As soon as you come to Vietnam, you feel the water. It’s hovering in the air, at a steady 90% grade, surrounding cities and filling rice paddies.
Generations of colonial types have wiped their brows in the languorous heat, undertaking the trade activities that Vietnam’s 3,200 km of coastline and ample river network have given the country a reputation for, going back to the 1,000 years of Chinese occupation.
Vietnam’s twin poles are situated around mighty river deltas, and it’s said that their differing agricultural patterns are responsible for northerners’ stinginess and southerners’ excess. In Vietnamese, the words for “country” and “water” are the same — nuoc.
Vietnam’s founding myths have to do with what must have been proof of god for its early settlers — mountains and limestone karsts rising out of calm, warm ocean.
One is the dragon king Lac Long Quan marrying the mountain fairy Au Co, having 100 babies, then splitting up their children between the mountains and the sea. The mountain babies became the ancestors of every living Vietnamese.
Another tells of a rivalry between Son Tinh, the god of mountains, and Thuy Tinh, the god of water. They were both suitors for the hand of a beautiful lady, and the resultant battle evolved phenomena like monsoon season, the tidal irrigation that nurtures Vietnam’s rice fields to this day and the dykes that surround them.
These myths hint at a love-hate relationship to Vietnam’s waters. The rainy season is a bear, and around 3,500 children a year die by drowning. Not many Vietnamese can swim, even though many make their living from the water.
Many riverboats have eyes painted on the bottom to ward off sea demons, but the largest creatures in the sea are venerated — there is conjecture of whale cults predating every religion now present in the country.
Lush, white sand beaches are deserted in the heat of the day, or else visited by locals in hooded sweatshirts. And sometimes their waters are also shunned.
In 2016, an industrial dumping incident killed more than 100 tons of fish in the country’s center, with the government covering up its source in the aftermath, and suppressing protests when the responsible party was revealed. Six months later, 10 tons of dead fish turned up on the surface of Hanoi’s West Lake.
The reaction has been a general sense of unease. This unease is not a new feeling. The 100 lakes dotted around Hanoi have become so polluted that those in the surrounding communities turn away from them instead of orienting their daily lives around them. And though Saigon cleaned up its canals in the past few years, it had to evict tens of thousands of people living in shanty housing along them to do so.
But people still eat seafood along the canal, and swim in West Lake on hot days. As the saying goes, “No mud, no lotus.”