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 VIETNAM : Mud Maidens (Sepia) 

The Mud Maidens of Mekong

Text and photography by Eric Pasquier 

In the mudflats of the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, a very special breed of young women collect shellfish in a most peculiar way: they surf over the mud on a wooden plank and then plunge in to collect the prize: shellfish, which are sold on the markets of Saigon. A gloopy, muddy business.

ERIC PASQUIER went to Baö Thuan, Vietnam, to see the girls in action.

In the little village of Baö Thuan, at the tip of the upper Mekong Delta, the nascent light of a new day filters gently through the bamboo pagodas. In a few hours, at low tide, the young women of the village will set off to fish the Delta’s murky depths for the precious shellfish grown by local farmers.

The ‘Bat So’ girls plunge their hands into the mud like they do everyday to fish out their daily bread in a method of fishing that dates back 100 years, and is, understandably, unique in the world.

Initiated in the art of mud fishing as early as the age of 14, this peculiar method of dragging up the shellfish that abound in the riverbed are passed on from mother to daughter, generation after generation. It is a women’s job and only women know the secret to fishing in this way.

The local men say that as it is easy work, requiring little strength, it is only natural that women do it. But the ‘Bat So’ women themselves are quick to add that the reason why it is a woman’s job is because only women have the slightness of build and dexterity essential to carry out the task successfully. Many of the girls are between 16 and 18 years old. 

Of the village’s 7,000 inhabitants, more than half of the population of Baö Thuan, ‘the village of eternal peace,’ consists of women.  Only 100 women are ‘professional’ Bat So shell-fisher women living exclusively on what they can drag up from the murky depths of the Mekong. 
When low tide finally comes around, the young girls, all smiling under their wide-brimmed conical hats and colourful scarves, walk single file in a long line along the paths that lead to the salty marshes of the Delta. With their wooden planks on their shoulders, they cross over muddy streams, balancing precariously along tree trunks that have fallen across small rivers. They make their way barefoot through the mud and the fields that lead to the marshes where they will spend the day fishing. It is a long walk indeed, and to see the girls all together, cheerily carrying their crude ‘surfboards’ on their shoulders, one would think they are taking part in some enchanting traditional ceremony, instead of simply trudging their way through the thick mud towards their work place.

The Mekong Delta is without a doubt the most fertile region of all of Vietnam; every square inch is put to use in some way or another. This is the country’s ‘rice shed’:  it supplies enough food to meet the needs of all of the south, the centre and a good part of northern Vietnam. Fruit and vegetables are cultivated along the river’s banks. The shellfish that are they women’s prey are raised in individual ‘parks’ in a part of the river known as the ‘Nine Dragons.’ The Bat So girls hop onto their surfboards and, without hesitating, paddle out into the murky waters of the marshes. 

They must keep moving in order not to bog down into the mud that seems to suck them ever downward. Their hands and arms disappear in the mud, and they stir the clay depths until they bring the precious shellfish to the surface that will no doubt end up in the finest restaurants of Saigon and neighbouring China. This type of shellfish is seen as a delicacy. 

The catch is tossed into wicker baskets attached to the girls’ rickety planks. Today the lightweight traditional ‘Mong’ – a wooden board in the form of a mono-ski curved upward at the front – or ‘Van’ – a flat wooden board with built-in handles – are gradually losing ground to the more practical simple wooden boards that can be manufactured en masse and bought at a fraction of the cost of the more elegant traditional boards.

Once their basket is full of shellfish, the Bat So girls paddle back to the shores of the Delta, where their mothers take charge of loading their catch into a small boat. And off the Bat So girls go again, indefatigably, gradually becoming smeared and totally covered in the viscous mud they so zealously thrash in search of their prey. 

The girls are only allowed one break during the entire hard day’s work of fishing in the Delta. They have their break at noon, when the sun is at its apex and the heat and humidity become unbearable. Until the end of the second tide, the young fisherwomen tirelessly continue to plunge their hands into the murky waters, gradually filling their baskets with shellfish as they paddle along in search of new patches of catch.

Finally, at five in the evening, totally covered in mud at this point, they leap into the ochre waters of the river, playfully splashing one another and at the same time, rinsing their bodies, their clothes, their boards and their catch – on which they have left just enough mud to guarantee perfect freshness when it is time to sell it on the market. And then, again in single file, their now-full wicker baskets balanced on their shoulders, they join the buyers, already waiting, ready to buy their wares.

The buyers come all the way from Saigon or Mytho to bring the Bat So girls’ catch of shellfish to the big cities of the region – in Vietnam and China. At Baö Thuan, 90% of the catch is produced in co-operatives; the remainder is brought to the surface by the women not officially working for the shellfish farmers. 

In the village, the young fisherwomen are hired per day and paid according to the volume of their catch. Standing up to their waists in the river’s waters, the buyers from the big city carefully examine the day’s catch, weighing each basket, always trying to select the very best. The molluscs are not sold by weight, but by basket full: ranging from between 20 to 25 kilos. The price works out at approximately 3,000 dong per kilo (less than 25¢ US). The shellfish is then sold for twice the price in the big city market in Saigon. 

In the middle of the rainy season, from May to October, when the shellfish are at their most plump, the official Bat So girls earn between 20 – 25,000 dong per day ($2.25 US). The women who do the same work unofficially will take in about six kilos of shellfish and earn only 18,000 dong.

The tropical sun continues to glare on the river and its banks. It has been a long day for the Bat So girls of the Mekong Delta, and they begin the long trek by foot back to the village. Their household chores, once back at the house, will keep them occupied until nightfall. After a short sleep, before they can finish their dreams of the river – ever flowing, washing away all of their cares, they are awoken by the first light of dawn. Another hard day of dredging the muddy waters of the mighty Mekong begins.

But they are happy. 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier

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