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Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta
by David Biggs , William Cronon
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Reviewed by: John Walsh

One of the principal themes of Vietnamese history over the long-term has been the steady move to the south - nam tien - that has seen the Viet people progress down the narrow coastal strip from their centre in Hanoi and the Hong River plain to, ultimately, the Mekong Delta region at the southeastern tip of the continent of Asia. This is a process that has taken some two thousand years and has involved numerous advances and retreats. For many hundreds of years, the southern portion of what is now Vietnam was occupied by the Chams, with whom the Viets had a lengthy and often fractious relationship, if we are to take as evidence the many incidences of raids and military attacks between the two. The nam tien regularly reached the Mekong delta region: the Nine Dragons, as the nine branches of the Mekong have come to be called. This is an area with what could be some of the most fertile land in the world, considering the amount of sediment that is deposited there. However, it is also an area that, because it is just on average one metre above sea level for almost its entire extent, is regularly flooded for long periods and also undergoes the regular reverse flow of the Mekong, which brings sea water into a freshwater system to produce the brackish water that is suitable for a distinctively different set of ecologies. This has made for a region which appeared to defeat the ingenuity and technology available to the indigenous people. Whatever they tried, it seemed, it would not last for long. When the French colonists arrived on the scene, therefore, they rather anticipated that their superior organization and, as they saw it, superior civilization would represent a significant advantage in bringing nature into productive use in a way that would add further legitimacy to the colonization process. Unfortunately for them, this proved not to be the case:

"Because of [the] multiple, overlapping layers of constructed space and the delta's amorphous, amphibious nature, it serves as an ideal environment for a history of modernization oriented to physical examples of slippage, erasure, and rupture. The delta's unsolid surfaces, where it is often difficult to reach solid ground, repeatedly challenge human efforts to build permanent spaces. Every September and October, monsoon rains bring sweeping floods that cover much of the flatlands and threaten to erase the dense array of fields and levees and the fragile network of roads and bridges. Almost every inch of the delta's surfaces are cultivated by human hands (including water surfaces), but the Mekong can in a matter of days erase every trace of such work (p.6)."

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the interior of the delta region has acted throughout history as a place of refuge for dissidents of various types, as well as bandits, revolutionaries and religious visionaries. This became very evident to the American military and its South Vietnamese allies during the Second Indochinese War, when Communist insurgents were able to establish various bases in the area beyond the reach of the most technologically advanced military forces the world had then seen. These days, the state of Vietnam wishes to extend its reach into the interior of the delta region so as to improve the lives of people living there by connecting them with markets in the rest of the country and further afield. It has become one of the areas now passing through what Polanyi called 'the great transformation.'

At the local level, the nam tien involves the adaptation of locally available technologies to incoming farmers with their own sets of expectations and aspirations. It is frequently the case that the Vietnamese farmers find that their Khmer counterparts, who have occupied the area much longer, have already developed better means of working the land effectively through their tools, their buffaloes and their level of knowledge. From Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese occupation of the delta region is regularly depicted as a foreign plot perpetrated by one-time fraternal but never really trusted neighbours. After all, the cultural difference between Cambodia and Vietnam is much more significant than that between Cambodia and its other neghbours, Thailand and Laos. Even Malaysia seems to be a better fit, given the number of young Khmer women now travelling there to work in domestic service. Yet, in this account by Biggs, the increase in the number of Vietnamese is probably better seen as the increased ability better seen as the improved ability of people needing more land to farm to adapt to difficult local conditions by borrowing knowledge and technology from those already living there; it is not, of course, as if there is an excess of Khmer farmers seeking land in the delta region (although it would be a better location from a productivity point of view than much of the northeast of Cambodia).

In this penetrating and compelling book, Andrew Biggs has told the story of the Mekong delta region and its experience with modernism and modernization. It is a story filled with fascinating details and glimpses into the lives and work of those who had been involved with those changes. There is an emphasis on American involvement in the development process but this is perfectly understandable. The Vietnamese government uses the term xay dung nha nuoc to mean building the nation (p.222) and this is a process that, for Vietnam as for so many other East Asian nations, has heavily features the desires and efforts of other nations.

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