It was a late and loud night at the Rung Tram Tra Su Melaleuca forest ecotourism project. Twenty Americans danced in the dirt under a glow of naked light bulbs strung between houses on stilts. After a traditional Khmer music presentation and a several (maybe more like 7) shots of rice alcohol, we collapsed onto mats and into hammocks, exhausted from a day of boating through melaleuca forests, fishing, and bird watching.
University of Montana students are rowed through a melaleuca forest in An Giang province
Before I joined five of my fellow students in our cozy mat and mosquito net fort, I took my journal outside to write about the day’s events. A younger guy from the household came and sat down by me, and told me he wanted to learn English. We continued to struggle for half an hour to communicate in various forms of laughter, drawing, and vigorous pointing. In his broken English he told me his name was Pham Song and that he had studied marketing at a university in Vietnam.
Two Vietnamese children hammock outside an Artemia research institute of Can Tho University in Soc Trang province
The Rung Tram Tra Su Melaleuca forest was one of several reserves and national parks we visited during our month in Vietnam. These parks are trying to introduce the value of ecotourism to the country. This particular project was originally funded by the Dutch NGO Agriterra, but when that funding ended this past December, the families decided to stick together and form their own collective. In order to host, feed, and entertain tourists, houses have to apply for certificates from the government.
Two Khmer women of the ecotourism cooperative in An Giang province prepare breakfast for UM students.
If the house is supplying food, they must take a class on food and health safety from a government official to receive their certificate. The collective has lasted this long because it is cheaper for the communities to work together on these certificates. Together, they provide the ultimate rural Vietnam experience, hosting around 500 Vietnamese tourists in the year 2015 according to Mr. Tung of the An Giang Farmers Union.
Ecotourism in Vietnam is an interesting idea. Currently, it could hardly be compared to the tourism surrounding national parks in the U.S.. Many of the parks lack a full time staff and a strong research presence. In U Minh Thoung National park in the Kien Giang province, the men who took us out on boats to tour the park were locals. One of them casually tossed his empty cigarette box into the river as we paused to enjoy one of the last remaining wild places in the Mekong Delta.
A boat driver in U Minh Thoung National Park prepares to tow another boat whose engine died in the middle of the canal.
A tour boat guides people through Tram Chim national park. To the right, just out of the frame of the photo, shrimp farmers dig huge trenches in the ground for shrimp ponds.
The visitor center at Tram Chim national park, in the Dong Thap province, which used to be home to hundred of rare Sarus Cranes, is brand new, but most of its space is dedicated to snack stands. Inside their center, local artwork was on display, but fish tanks that were labeled after native fish of the park held pet goldfish. Both Tram Chim and U Minh Thoung water canals were choked with invasive water hyacinth and apple snail, some were even completely blocked.
At the base of an observation tower in Tram Chim, the author watches as a boat struggles to make it through a blanket of invasive water hyacinths
According to Dr. Ngo Thuy Diem Trang of Can Tho University, intensive shrimp farming and dyke systems around the boarders of Tram Chim prevented the Mekong flood waters from even reaching the park this year. The dyke systems around the parks that contain water to use during fire season, are poorly built, and water sits for a long time, become stagnant and polluted from the acidic soil the melaleuca forests thrive in.
Tram Chim national park is famous for its bird watching. About 70 percent of the park is off limits to people in order to preserve their habitat.
In the coastal Mangrove forests of Cape Ca Mau National Park in Ca Mau province and Can Gio Biosphere Reserve near Ho Chi Minh City, trash blanketed the shores of the canal. In Ca Mau, our boat driver kept having to stop and remove trash that got caught in rudder. According to remote GPS sensing done by Dr. Vo Quac Taun of Can Tho University, many areas that are supposed to be 70 to 100 percent protected mangrove forests have people living and developing them, so the forested area of their land is more like 30 percent.
A walkway through the mangrove forest of Cape Ca Mau National Park on the southern most tip of Vietnam
On the second day of our rural homestay, my bowl of soup had a chicken foot in it and we had to move to a different table because ants had infested ours. It is hard to imagine tourists on vacation enjoying an experience like this. However, it is important to remember that parks and ecotourism in the U.S. didn’t look that much different than those in Vietnam about fifty years ago.
UM Students enjoy breakfast at the ecotourism homestay
Tourists in America would leave trash on the sides of the road to attract bears and raging forest fires were started by casual cigarette flicks. Vietnam is still a developing country, but it is developing at an accelerated rate. The hope for Vietnam lies in its young generation.
A little boy climbs an elephant in a pagoda at the base of Sam Mountain in An Giang province
When Song inherits the land from his family, he will have the know how to turn it into a profitable tourists business. Vietnam now is still a very “cultural” experience where, in most places, you sleep on the hard floor and use a squat toilet. Vietnam has the potential for a thriving ecotourism economy, built by an educated and aware generation that understands the value of the environment. In five years, be looking for the silly headlines about misinformed tourists as Vietnam becomes competitive in the market for ecotourism.
Leah Lynch, Senior, Hanna Fatland, Junior, and Ryan Payne, a graduate student, enjoy the first leg of a boat trip through the ecotourism melaleuca forest
As we have all experienced, the sheer majesty of Vietnam can be seen witnessed by simply walking down the street. Whether you are smelling the various, mouth-watering aromas of street vendors, hearing the traditional music and glamorous dresses worn by locals, and especially walking through the beautiful forests that are overflowing with life. One of the more overlooked aspects of Vietnam’s rich exoticness lies beneath our feet: the insects. As an avid insect enthusiast, my trip to Vietnam has been very rewarding in my ability to investigate the creepy-crawly beings that people seem to pay less attention to. Within my first week, I was told I wasn’t going to be able to find much information about the bugs of Vietnam. Throughout my search for catalogues or encyclopedias, entomophobia manifested around every corner. Because of this widespread fear or lack of knowledge about our segmented friends, I made it my personal goal to explore the plethora of bugs that call Vietnam home.
Although there are thousands of different species of insects here, there are some who give the rest a bad reputation. If you have ever encountered Giant Centipede (Scolopendra gigantea), you’ll probably never forget it. Centipedes are glorious creatures with enough pincer power and poison to bring down and even consume other animals that are even bigger than them. While centipedes rule the ground, flying insects should scare you more. Bot Flies (Dermatobia humanis) and mosquitos (Anopheles stephensi) are also quite terrifying because they can transmit horrible diseases such as Malaria and Dengue Fever. Not only are they pesky critters who taunt you with their incredibly quick reflexes, Bot Flies have been known to burrow into human hosts and lay eggs, promoting a whole new generation of pests. Entmophobia is starting to make more sense with every leaf I turn over.
Like many human beings, a few ‘bad apples’ can ruin the reputation for an entire group. This is unfortunate because Vietnamese insects have so much more to offer than carnivorous predators. Whether you are walking by a flowing river, intensive rice farms, or even sitting on your hotel balcony, you will most likely be greeted by friendly, attractive bugs as well. Unlike Montana, dragonflies (Sympetrum flaveolum) fill the skies. As they whoosh passed you, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of their colorful abdomens and unique eyes. If you aren’t patient enough to wait for a dragonfly to land near you for a good view, you’re in luck, because fluttering butterflies (Papilio machaon) seem to always be around. Vietnam’s flying bugs are, in my opinion, the most extravagant insects that live here. They are often found near gardens and flowerbeds, acting as pollinators who help ‘spread the love’. When the sun is too bright to look to the skies, look down to the ground and you’ll still find a variety of appealing species. Although they are very destructive and invasive to the region, the Golden Apple Snail (Pomacea canaliculata) is a wonderful example of how pretty our crawling counterparts can be. Laying their bright-pink eggs on blades of grass or grain, is pleasing to look at, but terrible for Vietnamese ecosystems, due to their expansive territory and eating habits.
While studying insects is a discipline that requires curiosity, patience and sometimes a strong stomach, I personally feel that people should take more interest in the bug department. As global temperatures rise, the habitats of every organism is at risk. While humans flock inland to urban areas, insects will be forced to take refuge in cities as well. So, do we let our fear of bugs consume us or should we embrace and learn from it? In many countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, restaurants are serving insects for dinner. Bugs are packed with nutrients and vital proteins that we all need to survive. Let me pose a question: which is more productive, cheap insect farms or large-scale beef/chicken farms? Which of the two would be more affordable? Which would be more interesting? Imagine the delicious recipes, inter-species connections and education that we could earn if we just got over our fear of insects! In the midst of climate change, food sources will begin to become more intensive and there are way too many mouths to feed. I may be biased, but I believe that we will see bugs on the menu in years to come. So, although some are scary and dangerous, most are charismatic and can teach us a lot about how to live sustainably.
My parting words: don’t laugh at elephants for being afraid of mice when you can’t handle being in the same room as a moth.
In my relatively short travels through Vietnam I noticed two main trends in conservation efforts depending on the generation. The mature and established generation participated in conservation when incentives were provided. With the younger generation I witnessed a rise in environmental education and passion for the environment.
In the last few decades much of Vietnam has gone through a rapid growth period. There have been massive government pushes to increase agriculture efforts. Our group drove through an area in Ca Mau Provence that had massive mangrove deforestation for the sake of the 1990’s agricultural push. Meanwhile the poverty rate in Vietnam has shrunk from around 80% to 20% in the past 30 years. In short there have been decades of focus on economic growth, sometimes at the cost of the environment. For established families this economic priority stands. Although the environment may be important, use of agriculture has drawn families out of poverty. This is why people who are established in their ways are more keen to act in conservation efforts when economic incentives are present.
On both the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve and Ca Mau National Park compensation for forest protection was provided to farmers. It is important to note that reserve and national parks in Vietnam are a combination of areas with varying restrictions. These can range from completely restricted areas, where no one can enter, to areas of agriculture and aquaculture. In Can Gio reserve there are many people who make a living reaping the lands natural benefits; shrimp, crab and fish. Out of these groups 141 households are being paid to protect forests. These people are provided with government issued housing, a solar panel and a few other commodities in addition to a salary. In turn the family monitors the forest twice a day, checking and reporting signs of illegal deforestation, poaching or misuse.
For the farmer we visited the salary was no small stipend. Because it is illegal to cut mangroves in the reserve his shrimp farm was being overgrown. Although the salary from shrimp cultivation is decreasing he was not worried because the forest protection salary was increasing and was able to support his family. Ca Mau National Park had a similar form of salary. The farmers there are compensated 300,000 VND per year if they have at least 30% mangrove coverage on their land. Ca Mau Nationl Park also educates people on monitoring and protecting the forest but the farmers are either paid little or nothing in return due to low program funding. In consequence the program does not provide much beneficial forest protection.
The youth of Vietnam has flourished on their parent’s economic prosperity (for more information on youth culture you can reference Roy‘s blog post “Night Out on the Streets”). They have not witnessed as much poverty as their parents. Instead many youths are educated and seeking university education. Many “earth enthusiast” students that I have met here were majoring in aquaculture, natural resources or environmental studies. From chatting with them I learned their education was focused on the natural resources and how to conserve the resources for better agriculture/aquaculture as well as environmental protection. We have spent time with students from the Delta Youth Alliance (a group of Can Tho University students focusing on sustainable development) and they provided presentations on natural resource and climate change issues on Son Island. After a round of rapid “Facebook friending” (and real life befriending) I was able to see that these students were part of wildlife conservation movements and sustainable development of sanitation. This particular group of students has a strong drive for environmental education that is partially based on economic prosperity through enhanced farming methods and some on conservation.
During our adventures with the Delta Youth Alliance we visited the Bat Pagoda of Soc Trang. There we learned about the bat conservation efforts in the area. The conservation efforts have a strong push toward environmental education working both on working directly with youths and adding conservation to school curriculum. We met the winner of the group’s art contest, Meay Thanh Hoang. He had a designed a illustration to describe how to aide the local bat population. Conservation education in that area is being worked into primary and secondary education with a focus on conservation and not economical benefit.
As the population of Vietnam rises into a more comfortable lifestyle the ability to worry about environmental protection increases. I have been able to witness the shift from mature generations to the younger generations as it mirrors how environmental efforts shift from economically motivated to conservation motivated. Personally I find it encouraging that there is a surge toward increased conservation. The ecosystems I was raised in have been a huge part of my personality and I hope others can experience a similar tie to the natural world, or what may be left of it. It is important to remember however that what I have witnessed has been a small portion of conservation in Vietnam. I hope to continue learning more and gain a more comprehensive look at community efforts in conservation.
In preparing for this blog entry, I researched many different perspectives on climate change. In doing so, I found a YouTube video by one of my favorite channels called Veritasium. In it, Derek Muller explains his opinion—that climate change is boring. In his view, it is boring because “the story of climate change is not especially compelling.” This just isn’t the case, and my opinion on that has only gotten stronger since being in the Mekong Delta.
Climate change is more than just CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and it is especially more than the broad story Veritasium tells in the video, which I encourage everyone to watch and be offended. In the Mekong Delta and around the world, climate change means rising sea levels, storm surges, altered seasonal patterns, food shortages, and millions of displaced people.
Much of the Mekong River Delta is only around a meter above sea level; therefore, even a small rise has the potential to submerge much of delta. It is estimated that Vietnam could lose 40% of its land to the sea in the next 100 years. As one of the countries most affected by climate change, I thought they, or more specifically The Communist Party of Vietnam, might have a solid plan in place to deal with these effects. They do not.
Well, they do. Kind of. Their plan is to build dikes. There are dikes around much of the coast that protect farms and channel water into canals. 83% of the land in the Mekong River Delta is used for farming, so it follows that extensive measures would be taken to protect the farmer’s livelihoods.
When I asked one of our lecturers if the government had plans or had even discussed moving the people in this area further north and up higher, the answer I got was vague and uninformative. “It’s difficult to have a general case about the moving of local people.”
On this trip, we visited shrimp and rice farmers to talk to them about their livelihoods and the effects of climate change. When asked what they might do in response to climate change, the response, in short was, “Eh.”
Of course, most did not know the term “climate change,” but ask about storm surges and rising sea levels, and they knew what you meant. A basic response was that the dikes would protect them. No, they would not move from their current homes, because dikes are surely impenetrable, even by the sea.
Perhaps it is because that land does not “belong” to them in an American Capitalist sense. Maybe because they place a lot of their faith in the dikes, but no one we talked to was terribly concerned about the changing climate.
They said they noticed a change in length and severity of the two seasons—wet and dry, but they just altered their planting and harvesting schedules to match. The dry season is getting longer, and the wet season is getting more sporadic rainfall, but less rain overall. That’s the only thing they have had to deal with so far.
However, in the long term there is going to be much more to deal with. It seems that climate change is boring if we only think about CO2 concentration statistics, or if we enjoy the act of being blissfully unaware of the suffering of others. If we zoom out to a view of life on Earth hundreds of years from now, when everyone living now will absolutely be dead, it’s not clear whether humans will be here. That’s the overarching draw to climate change for me—we are not caring about it to save the Earth, we are caring to save ourselves. We are already causing a mass extinction and scientists have even renamed the current epoch the Anthropocene. This is the time interval in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities. The Earth has recovered from every mass extinction in the past, so evidence would say that it survives this one. But a mass extinction would mean the end of most species on Earth, humans included.
If you can’t care about shrimp farmers or rising sea levels, you can probably care about that. Humans are killing themselves. Slowly, and over a long period of time, but if we don’t do something now we’ll definitely all be dead.
In between the mangroves and tropical fruit trees, the jungle of southern Vietnam occasionally revealed glimpses of a lazy, murky brown river winding through the My Khanh Commune. Ahead of me, a stream of motorbikes, each carrying a student or associate of the University of Montana, buzzed along a narrow path, having just left a biogas farm and heading towards another. Several farmers in the commune had transitioned to a sustainable system involving biogas collection, fish raising, and fruit production. With this system, they could make a profit, protect the environment, and reduce their impact on climate change all at the same time. The farmers had found balance between Yin and Yang, and were at peace. But as I gazed out at the river, I couldn’t help but wonder how long this would last. How much longer would it be until salt started to seep into their canals, disrupting the balance and overpowering the sweetness in farm families’ lives?
A few days earlier, sitting in a lecture at Can Tho University with Dr. Le Anh Tuan, my classmates and I learned about the threat of salt water intrusion. Two main factors, climate change and dams, are resulting in brackish water traveling further and further north into the Mekong Delta, altering the people’s livelihoods and sending the balance of Yin and Yang teetering. For starters, as dams have been built along the Mekong River in countries upstream of Vietnam, less freshwater has been reaching the Delta below. Brackish water is heavier than freshwater, and with less freshwater flowing downstream, the salt is now able to work its way into regions where it normally wouldn’t exist. In addition to the dams, climate change is warming average temperates in Vietnam (and globally), lengthening the dry season, and reducing precipitation, all of which also add up to less freshwater in the Delta.
Saltwater, while a natural occurrence, does not naturally reach as far inland as it is now spreading in the Mekong Delta. It’s presence, however, has been both a blessing and a curse. Native species and historic crops such as rice and fruit trees are not accustomed to surviving in the presence of salt, meaning farmers have two choices: switch to a saline-resistant hybrid or a new method of farming.
Most have chosen the latter. In the case of Luong Minh Dung (55) of Bac Lieu province, that decision was made in 1993 when salt water intrusion meant he could no longer grow rice year round. Ever since then, he has grown one crop of rice during the rainy season, and raised shrimp in the dry season when the brackish water comes. For him and other farmers in his situation, the salt water is a blessing. Where one kilogram of rice sells for 4,000 dong, one kilogram of shrimp sells for around 200,000. By raising shrimp, the farmers have seen a significant increase in their personal wealth and well-being, as passerby might notice from the multiple new, modern homes in the process of being built in the area. They have been able to utilize the impacts of climate change and maintain balance between Yin and Yang. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for artemia farmers.
Artemia are salt water macro-invertebrates raised for their eggs which are sold to shrimp nurseries as shrimp food. They are sensitive to both heat and salt concentration, so, as both continue to increase in upcoming years, they will eventually no longer be able to survive in Vietnam. Without artemia eggs for food, farmers will not be able to raise baby shrimp nor rice growers be able to raise shrimp in the dry season. The balance Luong Minh Dung found over two decades ago is merely a temporary solution, and may soon be overturned as climate change impacts move through the food chain.
The day after meeting with Mr. Dung, my fellow students and I found ourselves at a similar farm. Before receiving the official farm tour, we gathered around our host’s home, situating ourselves and taking bathroom breaks as necessary. Rice lay out on the street, drying in the sun and a cluster of kids giggled on the porch, peeking out from between their fingers long enough to shout hello in sing-song voices and practice saying “My name is…”. I wondered if they would grow up to be farmers and if these farms would even be functional by the time they were adults. In thirty years will they be drying rice in the streets? Or will the saltwater become permanent, forcing them to raise shrimp year round? Maybe shrimp will be long gone in the Mekong Delta by then and they will have switched to entirely different forms of agriculture.
From what I’ve seen and know of climate change, I can say it will be near impossible for Vietnam to reclaim a permanent balance until the world finds balance between economic growth and sustainability. If or when that point is reached is unclear, but steps are being made in the right direction. Options are being explored worldwide, solutions are being implemented, and the teetering ecosystems and livelihoods may not be out of control just yet. After all, the forces of Yin and Yang have been around in Asian culture for centuries, and, if the Vietnamese can do anything about it, there is hope that they will continue to exist in harmony in the future.
Before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City I was told of the unbelievable number of motorbikes I would see zipping though the city streets. I accepted the information, not thinking much further about it until I awoke in my sun warmed hotel room on the morning of my first day in Vietnam. I lay in bed for a moment listening to the continuous sound of beeping horns and the rumble of small engines. I walked to the balcony door and stepped out into the already sticky and sun warmed air. I looked down to the street a couple stories below and stared in amazement at the clogged street, which somehow managed to hold the swarms of motorbikes weaving amongst one another as they sped along. Every driver and passenger that passed wore a thick, patterned facemasks similar to those worn by medical professionals. Although motorbikes are a mode of transportation that allows for the greatest number of drivers on the road as well as increase affordability, it has negative impacts on the environment.
I stared in scared amazement as one motor bike buzzed by holding a family of four. The father drove while his young son stood in front of him holding onto the dashboard. The mother sat behind, holding a new baby in her lap. No seat belts, no car seats, no protective metal walls. The element of danger was screaming in my face. I was stunned that parents were so comfortable to transport their families in such an unsafe way. There seemed to be few rules of the road, drivers seeming to ignore the yellow line dividing the lanes if they had no room to drive as well as utilizing the sidewalk as a drivable zone. But similar to any unfamiliar custom or practice, it came to make sense once I learned the historical and cultural significance.
According to Dr. Duong Van Ni from Can Tho Univesity, following the American-Vietnam war, large numbers of people migrated from rural areas to cities at much higher rates than the government had anticipated. City planning in infrastructure was unable to keep up. With no time to widen the narrow roads to support the influx of people, cars were simply not an option for transportation. A realistic alternative was to utilize motorbikes. Motorbikes allow numerous drivers to fit on the small roads while still allowing quick transportation of entire families. With the country trying to lift the majority of its population out of poverty, motorbikes, unlike cars were far more affordable, even allowing for multiple motorbikes per family.
Despite the small size and lack of storage space, the people of Vietnam have become very skillful at loading their motorbikes. The careful arrangement of numerous friends and family members on a single bike seemed like such an impressive feat until I witnessed the hauling of goods and other belongings. Both men and women ride by; their bikes piled high with heavy bags of rice or carefully arranged boxes of mysterious goods. Bags and boxes are stacked between feet while hundreds of pounds are strapped onto the bike behind the driver. Often one hand is used to hold onto one of the many items being transported. I have struggled riding my bike while holding coffee, so I am completely unable to imagine how it is people are able to drive while hauling such extreme amounts of goods and possessions.
Although tailpipe emissions of motorbikes are less than cars and other larger vehicles, Vietnam’s motorbikes are not as environmentally friendly as one might assume. The air in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is far from clean, containing dangerous levels of benzene, sulfur dioxide, and PM10. Although considered only moderately high, levels of PM10, microscopic dust, are likely to increase in the coming years. Decreasing these emission levels in the near future does not look very promising because along with using lower quality dirty fuel as a way to save money, 30% of Vietnamese vehicles do not pass nation wide emissions tests.
The problem of vehicle pollution is not unique to Vietnam but no other vehicle equally as fast while also staying compact has yet to be developed. Change doesn’t happen overnight as we all very well know. A solution to the issues stemming from the widespread use of motorbikes will not be seen for many years, not until another viable option is available. As of now there is no projected time line for change. My hope is that in the coming years Vietnam is able to find a cleaner transportation option that is also able to increase the safety of the passengers.
Having never been to a Buddhist temple, I entered the gates the Khmer Temple in Can Tho expecting to admire the architecture, snap a few photos, and be on my way. I walked past the two-story buildings and ascended the steps to the imposing temple. Some other tourists milled about the grounds and construction equipment buzzed incessantly, building a new monk residence according to the sign. Inside the golden and red temple, the air was thick with incense and the lights were dim. Stares from the numerous and varied Buddha figures seemed to demand supplication. Tourists like me took pictures, locals approached the holy statutes and bowed in brief, silent ritual.
After I finished looking at the shrine, I returned to the courtyard and poked my head into the building on the left. A shaved-head, orange-robed monk spotted me. I thought he would usher me out, but in slightly broken, yet enthusiastic English, he greeted me and insisted I take a seat. He asked where I was from, brought tea, and joined me in the sitting room. I learned his name is Kim and told him I wanted to learn about Buddhism, thinking he could give me a lesson in the Dhamma. However, Kim pulled out his iPhone, lighter, and Hero cigarettes showing one would be pressed to say he had taken renunciation seriously. I tried a few questions about sutras and meditation, but he either didn’t understand me or wasn’t interested in talking about what I thought he had devoted his life to. He told me he quit his job marketing for a grocery store to become a monk to learn English and planned on “giving up the robe” as soon as he was more fluent. Like many Khmer men, the monastery was his best path to education. Knowing English would be helpful to further his career in business. The irony of becoming a monk for financial reasons seemed completely lost to him.
Kim relished the opportunity to practice English with a native speaker. The language barrier presented a few issues, but with the occasional help of Google Translate, we were able to understand each other. I gave up my questions about his faith as he inquired about my university studies, home in America, favorite foods, and other cultural small talk. He used his smart phone to show me pictures of his dream motorbike, favorite Cambodian music videos, and his nurse girlfriend waiting for him back home. We became quick friends and I visited the temple everyday while in Can Tho. Kim always stopped sweeping or taking pictures with tourists whenever I strolled through the gates. Monks can’t eat after noon, so Kim compensates with tea, excessively sugary coffee, frozen milk, and chain smoking, totally willing to share with me. The way he nonchalantly flicked his butts onto the courtyard tile didn’t cease to surprise me.
My trips to the temple were more of a lesson in modern Khmer culture than the ancient teachings of the Buddha, but that changed when Kim introduced me to his Master, Venerable Tran Sone. The Abbot, a fluent English speaker, appreciated my desire to learn and invited my entire group to their evening chanting session with the promise of tea and conversation afterwards. Most of my classmates accompanied me to observe the sacred ritual. We were welcomed to the normally locked, ground floor of the temple. The most holy room in the complex, its shrine was even more impressive than the one upstairs. We sat cross-legged on mats and listened to the Abbot lead the other monks in Pali chants. They began by getting on their knees and bowing to Lord Buddha, forehead to the floor, acknowledging the truth of his teachings. Then they raised their heads and the rhythmic, soothing chant began. The first part of the recitation was a blessing for all living creatures, the second was a dedication for the deceased.
We were led from the shrine into the sitting room where I first met Kim. Venerable Tran Sone cheerily entertained all our questions, giving us a crash course in Theravada Buddhism. He focused especially on meditation and the importance of mindfulness, not just for Buddhists, but anyone seeking to improve their lives. He elaborated on the two types of meditation. The first is concentration meditation, where one tries to empty their mind and focus on one thought to achieve a state of Zen; it is the form most westerners associate with the practice of meditation. The Abbot preferred the other kind, mindfulness meditation, where the practitioner lets his or her thoughts flow freely trying to be aware of every element of their being and surroundings. The two forms can be used separately or in conjunction, whichever works best for the meditator. He emphasized Buddhism is a highly personal religion, the only wrong way to do it is by leaning towards extremes. The middle-path or one of moderation in all things is the way to enlightenment.
If there is one teaching of in Buddhism that needs exported to Western culture the focus on moderation would probably be the best. It is especially relevant when looking at the pressing issues of climate change and environmental degradation due to our short-sighted excess and materialism. The first precept of Buddhism is that you cannot intentionally harm any living being. In the modern era that has directly translated to Buddhists leading conservation efforts. Our first destination after leaving Can Tho, the Bat Pagoda in Soc Trang, is a perfect example. The flying foxes native to the Mekong Delta were being hunted to the edge of extinction. The fruit-eater’s habitat was being systematically destroyed to expand industry and agriculture. Fortunately, the grounds of the temple contained a forest of large trees protected from logging. Now hundreds of bats spend the day roosting in the trees on the temple grounds, a sanctuary from opportunistic hunters. Without the refuge of the centuries-old pagoda, Vietnam may have lost the amazing creatures.
I came to Vietnam hoping to learn about the environment and climate change, only with some inspiration from Jack Kerouac did I decide to delve into Buddhism. I had no idea I would discover such a strong connection between the two. I think I discovered it because Buddhism can easily be conformed to the individuals’ needs. Venerable Tran Sone practices through the traditional path of a pious monk. Kim uses the monastic order to educate himself and pursue his career ambitions. I plan to use meditation to grow compassion and self-awareness. It is not a faith focused on worship, but on self-development. There are many ways to cultivate a connection to nature the Bat Pagoda showed Buddhism can be quite effective. The American conservation effort needs a spiritual fervor, an unshakable passion, to motivate us to preserve the beauty of the natural world for the next generation, or perhaps just ourselves – in the next life.
Stepping off of our comfortably air conditioned bus felt like walking into a wall of hot, moist air.
Although we are only 20 minutes outside the bustling city of Can Tho, most signs of the metropolis have disappeared. Our bus is too large for the narrow bridge so our large group enters the My Khanh Commune on foot, while trying to avoid being hit by passing motorbikes. Within minutes, the cameras are out and our progress is slowed as we all try to capture the beauty of the emerald rice fields and the smiles of the local children on film…or at least on our memory cards.
When we arrive at the farm of Mr. Le Hoang Than, I am initially surprised by the small size of the property. However, I soon realize that unlike in Montana, in the Mekong Delta rural does not equal spacious. Dr. Chiem, a lecturer at Can Tho University and our guide for the day, tells us that most farms in the area only include about 0.5 hectares of land (which is about 1.2 acres) and I quickly understand why farmers need to be able to use their land efficiently. We remove our shoes before entering the covered patio connected to the green farm house and settle around tables to drink tea and listen as Dr. Chiem explains the significance of this particular farm.
The river and canals flow through every aspect of life in the Delta. Each farm is settled next to the water and the farmers were able to take advantage of the ebb and flow of the tides to flood their rice fields and irrigate their fruit trees. Traditionally, farmers in the region have planted orange trees; however, in the early 1990’s disaster struck in the form of a virus that attacked these iconic trees. Farmers were struggling to earn enough money to support their families and quickly realized that they needed to diversify their enterprise. Researchers, like Dr Chiem, from Can Tho University were able to develop an elegantly simple solution that could easily be implemented to help farmers be more successful.
The VACB system that they developed involves four elements that work together and allows farmers to diversify their products and increase their income while minimizing their environmental impacts. The farmers use water to flush the waste from the pig pens and the household toilet into a large plastic container called a “biogas digester.” Here, microbes break down the solid waste in an anaerobic environment releasing methane gas. Tubes funnel gas from the digester into large plastic bags that the farmer stores under the roof of his shed. Pipes transport the methane gas into the home’s kitchen, where the farmer’s wife uses it as cooking fuel. In addition to pigs, the farmer is also able to raise fish in ponds and ditches between the rice fields and rows of fruit trees. The farmer can pump the wastewater from the biogas digester into his fish ponds where the nutrients in the water feed the fish. Finally, once the waste water is removed from the biogas digester, the farmer can use the remaining solid waste as fertilizer for his rice crop or fruit trees. This system has tremendous benefits for the farmers implementing it because much of the farm’s organic waste is recycled into cooking gas and fertilizer, additionally the farmer’s income increases because it is based on diverse sources. As an added benefit, the farmer does not need to buy artificial fertilizers and pesticides for use on his field.
The farmers are not the only ones who benefit from the VACB system. Corporate investors, like the Japanese company JIRCAS, also benefit from the system. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the Japanese company needs to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions and if it can’t reduce its own emissions to an acceptable level, it must invest in sustainable development projects in poorer countries. If JIRCAS can help Vietnam prevent carbon emissions, Japan can offset its own carbon emissions and meet its goals under the Kyoto Protocol. Each digester costs about $250 USD and so the project is easy to fund through the Japanese company and through other carbon offset programs. Right now, around 500 farmers in the Mekong Delta are using biogas digesters on their farms and more are joining as they see the economic benefits.
After Dr. Chiem’s lecture, we were able to see the farmer’s biogas digester, his fish pond, flower garden, fruit trees, and pig pen. While we were exploring the farm, the farmer’s wife prepared a delicious meal for us in her biogas fueled kitchen. After sitting down to soup, bowls of sticky rice and vegetables, we were treated to the unique experience of riding through the commune on the back of a motorbike as we visited several other biodynamic farms in the area. We were quite a sight as we traversed narrow winding roads along the canal in a convoy of 20 motorbikes. It was energizing and inspiring to see such small farms implementing holistic and sustainable solutions in a way that makes sense both economically and environmentally.
Throughout my travels through Vietnam I have studied and absorbed my surroundings like a fresh sponge. One concept I have had difficulties grasping is that with so many great strides Vietnam has made towards innovative farming and carbon reduction, the country seemingly has no recycling or waste management system in place. I first noticed this and was surprised during our visit to a Mangrove Restoration site. With a focus on restoring the environment that once was impacted so negatively and making efforts to improve it, the mangrove site had areas of regrowth but among the regrowth was litter of old styrofoam plates and take out boxes, plastic bottles and soda cans. I had to ask myself if a restoration site does not have a clean environment, how does the rest of the country fair? I kept my eyes open to my surroundings after that, curious to see if there were more circumstances similar to this. To my dismay when I was crossing a bridge, exploring the city of Can Tho, individuals were swimming in the water with large pieces of trash floating next to their heads and they were unfazed. How could someone swim knowing there is garbage surrounding them? As an American, I have known that any water in that condition is not swimmable. This made me concerned not only for Vietnam but for other countries that do not put waste management as a priority, not only for the environment but sanitation responsibilities regarding their citizens.
UM students were lucky enough to work and learn from the Delta Youth Alliance, an organization of Can Tho University students. We were able to travel to Son Island and learn of the environmental and ecotourism changes occurring. Yet while hiking through and discovering such a beautiful little island, I couldn’t help but notice litter and trash washed up on the eroding shores. When I asked the Can Tho students if there was any means of a clean up crew, they informed me while there are environmental groups, they have not taken the action of any clean up crew along the shores or created any activist motions to form a proper recycling and waste management program. News of this truly saddened me. Vietnam has become known among the millennial generation for its beautiful landscapes and friendly people. All of this I can say is true in my short time of being here. An air of disappointment reigns over me, however, as I discover and learn more and more of this beautiful land to see it spoiled by waste that could easily be resolved. It was unsettling to see styrofoam, water bottles, potato chip bags and other discarded items in the streets of the city but I could understand the difficulty of managing that in a growing and urbanizing city after seeing our own cities in America. The true discouragement came when rural communities, restoration sites, and eroding islands experienced the same kind of waste on their lush green lands. In hopes and efforts that Vietnam has begun a recycling and waste management program I did some outside research; yearning for just one article, one story, one example that could show me action was being taken to keep this captivating land in all its glory.
However, I did not find myself so fortunate. I can only hope, wish and can speak with Can Tho University students that they take action and begin creating a movement to keep their environment as stunning and enjoyable as it has been in the past. The CTU students are smart, excitable and motivated. I have the utmost trust they can begin the appropriate actions to keep their environment as beautiful as I, and my fellow UM peers have experienced it.
At nine o’clock on a sticky, noisy Tuesday night, my roommate and I met up with our new friend Phuong and our homestay sister Thi. We were dressed up to join a night out with a gang of students from Can Tho University to tour the streets for cheap food and window shop for clothes we’d gawk at but never buy. Our favorite shops, being a band of humor-seeking youths, had to be the lingerie shops, where every bra had no less than an inch of padding. As did most respectable, modern youths on the streets of Can Tho, we traveled via motorbike, with those whose family could afford the newest models driving and the rest hitching rides.
The wind felt great, since even in my sleeveless dress, I felt reduced to a sweating mess. Some of us playfully suggested jamming ourselves into a busy club, if only all of us exceeded the legal age of 18. Unlike the United States, where the age gap between young friends tends to be close, we ranged from the ages of 14 to 26.
Despite how tired I was growing, my eyes were fixated on the passing city as we zipped through packed traffic. Though I found Can Tho oddly calming during the day, the night had a crammed, rushing feeling to it.
Restaurants that were empty in daylight hours became busy, and the shopping malls so cramped I often found myself trapped in the aisles. We weren’t the only young adults out for a night of fun at the time; once the sun was down, the city emptied itself onto the streets, overrunning the outdoor markets.
In daylight, it’s easier to see that Can Tho is, like many other Vietnamese urban areas, a city that built itself in a feverish development rush. Even if Rome, with all its coliseums and aqueducts, really did build itself in a single day, each city of Vietnam seems to triple that accomplishment within the span of a single week. Shabby, cement concrete buildings are bordered by shimmering steel and glass towers, the skyline dotted with the telltale cranes that herald future skyscrapers. The concrete jungle hybridized with real jungle flora, vibrant, green fanning leaves poking out between the gaps of pastel concrete walls, offering shade and rain cover to busy passersby. To put it romantically, there was a wild, organic, and rapidly paced style to the city, a beauty interspersed with litter, car horns, and thick tangles of power lines that wove through the trees.
The buildings aren’t self-generating wonders, but rather the built up backbone of a fast paced and growing urban population. Vietnam is a nation of growth, not recession—one of our Can Tho lecturers, Dr. Le Khuong Ninh, explained to us that Vietnam has the 13th largest economy in the world, and has an estimated workforce around 53.4 million people and a GNI per capita of $1,740 USD. This distinguishes it as a lower middle income country. In the past decade families have seen the addition of electricity, cable, washing machines, and internet in their homes, even in rural areas where formal roads can’t reach them. Most of the population carries a cellphone in the family, and in the city keep close ties to social media. You can spot people texting while they’re driving, sitting in class, or even on the job behind store counters and security posts.
With a medium income stable enough to maintain a middle class, education has become more and more accessible, even to farmers deep in the mangroves whose children rely on community boat rides to get to school. Before, only men were sent to college, and a family only sent their most studious children. Now, if a family can afford it, they send all their children off to study, male or female. Our friend Thi’s parents are rice farmers in the province of Kien Gian near Can Tho, but Thi doesn’t have plans on continuing their work. he’s majoring in Chemistry with a focus on pharmaceuticals. Most students from the university that we met have parents that share in common an income based on agriculture, but they’ll be pursuing higher paying careers of more diverse interests. Like my friend Thi, students stay in the city with their relatives if they can in order to study, or like my friend Diep, they stay at one of the massive, white on-campus boarding houses that can provide living space for hundreds of students at a time.
According to Dr. Ninh, with an increase in education and an explosion in urban populations, Vietnam’s economy is shifting away from its agricultural base and towards a market more specialized in industry and services. However, the trend isn’t without major problems. Very few of Vietnamese people that move to the cities seeking jobs or education move back to the villages they come from, causing an overload of social problems in the cities and a drop of available labor in rural areas. Cities are producing trash and pollution that’s difficult to manage. Most motorcyclists on the road don face masks in an attempt to reduce how much exhaust and other pollutants they breathe in.
Vietnam’s educated youth are adopting urban cultures of East Asia and America quickly, watching popular Japanese animes and using English slang terms like ‘Cool’ and ‘Awesome’ and ‘This sucks’ while out for a night around town. There’s pressure to fit in—Ninh described to us an argument he had with a student that recently moved to Can Tho from a rural village. “Rural students buy motorcycles, even when they don’t need them, so they are like all the other city people,” Dr. Ninh said, “I asked [my student] if he needed the motorcycle, and he said no, so I said don’t buy it.” Despite the hot weather, Vietnam’s youths wear long, ripped jeans and faux leather jackets, donning motorcycle helmets printed with their favorite mascots. At times, I would see female riders holding their helmets in their lap in fear of ruining their hair. It was hard for me to believe that just a single generation before, these street styled youth’s parents were modest rice farmers in homes that didn’t even have power. These same parents were also witnesses to the destruction and malnutrition of the American Vietnam war, a history now confined to the museums and monuments whose shadows don’t even reach the busy streets.
Still, poverty is persistent, and as Vietnam becomes more and more developed, the equality gap grows larger and larger. It’s joined the fast paced cultures of Asia, obsessed with fashion, music, and other things that can be seen as either stunningly modern or carelessly frivolous. The egalitarian principles of Communism seem to be getting lost in the radical shift that promises a new face to a Vietnam long recognized as a poor, third world country. During our night out with friends, we were visited by a young boy under the age of 10 wandering around the streets of Can Tho alone, selling beaded keychains to tourists and passersby for a few thousand VND. He was eager to take photos with us, and some of our friends affectionately pinched his cheeks but otherwise paid him little mind. I found myself heartbroken to see his blackened teeth, and saddened to see how skinny and malnourished he was. I could pick him up easily as if I were carrying a child half his age. He spoke no English, but I found myself asking him anyway where were his parents? Where did he live? How often did he eat per day? And how many more children were like him, out in the streets of the cities of Vietnam, left behind in Vietnam’s rush to develop?