boats.

This waterfront bar opens onto a tiny sidewalk. Across the street the wide quayside provides pedestrians with plenty of room. So, why not reduce the sidewalk to a minimum by introducing several planters and extending the seating onto the street? An example for us all in how to circumvent building codes !

This is a working boat and Hoi An is a working town. While tourism is an important – no, essential – part of the economy, there is a definite sense that the city, which has a population of 120,000, has a life beyond catering for visitors. Fishing, for one, is an important economic activity for Hoi An.

The covered, wooden Japanese Bridge, complete with its own temple (to the left) is Hoi An’s iconic structure.  It’s in every guidebook and every visitor must visit the bridge and photograph it.  How often do it’s two docents have the bridge to themselves? It was too good a moment to miss.

The Japanese merchants and their families were important residents in Hoi An. But so were the Chinese who built temples that were too big and certainly too ornate to install on a mere bridge.  This may be the city’s only other visitor the day that Philip, Phong and I were there.

When the sidewalks are narrow and, in any case, are full of bicycles and motos, it’s probably safest to walk in the road. Decked out in dark pants and starched white shirts, we blended seamlessly with the locals as they went about their business (Phong is on the left, conducting the tour).

Hoi An is a city full of restored buildings but this new street, just steps from the Japanese Covered Bridge, is built to a simple set of design guidelines.  It works, apart from the light poles. But I feel strongly that we can forgive Hoi An this error (and, anyway, they will no doubt be replaced in due course…)

A typical row of shopfronts. The beautiful, weathered aquamarine wash on the plastered dividing wall was a common color choice.  I was also intrigued by the stone bases on which the wooden columns rested.  I wonder what they were for?

Not all of Hoi An’s temples were designed for maximum impact. This one reflects the intriguing ‘layered’ architecture of the city.  It seems that there is always something just beyond one’s vision, out of reach…

Da Nang: Rapid Growth vs Lost Beaches?

Two recent articles in the Vietnamese press attracted my attention. They summarize a worrying dilemma for the country’s leaders. The first piece heralded HSBC’s new branch bank in Da Nang and in so doing made the following point;

(Da Nang is the)…core city of the Key Economic Zone in central Vietnam. The city is a hotbed of development, from upscale resorts and residential properties to industrial and commercial ventures, with a GDP growth of around 11 to 12 percent recorded year-on-year since 2001. Currently there are more than 10,000 businesses across all sectors operating in the city, and jobs are expected to increase annually from 32,000 to 35,000.

The second article was an interview with Nguyen Van Tuan, General Director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, who;

…has admitted that the seaside has been cut into small bits and seaside investment projects should be reexamined.
After development experts and newspapers rang alarm bells over the “disappearance” of beautiful beaches to massive construction of resorts and hotels, Government officials have realized the issue’s importance. Tuan, in a recent interview…admitted that mismanagement is the culprit.


Philip and I visited Da Nang for the first time in September. We knew about the city’s growing reputation as a fast-growing destination and were not surprised to find a vibrant economy underlying its success.
Da Nang is almost equidistant from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City but the real estate conference we were attending was aimed squarely at raising the city’s investment profile in Ho Chi Minh City, a 40-minute flight to the south. Set on an attractive coastal plain edged by mountains and laying at the mouth of the Han River, Da Nang has become a shining example of Vietnam’s aggressive courting of foreign investment. Non Nuoc Beach is one Da Nang’s greatest assets, with 32 uninterrupted kilometers (about 20 miles) forming a vast protected bay.

 

Life Resort, Da Nang. Exclusive and underwhelming.

 

On arriving at Da Nang’s airport, we headed straight for Non Nuoc Beach and the recently opened Life Resort where the press conference was to be held.  Along the way, the growing impact of international real estate investment was evident in one or two new office buildings and a 210-hectare cleared site already under development by the Korean construction company, Daewon. We left behind  the busy, vibrant city center and headed for the beach, joining the new four-lane highway that has been built 300 to 400 back from the water’s edge and runs parallel to the mostly undeveloped seaside.  Florida must have looked just like this in the 1950s.
We found Life Resort almost immediately, its large portico and main reception building blocking any view of the water or beach. Everything was bright and new. The combination of light woods, quiet fabrics and neutral marble floors was meant to engender calmness and relaxation while underlining the theme of ‘man’s ten senses’. There was something Scandinavian about the place, almost ‘IKEA-n’.  A long reflecting pool, lined by detached villas and individual buildings, led to the beach which, at this early hour, was empty.  This site layout, from the highway to the water, is typical of the smaller resorts dotted along Vietnam’s beaches. In this case, a rectangular 4.3 hectare piece of land, complete with its own 145 meter beach front marks Life Resort’s footprint.  It was only, later, after we left the resort and drove along the beach that we began to understand the stultifying effect of this kind of cookie cutter land planning.

 

A section of 'chopped-up' beach at Da nang

 

For mile after mile, the water front had been divided into a series of large lots of varying size, spanning the dune line and perpendicular to the beach. Development was sporadic and felt unplanned and disconnected.  Where construction had commenced, the dunes had been flattened and cleared of all vegetation. Next to the Life Resort was Furama, located on a 6 hectare site and considered the model for this kind of hotel-and-villa-with-its-own-beach program. Furama was followed by a resort over twice the size, the Crowne Plaza, which included a casino and was built by Chinese developers for Chinese visitors.  After a couple of kilometers of empty dunes, the latest new resort loomed, this time with an international ‘flag’; the Da Nang Hyatt is almost complete and will take up a 17 hectare site, stretching from highway to beach front.
Each resort is walled and designed to be entirely insular; a luxurious world of international homogeneity removed from the richer, authentic experience of Da Nang City. The only place to walk is along the beach itself (if you can get to it) because the highway is a bleak, rapid transit corridor bereft of any supporting services. The beach front has no shops, restaurants or any other sign of life outside of the resorts, especially now that the resident population is being rehoused to make way for future development. As the article says ‘…the seaside has been cut into small bits…’ but in this case, even the largest resort is dwarfed by the scale of the beach and its scrubby dunes.

 

Left behind by the receding tide...

 

Earlier, at lunch, I had been seated opposite a bright young local government representative who talked proudly in perfect English of the care and speed which large investors – especially from overseas – were shepherded through the process of obtaining land, gaining an investment license and then constructing a resort. If only I had met him after our tour of the beach. I could have asked him whether there was a regional master plan, why the resorts were so disconnected and when would there emerge a discernible mix of mutually supporting land uses?

 

Another resort. Another empty, private stretch of beach...

 

I thought again of Florida, especially around Fort Lauderdale and Panama City Beach where towering condominiums have destroyed the protective natural dune-scape and long ago eliminated easy access to the beaches.  Da Nang at least has resisted the allure of the high-rise but in its place is an equally destructive model; the sprawling, low-density private resort for the enjoyment of a few and the exclusion of many, especially Vietnam’s fishing communities and the locals who were content to enjoy the great expanses of rolling dunes with their stabilizing scrub vegetation and beaches of spectacular proportion.
The dilemma remains. Can the government harness growth, create sensitive, balanced, regional development plans and preserve Vietnam’s peerless natural environment while meeting the aspirations of a growing, ambitious and youthful population?

Across the Delta

It was still dark when we left Ho Chi Minh City, heading Southwest to Can Tho and the heart of the Mekong Delta. We were entering a region a little smaller in area than Switzerland, with a population a little larger than Chile’s. The Mekong river system – the world’s 12th longest – rises high in the Himalayas, travels 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles) through six countries and drains 307,000 square miles of land. The Mekong Delta is one of Southeast Asia’s great food baskets, producing considerable quantities of fish, shrimp and more rice than Japan and Korea combined.

Once out of the city, the land pattern of the delta began to emerge.  Our route to Can Tho was punctuated by one bridge crossing after another as the road carved its perpendicular course across the myriad waterways that comprise the Mekong river system. At each major crossing, a bustling town would cling not only to either side of the road but also along each riverbank, accentuating a crossroad of land and water.

Crossing a typical bridge.

Our first stop was for breakfast. I had experienced many a dreary halt at highway rest-stops in North America or ‘motorway service stations’ in Europe. So imagine my surprise to encounter the Vietnamese equivalent and find it so utterly superior to its ‘Western’ counterparts that it did not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. A series of large thatched, open-sided pavilions sat away from the road among lush landscaping, carefully designed to reflect the natural vegetation of the region.  Breakfast was Bun Bo Hue, a traditional light but flavorful broth of beef and pork with rice vermacelli and the fragrant leaves of numerous local herbs and water plants.  Coffee was dark, strong and iced  and served by the glass. Not a Starbucks in sight, I’m pleased to add.

The nicest rest-stop I've ever visited!

Driving in Vietnam is tough, even for the Vietnamese. We were lucky enough to be passengers able to take in and discuss the sights of the Mekong Delta as our driver negotiated buses, trucks, motos, bicycles and numerous road works along a four-lane undivided highway that allowed an average speed of no more than 45 miles per hour. The highway was closely lined with home-businesses, mostly aimed squarely at the many thousands of travelers who filled the endless fleet of small buses.

A brick-kiln deep in the Delta

Eventually, we arrived in Can Tho where we were scheduled to attend an important day-long conference on investment in the Mekong Delta.  While the conference was interesting enough, it was the side meetings with provincial leaders that provided the real purpose for the long drive. It also gave us an excuse to take a quick look at the Victoria Hotel, next door to the conference venue.  One of a French-owned group of six hotels in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Victoria in Can Tho exuded simple charm and laid back elegance. Each hotel includes some interesting form of transport that allows its guests to better experience the place in which they find themselves. At the Victoria in Can Tho, a remodeled rice barge called The Lady Hau cruises the river at breakfast and sunset for the benefit of the hotel’s guests.

The Victoria Hotel, Can Tho. Quiet, understated elegance.

Unfortunately for us, we had to head back to Ho Chi Minh City that evening, ‘racing’ back across the Mekong Delta in order to make a detour to Ben Tre before sunset.  Ben Tre is one of the thirteen provinces that comprise the Mekong Delta and is famous for its coconut plantations and rice paddies. Fifty-one years ago, it was the site of the first large-scale military action of the Vietnam War, when Viet Cong forces led by Nguyen Thi Dinh engaged the 23rd Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Today, the city of Ben Tre (from which the province takes its name) is a proud and bustling riverside community with tree-lined roads, carefully-laid sidewalks and several pleasing parks. Most roads lead to the waterfront where, during the day, a floating market gathers and in the warm evenings families stroll.  Sunset on the Mekong Delta was the perfect way to end an exhausting day full of impressions and moments that will live with us for ever. As we left Ben Tre and headed north towards Ho Chi Minh City, Philip and I knew that one day we would return to this region of one of the world’s greatest rivers.

Sunset on the Mekong, across the river from Ben Tre