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.

Memories of Towns by the Sea

I could have taken the 30 minute direct flight from Saigon to Quy Nhon but instead, a few friends and I decided to rent a car and explore the coastal landscape of south central Viet Nam.

The eight-hour drive along the famous National Route 1A to Quy Nhon was definitely a long journey. For those of you who are new to this part of the world or Viet Nam, National Route 1A (a two-lane highway) traverses the entire length of the country from Ha Noi in the north and to Ca Mau in the south.

We made several stops at small villages for fuel and food. As one would expect, we passed many inland towns along the narrow road, hectare after hectare of farmland, rice paddies and coastal villages.

 

Hectare after hectare of farmland by Philip G

 

In some places, the road was very narrow and winding. To make matters worse, we found ourselves in a “conga line” of trucks, buses and cars, led by, yes, cattle. It was like a snake weaving its way along the contours of the mountains and through the valleys.

As the road skirted the shoreline, we were in awe of the incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. This brought back many memories. When I was studying in Rome, our class rented a bus to tour the southern cities of Italy. I remembered many beautiful coastal towns, marinas and beach communities clustered along the Italian Amalfi Coast.

 

by Amalfi-coast, Italy

 

There was always a “picture perfect” moment in each town, as it nestled on the shoreline with its deep blue water and beautiful beaches.

The City of Quy Nhon is in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam. It was once a French trading port and later an important American military base. And it is just as beautiful and breathtaking as one would imagine for this part of the Pacific Coast. Quy Nhon, there is no doubt in my mind, is a hideaway treasure waiting to be discovered.

Our SUV had trailed heavily loaded trucks, tourist buses and a few mopeds for hours. We were happy to get off route 1A and finally arrive.

 

Quy Nhon City on the horizon by Philip G

 

The approach to Quy Nhon from the south is spectacular; the blue-green water of the Pacific is very refreshing, the calm and undisturbed beach stretches as far as your eye can see, the white-topped waves gently caress the shoreline and the majestic view of Quy Nhon gradually comes into focus on the horizon to welcome us to its hideaway coastal location.

Quy Nhon is geographically very different from my home town – Tat Cau which is located on the southwest coast of the delta region. It is about 190 Km (120 miles) from Ho Chi Minh City to the East. The image I remember when I left Viet Nam as a child was of my village photographed from the boat before the sun set.

 

A village built on the edge of the river by Philip G

 

Tat Cau is neither a beach town nor a coastal city. It is a village built along the edge of the river near the Gulf of Thailand.

Water ways were the main transportation routes in Tat Cau. Boats were the vessels that transported goods and people throughout the region. Water was everywhere. There were barge/ferries for transportation, boats for living and for fishing and boats for transporting fruit and other food. Every morning those boats gathered on the water’s edge near our town center or at the water taxi stop to sell fresh fruit, fish and vegetables to local merchants.

 

Tat Cau town center by Philip G

 

Back then when I was a child, beach towns like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Vung Tau were far away places where rich people vacationed in extreme luxury – at least to us. Those places were like a dream and only existed on postcards and old pictures that were sent to us from wealthy relatives on their vacation.