Friday, September 30, 2011

The Mekong: photos and a book review

The Mekong River at Phenom Penh
Having traveled for nearly four months means one comes back to a hectic schedule.  I haven’t been as faithful reading blogs or postings as I'd like.  I did recently make another post in my “riding rails” blog (one on Kungur, Russia) and only have two more posts to get me out of Russia!  This is a book review that I wrote a rough draft of in Saigon this summer.  I was beginning to worry that I’d lost the book as I sent it home in a package that I mailed from Saigon (and interestingly, when I got the package, the Post Office stamp said Saigon and not Ho Chi Minh City).  The package arrived yesterday!  Here’s the review and enjoy the photos that I took in late June and early July.

Milton Osborne, The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future (New York: Grove Press, 2000), 295 pages, some black and white photos and 8 pages of color photos inserted, sources and an index.

Saigon seemed the perfect place to finish this book on the Mekong River, as I’ve come into this country on the river from Cambodia.  This is a major work by an Australian who spent a good part of his life working in the countries around the Mekong.  He first came to this region in the late 1950s as a student and in the 60s worked in the Australian Consulate in Phnom Penh.  In this book, the author traces the history of the region back to the “Pre-Angkor” era to the end of the 20th Century.  However, he only gives a general background to the area’s history before the French began their exploration of the region in the early 19th century.  Much of the book centers on the French failed attempts to develop the river into a major waterway into China, allowing them to tap into the riches of the “Middle Kingdom.”  The Mekong rises high the mountains of Southern China, east of Tibet.   In an era of European colonization, the French envied the British position in Hong Kong and hoped to gain some access to China via Indochina.   Although much investment was made into the Mekong as a major waterway, the falls on the river between Laos and Cambodia were too great to be overcome.  In time, the French built a railroad around the falls, but river traffic was slow and unpredictable as the river would rise during the rainy season (and after the snow melt), flooding thousands of miles of land, only to drop so low during the dry season that only shallow draft boats could traverse the upper reaches of the river.   It was noted that in the 19th Century it took more time to travel up the river into Laos on the Mekong than it did to travel from France to Vietnam.

In the 1930s, French rule of Indochina was showing signs of weakening, especially in the Mekong Delta where powerful Vietnamese families (mostly Catholic) controlled large plantations and who treated the rest of their own countrymen as brutally as the French.  This brutality led to the organization of what would become the Vietcong.  In World War Two, after the fall of France, the Vichy French government gave Japan free access to Indochina.  The Japanese left the French in charge, as they had unrestricted movement of troops through the region.  During this time, they built bases and airstrips that allowed them to make their attacks on the British and Dutch colonies to the south.  Near the end of the war, the Japanese decided it would be better for them to dispose the French and allow the native populations to govern themselves.  This set up the conflict that occurred after the war when France tried to reestablish its control of the region.
A boat hauling freight and produce on the Mekong
When the author first visited Vietnam in the late 1950s, he describes how he found the Vietnamese women in their “ao-dai” (a traditional dress  pronounced ow-zai) as “grace itself.”  There are still women that wore such outfits who walked by the bench in the park that I sat on while finishing this book.  Such beauty also forms the background of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American (which I also read while in Vietnam and of which Osborne refers to in his work).   Interestingly, Osborne doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the American aspect of the Vietnam War (he allocates as much space for the French war).  One battle that he does cover extensively is the Ap Pac, which occurred in the Mekong Delta in 1963, in which a much stronger and well equipped South Vietnamese army was routed by the Vietcong.  The battle, according to Osborn, was a sign of what was to come.  During the last half of the book, when he discusses the Mekong Region during the second half of the twentieth century, he includes numerous personal memories such as his friendship with a Cambodian Catholic priest who was killed by the Khmer Rouge and his visit to the “killing fields” in early 1980, a year after the horror had ended.

The book ends with a discussion of the impact a bridge over the Mekong in Vietnam will have on the region (the bridge at Can Tho is now completed and open), the problems of pollution and a discussion of development along the river (many of which had been proposed in the 50s and 60s and shelved due to the war, but are now being reconsidered.

Osborne is a man who obviously loves the region and has done much research.  His book provides the background for why the French were involved in Indochina and the history of the region from the 19th through the late 20th Century.  Because the book is dated, you will need to look elsewhere to discover what has happened in the region over the past two decades as Cambodia and Vietnam have liberalized their economies. Also, if you are more interested in the ancient history of the region, I suggest you look elsewhere such as Michael D. Coe’s Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. 

A ferry crossing of the Mekong


  1. I must get this one. I've had the notion that the genesis of revolt and revolution in Indochina had much to do with internal French tensions than it ever had with communism per se.

  2. The book would not be my cup of tea, but your posts are!

  3. Wow, what an amazingbook this is!. Thanks for stopping by (Sepia Saturday) yes, you are the lake today....well deserved, it's been a busy work/stuff to do, alway...that's a good thing...but it all uses up so much blogging time...ha ha....we are having beautiful summer weather....chilly at the moment....but it's going to be time for the beach...very soon!

  4. At one point my history interests would have had me tearing off to get this book. Unfortunately too many interests these days and not enough time. I do love pics of the Mekong though.

  5. nice...will def check this out...what a cool coincidence of finishing it at the river...

  6. Good pics.

    Some years back, I read a very detailed article about the Mekong's influence on all of SE Asia over the centuries. I need to pick this one up to add to that.


  7. That's so neat that you got to read this on your trip. So interesting.

  8. I feel privileged to be a benefactor of your reading, learning, and sharing. I enjoy your photos, too!