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

2019 Vietnam Stories

8. Submitted by Bryan Mitchell

Chronicles of Boys Night

              After a long day of learning in the unrelenting heat of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and after a nice cold shower and change of clothes, there is no better way to cap off the day than a boys night out. Boys nights have been going on for as long as man has existed. Cave paintings older than 64,000 years old have been found in Spain depicting a group of male Neanderthals heading out for a boys night after a long day of unsuccessful hunting. Boys nights build comradery and friendship and allow for reflection on daily activities. Our boys nights here in Vietnam have accomplished just that.

       The first boys night I was able to be a part of was on Monday, May 13th, our trips first night in the city of Can Tho. Little did I know that this would be anything but your typical Monday night out. The boys started by finding the nearest rooftop lounge in relation to our hotel. Luckily for the boys, a neighboring hotel, The West Hotel, was an easy 3-minute stroll from our residence. Equipped with a rooftop lounge that overlooked the Mekong River and the electric city of Can Tho, we quickly found our table and began the night. The night started off a little slowly but things began to pick up rather quickly after a few rounds of refreshments. Before we knew it, we were all lost in a deep conversation about climate change. Our conversation took us all over the place from what we had already learned about climate change in Vietnam, to how climate change was affecting each of us in our own home states. The conversation was full of energy and passion and it made me glad to know that the people I was studying climate change with here in Vietnam, were just as amped up as me about climate change. After an hour or so rant, the boys decided we better find a new spot to continue our nights adventure.

        A 10-minute walk through the streets of Can Tho brought us to our next location outside a small establishment called Café Ngoc. We sat down at a small table located along the side walk that had a tree pressed firmly against the table on one side. This would become our go to spot on other nights out during our stay in Can Tho. We quickly made a bro-bond with a worker at the shop and it was clear that he was a full supporter of boys night. We proceeded to spend the rest of the night at this establishment and mix with the locals and the street culture of Can Tho city. This first boys night had set the tone for the rest of the trip, fun, educational, and sweaty.

      Now, there wasn’t another true boys night for a while after our initial excursion. But when our second boys night of the trip did roll around, it did not disappoint. The day was Friday, May 25th and our group had just returned to the city of Can Tho from the province of Kien Giang where we spent the day learning about a unique ecosystem consisting of melaleuca forest and peat swamp. Like most days here in Vietnam it was extremely hot and our drive to Can Tho totaled around 4 hours or so. Needless to say, the boys needed to unwind and relax. So off we went to the West Hotel sky lounge for a few refreshments and then off to our favorite table in Vietnam at Café Ngoc. Not long after sitting down at our reserved street side table, a couple from the Netherlands had sat down at a table next to us and naturally we all started talking, asking the usual questions like, “Where are you from?” and, “What are you doing here in Vietnam?”. Once we told them we were all studying climate change and its effects on the Mekong Delta, the couple was curious to as what the locals thought of climate change and as to what some of the potential effects would be. The boys combined their knowledge gathered over the past weeks and educated the two on what we had learned. Not much time passed when an old English man sat down at a nearby table and joined the conversation. Unfortunately, the old man didn’t believe in climate change and tried to tell the boys all the things the media doesn’t report on climate change and why it’s not real. After 10 or so minutes of pointless back and forth between the boys and the old man, both sides agreed to drop the subject and call it a night.

While boys nights have been few and far between, they have been some of the best nights of the trip so far and I hope there at least a few more to come in the final week. It has been great reflecting on everything we have learned here and boys night is a great way to just bounce ideas and knowledge off each other and shoot the breeze as we all share our passion for climate change.

7. Submitted by Nick Hall-Skank

Khmer Pagodas of Soc Trang

One of my favorite activities so far has been visiting the Khmer pagodas of Soc Trang province with students from Can Tho University. My new friends taught me a lot about Buddhist beliefs and practices, with the beautiful Khleng pagoda serving as our classroom. As a mythology buff, I was particularly fascinated by the various fantastical creatures that appeared as statues, paintings, and wall carvings throughout the site. This wonderful menagerie of beasts is also indicative of thousands of years of cultural mixing in Asia.

            Take for example the lóng (pronounced “lung”) dragons painted in gold, coiling around the wooden columns inside the pagoda. My friends told me that this variety of dragon originated in China, but they are very important in Vietnamese culture nevertheless. For example, Ha Long Bay – Vietnam’s most famous natural wonder – gets its name from a dragon that is said to have defended early Vietnam from foreign invasion. The columns bore many other creatures that feature prominently in East Asian mythology as well. I marveled at stately lions, a resplendent phoenix, and a pair of interesting beasts known as qilins. Bearing cloven hooves, scales, and prominent horns, qilins look like a cross between an ox and a dragon. Sometimes, these creatures are depicted as being more equine in appearance and having only a single horn, leading some to compare them to western unicorns.

            Equally wonderous and spectacular beings represented the influences of South Asia. The roof of the nearby Bat Pagoda (which we visited earlier in the day) was covered in garudas – anthropomorphic birds that appear in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain mythology. Although I am unfamiliar with the roll of garudas in Buddhist beliefs, I do know that one of these birds serves as the traditional mount of Lord Vishnu in the Hindu faith. One of my favorite mythological creatures, the yali, made an appearance at the Khleng pagoda as an etching on the entrance doors. Yalis are typically portrayed as a mixture of a lion and elephant, but sometimes display characteristics of other animals as well. They are commonly depicted in Indian temples.

Perhaps the most striking creatures appearing at the Khleng pagoda were the five-headed nagas outside. These creatures also feature prominently in the religions of South and Southeast Asia. Indian nagas appear in a variety of forms ranging from nearly human to fully serpentine. However, the multiheaded cobras that I saw in at the Khleng pagoda are more typical of Southeast Asia. My friends described how the statue at the pagoda depicted nagas coiling around a king’s scepter. While it was incredible to see the diversity of mythological creatures, what really amazed me was seeing them all in one place. So often it seems that we learn about cultures as isolated entities, when nothing could be further from the truth in reality. The people of Vietnam have been trading goods, ideas, and stories with others in Asia and beyond for millennia; it makes perfect sense that this history would be displayed in art. The result is something unique, beautiful, and wholly Vietnamese. After my friends had taught me so much about their culture, I shared with them a term from my own country – “the Melting Pot”. Used to describe the rich array of cultures that comprise our country. 

6. Submitted by Ryan Cancroft

On Mud Puppies (also known as Mudskippers)

Mud puppies, creatures of land and sea, both cute and ugly, are a very peculiar species. They are most commonly referred to as “mudskippers” and their scientific name is oxudercinae, but my favorite name for them is “mud puppies.” I was very happy when I first saw mudskippers in Vietnam because I wrote a small report on them when I was much younger, and I got very excited when I unexpectedly got to see them in person! They are considered a fish but will drown if they not able to land; most of their time is spent on land. Beyond their unique ability to live on land and in water, they catch your eye because of their unique looks. They have big cartoonish eyes, small bird-like wings along with a dorsal fin that looks like a sail of an old pirate ship, while the rest of their body looks like the combination of a slug and a snake. They move across land by pushing their wing-like arms down into the mud at the same time and flop back down and repeat. While in water they are much more graceful, and as their name says, they are able to skip and glide across the top of the water by opening their wing-like arms to push the water behind them. I decided to do my blog on them and research them further because I was curious why sometimes they stand on their tails, squirm a bit and flop back down to the mud. I found out that males do this mainly to attract females (of course) but they also do this to warn other skippers of their territory. Like almost anything in Vietnam, mudskippers are eaten by humans but are also consumed mostly by shorebirds, snakes, and a limited number of mammals. Skippers themselves eat algae, small crabs, insects and sometimes other small mudskippers. They can be found in Asia, Africa, and Australia and there are over thirty known species of mudskippers. I look forward to seeing many more of these alien-like creatures as we visit more areas within the Mekong River Delta!

I mainly referred to this article:

https://owlcation.com/stem/Mudskippers-Fish-That-Can-Live-on-Land

Crampton, Linda. “Mudskippers: Fish That Live on Land and in Water.” Owlcation, 21 Mar. 2019, owlcation.com/stem/Mudskippers-Fish-That-Can-Live-on-Land.

5. Submitted by Venice Aureli

Where does the waste go?

Any city is expected to have some waste, nowhere is perfect, but stepping off the plane in Ho Chi Minh I was stunned by the lack of trash or even leaves on the street. Where did it all go? There were people in every spot you looked but not a plethora of waste as I had expected. As we wandered around the street more and more, I noticed people next to huge metal bins constantly and vigorously sweeping. Everywhere I turned someone was taking out a bag of trash and almost like magic a half hour later it would be gone. A system like this didn’t even seem possible. Some things in life are too good to be true. I quickly realized the reason for the seemingly clean streets of Ho Chi Minh were all a front. While yes, trash was being collected and systematically brought out of the average tourists sight it wasn’t going to the right place. It wasn’t until we visited the mangrove restoration project that I realized a disconnect. There the goal was to help steward re-growing the mangrove trees to help bring life back to an environment that has seen horrible devastation, but taking a closer look I saw plastic bottles littered all throughout the roots, in the hands of monkeys and on the trails to the very fields we were there planting in. There was a certain level of disconnect that made me think how is it that in the same place I am learning about an environment that is being rejuvenated and carefully cared for but also seeing waste in the same mangroves from plastic bottles just like the one in my hand? I had seen some recycling cans in the city but was it all just a hoax? I now was searching everywhere for answers asking elders about their experiences as children and what the influx of plastics and single use Styrofoam looked like in their life time. As I investigated and traveled to the Mekong Delta what I saw only looked more daunting, what now seemed like a few water bottles at the restoration project now turned into piles of single use trash. Talking to locals and learning as much as I could about the realities of how a country that seems chaotic handles the magnitude of trash, I see piling up on the streets each day I soon stumbled upon the truth. Most of the trash in Viet Nam is burned, yes all of the plastic cardboard anything that can’t be salvaged, which isn’t much, it incinerated. Terrifying to think about I learned the amount of trash I see today was not even comparable to the magnitude that lay on the banks of rivers just a few years ago. Efforts to clean up had been made but still at the end point were inevitably burned. Seeing all of this and learning about the little thought that went into making, using and disposing of the single use plastics has me riled up on why we are even continuing to use them. They are almost impossible to get away from. I marveled at stories from my host family of a simpler time when she was a child, and everything was wrapped in a banana or lotus leaf and the concern of what happened to the packaging wasn’t even considered since it would soon decompose. The quick transition Viet Nam has made in modernizing has taken a clear toll on the environment with marks (trash) everywhere to serve as I reminder of the leaps and bounds this country has made to get back on track with the rest of a quickly modernizing world but at the cost of its natural resources and the health of the rivers, animals and people.

  1. Submitted by Steve Siebert

Traffic in Vietnam: On Land and Sea

Throughout Southeast Asia it’s not only ubiquitous, but entertaining and informative.  Over the decades I’ve spent countless mornings and evenings, appropriate beverage in hand, marveling at the congested chaos of motorcycle flow in Indonesia and the Philippines, wondering only why I’ve yet to see a crash.  With that in mind I was eager to visit Vietnam.  I have not been disappointed.  The streets of Ho Chi Minh City provide a mind-boggling display of bikers jostling for space on streets, sidewalks, around food carts, pedestrians and whatever else lays in their paths.   Disaster is always imminent, but somehow mostly avoided.   While clearly entertaining, one can also learn from watching traffic.  In Vietnam all cyclists wear helmets – evidence that government control and regulations are effective.  Also striking is how few children one sees riding with their parents on bikes.  While this may reflect regulatory control, it may also suggest that government birth control policies have been effective; Vietnamese government employees risk losing their jobs if they have more than two children.

Our group is now in Can Tho, deep into the water world of the Mekong Delta, with new traffic-watching opportunities.  The view from our guest house overlooks an arm of the Mekong that is every bit as entertaining as any road.  Ferries, tour boats, barges, ocean-worthy freighters, and dozens of shallow-draft wooden vessels of various sizes and shapes, all with colorfully painted safety eyes on their bows and loaded to their gunnels, ply the muddy water in all directions.  Just like the highways, I’m waiting for a crash.  Everything imaginable is hauled up and down the Mekong.  Perhaps most striking is the amount of sand and gravel for dike, road and home construction.  Dredging, along with rising sea levels, and dam construction, particularly in China and Laos, drastically reduces sediment deposition, threatening the very survival of the entire Delta.  With a burgeoning economy, a population approaching 20 million, and accelerating climate-induced changes, traffic and challenges in the Mekong are rapidly growing.

2. Submitted by Nick Hall-Skank

Safari on the Ceiling

            It’s been nearly a week since I arrived in Vietnam and the wildlife has been incredible, despite the fact that our group has mostly been traveling in urban areas. This came as a pleasant surprise because I had not expected to see such diversity and abundance of wild critters in such large cities. Nevertheless, within twenty-four hours of arriving in Can Tho, I encountered a massive snail on the sidewalk (one of Vietnam’s 310 species of terrestrial mollusks), a frog happily chirring away in a puddle next to a busy intersection, and a bat resting in the same outdoor patio where I was eating breakfast. But of all of Vietnam’s entertaining urban wildlife, the geckos take the cake.

            I encountered a single common house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) skittering along the wall at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. But here in Can Tho, the geckos are everywhere. I spotted three as soon as we arrived at the hotel! They are literally coming out of the woodwork – my roommate Bryan saw one dash between the trim around our door when we first walked into our room. However, I would soon learn that these daytime sightings pales in comparison to the reptilian gatherings that occur once night descends. That evening, as our group waited in the hotel lobby for an intense rain shower to subside, I watched the Serengeti of the ceiling come to life.

            From my vantage point, I could see about a dozen geckos scattered on the walls and windows. The main action occurred around a light fixture in the ceiling where five geckos crowded apprehensively, waiting like lions at a watering hole for their prey to arrive. As they waited, they chased each other and occasionally nipped their competitors head or tail, jockeying to sit closer to the light. Clearly, this was a prime hunting spot. It didn’t take long for a small moth to find its way inside the hotel and become entranced by the luminescence. One attentive gecko spied the moth and made a dash for the light. I watched, amazed, as he plucked the insect out of the air with lightning quick speed. Success!

            Seeing so much urban wildlife in Vietnam gives me hope for the future of our cities. Around the globe, more and more people are moving to urban areas. With such massive growth occurring, it is more important than ever to ensure that cities are incorporating native plants and greenspaces into their designs. Doing so will simultaneously improve quality of life for people and provide critical habitat for many other species. Relegating wildlife strictly to far flung national parks would be a disservice to urbanites and wild creatures alike. Nature preserves will always be important, seeing as many species simply cannot survive in cities. However, as I’ve experienced during my time in Can Tho, it is certainly possible for humans to coexist with a plethora of wild species, even in large cities. May there always be goofy, gravity-defying gecko to watch on an urban safari.

3. Submitted by Bryan Mitchell

Music of the Mekong

              Music has always been a major interest in my life. From the age of 5 I began to take classical violin lessons and from the get go, I was a natural. Now let me just say that it is a very good thing I was a natural because when it came to practicing, I hated it. It drove my mom nuts that I wouldn’t practice and it really drove her crazy when I wouldn’t practice at all and then nail my lesson that week and my teacher would say “wow you really must have practiced this week”. I would just look at her out of the corner of my eye and grin. After 16 years of lessons and 6 years of school orchestra my lesson taking days came to an end, but over that time period I learned a lot on the structure and method of the classical ways of music.

              During our culture and music lesson with Dr. Le Dinh Bich (a Russian Literature professor at the Can Tho University and an “amateur” musician) I was honestly quite shocked by the major differences in western classical music and that of Vietnam. Musical culture first came to Vietnam from many leaving China and heading south into Vietnam to escape the never-ending wars. These newcomers instantly got along with the locals living here and their cultures began to mesh. Just in the Mekong Delta alone, there are 4 distinct ethnic groups living here. There are the Khmer, Chinese, Vietnamese, and the Champa, all of which have just recently (last 200 years) seen a large mixing of their cultures. With such a recent mixing of cultures and with a diverse group of peoples, the music of the Mekong has seen a very interesting evolution.

              One stark difference between western and many other cultures music and that of the Mekong is that there are only 5 musical notes in their music, compared to the traditional 7 that we know. Another difference is that most of the classical music here is directly connected to nature. For example, we listened to a couple of songs that a local group of “amateur” musicians played for us and they described the lyrics of the song and they talked about the people’s connection to the water and how it influenced the way in which they live. Their music reflected this connection perfectly. They explained to us that their music is tender and soft such as a river gently flowing downstream as compared to many other cultures whose music reflects that of local animals such as the Arabians music, which sounds of many horses’ hooves thundering across the landscape. Yet another connection to the environment reflected in their music was the instruments themselves. One such instrument was not only shaped exactly like a frog, but was designed to mimic the different sounds a frog might make. When combined with the other instruments, the sound was extraordinary.

              Music is also directly connected to the people, being the 5 notes of music directly correspond to the 5 fingers on a hand which also correspond to various organs within our bodies. Playing music is believed to make one healthier and that is why musicians are so healthy. It seems as though everything in their music whether it be the pitches the instruments make or the message of the song, it is all tied back to the people, the culture, and the land. It is amazing to hear such different and distinct music after playing for 16 years myself and having never heard music like it. It was truly an honor to see the influence of music in the Mekong

Side Note: “amateur” was what the French Colonialist called locals playing their music because they weren’t professionally trained and thought it wasn’t as good, but take it from me none of the performers we listened to were amateurs by any means

4. Submitted by Samuel Tillinghast

A World Afloat

My alarm rang out at 4:30 am. I immediately hit the snooze button and fell back into the comfort of my pillow and savored the next five minutes of sleep. At the last possible minute, I rose from my bed, got ready for the day and took one last breath of the cool air conditioned air of my hotel room before making my way downstairs and outside to meet the rest of my group. We began our walk to the boat launch, moving with tired eyes and a symphony of yawns. As we waited in the park along the river, the sky began to fill with a deep orange and red glow, marking the beginning of another sweltering and humid day. For the moment though as we stood next to the water, there was a coolness that I had yet to experience in the 8 days I have been in the country, a reprieve from the daily heat and humidity which both reach well into the 90’s.

We boarded our long wooden boat lined with chairs more appropriate for a kitchen table than a boat carrying people. We pushed off the shore and began our slow journey up the river to the floating market. We passed houses, restaurants and markets lining every inch of the river along the way.

The wide and slow river began to fill with boats, each carrying different fruits or vegetables. As we floated into the maze of boats, vendors raced around on row boats converted to run a propeller driven by lawnmower and small car engines. They would see a boat full of tourists, crank their boats around with feverish pace and extraordinary precision in order to pull right along-side boats whose passengers were eager to buy their goods. Vendors weaved around the boats full of tourists displaying their arrays of fresh tropical fruits, vegetables, and most importantly coffee, consider it was still just 5:30 a.m. We made our way through the congestion of boats and to the mouth of a tributary of the main channel which we weaved up a few hundred yards until we arrived at a small market and restaurant along the river. We hopped off our boat, browsed the market and sat down to enjoy a bowl of morning phó before heading back to our hotel to catch a few more hours of sleep.

There is nothing tranquil about the Mekong River. It resembles a busy highway more than it does a river. There are traffic jams of boats, ranging from small one-person rowboats to large ships carrying everything from dirt to vegetables to fish. Many were dilapidated and looked like they had been in use since the beginning of time. They served not only has transport vessels but also homes to entire families, commodities up front and home in the back. Usually there was just a single room with enough space to fit a kitchen and hang some hammocks. They would hang their drying laundry up in the back next to their chili plants and flowers. It was amazing to see people who lived so simply, floating from one place to the other, free from the confines of living in a fixed location.