By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer
One of the great gentlemanly travel writers of a bygone era, Norman Lewis, once observed that "the lives of the people of the Far East are lived in public…. The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two."
Here in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the street is the river.
And the people's lives are played out on the muddy waters of the world's ninth longest river system.
One afternoon, off the River Can Tho, everywhere we looked there was human activity. An elderly man with a caved-in chest was washing his neck. A woman swung in a hammock hooked up inside a boat cabin. Teenage girls, fresh from a meal at a nearby hawker stall, rinsed their feet and hands in the water. A young man squatting on a makeshift dock was sorting eggs. Thin long boats cruised the canals, more than a few of them sporting a potted green shrub and the day's washing. On some, dogs or cats lounged in the shade - one even sported a rooster pecking around the deck.
Further along the river, the pace stepped up. A lone fisherman gathered his net from the water, the skeleton of a new bridge (one of two in the immediate area) looming over him. We chanced upon a crane unloading loose rock and gravel from a barge onto a construction site by the riverbank. Not far, on another barge, four men sifted slowly through a pile of wood logs a dozen feet tall.
THE RIVER IS THE ROAD
Seeing all the cargo shuttled about, we begin to appreciate that here the rivers are roads.
Puttering along the water, narrow long boats and cargo ships criss-cross the Mekong's tributaries and canals all day long -- ferrying people and goods. Lots of goods.
In Ben Tre province, we were transfixed by the sight of four men in a longboat tossing coconuts several feet UP to fellow workmen standing on a huge freighter. On a second ship moored not more than a few hundred feet away, groups of men stacked large bales of straw on top of one another.
At the early morning floating market -- a defining feature of Vietnam's Delta region -- we filmed tradesmen plying regular and potential customers with lychees, pineapples, coconuts, limes, in fact, all manner of tropical fruits from boats bursting with locally-grown produce.
Later, as the light fell, and the sky behind us erupted into a mixture of pink and orange, the riverbank was dotted with the day's last bit of activity. We smelled - rather than saw - cooking. Even at the widest point of one canal, fried garlic and baked bread (no joke; to the western palate, the Vietnamese baguette ranks among the finest bread in Asia) wafted out to our longboat zipping down the middle of the water.
Men of all ages - shirtless and gaunt -- washed their torsos with river water. Strips of fluorescent lighting dotted the landscape before us as families gathered for a meal. Teenagers took a last dip as the rain began to come down.
It was hard not to summon Norman Lewis once again. Although his description below from A Dragon Apparent comes from Saigon in the 1950s, it seems befitting of the Mekong Delta in the 2000s:
"Here it was the diversity of occupation that was so remarkable. There must have been many hundreds of people in sight, all busily living their own lives and most of them independently of the actions of others in their immediate neighbourhood."