Vietnam’s sinking rice bowl

Boats on Vietnam's Mekong Delta. (Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew)
Boats on Vietnam's Mekong Delta. (Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew)

At the Southern end of Vietnam lies the Mekong Delta. 

It’s Vietnamese name, Cuu Long means “Nine Dragons,” referring to the nine rivers that come from 6 countries, and meet there, ending a journey of several thousand kilometres to the sea.

The Mekong Delta is the most fertile area in Vietnam, and also the most fragile: It is the country’s rice bowl, and it is now slowly sinking into the sea. 

Asia Calling’s Kannikar Petchkaew traveled to Vietnam to find out more.

Vietnam’s Mekong delta is a land carpeted in endless shades of greens.

It's a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong River. Boats, houses and markets float upon innumerable tributaries, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries.

20 million people call the Mekong delta home, and 60 million rely on its river system. 

The natural environment is essential to life - a local folk song describes the Mekong as a lifelong partner that provides wisdom and guidance to local people.


But the river system that has sustained life for so long, is now taking life. And the area itself is dying.

Le Anh Tuan, a researcher with The Climate Change Research Institute at Can Tho University, says the Mekong Delta will be completely gone in one to two hundred years.

The Delta is suffering as climate change causes rising sea levels and erratic weather patterns, like frequent flooding and droughts. 

Le Anh says that because the area is low and flat it is vulnerable to salinity, erosion, and flooding.

The Mekong Delta is an agricultural miracle area that pumps out more than a third of the country’s food crops and 60 percent of its shrimp and fish. While it takes up just ten percent of its total land mass.

So changes to the area will have catastrophic impacts for the people of Vietnan, snatching away their food supply.

Tam Sau, 61, is watching her children play, as she tells me that the land we’re sitting on here in Minh Thuong district, 4 hours drive from Can Tho, is sinking.

“Look at that canal,” she says pointing.

“It gets wider and deeper, and the bank gets steeper every year. We hardly use the water because the bank is about to collapse. Many houses on the bank have already been moved. People there couldn’t sleep at night.”

They have good reason to worry. 

River banks are eroding all over the Mekong Delta. 

Just 2 hours drive away, in Dam Doi district, more than 30 houses were swallowed by the river. In April, another disaster in Nam Can district killed a family of four while they were sleeping. 

Towns and homes all over the are being swallowed up by rivers. 

“Many of us have given up our long-time habit of living by the sea and rivers,” Tam Sau sad sadly, “as erosion can kill at anytime.”


Groundwater is being extracted at an ever faster rate to support growing urbanization. That’s causing severe erosion, and the collapse of river banks. 

On the one hand, land is sinking because of erosion. While on the other hand, rising sea levels are swallowing up low lying coastal areas. 

Coastal provinces are being squeezed. Each year, hundreds of acres of land disappears.

Mai Van Huang, works in Tra Su natural conservation site in An Giang. Not far from where the river just swallowed another row of houses. 

“We use to have an abundance of fish in the area,” he said. “Since they started building dams upstream, fishermen near my village found it’s more difficult to fish. Fish are becoming scarce. We notice it at the dinner table!” 

As seawater penetrates up to 90 kilometres inland, vast swathes of farming land and fisheries are being ruined. 

Erosion and rising sea levels are increasing the salinity in the area, making farming impossible.

“Rice crops were the first to die, followed by hardier fruit trees and coconut palms,” Tam Sau said. “And eventually, even my salt water shrimp were lost.”

As I leave Tam Sau’s home, I see signs erected in dried up shrimp ponds, advertising land for sale. 

People who have lived off this land for generations are being forced out to nearby cities, to try and make a living there. But it’s not clear where their food will come from now the Mekong Delta is disappearing. 


  • Vietnam environment
  • Mekong Delta
  • Vietnam development
  • Cuu Long
  • Kannikar Petchkaew

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