The Mekong River – one that carries the majority of alluvia across the transnational boundaries of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and China, possesses different names where it branches. Down the Mekong delta, the river goes by the name Cửu Long Giang (九龍江) or The Nine-Headed Dragon River, dispatching into nine water gates across the south end of Vietnam: Cửa Tiểu, Cửa Đại, Cửa Ba Lai, Cửa Hàm Luông, Cửa Cổ Chiên, Cửa Cung Hầu, Cửa Bát Xắc, Cửa Định An, and Tranh Đề. The Western region of Vietnam (miền Tây) where I come from, as known by its cartographical figuration, is dense with hundreds and thousands of rivers and trenches from large to small. Many have been leveled out to prevent over-flooding in the rainy seasons in the 1980s – early 2000s, during which wooden kayaks were the go-to transportations.
There, my dad recalled his first supernatural encounter during one of the trips down the dirt-roads-turned-trenches. Surrounded by melaleucas on both sides like the devils’ crooked arms doming over in the dark, they were in search of drylands where grass and straw were left untouched by water for the cattle at home. Fresh out from war in 1978 when no sufficient embarkments had been built yet, my dad said there was a significant number of “floating cemeteries” sightings by those who ventured into the area. By that, he meant a local salvage of conventional cemeteries was created by hanging the coffins down the melaleuca trees during the flooding seasons, which is also a widely available water plant known for its tremendous durability that is often used in low-cost housing.
One night, while sleeping on my grandfather’s kayak, he heard someone calling his name. It was a female voice, sounding almost like a crumbled cry submerged in water a few miles from where they anchored. The voice kept on going for a few hours until dawn, during which he was wide-awake but physically paralyzed. He was not only scared per se because there’s a reason why he swore on his bloodline to never leave the delta for as long as he’s alive. The land was calling for him, for the people who were born and fed on its soil. It knows what the future holds if we all start to leave.
It was in the eighties, or god knows how long before I was born, people began building a neighborhood and a sustainable livelihood across the riversides, including water hyacinth’s stem-weaving – one that is responsible for many intricate housewares we owned back in our old home such as laundry baskets, chair mats, lampshades, etc. The Mekong River brought alluvia and the water hyacinths along with its travel, and then an entire tradition of local craft that followed. Dad said water hyacinths only bloom every fifty years or so, at which point it will produce small clusters of delicate purple flowers with yellow pistils, while still floating upon the river. How come an exile entity is capable of such nimble beauty, especially when a craft associated with it is also on the verge of extinction? I’ve only seen it bloom once at the age of fourteen.
I’ve heard stories, perhaps ones that fascinate me the most as a child, about the door-less house in the rural areas of miền Tây. According to the local people, they needed no doors because a system of trust has already been established within the communities for decades. As low-income laborers, they said, it would be extremely cruel for thievery or any incidents of that sort to happen, since their families were the most valuable possession they had. Words such as “kind”, “hospitable”, and “candid” are often used to portray my people in mass media as a prime premise that makes miền Tây a promising tourist attraction. They never mention how those virtues take shape by having nothing much to lose.
Oftentimes a make-shift box made out of simple wooden frames and corrugated iron on stilt foundations, the door-less houses are erected as structures that are ready to be devoured by nature at any given time.
As China’s hydroelectric dam has been cutting off water flow from Lancang-Mekong’s upstream, they are subjected to either periods of extreme drought or flash floods. On the other hand, off-limit harvest of wet sand (most of the time illegally by unregistered corporations) from the riverbed is responsible for increasing landslides since 2014, costing the government billions to compensate for collateral damage. Local authorities blame underwater vortexes for facilitating such violent torrents, but the people believe otherwise. Once, an elderly man witnessed a large, steady mound of sand being chipped away gradually, until the small shed on top disappeared with it into the alluvia-opaque water.
People were not simply “kind” and “candid” – they know what they’ve lost and are determined to protect what remains. A battle between hearsays and facts explodes. In May 2022, numerous door-less houses started mushrooming across the Mekong River in Hồng Ngự. Even when the provincial broadcast got their hands on the incident, quoting local authorities who deemed such actions as “illegal” and “financially dangerous”, no one seemed to claim ownership of these structures.
In fact, the news portrays the appearance of these door-less houses as a curious and exotic encounter down south – something to be amused and condemned at the same time. One of the walls of these houses is made of plywood and has its protective seal left unpeeled; a clumsily sawed-off doorway on the lower right of it. Before it sits a stack of red plastic chairs, dusted over months of being untouched. One of the houses hangs a piece of white fabric dangling in the wind with nothing behind. Others locate in the riskiest spots of the area, bulging beyond the riverbank, and are only held against gravity by a few thin rods of melaleuca. A house is made to be lived in, a shelter; now abandoned, meant to be destroyed, to shed away its inherent utility for potential destruction. A door-less house, once a structure of trust, becomes a manifestation of distrust and frustration.
The Mekong delta bears an incremented history in between myths and survival. I believe where the presence of man is absent, the objects enter enigmas. They become myths. The door-less houses haunt me the way the mysterious voice called out for my father back then, which are at the same time wistfully holding us where we are and continue to be. Local authorities put an end to this rampaging mystery by debunking the rumors about a new embarkment being commissioned, which spurred the locals to quickly put together these houses, seeking to demand compensation as soon as the properties are damaged.
Until now, no one knows for sure what is the exact motive behind the schemers of this door-less house movement. But even if there was an explanation, what gives?
Tam Nguyen is a writer and independent researcher, born and raised in the south end of Vietnam. His works appeared and are forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, diaCRITICS, MAYDAY, Queer Southeast Asia, sin cesar (formerly Dryland), Red Ogre Review, among others. He was a 2021 Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry.”