At three in the morning, Dang Van Binh, 34, wakes up in his hut by a river in An Phu Trung Commune in Ben Tre Province’s Ba Tri District.
He stands by the bed, looking at his two daughters, aged 12 and two, sleeping. Sighing, he walks to the front door.
His wife, Thach Thi Bo Pha has also got up. She packs some torn clothes for him to wear, dried fish, duck eggs, ten kilos of rice, and VND600,000 ($25) in cash. These are everything Binh gets to travel to a place 300 kilometers (187 miles) away to seek a livelihood.
It was an early morning in February this year when it is still the dry season in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
A native of Ben Tre, Binh dropped out of school in sixth grade due to poverty. He went to Ho Chi Minh City for a while to work. It was there he met Pha, a Khmer woman, 13 years ago. She had left her home in Bac Lieu, another province in the delta, to work in the city just like Binh.
After getting married, the couple returned to Ben Tre and did various manual jobs for a living.
Five years ago Binh’s parents gave him a 1,000-square-meter field to grow rice. The first year, with little experience in rice cultivation, the couple ended up empty-handed.
The next year, 2016, brought the worst ever drought and salinity levels in a century in the Mekong Delta. Its 12 provinces and a city lost 8,000 hectares of rice as a result. Some 600,000 people lacked freshwater and another 160,000 hectares of paddy were damaged. The losses added up to VND5.5 trillion ($237 million).
Binh and Pha contributed to those losses. The couple also incurred a debt of VND20 million ($850).
The school dropouts could not find another job as factories in the region had no vacancies.
Later, thanks to an acquaintance, the two found jobs at a cashew nut processing factory in Bu Dang District in Binh Phuoc Province. They sent their then eight-year-old daughter to Binh’s parents and left for Binh Phuoc 300 km away.
They worked very hard for three months, picking cashews in the farm and processing them to get the nuts. Limiting their spending to as little as they could, the couple saved VND10 million ($436). They returned home, paid half the debt and decided to stay. Pha said she had spent all her life moving and wanted to settle down.
The two continued to work on their rice field. But the salinity from 2016 had not gone away and their rice crop was poor.
Desperate, they decided to switch to growing loofah. But their lack of experience again meant losing the first crop. By then they had the second child and life was even more difficult.
They continued to live with what they had and could not pay off their debts.
During the dry season this year, which normally lasts from November to April, the Mekong Delta suffered from historic levels of salinity.
The rainy season arrived late last year and was shorter than usual, resulting in 8 percent less rainfall than normal, according the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
China’s construction of a number of upstream dams has been blamed for reducing the natural flow of water. Experts also point to the sea level rise and the gradual sinking of southern Vietnam for the seawater intrusion in rivers.
Tien Giang, Ben Tre, Long An, Kien Giang, Ca Mau, and Soc Trang provinces have declared an emergency. By mid-March saltwater had intruded 50-110 kilometers into the delta’s major rivers, all tributaries or distributaries of the Mekong, significantly more than in 2016.
So far this year the salt intrusion and the resultant lack of freshwater have damaged 43,000 hectares of rice while 80,000 families lack water.
Hundreds of families are in the same situation as Binh’s, and many have decided to leave for a new land to find more stable livelihoods.
The evening before leaving, Binh borrowed VND1.7 million ($74) from a neighbor. He gave his wife VND700,000 and spent VND400,000 on some medicines to treat a headache he acquired from a motorbike crash years ago.
He left with a group of around 10 people from his neighborhood.
Ben Tre is one of final destinations of the Mekong River, which flows through six countries, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, before reaching the sea. Like many other parts of the delta, the province was formed by the deposition of sediments over a long period of time. When the Vietnamese expanded their nation to the south, they began to conquer the delta in the 18th century.
For generations, no other place in the nation could compare with the Mekong Delta as a hub for agriculture and aquaculture.
But now the green of fields and forests has been replaced by the grey and dark yellow of dried, burned fields and parched lands.
Nguyen Van Minh is a neighbor of Binh. He lives in An Thuan Hamlet of An Phu Trung Commune, two canals away from Binh's. At 43, Minh has more grey hairs and wrinkles than a man his age usually does.
He has three children, the eldest of whom dropped out of school in 11th grade due to poverty while the remaining two are still in primary school.
All his life Minh has had a certificate recognizing his family as poor. A poor family in rural areas earns less than VND4.8 million ($209) per year per member.
One morning in February, Sau, head of An Thuan Hamlet, drove his motorbike through the dried, cracked fields and stopped in front of Minh’s house.
He had brought a new ‘poor family’ certificate. "It’s a red one, so let’s see if it is going to bring you any prosperity," he said. In East Asian culture, red is a symbol of good fortune.
Minh married when he was 21. Like his brother’s family, he and his wife, Thu, live in a hut by the river. In 14 years of living together, they have never envisioned living in a proper house.
They do manual jobs and have no land to cultivate.
Four years ago they rented one hectare of land to grow paddy in winter-spring. That was the year of the big salt, and Minh and Thu were left with a debt of more than VND20 million ($871).
Later crops worked out all right for Minh: he could earn more than VND10 million from each crop and have straw for his cows.
But poverty never stopped stalking his family.
This year he rented 14,000 square meters of land for VND15 million and planted rice. Two months later salinity hit again, and once again he was in debt.
The couple sent their oldest daughter to Binh Duong Province, an industrial hub near HCMC, to work as a waitress at a restaurant.
Minh and Thu worked as porters, carrying soil as hired by people who need to fix their houses or farms.
"This time last year I was hired to bundle rice, but now the rice is all dead," Thu said. "Carrying soil is not a job I can get every day though."
Minh waded into a canal near his house to look for fish for dinner, but could not find any since most had died due to the salt intrusion.
Future at stake
After 10 years as head of the hamlet, Sau knows almost everyone in An Thuan. He visits people’s houses so frequently that their dogs rush out to welcome him every time he stops by.
But these days he has to check the list twice to see who is still in the commune and who has left.
An Thuan is home to 350 families and most of them earn a living from rice farming. In the past the scene during harvest here was one not to be missed as people gathered in big groups in the golden fields for the task.
Along the fields, carts would wait in line to carry away the harvested rice. In the river, boats would be full of rice bags.
Now as he drives along the main path in the commune, Sau sees houses with locked doors and only elderly and children inside those that are not. In the river, even wild water fern, which cannot be destroyed easily using normal methods, cannot endure the salinity.
"The failed crops have driven people away, forced them to leave their children behind to work for factories far from home," he said.
Ba Tri District, which has the largest area under rice in Ben Tre, lost almost all 5,000 hectares of this year’s winter-spring crop to saltwater.
The salinity has also hit other districts, threatening 4,000 hectares of bonsai and fruits in Cho Lach and 1,000 hectares of prawn farms in Thanh Phu.
All freshwater reservoirs in Ben Tre Province have been contaminated by salt.
Trees along the many canals are dry and withered.
Under the scorching sun, cows can be seen with their bellies distended. Since the water is salty, the more they drink it the thirstier they get, and they keep drinking until their bellies cannot hold any more.
Thousands of families in the province have to buy freshwater at VND300,000 per cubic meter.
The story is the same around the delta. People in Tien Giang Province reported that canals have run dry for the first time in 30 years. The salinity level in the water near their houses is more than five grams per liter. Salinity of above one gram makes it unpotable, and between two and 10 is unsafe for most crops.
Sau squeezed his forehead, fearing for the future of his commune. He was worried that more people would leave once the ongoing winter-spring crop is finally over and drought and salinity left them nothing to harvest.
According to the 2019 census, the Mekong Delta was the region with the highest emigration rate among the country's six socio-economic regions.
In the five years between April 2014 and April 2019, the ratio for the delta had been 45 out of 1,000 people. Some 728,000 had left the place.
The average rate for the rest of the country was less than half that, at 22 out of 1,000.
Le Anh Tuan, deputy director of Can Tho University’s Research Institute of Climate Change, said the calamity faced by the delta cannot be blamed just on nature or Chinese dams.
"Sea levels rise and Earth gets warmer. Yes. But that happens just a little each year and it needs a long period for dramatic changes. It is humans who have accelerated that process."
Ever since the delta was formed, it has had several low-lying areas, including the Long Xuyen quadrilateral in Kien Giang and An Giang provinces and Can Tho City and the Plain of Reeds, a wetland straddling Long An and Dong Thap provinces. They worked as natural reservoirs to store the seasonal floodwaters, and for generations farmers did not use them for cultivation.
However, due to the wars, the nation had to consider food security. People then built embankments to prevent the seasonal floodwaters from flowing into them and direct them away into the sea.
"Now in peace time, we still have the mindset of growing as much rice as we can, and many have treated the seasonal floods as a disaster for their paddy fields while in fact it is a blessing," Tuan lamented.
"With that thinking, many have continued to keep out the flood, going against nature, thus intensifying the drought once it took hold in the region."
The grass is not greener
After leaving his home in Ben Tre, Binh paid VND330,000 and sat for 11 hours in three different low-quality buses that piled on as many passengers as they could as long as there was no sign of the police.
Left with just VND270,000 in his pocket, Binh luckily found a job at a small cashew processing factory not far from the one he and his wife had worked in four years ago.
Seeing that Binh and his group were very poor, the owner of the factory let them stay for free in rooms built for workers, only collecting water and electricity costs. Binh's room spreads no more than ten square meters.
Binh’s two younger siblings and their families have recently followed in his steps. They have come to work at the same cashew factory, and stay in rooms next to his. Binh stays alone, his younger sister, 30, her husband and two-year-old son stay in another room and their youngest brother, 20, and his wife in a third.
Every day they all have instant noodles for breakfast and lunch and save rice for dinner, which they consider the most important meal after a long day of work.
In a typical day Binh works 10 hours. He cooks the nuts, classifies them, and loads them as required. By working 27 days in a month, a worker like him can earn VND6 million. He spends VND1 million on food and other needs and puts aside the rest to send home.
Working conditions are savage in the southern heat, with temperatures staying above 30 degrees Celsius from late morning to late afternoon and Binh and the other workers working next to ovens to cook the cashews in a factory with iron sheets for a roof.
After cooking, Binh peels the nuts and loads them batch by batch into bags.
Not far from where he works, his nephew sleeps on a hammock despite the heat and the noise around him. Binh said because his parents wished for a better life for their son, they named him Sang meaning ‘luxury’.
There have been days when Binh was tired, depressed and homesick and only wanted to return home. But every time he has managed to get over it, telling himself he needs this job so that he could provide for his wife and children.
"Now I am still healthy and so I will try my best to work and make as much money as possible. I will wait for the rainy season to return home and work in the field again."
But then no one can say what awaits the Mekong Delta’s emigrants. Minh’s oldest daughter has had to quit her job as a waitress in Binh Duong and return home after the Covid-19 pandemic first scared people away from dining out and then forced restaurants to shut down temporarily.
Minh’s wife said all she wishes now is for the rain to come soon so that she could have some water for cooking and "taking a proper shower."
Hoang Nam, Pham Linh
Photos by Hoang Nam