S Sense

Once upon a time I was crossing a bridge that straddles the Mekong River in Ho Chi Minh City. Below, huge barges laden with building materials charged up and down the river. In their wake traditional fishing boats with extended families aboard bobbed violently along the shore. Theres not a lot to catch in the brown waters these days.

On the far side of the bridge is where Ho Chi Minh City is growing fastest the old rice paddies drained, apartment complexes built and the new industries (mostly foreign) bringing big trucks and big change to the area.

These people, unbeaten by the Chinese, the Mongols, the French and the Americans, are powerless against the money muscle of global capitalism.

Beside the highway, squeezed between large new factories and mountains of soil formed by bulldozers, were still some of the old thatched huts where families traditionally lived. Near these pretty but humble dwellings were small, man-made pools where the people farmed fish and shrimp. The traffic on the bridge was, as usual, thick, noisy and unpredictable. Thousands of imported motor bikes and hundreds of old trucks spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the monsoonal sky. A few cyclos (pedal driven vehicles) and pushbikes struggled in the melee.

Mid-bridge, my taxi came across an overturned cyclo. There were fish and shrimp strewn across three lanes.

Next to the upside-down cyclo was an old woman in her conical hat and peasant garb seated on the bitumen holding her arm, rocking backwards and forwards, crying. The pain was etched into her face.

Two young men had jumped from their motorbikes and attended her. One was dressed in a white business shirt, jeans and polished shoes. He was retrieving the spilt produce from her farm before the onslaught of wheels made an imperfect fish sauce from it.

The other, in a ragged shirt, shorts and sandals, squatted beside the old woman, his hand laid gently on her back, comforting her.

The woman cried from her hurt arm but I wondered if she cried also for the disappearing world she knew.

Small fish farms dug into the banks of a polluted Mekong will have no part in the new Ho Chi Minh City. Cyclos themselves cannot compete with trucks. The monsoon is increasingly unreliable as industrialisation warms the planet. The whole country is a delta susceptible to rising sea levels.

Driving off I wondered if she was crying for all of us as we speed like a Honda 125 towards a future that is beyond the control of those it most affects?

I think of that woman often now that Im back in this wide, drying land where the government fudges over important environmental issues to placate, in the short term, the hungry business monster.

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