Eight students, one professor, and gracious hosts in the Mekong Delta eager to share stories and adventures.

The Woman in Can Tho


January 5, 2011

Story by Trina Jones

Photos by Kevin Radley

As we walked out of our hotel in Can Tho last night, I made eye contact with a wrinkled Vietnamese woman sitting on the sidewalk selling shrimp. Her bony knees were curled up to her chest in a position that would be near impossible, much less uncomfortable for me, but I imagine she has crouched in for the better part of every day of her whole life. As I watched this woman on the dirty, fish stained corner, I began to wonder what else her eyes had seen, that were now looking at me. And does the mind behind those eyes have room for concern about climate change?

When working on a recent assignment for this class, I found a sentence buried in our guidebook about a Vietnamese famine that took place at the end of World War II. As Americans were innovating ways to make cooking easier through microwaves and refrigerators, food was so scarce in North Vietnam, that two million people starved to death. This was a fifth of the North Vietnamese population at the time. I had never heard about it until last night.

Next, the country fought a war with French colonialists, and tens of thousands of people died, shortly followed by the war with the Americans, causing more than five million deaths (at least 10% of the populations), more than four million of which were civilian deaths. Then, yet another famine followed Vietnamese reunification.

If the woman from the Can Tho street market has lived as long as she looks like she has, there is no way her life was not changed by these events. She may have lost parents, siblings, children or countless other friends and relatives throughout Vietnam’s years of abundant hardship. Again, I am struck by the warmness and lack of bitterness harbored by the Vietnamese people.

I thought about all this worn woman has probably experienced I wondered how could I even begin to explain climate change to her. And why should she care? And how exactly would I want her to respond?

I am here trying to figure out how to make people care about climate change. Maybe what we need to do is try harder and make people care in our country, who can actually do something to mitigate climate change. Maybe I should focus on learning about adaptation, balance and hope from the Vietnamese people.

In Dr. Bich’s lecture we learned about respect for elders in the Vietnamese culture. Experience is valued very highly in this country, and younger people are expected to defer to parents’, grandparents’ and monks’ advice for important decisions. Experience is even valued more than education, which is much different that the culture I am coming from. However, this value makes sense to me. The woman from the Can Tho street may have dramatically less education than I do, but I feel that she could share more with me about the way the world works than I can imagine.

I want to figure out how to learn from people such as the woman I saw on the street, but it is difficult to get her perspective into the classroom. I would like to benefit from her experience adapting to so many dramatic changes and be able to apply that to places like Vietnam that have little climate change mitigation to do, but a lot of climate change preparation and adaptation to do.

Already, Vietnam is planning several fascinating adaptation strategies, from bioengineering new rice varieties to building dikes to stilted and floating houses.

However, I also think as a nation, Vietnam could learn from the experience of the United States. Hopefully, Vietnam can learn from how the United States has industrialized and through collaboration create new ways to develop that are better for the environment and for people. As Dr. Ni encouraged us in his lecture last week, we need to think not only about what we are learning, but how we can contribute to Vietnam and how we can work together.

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