Nguyen Trong Binh
An endless stream of people driving motorbikes and cars from various provinces in the Mekong Delta like Hau Giang, Soc Trang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, and An Giang flooded the roads near my sister’s house in Vinh Long Province: They had come to see the inauguration of the My Thuan Bridge.
I was one of them.
Excited at the prospect of seeing the country’s first cable-stayed bridge, one that spans the Tien River, a major branch of the Mekong, to link Vinh Long and Tien Giang, I had gone to my sister’s house, eight kilometers from the bridge, the previous day, and got up early the next day for the inauguration.
Smartphones had yet to make an appearance, and I did not have anything to record the scenes. But for the first time in my life I saw that many people gathered at one place. Almost all roads leading to the bridge and the bridge were gridlocked. There were people everywhere.
On the sides of the roads leading to the bridge, locals were selling iced tea and instant noodles to the visitors from noon to late night.
Due to the gridlock, many got stuck for a long time under the scorching sun of southern Vietnam’s dry season, but everybody looked happy, talking and smiling and patiently waiting for their turn to cross the bridge.
The atmosphere made me feel like the bridge had become wings for the entire Mekong Delta to fly high.
Almost a week after My Thuan Bridge opened to traffic, the media and the public still talked about the event with unprecedented excitement.
When I returned the next day to Can Tho University, my teacher read out to us a poem he had written hailing the bridge. He could not hide his pride, and believed that from that moment the delta would thrive.
The reality has been bitterly different.
Twenty years on the delta, where the Mekong River splits into nine major distributaries before reaching the sea, has had several more cable-stayed bridges.
Most recently the Vam Cong Bridge between Dong Thap Province and Can Tho City opened in 2019 after six years of construction and repairs, and will replace the 100-year-old ferry service across the river.
But the delta has failed to “fly high” as its residents had hoped.
Facilitated by its natural terrain and weather conditions, it has for generations been an agriculture and aquaculture hub that meets not just domestic demand but also serves exports, yet it has remained a laggard in socio-economic development.
A new report by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management in Ho Chi Minh City said in the last 10 years more than 1.3 million people have emigrated from the delta .
According to the 2019 census, the delta had the highest emigration rate among the country’s six distinct regions.
In the five years between April 2014 and April 2019 45 out of 1,000 people had left.
The average for the rest of the country was less than half that: 22.
Those who left cited a worsening climate that no longer allows them to grow crops normally whereas HCMC and its nearby provinces offer them jobs in the services and industrial sectors.
The economic significance of the region has gradually diminished, with its contribution to the country’s economic growth declining steeply from three decades ago.
Spanning more than 3.9 million hectares and with 13 provinces and a city and population of 20 million, a fifth of Vietnam’s, it now accounts for 17.7 percent of the country’s GDP.
There have been so many ideas and proposals to rescue the delta but poor traffic infrastructure is a major bottleneck, and for years the delta has been waiting for investment to be prioritized to mitigate that.
It is the only one of the six socio-economic regions not to have the railroad, not to mention the fragmented and unsynchronized road and waterway networks.
The other five regions are the northern mountains, the Red River Delta, the north central-central coast, the Central Highlands, and the southeast.
Investment in the delta’s traffic infrastructure accounted for only 12.5 percent of the nation’s total in the 2011-15 period.
In the next five years it increased to more than 15 percent or VND65 trillion ($2.8 billion).
Meanwhile, 80 percent of the goods produced there has to be transported to HCMC for domestic distribution and export.
The lack of infrastructure has acted as a drag on investment and economic and tourism development.
“The Mekong Delta is home to a dense network of waterways” is what we learn in school.
That means bridges such as My Thuan and, together with them, an extensive network of roads are what it needs because transport by boat takes much more time than by road.
For the last decade or so the sight of thousands of people getting stuck under the scorching sun when returning back to Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces after the Lunar New Year and other holidays has been a recurring one.
Vehicles stuck in a traffic jam on Rach Mieu Bridge in Ben Tre Province in 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.
National Highways 1A and 50 are the only major links between HCMC and the delta. And in the 20 years since My Thuan Bridge was built, only one expressway has been built to connect the region with the outside world.
That one expressway, HCMC-Trung Luong, only recently got an extension, a section called Trung Luong-My Thuan that now runs 51 km (32 miles), but it took 12 years to complete after a plethora of delays.
I still have my teacher’s poem, but I have stopped dreaming and my aspirations are now more realistic.
Consolidating a transport network that is scientific and modern, both in the water and on land, both highways and railways, is admittedly a big challenge in terms of resources and management, but that will be the only way for us to resolve the ‘rich land, poor people’ paradox that is the delta.
*Nguyen Trong Binh is a teacher at Cuu Long University in the Mekong Delta’s Vinh Long Province. The opinions expressed are his own.