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Understanding Vietnam: Mekong River

This guide provides useful information and links to resources on Vietnam.

At A Glance


The following information have been carefully selected for your reference. Some resources may have bias perspectives. Please approach the SMU Libraries ( ) should you have any doubts or need clarifications.    

This is the story of the Mekong river, as it crosses the countries of Southeast Asia, a region full of legends and forgotten cities, lost empires whose remains have survived to the present day, and tribes hidden in the depths of the jungle. But it is also a land scarred by the horrors of human savagery.

As the Mekong enters Laos, the first city it encounters is Luang Prabang. It stands at an altitude of 700 metres, and is only now starting to come back to life, and entering the modern world, after several decades of wars and revolutions.

After crossing the territory of Laos, the waters of the Mekong enter a country plagued by violence and poverty, Cambodia. This is Angkor, "the city of the sleeping forest", one of the most incredible architectural monuments on earth.

Before Mekong coming to an end, the water will continue flowing into the China Sea, in Vietnam. The river forms an extensive and complex delta, known as The Nine Dragons. A network of 5,000 kilometres of natural and artificial canals carries the waters to the rice fields. Cantho is the largest city in the delta with a large population.

Mekong River Commission

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The Journey of Mekong River

Across four episodes, Sue Perkins travels upstream through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China, towards the Mekong's source high in the Himalayan glacier.


Sue's epic journey begins in Vietnam, on the vast Mekong Delta, where she joins Si Hei, the queen of the noodle. Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of rice, so Sue moves upstream to work with farmers Hung and Tuk in the paddy fields and finds out how their lives are changing with the prospect of capitalism.

Travelling up river, Sue crosses into Cambodia and its capital Phnom Penh, which lies at the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap River.

Animal lover Sue continues through Cambodia to witness how deforestation and wildlife crime are stripping the country of  it  last wild places. She goes on a raid with the Wildlife Rapid Response Rescue team, in search of trafficked wild animals and  bush meat .


Sue reaches Laos, one of the poorest and least developed of all the Mekong nations. It's a country shaped by both Buddhism and Communism and has hardly changed for centuries. Next, she visits Luang Prabang, once the Royal City of Laos and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed as the centre of Buddhism and home of more monks than anywhere else in Asia.

Laos is on the verge of huge and irreversible change - massive dams are being built to harness the power of the river. Sue visits the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam, Southeast Asia's biggest and most controversial engineering project. Foreign investment is coming beyond the dams. The government has tempted Chinese developers with tax incentives to create tourist playgrounds in an area branded as the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone.

Sue reaches her final destination - China, home to the source of the Mekong. Here, change is sweeping through faster than any other Mekong nation, as China's economic miracle transforms even the remotest regions.

Arriving in Yunnan's tropical south western region of Xishuangbanna, Sue discovers how this once remote and sleepy region is now home to a booming tourist industry, with the indigenous Dai tribe at its heart.

Leaving the Dai Park, Sue climbs higher into the foothills of Xishuangbanna to discover how the Aini tribe are adapting to a changing China.

Travelling further along the river's valleys and foothills, Sue reaches the town of Baisha under the shadow of the Himalayas. Home to the Naxi people, this region is famous for its botanists and herbalists, made popular by Victorian plant hunters such as Joseph Rock.

Climbing higher and ever closer to the source, Sue encounters her first taste of Tibetan life in the village of Cizhong. In modern China, Cizhong is facing a new, even more dramatic change - a hydroelectric dam is being built close by, bringing with it construction along the river's banks, landslides and the prospect of flooding.

Finally, after nearly 3,000 miles, Sue embarks on the last leg of her epic journey, arriving high up on the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai province, close to the source of the Mekong. 

Additional Resources


National Geographic Fellow Zeb Hogan spends his life protecting the endangered fish that call these waters home. Zeb Hogan explains in this video about his experience in ​Mekong River. The plight of endangered freshwater fish is often overlooked. Thus, Zeb Hogan is on a quest to endear these fish to people around the world in hopes of protecting these colossal underwater creatures.

Upstream Mekong River changes through dam building and water usage could have serious consequences on downstream environments, in particular the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Considered the rice basket of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is already at grave risk through climate change sea level rise and intense local development. Find out Mekong Delta citizens concerns about these risks and how are they determined to adapt and survive.

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