Flo was in a state of permanent pleasure for the whole day the moment she was given a bright orange lifejacket to wear and, contrary to what might seem logical, the strong winds and hard backed seats made for a much more comfortable – and cooler – environment for Lou and her ever growing bump (36 weeks and counting…)
There were just a few jolts and thuds against the current on the way back which caused some of our party on board to glance over in Lou’s direction with momentary panic in their eyes – however no “Baby delivered on boat in Mekong” headlines to report on this occasion.
What is worth capturing, but without this post veering too much into CARE International ‘PR’ territory, is simply how our short adventure exposed how some of life’s cruellest ironies play out over here.
That Vietnam represents a country of increasing economic prosperity at the moment is truly exciting. That so many people here are committed solely to encouraging peace and prosperity for their children and grandchildren is equally as captivating and inspiring.
That, within metres of some of Saigon’s most expensive real estate, there live families whose ‘homes’ are makeshift cupboards built halfway up apartment stairwells is, of course, the picture that so often gets forgotten.
Makeshift homes are found worldwide in various forms. Along the banks of the Saigon River however, the extent to which the poverty divide exists here is made visible for all to see.
There are too many images to take in as you pass by sheet upon rusted sheet of corrugated iron panelling, patched together to make up someone’s home, and existing just half a metre above the murky waters. Tattered wooden planks have been laid down for flooring, and various poles and washing lines jut out at all angles, carrying with them newly washed blouses and t-shirts as they dry in the sunshine.
Inside some of these most precarious looking abodes live tens of thousands of people. Those we saw remain in fact quite fortunate that their own sacred square feet of property have not yet been demolished, rendering them actually homeless, as has been the case in other parts of the city.
For those lucky enough to remain living inches above the ever rising river, $2 or $3 at best is what they are focused on earning every day. Making these precious dollars is almost certainly what consumes their every waking hour. All energies and effort is invested in this enterprise.
People fish (although much of the Saigon has now been over fished, or simply too polluted to contain anything worth catching) or might run street vending businesses – selling anything from lottery tickets and cigarettes, through to more entrepreneurial items such as cooked snacks, iced tea, magazines.
For those more successful in acquiring employment, they might work as receptionists or as security guards. Jobs with uniforms and elevated dignity, but jobs that still might only pay $200 a month. About £4 a day.
Out of the city and into Mekong Delta territory, and our tour took in the local markets and villages of My Tho, where income generating activities are much the same, and pay is low.
Welcoming faces and warm gestures are found in the covered markets, where you can buy catfish, shrimps, trout, frogs, squid and heaven-knows-what else. Pick and choose, as your future dinner attempts to take in its last gulp of life from inside the tub of shallow water in which it is being kept.
Vietnam, like many other countries, runs itself on an incredible concoction of industry, spirit and hard graft. It also is a country brimming with underlying causes of poverty statistics that often go unnoticed by the passing tourist.
CARE don’t in fact need any PR support from me to tell this story, as they have been working to address inequalities and injustices in countries such as Vietnam for many years.
There are good tour companies too, such as the Saigon River Express which we used, that are helping in their own way shine a light on social issues, and I hope companies like these continue to benefit from curious tourists in the future.