Mekong Delta boat sets sail with lucky trees for Tet

From deep in the Mekong Delta, kumquat plants journey to Saigon streets in a boat laden with hopes.

For farmers growing ornamental kumquat in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, Lunar New Year festival (Tet) is the most important time of the year, for which they prepare for years.

55-year-old Bay Trieu had to wait for three Tet festivals to pass before he could harvest his 50 golden fruit bearing trees.

With its bright yellow fruits, kumquat trees symbolize wealth in Vietnamese culture. Families across the country are willing to pay good money for the plants to grace their house for the Lunar New Year.

Bay and one of his workers load 50 kumquat plants on the 11-meter-long and 5-meter-wide wooden boat, getting ready for a 14-hour-long journey from Ben Tre Province to Ho Chi Minh City.

“If things go well, a kumquat tree will sell for a few million dong (over $100),” Bay told Andy Ip Thien – a photographer who asked to hop on his rented boat in Cai Mon, Ben Tre Province right before it sailed to the Binh Dong Wharf in Ho Chi Minh City – the southern market hub for ornamental plants and flowers for Tet.  

Bay (R) and his workers take a break from the loading.

With the delta’s large and interlaced network of waterways, residents have developed a sophisticated water transportation system, where canals are the main roads, rivers are highways, and boats are the common vehicle to move people and goods around.  

Hoai Nhan, 19 and his wife, 18 on the boat, which has also been their home for the whole year.

Also rich and distinctive is the culture that evolves around a floating life. As night falls, before the boat sets sail, Bay Trieu and Nhan Hoai – the boat owner and its helmsman, lay out on its wooden floor a plate with two boiled ducks, a bowl of rice and three small glasses of rice wine.

And in the light of an oil lamp, they kneel in front of the small outdoor altar they’ve just set up, burn three incense sticks and whisper prayers to God and the River, seeking their protection and blessings for the journey.  

Traders and boatmen are also usually cautious about letting strangers on board for their business trip: they don’t want their fortune to be messed up by the outsider's aura.

Bay Trieu was in good mood, though, and he invited Andy for a drink after the incense sticks stopped glowing. They said they would give him a ride from Co Chien River to the bigger stream of Can Giuoc River.  

A small farewell party for Bay Trieu and his workers in the garden before he departs for Ho Chi Minh City with the boat full of kumquat trees. Only three of his workers would accompany him in the journey.

“The large orchards, where they grow and send away hundreds or even thousands of plants and flowers, prefer to use big trucks to transport them,” Bay said of the current trend of traders moving trees on dry land as the road network expands in the Mekong Delta.

“My load is small, just a few dozen kumquat plants. It is cheaper for me to hire Hoai and his boat to carry them from my garden.” Bay said, adding that he paid VND20 million ($869.6) for the 14 hour journey. A plant trader would pay Binh Dong wharf VND5 million ($217.39) for a slot for the boat to dock for a few days.

SLIDESHOW | On the boat of golden wealth

(Click on buttons on the right to see more photos.)

Nhan Hoai, the helmsman, adjusts the light to shine on the dark river, getting ready to sail. He has only two years of experience in transporting rice in the delta, and that worries Bay.

Bay's workers try to push the boat away from a low concrete bridge. Bridges are the main challenge they face in the journey, with some too low or spans too narrow. The boat has to maneuver carefully through such spaces.

One of Bay's workers jumps into the cold water to pull the boat to the bank. The machine seems to be broken after a short ride as Hoai has pushed it too hard.

Bay and his workers pull layers of a palm leaves roof over the plants to shield them from the wind and hoarfrost at night.

Hoai wakes up the next morning. The machine has been fixed and they are ready to resume the journey.

Bay and his workers have breakfast with duck leftover from the previous night’s party and some rice wine.

People on the boat are worried as they approach another low bridge on the river.

They make it through without incident.


While Bay expects to go home with an empty boat and full pockets after the trip, Hoai – the 19 year old helmsman, simply hopes that he and his wife, Kim Ngan, can wrap everything up and go to his parent’s home before the last day of the Year of the Dog.

“My wife and I have been living afloat for the whole year,” Hoai said. “We want to prepare and celebrate Tet of our own, with our family, and on land.”

Nhan Hoai, the young captain of the kumquat boat and his 18-year-old wife Kim Ngan smile with relief after he manages to steer it through.

Story by Andy Ip Thien, Nhung Nguyen

Photos by Andy Ip Thien