By Anastacia Crowe
During my stay in Vietnam I met a great deal of people who I came to adore, and even love, but there were few who made such an impression on me. Tai, a malaria survivor, soon-to-be father of three, and nature guide in Cat Tien National Park, was one of those people.
From the moment we hiked in to Crocodile Lake, until the moment that we were dropped back off at Cat Tien National Park Headquarters, Tai was there to watch over us. Throughout our three-day trip to Crocodile Lake, Tai, with his trained eyes was there to point out and name all the birds, primates and other creatures that we wouldn’t have noticed with our untrained eyes.
Tai’s job as a nature guide in the jungles of Cat Tien fits his personality remarkably well: He is a man of few words, choosing to observe everything and everyone around him, rather than talking. Without his stoic demeanor, observant eyes, and humble attitude, he wouldn’t be excellent guide that we came to know.
During our trip, I came to realize just how much Tai loved the jungle and the creatures that inhabit it. When we were packing up to leave on our last day at Crocodile Lake, I asked him what led him to spend his life as a nature guide, he simply stated, “The forest”. From the few short days that I spent with Tai, I could tell that his love for nature and wildlife far outweighs his love for people, as he seems to search for solitude outside, rather than choosing to spend time with large groups of people. Who could choose to spend their lives leading people on overnight trips deep into the jungles of Vietnam if they didn’t love the quietness that nature provides in the way that he does.
By Max Longo
Vietnam is developing fast, and with this rapid development comes potential for new productive and sustainable ways to produce energy. During our trip around Vietnam, we visited one of Southeast Asia’s first offshore wind farms in Bac Lieu Province. The wind farm started construction in 2010 and began operation in 2016. With existing plans for a massive expansion, the 62 wind turbines currently have a gross annual electricity output of 335 GW/h, an energy capacity of 99 MW, and is expected to offset 151,330 tons of CO2 emissions a year. I’m motivated by the potential of this wind farm because it aims to address energy access issues in a region that is rapidly developing and is faced with issues of energy insecurity.
How Vietnam serves future energy needs is still evolving. The government had planned to build a large coal-fired power plant in this area, one of many in southern Vietnam. But local concern over impacts, and a desire to reserve local water resources for fisheries, led the government to cancel plans for the coal plant and instead build a wind farm (coal-fired thermal plants require a lot of water for cooling). Amazingly, the wind farm produces enough energy for the entire province of Bac Lieu. The choice to switch away from coal burning and toward wind power is wise environmentally, economically and socially.
The project has been successful in addressing energy access and could pave the way for additional renewable energy generation, substituting for future coal-fired power energy development. My hope is that this wind farm sets a precedent for future projects in Southeast Asia and that it will influence sustainable energy projects in developing nations throughout the world.
The project has major significance in the Mekong Delta region for an additional reason – it demonstrates the power of collaboration between nations in building infrastructure that mitigates C02 emissions. This wind farm was the first project developed under the U.S.-Vietnam private sector agreement, which is a partnership included under the U.S.-Asia Pacific comprehensive energy partnership. The billion-dollar renewable energy project is funded in partnership with the U.S Export-Import Bank, which provides a credit line to the Vietnam Development Bank, which then provides an investment credit and foreign loan. General Electric provided the wind turbine infrastructure.
This project has potential to demonstrate the power of wind energy and global collaboration. Developed and developing nations can work together in strategic partnership to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide energy in areas with insecure access, and all while generate profitable returns for investors. This solves problems on multiple levels, which is maybe why the project has plans to double it wind turbine infrastructure.
The wind farm we visited also serves as a tourist attraction. In the middle of the project, with turbines towering over you at every angle, sits a gift-ship where one can buy a coffee mug, t-shirt or even a wind turbine trophy. The Province is proud of their magnificent renewable energy project and has good reason to boast.
Visiting Southeast Asia’s first offshore wind farm was an amazing experience for me. I have never seen such a large scale renewable energy project in person before. The magnitude of the turbines surprised me. I will never forget my experience or the feeling of hope I gained about the future. As I walked through the immense turbines I felt the strong winds which constantly blow along the coasts all over the world. I had a feeling of hope about the future. I knew I was looking at a project of the future. Two nations collaborative efforts for reducing green-house gas emissions and combating the effects of climate change can be seen on the coast of Bac Lieu Province. Hope is on the horizon.
By Max Longo
While in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Ly Quoc Dang, an environmental educator, community leader, and researcher through Can Tho University. Mr. Dang received a B.A in Environmental Science from Ho Chi Minh National University and a Masters in Development Studies from Geneva International University in Switzerland. He is currently a PhD candidate at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, pursuing a degree in the social sciences with an emphasis in gender studies.
Mr. Dang joined us for a day of lectures and presentations with the Delta Youth Alliance, a group of students he helps to lead at Can Tho University who are interested in environmental issues, such as environmental education, sustainable farming practices, and pollution control. It was clear that Mr. Dang motivates and inspires these students in their environmental education. In fact, the very day we met with him, he received word from the U.S. State Department that his “Teaching Farm and Youth Engagement” project proposal was funded as one of several 2017 YSEALI Seeds for the Future grants.
Mr. Dang is from the Southern Vietnamese community of Soc Trang. He first became interested in conservation issues as a child by spending time at the local Pagoda. Learning about bat conservation, he grew interested in helping to maintain the bat species and livelihoods of local people. Mr. Dang continues to bring his environmental expertise into the community, which strengthens the bond between a university system and community development. During his lecture, he said, “I work here because I want to raise the voice of the local people.” With the Khmer youth we met living in this community, he is succeeding in his mission.
Mr. Dang’s ongoing commitment to educating and expanding opportunities for local people is inspiring. His passion and enthusiasm for his job is radiant. I feel fortunate to have met him and, through him, learn about environmental issues facing Vietnam.
By Paul Willett
As we walked into the pagoda I had no clue what to expect. Little did I know I was about to get a whole new perspective on climate change. I looked around, seeing amazing paintings and sculptures that all tell a different part of various stories within the religion. Luckily, in the past I took a class at the University of Montana about Buddhism, and I also had Nghi, a great friend (and our teaching assistant) who knows a ton about Buddhism, so she helped me understand it all.
While Nghi and I walked around the different pagodas, we discussed the story of the Buddha’s life in comparison to the images on the wall. As we went through the Buddha’s birth, journey to enlightenment, teachings and death, we admired all the distinct details we were surrounded by that helped tell the story.
The story was beginning to unravel itself through our eyes. I noticed that the message the Buddha was getting across was not too far from the message that we need to realize to help solve climate change. Some of these messages where very complex so I will do my best to simplify it.
The first connection I made was when the Buddha left to explore the villages, and he saw Monks, Nuns, old age, sickness and death. This reminded me of what it means to have an open mind and to expose yourself to new ideas on the world. This, I believe, is a very important aspect of helping you understand climate change.
Nghi and I continued to walk and talk we saw many different Demond’s on the walls. These Demond’s told different stories about how they tried to distract the Buddha from enlightenment. They would do this by trying to make the Buddha greedy with illusion. As a result, one of the Demond’s got so gritty and impatient it ate itself. This is a perfect metaphor for what could happen to the world if we don’t change our actions. We could take so much we end up destroying it.
A large portion of the beautiful paintings and statues were of the Buddha after he was enlightened. This was when he taught countless other people how to become enlightened themselves, which is exactly what we need to do with climate change. We need teachers and we need students. Without the Buddha’s teachings, Buddhism would have forever been left a mystery. If we do not share the knowledge of climate change with the world, no one will ever know the seriousness of it or how to actively prevent it.
As we were walking back to the bus from one of the pagodas, I got into a conversation with Max, who had also taken the Buddhism class at the University of Montana. We discussed some of the main ideas of Buddhism and how they relate to climate change. We discussed the middle path, a path you can take that Buddhism developed. This path means to not be greedy and to not get attached to things. That’s when every thing came together.
Such a big reason why it’s taking us so long to solve this climate change problem is because so many people in this world are attached to the old ways. Being greedy not only ties into trying to make as much money as possible through the world’s natural resources, but also it means putting yourself over others. Many things the Middle Way teaches could lead us out of these frustrations that are preventing us from getting out of the global problem of climate change we face today.
With all of the stress that comes with climate change it would do us all good to meditate. Not only to calm us all down but more importantly to help fight climate change.
By Sarah Luth
In the U.S, civic organizations exist for almost any kind of idea and need. Organizing for social, economic, and environmental change is less common in Vietnam. But with rapid development, wider educative opportunities, and increasingly pressing environmental issues, Vietnamese youth are beginning to mobilize.
The Mekong Youth Impact and Delta Youth Alliance students at Can Tho University are the perfect examples of action leaders. During a fun three-day exchange, we learned from each other through presentations, lunches, sports, and field trips to Son Island and a Bat Pagoda. The Vietnamese students were curious to learn about our interests and lives, just as we were to hear about theirs. After the exchange we had each gained multiple foreign friendships, along with way too many pictures to prove it. Through this bonding we achieved a deeper understanding of Vietnamese youth culture and their ambitions for improving their communities and environment.
Several of the students described projects they were involved in that focused on education and environmental awareness. The Mekong Youth Impact group’s “Healthy Initiative” was one of the examples. Formed by several recently graduated students, the goal of the Healthy Initiative is to create a society that concerns about the environment. Their work focused on the floating market, perhaps the biggest tourist attraction of Can Tho city and main income source for the many who live and sell from their boats. Trash, waste, and chemical pollution are a major issue in the river where the floating market takes place. However, many of the people living and selling on their boats have little education and limited knowledge of environmental impacts on the river.
To begin fostering a concern for the environment, the students involved in the Healthy Initiative chose to target the children of the floating market. These are the children whose parents’ livelihoods are made up of selling fruits and vegetables on their boats. The children, due to finances, family needs and transportation difficulties are typically unable to attend school past the primary level. The Mekong Youth Impact students decided to provide these children, ages 4 through 16, lessons in hygiene, environmental protection, and English for free via boat classrooms. While good hygiene practices would help improve health, English would increase their profit margins on the floating market, and ecological lessons would increase environmental awareness of the younger generation. The Healthy Initiative’s goal was to provide this education so that children could understand the ecological and economical importance of the river. Their rationale: if children value the river they will be more likely to become stewards of it. Again, awareness can inspire environmental protection and potentially outward action.
I was very inspired by the Healthy Initiative Project. The graduates involved showed their dedication to the improvement of their community with impressive creativity, patience, and investment in youth.
Likewise, the Delta Youth Alliance is inspiring and motivating youth to create change. Their teaching farm, much like our UM PEAS farm that we presented on is planned to become an experiential learning source for Vietnamese students at all levels. The teaching farm would help students understand small-scale sustainable farming practices in a hands-on setting. With this knowledge students involved could then take action to educate others about the importance of environmental protection and sustainable farming. The project just received funding from the U.S State Department and will begin in February.
These youth groups are leading an important shift in values by spreading environmental awareness and encouraging youth engagement. Environmental concern is building in Vietnam, and youth groups are trying their hands at environmental leadership, finding themselves empowered with the ability to change their circumstances. The purpose of the Delta Youth Alliance is to “inspire and motivate youth to create change”, and it appears they, along with the Mekong Youth Impact are doing so, one floating classroom and teaching farm at a time. They certainly managed to inspire each of us, their University of Montana peers, to become more active leaders in our own communities. Plus, they are really fun to play basketball with.
By Allie McGrath
When people find out I’m a psychology major, the first thing they say is almost always “how does that make you feel?” What I’ve come to see is that, for all of us, how we feel affects the way we make sense of the world around us and how we see our role in the fight against climate change.
Coming from the Big Sky State, we are surrounded by open space and fresh air. With just over one million people, peace and quiet is not hard to find. Since day one in Vietnam, we’ve been woken up by the chorus of honking cars and motorbikes, or the banter of squawking roosters at the homestay, even the grinding and banging of 6:00 am construction outside our hotel windows. Vietnam is packed full with nearly 90 million people in an area smaller than that of Montana, most cruising through the congestion of the cities on mopeds and motorcycles. So, I’ve been feeling a little bit like a deer in headlights, overwhelmed and confused by the pace of development and the incredibly different habitat I jumped into.
As snow piles high back home in Montana, we are sitting here on the 10th parallel, confronted daily by the sweltering sun burning at an average of 80º F. I find myself in a constant sweat stream, flustered by the heat and humidity. Yet, each day also involves taking rest after lunch, a long siesta in a hammock, in which we find sweet relief from the stifling heat.Here in rural Vietnam, there seem to be as many hammocks as there are mopeds. As we swing around in hammocks, I realize how nice it feels to be cool, quiet and at rest. I am reminded of the constant busy pace of life in America, where relaxation seems to be a thing of the past, and how getting to the top quickly is a measure of success. Whoever decided that naptime stops after preschool was seriously wrong.
When I think about the bigger issues we are here to confront–climate change– again I think about how I feel and why it matters. Reflecting on my home country, I feel disheartened that the incoming administration plans to dilute and discredit the obvious, imminent problems our world is faced with. This will have particularly severe consequences, especially for vulnerable countries like Vietnam. But as youth, I feel we are a powerful force, and that it is our responsibility to take action and to keep the conversations open about the changing climate.
I am motivated by the students of the Delta Youth Alliance at Can Tho University and their professors, who are doing their part by conducting workshops and programs in order to spread awareness and improve the understanding of causes, impacts, and adaptations to climate change.
As a psychology major studying climate change, I’m reminded over and over how important our motivations are, and how easily we can feel both overwhelmed and also inspired to be agents of change. And that a little nap time and mindful rest can help offer much needed perspective.
By Kevin Cofer
Striped with gorgeous waterways and checkered by rice patties, Vietnam’s natural beauty is as astonishing as its people. A symphony of motorbike engines and beeping horns complements the glowing bridges and plazas that illuminate the rivers and canals below. The tropical climate encourages life to burst out from where ever it may find a foot hold, and the Vietnamese people rely heavily on the land’s health and functionality to support their own well-being. Here, people and nature coincide with one another allowing both to thrive. Two of Vietnam’s greatest examples of this symbiotic relationship in the Mekong Delta include the Can Gio and Cape Ca Mau Biosphere Reserves.
“Biosphere reserves are ‘Science for Sustainability support sites’ – special places for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity” (UNESCO).
The Can Gio Biosphere Reserve is a 75,740 ha (terrestrial and marine) reservation predominantly covered by Mangrove forests that is located in the costal district southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The area is home to some 70,000 residents who share their habitat with a diverse range of species including king cobras, saltwater crocodiles, spot-billed pelicans, fisher cats, and mangrove trees (UNESCO).
The Ca Mau Biosphere Reserve in located at the southern tip of Vietnam overlooking the confluence of the Eastern Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. The Ca Mau Reserve is significantly larger than its Can Gio counterpart spanning a total of 369,675 ha with 170,321 people incorporated into the landscape (UNESCO). Ca Mau also differentiates itself by not only harboring mangrove forests but diversifying to include prevalent extents of peat swamps and wetlands as well (UNESCO). Each of these biomes is abundant with ecological components with high conservation values.
Vietnam’s biosphere reserves are managed in a fashion that seeks to balance society and nature together in a harmonious assembly. Swaths of aquatic and terrestrial land areas are managed for certain goals and given one of three specific designations: the core zone, buffer zone, and transitional zone.
Core zones serves as an exclusionary boundary with strict regulations set to ensure long term preservation of landscapes and ecosystems. This zone has few inhabitants and restricted activities for the populations in the area. Those allowed in the area mainly serve as the eyes and ears for the government and authorities, alerting them of harmful activities occurring in the core zone. The aptly named buffer zone functions as a safeguarding parameter between the core and transitional zones. This area allows for relatively benign activities such as education, recreation, and tourism. Finally, the transitional zone provides opportunity for more practical utilizations such as agriculture and residential living.
The divisions and rules set in Can Gio and Ca Mau are implemented almost specifically to encourage mangrove reforestation. Mangrove trees offer many ecosystem services including stabilizing eroding soils, retaining silt deposits, purifying brackish water, and promoting biodiversity. Reserve officials restrict what activities may occur in each zone to facilitate the return of mangrove forests but seek to achieve these goals in a manner that still allows for local communities to utilize the land and its natural resources.
The biosphere reserve is a concept unfamiliar to most U.S. citizens. It is a model similar to our beloved national parks, but with one major distinction: a biosphere reserve allows for the integration of humans into the landscape fostering economic and social development that is ecologically sustainable. Citizens within the reserve contribute to its conservation and serve as environmental protectors warding off poachers and keeping a watchful eye for any behaviors that may have an adverse effect on the protected ecosystem. Biosphere reserves like Can Gio and Ca Mau are a triumph of administration and cooperation, functioning to serve both man and nature in an approach that strives to perpetuate the well-being of both.
By Paul Willett
I was fortunate enough to have Nguyễn Nhật Minh as my homestay friend. Nguyễn is a 20-year-old computer since major at the University of Can Tho. He enjoys lots of things from American culture, such as movies, music and politics. He also enjoys playing soccer and volleyball with his University friends.
The few days I spent with Nguyễn where jam-packed with different and thrilling activities. He taught me a ton about the night life in Can Tho. The two nights I spent with him involved playing pool, exploring the busy lit up streets as the lunar new year approaches, going to the mall and setting new high scores in the arcade, eating cheap and delicious street foods, catching quick cabs, and ending nights on various hotel rooftops scattered throughout the city.
Nguyễn says he only showed Max and me a small part of what there is to do at night in Can Tho, which gave me a solid perspective on how alive Can Tho is at night. Having the opportunity to spend time with Nguyễn made for a few great nights out and a life-long friend.
By Anastacia Crowe
Living a life of balance is not easy, but a VACB farmer we visited who lives in the My Khanh Village in the Mekong Delta seems to be doing just that. Tucked away in a small village on the outskirts of the city of Can Tho, we were greeted by the smell of flowers, the coolness of an area covered by foliage, and the sounds of people whirring past us on their motorbikes. The only thing that was missing was the sight and sound of cars in the area, making our short walk to the pig farmer Mr. Than’s house pleasant, without the constant buzz of the city. We spent the better half of our day at Mr. Than’s house, learning from him and Dr. Chiem about the closed energy farm system he currently resides in and operates.
The VACB system is essentially a combination of: Vuon or Orchard, Ao or Pond, Chuong or Pig-pen, and Biogas. It’s a closed cycle where they raise pigs in an enclosure that allows the family to feed their food scraps to the pigs and where the pigs’ excremental waste is washed away and collected in a biogas digester (rather than washing into the river system). This in turn creates and captures methane that the family can then use to fire their stoves and even power their homes. This particular family used the methane to run a generator that powered its irrigation system, as well as their household electricity needs.
In addition to using pig waste as a way to create methane, the family uses a plant called bèo tai tượng (or water lettuce, Pistia stratiotes). The organic matter from the plants is digested in much the same way as the pig waste: in a large plastic tube, where it slowly decays and releases methane, filling up the tube. The waste leftover from the biogas digester is then transferred to the fishing ponds where it provides feed for the fish (saving the farmer 50% of cost for fish-food) and provides a layer of organic sediment which the farmer can remove later in the year to fertilize his orchard or garden.
In this sustainable model, everything that is used or created as waste goes towards providing something necessary for the other parts of the system; everything is interdependent and interrelated. This model is similar to Lifeline Produce, a farm where I worked for a summer located in Victor, Montana—the family there uses a closed system farming technique, using no synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides or hormones. They choose to use organic compost to fertilize their fields, and only organic pesticides when needed. Furthermore, they produce their own biodiesel—from leftover oil discarded from restaurants around Missoula—to power their vehicles and the tractors needed for various tasks around the farm.
Here on the VACB farm, the waste is used to produce not only food or fertilizer, but new energy as well. The pig waste is also used to create methane—that would otherwise be released into the air in the form of a greenhouse gas—that can then be used to provide energy for the family. Through this system, the family saves approximately two liters of gas a day that would otherwise be used to power their home. Waste and production are not usually complementary terms, but in this system, they are. Without the waste from the family or the pigs, there would be no renewable source of energy for the farmer to power his home, or food to feed the fish that the family harvests for their meals. Each part of this system provides a balance to the other parts of the system, making it all run smoothly.
Another thing that stood out to me about this commune was how different it was from the city of Can Tho; instead of being a hot and sweaty concrete jungle, it was a cool and refreshing green space. It’s as if the village is the yin to the cities yang; even spending a day in the communes natural, green space made me feel more balanced. I am accustomed to living in a place where green spaces are only a bike ride or walk away, so spending the majority of our time in these cities has made me feel like something was missing. But by visiting this place, I finally felt like I was beginning to balance my yin and yang.
By Lione Clare
Mr. Than greeted us with a warm smile, individual handshakes, and freshly brewed green tea. He owns a unique farm in My Khanh Village on the outskirts of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Mr. Than is known as a “smart farmer,” because he was the first to accept switching to a biogas energy system as part of a project the Can Tho University College of Agriculture is working on. The biogas system digests pig dung and vegetation then captures the methane gas byproduct, which is used for cooking, generating electricity, and pumping water around Mr. Than’s home. Capturing the methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere as a powerful greenhouse gas makes this a renewable energy system.
Mr. Than has been using the VACB model (fruit garden, pigs, aquaculture, and biogas) on his farm since 1996. The system has saved him around $4,267 dollars over 20 years and also made his farm and the surrounding environment much cleaner. Pig dung no longer gets washed into the river or becomes concentrated around the farm. Other benefits of the system include a reduction in women’s work otherwise needing to chop and dry firewood for cooking, being able to use the broken down organic matter from the bottom of his fish pond to fertilize his crops, and saving half the cost for fish food.
Mr. Than’s daily life includes feeding his pigs and fish, washing the pigpens (to get the dung into the biogas digesters) and tending his garden. He also participates in Can Tho University’s education workshops, where he shares about his renewable energy system and encourages other farmers to adopt the biogas model.
By Kevin Cofer
We have been fortunate enough to receive an array of lectures from a handful of some of Can Tho University’s brightest professors. One of which was Dr. Vo Quoc Tuan, who taught us about the ecosystem services of the Mekong Delta, mainly facilitated by the mangrove trees. Born on February 28th 1978, Dr. Tuan then earned a bachelor’s in Land Management from Can Tho University in 1997, later a master’s in remote sensing from South Korea, and finally a doctorate at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Germany. In his professional life Dr. Tuan has published seven scientific articles and is currently a professor at Can Tho University in Vietnam.
Dr. Tuan shared an overview of his research, explaining how scientists have identified four types of ecosystem services: provisioning (such as food, water, wood, and fuel), supporting (such of nutrient cycling, soil formation, and primary production), regulating (including disease prevention, climate regulation, and flood control), and cultural (including spiritual values, educational opportunities, and recreational enjoyment). His lecture also included an equation used to calculate the monetary value of ecosystem services. This is a useful tool allowing researchers to express naturally occurring functions as a fiduciary value, which may help to provide an accurate perspective of how significant ecosystem services really are.
I found Dr. Tuan’s research very interesting because it defines a direct correlation between ecosystem functions and livelihood sustainability. His research quantified the value of these naturally occurring functions and helped to illustrate their significance for local people. Household surveys suggest that a growing number of patrons living within the mangrove forests of the delta understand how vital the mangroves are to the functionality and production of the landscape. Here is a photograph that Dr. Tuan showed us of him with Dr. Robert Constanza, a leading scientist in ecosystem services, as they discussed the value of natural and social capital, in theory and in practice.
By Sarah Luth
Transportation in Vietnam has many forms, but by far the main method of travel is by motorbike. City roads are a crowded sea of colorful, honking motorbikes moving in all different directions. There are approximately 42 million registered motorbikes nationwide, with a total population of around 90 million people. Mr. Dat, a young Vietnam National University employee explained that as Vietnamese youth, once you turn 16, “everyone owns a motorbike,” even before getting a drivers license at 18. There is no tax on motorbikes, whereas buying a car requires payment of a large initial tax. Walking around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho, it is easy to spot the cars, buses, and bicycles because they are so few relative to the mass of motorbikes.
Thirty years ago boats were the main mode of travel, particularly in southern Vietnam. With wet soils that frequently changed the ground level, roads made much less sense than river travel. Boats are still widely used, and now fitted with electric motors. However, with rapid development many roads were paved which gave way to the bicycle, followed by an overwhelming shift to the motorbike. Some wonder if there will be a shift from motorbikes to cars, and indeed data suggest increases in car purchasing, but talking to the youth reveals a different future path.
When asked about buying a car, Mr. Dat explained that he doesn’t want one for several reasons. Driving a car would be slower because it is more difficult to maneuver a car through traffic than a motorbike. There is also no space to park cars in the city, and he can use Uber or Grab to go where he likes with friends at a very reasonable price.
I got the chance to ride a motorbike through Ho Chi Minh City with our friend Zenda. Zenda admitted that he hates the traffic. Most of his friends do too.
They all own masks to help protect their lungs from air pollution, and enjoy the more sparse roads of their home towns. On the back of his motorbike, if I had extended my arms I would have touched other people on their motorbikes as we scooted by. Weaving around other drivers and pedestrians, it was impossible to go very fast and many riders used the sidewalks to get through. It’s difficult to say what transportation will look like in Vietnam’s future, but perhaps the densely populated country will avoid following the individually owned car-loving footsteps of America.
By Matt Seaton
We spent the afternoon at a local shrimp farmer’s homestead within the Can Gio mangrove forest reserve, which was very informative and exciting at the same time. Having him open up with us concerning his daily operations was a special thing. He is considered to be a leader in a network of other local shrimp farmers, making him responsible for the surrounding water ways, which means he’s also responsible for his neighbors. The farmer told us that he would visit a different person in his collective group each day to check on them or to see if there was any help needed from him. Here, there is little room for expansion of the shrimping business.
As a forest protector within the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, this farmer has responsibility for an entire tributary off the main river, which he had converted into a small-scale shrimp farm. When high tide comes, he opens his gates, allowing for a flood of aquatic life to enter his farm/pond. When low tide arrives, and the flow of the water goes out to the main river, he just closes his dikes to prevent his catch from escaping to back into the channel.
The farmer explained that he would catch a range of products, from different kinds of fish to the all mighty shrimp. When he was satisfied with what he had in his pond, he would open the gates at low tide allowing the water to rush back out to the main branch of the river. To harvest the marine life in his pond, he would lay nets across the opening, catching the fish and shrimp as they tried to escape with the outgoing water. At this point he could monitor closely the amount of life caught in his pond.
Shrimp farming within the mangrove forest is a lucrative business, if you know how to do it properly. Shrimp get a high price at the market, which provides for a relatively high standard of living. For this farmer, it meant earning up to $300 per month. Shrimp farming here also means, however, that you are living far away from the city and all of its accommodations. You are having to commute everywhere you go, and this is almost always by boat.
The shrimp farmer we had the opportunity to meet knew his trade well, to the point that he was helping others. He was highly successful man and he opened his house to our group. It was a truly meaningful experience that I personally won’t forget. He fed us a huge home cooked meal, which meant a lot due to their financial situation. Feeding a group of large Americans wasn’t an easy thing to do or a cheap thing to do by any means, even if most of the food we ate was grown locally. We were shown a side of the Vietnamese people by sharing his home, culture, and traditional food with us. All of us sitting on the ground eating and talking together and sharing in conversation was a rare and special moment. The amount of kindness and openness to our group I’m sure won’t be forgotten. I certainly know I won’t forget the day that we spent with a shrimp farmer.
By Lione Clare
In two left footed boots, I squelched with the group through the clayey light brown mud to a plot within a two-hectare area of newly planted young mangrove trees. We were here to get our hands dirty, and that we did! In pairs, we planted around 40 young trees to help with the restoration effort at Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, home to the “most diverse and luxurious mangroves in the world,” according to one of our lecturers, Dr. Le Duc Tuan.
During the Vietnam War (in Vietnam they call it the American War), about one million gallons of harmful chemicals were sprayed over Can Gio Reserve to clear war zone lands. Over half the chemicals sprayed were Agent Orange, which completely destroyed 20,000 hectares of mangrove ecosystems in this area. Today, land use in these coastal areas favors more intensive agriculture, like shrimp aquaculture, which has led to continued clearing of mangrove forests. In Can Gio Reserve, however, farming and resource use is regulated and the 4,721-hectare “core zone” does not allow human activity; its sole purpose is to preserve the landscape and biodiversity.
Mangrove restoration in Can Gio Reserve, which began shortly after the War’s end in 1975, has resulted in a significant increase in biodiversity. Nearly 700 species, including catfish, crocodiles, otters, monkeys, shellfish, and invertebrates, now thrive within Can Gio’s mangrove forests.
Mangrove ecosystems are of great importance to the coastal zones of Vietnam. They not only provide for rich biodiversity and food sources, but also create a buffer for storms and prevent erosion during floods. Hence, they are also known as a “green wall.” Upriver, dams pose a threat to mangrove forests because they trap sediment, which mangroves need for anchoring root systems. That could mean bad news if a flood comes through. Additionally, mangroves play the role of “green kidneys” because the roots filter out pollution from Ho Chi Minh City and upriver industrial zones.
Climate change is projected to bring more intense storms and sea level rise, which will result in more erosion, flooding, and salinity in Vietnam’s coastal and low-lying regions, impacting people, infrastructure, and agriculture.
After planting the mangroves, we took skiffs along a river and through a mangrove corridor to a shrimp farm. We toured the farm and had a lovely meal of catfish, vegetables, rice, and oysters, which the farmer also harvests, all from the surrounding land. This year, the farmer noticed that the rains were different, continuing later than normal. This caused extended flooding and salt-water intrusion, thus high salinity content in the river. Dr. Ngan told us that baby oysters had difficulty surviving in these abnormally saltier conditions.
It is clear that when the projected effects of climate change occur, specifically sea level rise, survival of oysters and other food sources within the mangrove forests could be threatened. The farmer and his family we visited live almost entirely off the land; they only buy some rice and veggies during the dry season. If climate change effects result in insecure food sources, the livelihoods of Vietnamese relying on mangrove ecosystems for survival will surely be severely impacted.
Can Gio Reserve is known as the “green lung” for Ho Chi Minh City, because the wind is thought to bring oxygen generated from the forest. I think mangrove forests can also be thought of as a lung, or other vital function, for the whole planet because of their ability to sequester large amounts of carbon and produce diverse, productive ecosystems. Just like a mammal cannot breathe without lungs, the planet cannot breathe or function properly without its forests.
Clearly, it is increasingly important for mangrove forests to be preserved, because they both have intrinsic value to ecosystem function and protect people and the land from climate change impacts.
Squelching back through the mud, I realized that while I only played a small role in such an important effort, it was a rewarding experience nonetheless. The physical, real contribution of replenishing the green walls, kidneys and lungs of Can Gio Reserve allowed me to form a special connection with a place vital to climate change responses and be able to share this story.
By Allie McGrath
I felt literally like a bull in a China shop, or in this case a Vietnamese shop. Loud, sticky with sweat, and a little overwhelmed from the recent bargaining experience in the market, we clamored in the tiny tea house. Walls of the store front were lined with beautifully intricate tea cups, plates, pots, and we were directed upstairs into a small room set up with a low table and cushions. Once everyone arrived, the tea house owner joined us, maxing out the tiny room at 15 people.
Our tea lady, Ms. Trân, was a lovely woman, and as she floated into the room dressed in her traditional aoi da (pronounced “ow-yai”) with the most tranquil smile on her face, I felt relaxation wash over me. How could she be anything but tranquil, drinking and serving tea for a living!?
Ms. Trân began the traditional tea ceremony and, with the help of our wonderful Vietnamese peers translating, carefully explained every detail about the ceremony for us. Her passion for the ritual was made clear as she described everything from how to properly steep the tea to the elaborate steps in producing lotus tea.For example, through a complex and time consuming process, one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of lotus tea requires the stamen and pollen of 1,500 lotus flowers! She was incredibly knowledgeable, and I was later informed she is a scholar and teacher as well–and the dots connected.
Once the ritual was over Trân thanked us many times, even gifted a cup and saucer to Lione, and concluded by saying how happy we had made her by coming in and showing such interest, when really she was the one who made our whole day! Although it was a brief encounter, her generosity and peaceful demeanor were very welcoming and humbling, putting everyone in her presence at ease.
UM’s wintersession program is off to a powerful start after three days in Ho Chi Minh City. Thanks to a six-year history, and YSEALI programs through the Mansfield Center, we have many friends in the big city to welcome, host, and teach us.
Here is Nghi teaching Paul how to make spring rolls, and Nghi teaching us basic Vietnamese phrases with the help of young scholars she invited from the group Coi Viet. They are quite encouraging despite
how slow we are to learn the tones.
Later, we visited the Trà Đạo tea house, where Viên Trân taught us how to make green and lotus tea and the traditions involved, and shared about the prolonged floods earlier this year that destroyed so many crops in the central province.
We were all charmed by her sincerity and warmth and music.
These first few days have also involved a sobering visit to the War Remnants Museum and a long talk at the U.S. Consulate about the last 20 years of strong diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries.
Their American Center library was filled with interesting books, encouraging words for Vietnamese travelers to the U.S., and great views of the city.
Yesterday, we visited the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, to experience the mangrove forests, help with replanting, talk with farmers who live inside as forest protectors, and learn from local experts about the role of the mangroves as green walls, green lungs, and green kidneys.
Our time in Ho Chi Minh City ended with a Western New Year’s celebration, where the University of Montana students met with students from Cornell University, who just arrived to also study climate change for their University’s first year program.
A local film crew followed us around most of the day, eager to share the story of University programs coming to Vietnam to learn about the culture, society, and environment.
Next stop, Can Tho. Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage from UM students.