Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Good Morning Vietnam! Ecotourism and National Parks in the Mekong Delta. By Rebecca Keith

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.

Canoeing In Melaleuca forest An Giang province

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.

2 children in hammock

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.

WomenPreparing Food

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

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