Mekong Delta Exploratory Research

Mekong Delta Exploratory Research


Over the past 10 years living and teaching in Thailand, one of my favorite past times is exploring the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).

The GMS an intriguing mix of countries, brimming with diverse peoples and historical geographies, offering countless and affordable adventures.

Among my most memorable travels are those taken in 2014 and 2015 to the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.

Friendly faces on the Mekong Delta | Click to Southeast Asian Civilization

Photos on this page link to the Southeast Asian Civilization course.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam | Click to enlarge

Agriculture and Fisheries

Mekong Delta is an expansive floodplain of 40,000 sq. km. populated by over 17 million people across 13 provinces. It is responsible for 60% of Viet Nam’s rice production (90% of this is exported) and 60% of the country’s fruit.

There is a large export industry of fish, and 65% of fishery production is sent to the USA. While there is a considerable fishing fleet working the offshore areas around the Delta, the majority of production is based in aquaculture. For the most part, local peoples eat the small fish and sell the big fish.

Mekong Delta food environment

Other important commodities include coconut products and honey. A burgeoning tourism industry is evident in nearly all eras in the Delta, ranging from individuals to small groups to mass tourism.

Exploratory research on the Mekong Delta

Topography and Land Reclamation

Once reaching Viet Nam, the Mekong splits into two main branches at the Delta. The north branch divides into four distributaries and the south branch into three distributaries.

The Delta consists of hundreds of islands formed over millennia of sedimentary deposits; an untold number of waterways create an exotic and dangerous maze of jungles and swamps.

Land reclamation is evident throughout the Delta, with gravel and dirt-laden barges destined for low-lying properties and canal banks. Farmers also dredge local canals every few years and use the silt to reinforce the sides. Busy barge-based cranes used for large-scale dredging of the main river branches are nearly always in view on the horizon.

The ancient network of rural mangrove-lined canals invite visitors to reflect on the country's enigmatic past, while the new palm-lined highway to Saigon represents the fast lane the country is taking to its future at the heart of the economically vibrant and socially diverse ASEAN community.

Crane loading a barge with gravel in the Delta

Vietnamese barge transporting soil for land reclamation on the Mekong Delta

Faith and Religion

There is a heritage of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and to some degree, American missionary influence, and this is evident in Vietnamese language, culture, architecture and religion. For example, Catholic and other denominational Christian churches speckle the banks of the Delta and constitute as much as 15% of the religious base.

However, 60% of the Delta population follows a type of ancestor worship and this may be attributed to an age-old relationship with Chinese culture.

Faith and religion on the Delta

The Delta Road

The government opened up the Mekong in recent years, completing the ‘Delta Road’, a collaborative effort with the Japanese, and this was engineered in part to keep the Delta’s produce fresh and undamaged, particularly rice, fruit and seafood, when they are transported to Saigon overland.

These new transport networks are key as the traditional floating markets are becoming impractical. Thus, there is an ongoing shift from a water-based trade economy to a land-based export economy.

Historically, there were much smaller human populations in the Delta due to the dangers associated with snake and crocodile-infested swamps.

Traditional Delta transport

The "Delta Road" represents an ongoing shift from a water-based trade economy to a land-based export economy


Winter is the dry season on the Delta and the rainy period is normally during the summer, although the Delta is indeed south of the typhoon belt which impacts central Viet Nam and the Red River area further north.

The water level is higher during the rainy season, and this ‘wet time’ is utilized for fishing, while the ‘dry time’ is best for vegetables and potatoes. Climate change is evident and local farmers explain that nowadays the seasons are not so distinct.

The biodiversity of the region is still wide-open to exploration and inquiry, with thousands of new species discovered in recent years. However, there is an unfortunate war-torn legacy of ‘agent orange’, the chemical defoliant dropped by American forces upstream of the Delta, and as many as 2 million people are affected by it today.

One of the many canals on the Mekong Delta

The watery world of the Mekong delta, Vietnam


The Delta was once part of the Funan (68-550 AD) and Chenla (550-760 AD) empires with ties to early Chinese trade networks, and later saw Champa settlements (associated with central Vietnam) and Khmer settlements (associated with Cambodia). Some Khmer still live in the west of the delta region near Cambodia.

According to my Delta guide, the Khmer never actually left the region; rather they mixed and integrated with the North Vietnamese (i.e., the ‘Kinh’ ethnic group) who migrated to the Delta over time.

The feelings of the North Vietnamese about their Delta settlement are represented in the local music which carries sad tones and lyrics, voicing their homesick emotions.

There was also a significant era of assimilation 300 years ago, when Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer cultures mixed together.

Personal interview with Sombo Manara | Champa Kingdom

Interview with Prof. Dr. Sombo Manara, a leading expert in Khmer ancient history. The interview took place at the Po Nagar Temple in Nha Trang, Vietnam, a 7th - 12th century Hindu temple and vestige of the once powerful Champa Kingdom.

Cham is an Austronesian language, part of a super-family of languages generally associated with the seafaring peoples of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Visit Chasing Jade: Archaeology and the Batanes Islands Cultural Atlas to learn more about Austronesian prehistory.

Life and settlement on the Mekong Delta

Cultural Stereotypes

Vietnam is polarized by Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south, two sprawling urban and cultural centers with unique cultural attributes.

Stereotypically, the north and central populations distinguish themselves as thinking, planning, hard-working, and saving for the future.

In contrast, and as my Delta guide, Nguyễn Minh Phương, himself from the central region, put it, "The people of the Delta live for today, and are sometimes typecast by their northern counterparts as being reliant on the good weather, having strong physical features, and a sweet palate."

Daily life on the Delta

Life on the Delta Road

Next generation on the Delta

Water color painting for sale on the Delta

Travelers, Traders and Invaders

The Mekong Delta is a beautiful place to visit, an exotic tropical landscape steeped in ancient tradition with modern geographical significance. At 4,350 km, the Mekong is the world’s 12th-longest river, the lifeblood of mainland Southeast Asia – a trans-boundary network known as the ‘Greater Mekong Subregion’ (GMS).

The Mekong derives its name from the Sanskirt word ‘ganga’ after the Ganges River in India, and the toponym evolved in Thai and Laotian languages to ‘Mae Nam Khong’, literally ‘mother water Khong’.

The mouth of the Mekong called to traders, invaders, and great cultures and philosophers from India and China, providing them safe harbor and entry to upstream riches, including Cambodia’s fish-laden lake, the ‘Tonle Sap’, and the Khmer Kingdom at Angkor.

Coined by the French as "Indochina", friends, foods and freedoms await in the mighty Mekong Delta, an eclectic blend of culture, race and religion along Southeast Asia’s greatest of rivers.

Vietnam | Modified from: | Click to enlarge

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to travel to the Mekong Delta, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Special thanks to my Delta guide, Nguyễn Minh Phương for his time and insight, which helped to make this short article possible.

If you’re traveling to Ho Chi Minh City, he can be reached at:

Nguyễn Minh Phương, certified Mekong Delta guide

Nguyễn Minh Phương, certified Mekong Delta guide

Southeast Asian Civilization Global Context

Southeast Asian Civilization Global Context

Southeast Asian Civilization Online


Course Description

Background and development of society and culture in Southeast Asian countries with an emphasis on major peninsular and mainland civilizations; The influence and impact of Eastern and Western civilizations on Southeast Asia in terms of cults, beliefs, religions, traditions, education, society, economy, and governance.

The Bayon at Angkor, Cambodia, built in the late 12th century by the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII

Course Readings

Church, P. (2017). A Short History of South-East Asia, Sixth Edition. Singapore: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

Higham, C. (2014). Early Mainland and Southeast Asia: From first humans to Angkor. Bangkok: River Books.

Course Portrait | Indonesian Culture and Dance


Southeast Asian Civilization (SEAC) is an exciting new course with global significance.

This course looks into the pre-history of the region before examining the impacts of colonial powers and post-World War II developments. Current events provide excellent topics for research projects and in-class discussion.

The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region is currently one of the strongest economic growth areas globally, and this course offers a much-needed understanding of the region's complex history and rich ethnolinguistic landscapes.

Course Portrait | Burmese Culture and Dance


With the establishment of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the increasing integration of the region through the ASEAN Socio-cultural Community, a growing range of opportunities exist for employment, trade, and travel within and between member countries as well as with other regional trade partners, especially China.

As English is the official language of ASEAN, all member countries have agreed to the goal of teaching every child the language of a neighboring country as well as English. ASEAN represents one of the brightest hopes for economic growth in the present and future.

South East Asia Map | Click to enlarge


A Brief Introduction to Civilization | Terms and Concepts | PDF


Freshman Posters

Click to view student posters (2017) PDF

Student poster | Archaeologist Robert Bradford Fox | Leta-Leta Cave, Palawan, Philippines | Click to enlarge

A 10 period approach to studying Southeast Asian countries

I have developed a modest 10-topic chronological framework for studying individual Southeast Asian countries. Topics point to core histories and geographies and provide guidance for student presentations and class discussions. Topics and subtopics may overlap or apply to more than one period.

  1. Prehistory – Archaeology, Anthropology and Linguistics
  2. City-states, chiefdoms, kingdoms and dynasties – Historical geographies and indigenous peoples
  3. Colonial powers and governance – British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish
  4. WWII and Japanese rule – Imperial power and global conflict
  5. Return of colonial powers – New resistance and legacy
  6. Independence – The rise of national identities and new political geographies
  7. International relations (IR) – Nationalism and the global stage
  8. ASEAN – Rise and development of inter- and intra- regional relationships
  9. Contemporary issues – Globalization, urbanization, education and technology
  10. Tourism Geography – Planning, development and case studies


CNA (Channel News Asia) Shadows Of Empires | Inventing Southeast Asia


Khmer Mystery | Fou-nan Lost City | With Charles Higham and Miriam Stark | 41:00


Traditional Vietnamese Noodles | Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam | Click to learn more...

A Day in Ho Chi Minh City | Click to Photo Album

Students in Ho Chi Minh City | Click to photo album

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon | Ho Chi Minh City

Interview at Po Nagar Temple in Nha Trang, Vietnam | Cham Culture | Steven Martin


The Batanes Islands | Click to Batanes Islands Learning Adventure Page

Anthropologist Wilhelm G. Solheim II (1924–2014) (left) and David Blundell (right)

Banca Boat at Siargao Island | The Philippines | Click to more photos...

2006 Interview | Peter Bellwood, Batanes Islands, Philippines | Steven Martin


Research at the Plain of Jars using virtual reality and drones | Monash University

Contemporary Topics for Today's Discussion

  1. Plain of Jars | Exploring Prehistory

  2. Dams on the Mekong | Economy & Ecology

  3. Casino Enclaves | Development and Poverty


Introduction to Indonesia | Click on image to view

Our 2016 Indonesian Culture and Dance Class | Guest lecturer Imam Wahyudi Karimullah, University of Islam Malang (UNISMA)

Wonderful Indonesia | Official tourism video series

Journey through Wakatobi

Journey through Lombok

Journey through Banyuwangi


Burmese Thanaka Culture Class | Steven Martin

Prayer for Peace Documentary | 2007 Matt Blauer

The Lady | Story of Aung San Suu Kyi


Sukhothai Historical Park | Sukhothai Kingdom 1238–1438 | Click to UNESCO

Click on a photo to visit the Thai Geography Page with detailed maps, downloads, and other student resources.

Thailand Culture & Heritage | Tourism Authority of Thailand

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep | Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bang Pa In summer palace | Ayutthaya Province

Chak Phra Buddhist Festival | Surat Thani Province

Phuket Aquaria

The new Phuket Aquaria, or Aquaria Phuket, Thailand, opened August, 2019, and we were lucky to be among the first to check it out and make this short video for our Thai Geography students.

Located in the basement of Central Phuket Floresta, is the largest aquarium in Thailand, featuring a cast of thousands from Thailand and other countries, including fresh and saltwater fish and turtles, otters, sharks, groupers, penguins, stingrays, jellyfish, lizards, insects, and snakes.

PHUKET AQUARIA | อควาเรีย ภูเก็ต



Develop an academic poster using PowerPoint or other software which can incorporate text, maps, tables, and images.


  1. Choose an anthropologist with deep experience in living among, or studying, an ethnolinguistic group in Southeast Asia.
  2. Discuss the events or interests which led the anthropologist to study the ethnic group or culture.
  3. Emphasize the language, culture, history, and location of the ethnic group.
  4. Identify the significance of the ethnic group in terms of Southeast Asian civilization.


Set slide dimensions for international A3, landscape (297 x 420 mm) (11.7 x 16.5 in)

The Ivatan, an Austronesian ethnolinguistic group, Batanes Islands, The Philippines | Click to learn more...

Thank you for visiting my Southeast Asian Civilization Course Page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about Southeast Asia, or would like to arrange a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Golden Buddha, Ko Samui, Thailand