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

Vietnam 2011

“See You Again!”

January 18, 2011

Story By Montana Hodges

Photos By Kevin Radley and a random Vietnamese man

At the four-star resort it was hard for us to feel comfortable back in our Western culture. It felt a bit dishonest to be lounging around on a perfectly groomed beach while we knew the other Vietnam was somewhere outside the gates of our sequestered lair. Phu Quoc Island is gorgeous, hands-down the most picturesque place I’ve been in Vietnam, but it was strangely lacking the Vietnamese. This was after all, their country.

I felt the distress most pointedly when we first arrived at the Saigon Phu Quoc Resort & Spa. Among the stunning scenery of one of the best beaches in Asia, a cleaning woman for the resort stood along the perfectly manicured walkways slowly wiping down every leaf of a shrub. Individually, she polished each visible swatch of foliage, to ensure the guests had neither pesky dust to dismay the aesthetics or dirt to soil their beach clothes.

This was not the Vietnam we had come to know. Yes it was gorgeous, but it didn’t seem sincere.

At our beachfront farewell dinner the next night we gave our loudest and proudest “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!” the hearty cheer that we had been taught by our Vietnamese colleagues (translated as “one, two, three, cheers!”). The shocked wait staff of the resort perked with surprising grins and inquired of how we knew such a thing. They said not many visitors speak the native tongue around here. With one short cheer, we had apparently distinguished ourselves as going beyond the fence.

That was the story of our studies in Vietnam. We had gone beyond the Copenhagen reports, the PBS specials and the classroom lectures, to get to know the humanity behind the struggle.  We had traveled to an edge of climate change in Vietnam, the edge that textbooks cannot explain. There was a moment at some point I can’t identify, when we became comfortable in the houses of rice farmers, in the hugs of international strangers and we united in the camaraderie of our cheers.

We had been to Vietnam, the real deal, not just an eye-candy resort kept spotlessly surreal.

Somewhere out in the rural stretches of the Mekong Delta, even while we sat on the island, people were singing to us, “see you again.” Their faces, seemingly happy to see us and then more greatly sad to see us go, were haunting the seaside sunset.

I wonder if I will see them again, these people whose lives I have passed through, who have changed mine.

The images I absorbed will be with me for a lifetime. I will see those pictures again. It’s sad to think of how temporary our relationships have been but it is remarkable to reflect on how personal each conversation was. We didn’t just see Vietnam, we didn’t just study Vietnam—we stood on their dyke, where they are holding back an ocean with five feet of earth. We walked with the farmers through their mud-cracked rice ponds, sailed with the skippers who ferry along the flood-prone Mekong and learned with the professors who don’t have the luxury of simply visiting me in my country.

So I will raise my last glass in Vietnam, and hopefully many of the ones to follow in the homeland, to all the people of Vietnam, the nearly 90 million of them, the 13th largest country in the world. Thank you for teaching with open minds, sharing with open hearts and truly wanting to see us again.

To all of you—I say with gusto, “Mot, Hai, Bai, Yo!”


Expressions of Climate Change

January 17, 2011

Photos and Captions by Kevin Radley

Mr. Lam is a rice farmer in the Soc Trang province who is now dependent on the rain. Six years ago, Mr. Lam was forced to move his farm 20 km, to its current location, because intruding saltwater was impacting production. The Vietnamese government has built a dyke 10 km away, near the town of My Xuyen to stop further saltwater intrusion from the river system. Yet Mr. Lam’s available irrigation water remains brackish. This allows him to only produce two rain-fed crops per year on his six hectares.

Mr. Bich is a shrimp farmer on the other side of the government dyke in the Soc Trang province. He converted his 1.2 hectares of land from rice fields to shrimp production because of larger profits, government-zoning policy, and greater viability given the saltier environment.

Tourists Wanted

January 16, 2011

Story By Bryan Zimmerman

Photos By Kevin Radley

Coconut trees run along the length of the beach, shading those who have found their comfort. The sound of the waves crashing into the sand is like a mythical creature as the water laps at your feet. The sun glistens on the ocean as its vibrant blue body seamlessly blends into the horizon. Such a spectacular scene is one we all dream of yet its location is one that is not heavily visited.

Phu Quoc Island is a tear-shaped land mass located 45 kilometers off the western coast of Vietnam. It runs 50 kilometers from north to south and is home to the most gorgeous beaches I have ever seen.

Vietnam has a rapidly growing economy, especially in the industrial sector, and while the country’s growth in tourism has certainly spiked since the American-Vietnamese war, it is a relatively small part of the country’s income.

Vietnam has awe inspiring scenery, whether it manifests itself in densely packed mangrove forests, cryptic expanses of melaleuca, or glistening stretches of pearl white beaches. Many people overlook what Vietnam has to offer as far as tourism goes. It is not heavily advertised, I had no idea these beautiful places existed in the country until I came and saw them for myself.

My visit to Vietnam took place during the dry season, which lasts from December to April, and is also the peak of the tourist season. While I did see many tourists in the cities, visiting monuments, war museums and remnants, the beaches at Phu Quoc were sparsely covered with people. The majority of the people I saw were indeed foreigners but I was expecting a scene from spring break Cancun. I’m not saying I was disappointed, I would prefer to have more of the beach to myself, but I was shocked that a place such as this would have so few tourists.

Vietnam is truly a diamond in the rough in the tourism industry. Not only is it beautiful, but your money goes quite a long way with around three times the purchasing power with the US. Dollar. While the rest of the world is in a hurry to go to places like Fiji, Jamaica, or Mazatlan, I’ll wait for the just as scenic, and far less crowded beaches of Vietnam.

The Climate Change Challenge

January 16, 2011

Story by Hailey Graf

Photos by Kevin Radley

The motto of Vietnam is “Independence- Freedom- Happiness.”  And, this country has fought for these ideals throughout history.  The Vietnamese people have repeatedly faced war, famine, and economic crisis.  Only in the last 30 years has Vietnam known peace and prosperity.  After all these trials, how can Vietnam face the possible devastation of climate change?

Vietnam, especially the Mekong Delta, is flat and low-lying.  With the expected one meter sea lever rise, much of their current coastline will to disappear.  Thousands of acres of agricultural land and homes will be lost.

Sitting on the bus, driving though Can Tho, I have a high-speed view of Vietnam.  We are passing rice fields, newly constructed buildings, markets, and schools.  I am very impressed with the people of Vietnam.  I have faith in them.  In my time here, I have seen nothing but hope in the eyes of everyone I meet.  Vietnam is a country that faces forward, embraces the future, and is not hindered by the past.  As one professor from Can Tho University told me, “Vietnamese people know how to adapt. They can face climate change.”  And, I believe him.

As climate change progresses, so will Vietnam.  They are a very adaptable and resourceful people. Vietnam has faced many challenges in its history.  Climate change is just the next challenge.  They will face it and conquer it just like all the others.

A Veg-Head in Vietnam

January 15, 2011

Story By Monica Lomahukluh

Photos by Kevin Radley

As a vegetarian it’s hard to find a fantastic cuisine in Missoula, Montana.  The basic restaurants may not even have a vegetarian option.  Most markets carry only a limited amount of items for vegetarians.  Most of my meals come from home–cooked vegetarian recipes because no one can live solely off of grilled cheese with a side of tomato soup.  Now however, my taste buds call Vietnam paradise.

While traveling throughout Vietnam, I have experienced the best curry, fruit and vegetables of my lifetime.  The culture embraces vegetarianism as being a pure soul through Buddhism.  Although most of the people love fish, pork, chicken, and many other types of meat along with vegetables they try to offset the balance by being vegetarian only on the 1st and 15th during the lunar months.  Most monks are vegetarian, as Buddhism teaches a refrain from the act of killing. At times, the religion sees the use of pesticides and tilling as indirect killing and an unnecessary taking of life.

My experience in Vietnam has been amazing.  The country cooks tofu in so many different ways that it blows my mind.  The people are true artists with every meal I have been served.  I have never seen a culture so thoughtful of the presentation of meals.  Every piece of food has a balanced place on the plate. The people truly recognize the harmony of food.

My taste buds will long to be in Vietnam while I am back home eating my tomato soup and grilled cheese.  Thank you Vietnam, for showing me a new variety of cooking and thank you for the fruits that I have never experienced in the United States.   I will be leaving from this beautiful country, not only what my eyes have embraced, but rather what my whole body and soul has experienced.

Diversity in Distress

January 14, 2011

Story By Bryan Zimmerman

Photos By Kevin Radley

Lizards scattered and scurried away in all directions as I opened the dormitory door. The hot, heavy air hits the face like a knockout punch and sweat immediately begins seeping out of every pore on your body. The sun is so intense it feels like it’s perched on your shoulders, following you everywhere you go. If it got any hotter it seems like all of Tram Chim National Park and every living thing within it would combust.

Upon getting in the boat to start our excursion into a system of swamps, grasslands and crossing canals, it was evident that the preserve’s 7,600 hectares were more than just a tourist destination.

Driving around Vietnam it’s hard not to notice the lack of wildlife. Every mammalian species seen is certainly not wild in any sense of the word but domesticated and physically restrained. Being from Montana it is such a contrast from what we are used to as we often have wildlife in our backyards. Aside from the geckos roaming our hotels the only biological diversity we saw was in strictly protected areas such as Tram Chim National Park.

These national parks and biosphere reserves house several endangered species and are key for their survival into the future. They also are examples of sustainable ecosystems that farmers could benefit from.

Vietnamese livelihoods are threatened from a combination of historic canalization, a changing climate and rising sea levels. Previous agricultural land uses have acidified the soil, which will only be escalated, as the dry season gets drier and the wet season wetter. With limited resources, most impoverished farmers will continue to unsustainably exploit natural resources for a source of income.

Farmers in Vietnam should incorporate management practices that emphasize biological diversity. During our one-day outing in the park, I observed 10 different species of fish and 19 species of birds without putting in much effort to do so. With an emphasis on increasing the number of species involved in their agricultural practices, farmers will not have to rely on a static monoculture system.

The disparity between the inside of the park and the rest of Vietnam was astounding. It is like having a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of Los Angeles, you don’t see any wild animals until you step into the reserve and then suddenly they are everywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of these places and all the things that reside in them.

Reserving land for biodiversity in Vietnam is already a publicly contentious issue and many of these areas are having problems with poachers. Farmers who have lost their land and have no other skill sets are being forced to harvest animals and trees within the parks for food and supplies. Many species that were strongholds for food for many families have not been seen in years, but people still need to eat.

Now they have shifted the pressure on to other species, and consequently they are now in decline. This effect will only cascade unless a serious effort is made to restore at least some of the wildlands. National parks and other protected areas are a great start, but other attempts, such as education, must be improved so that someday we once again may see a wild Vietnam.

The Forgotten Heritage

January 13, 2011

Story By Monica Lomahukluh

Photos By Montana Hodges and Kevin Radley

Driving through the tight streets of Soc Trang City, strolling through a nearby village, I walked toward the gates of the sacred ground.  I embraced taking the first steps into one of the nationally recognized pagodas, also known as a Doi (bat).  I wanted to feel at ease and that my own heritage, the Native American Hopi Tribe, had some parallels to the Buddhism religion.  Unfortunately, as I got closer to the pagoda, there was a surprising amount of plastic bags, bottles, to-go boxes, and wrappers consuming this so-called sacred land.  Right then and there, I knew we had several differences in our beliefs.

Hopi means “peaceful people” or “the peaceful little ones” in an English translation.  We are humble people from Arizona who don’t like confrontation and highly respect our beliefs.  In our minds, the earth is our god and we, as a people, are the guardians.  The rain is our ancestors.

The Buddhist culture is incredibly magical and the essence radiates out of each carefully designed building on this sacred soil.  I look around and see Monks wandering around the grounds, some with cell phones glued to their ears.

Dr. Le Dinh Bich, a local music professor from Can Tho University, explained the highlights of the Buddhist culture on our tour so I could compare my own heritage to another beautiful culture. He mentioned that it takes years before a monk could reach a pure soul, and when that happens they can become a Buddha.  This is the symbol for the highest deity in Buddhism.  Throughout the discussion, certain thoughts ran through my mind about staying pure in a pile of garbage. How can that be?  We are the earth, wind, fire, and rain shouldn’t we respect each element like our ancestors and not litter on the earth.

As I explored the Doi Pagoda, drumming played off in the distance while I looked down upon a pond where fish were trying to get the slightest nimble of an ear of corn.  Previously, Dr. Bich told our class of the bats that live within the Pagoda’s walls.  These animals never eat the fruit this sacred ground provides.  The Pagoda protects the bats and the bats protect the Pagoda.  This symbiotic relationship is beautiful and needs to be told to the whole world.  Animals were respecting the land more than human beings.  Why can’t we follow in our brother’s and sister’s footsteps?

I don’t know why I thought my heritage and Buddhism had many similarities.  Like Dr. Bich said, “each religion is different.”  Both heritages may have small things in common but they are truly different.  I see differences in stories, teaching, music and dance. Yet no matter what background we come from, we all still smile in the same language and culture.

Mangroves: The Big Squeeze

January 12, 2011

Story By Cameron Cotner

Photos By Kevin Radley

I was jolted from my mid-morning coma by the sound of grinding metal. As we boarded the ferry on our way to Ca Mau, the southern tip of Vietnam, our bus driver, Duc, painted the cement with the rear bumper. It was only yesterday that I was finally able to catch a glimpse of rhizophora, the dominant species of mangroves resting on the coast of Bac Lieu as the sun began to sink into the South China Sea. Fully awake now, I’m anticipating a day amongst the mangroves that my itinerary promises.

Mangrove forests are in danger of being wiped out. Nearly synchronized, the ecological significance of mangrove forests was recognized as the fears and predictions of climate change surfaced. While the populous Vietnamese society presses toward the coast, the mangroves are squeezed by the encroaching sea.

Nearing the tip of the Ca Mau peninsula, we speed on a boat down a maze of river corridors. The area is laden with water, and there are no roads anymore. There they are: stream banks lined with mangroves. As we wind down the river racing past small towns and surrounded by prolific mangals, I begin to realize the severity of the problem.

Vietnam’s mangroves were threatened once before. During the Vietnam War, nearly 160,000 hectares were destroyed by dioxins used to deforest war zones. Initially expected to take 100 years to regrow, the mangroves have almost fully recovered.

Now there’s a new problem. Mangrove forests are being cleared for a new land use––agriculture and, particularly, aquaculture purposes. Days earlier, Dr. Duong Van Ni of Can Tho University explained that shrimp farms are popping up taking the place of forests everywhere as farmers recognize a higher income opportunity and Vietnam increases its production as the world’s 8th largest exporter of shrimp.

We reach the 42,000-hectare Mui Ca Mau National Park where I finally get to examine Rhizophora. It looks as if the tree might scurry off sitting atop its many spider-like roots. They are raised above water to more efficiently facilitate nutrient and gas exchange through lenticels––small holes in the bark. When they’re partially or fully submerged, they provide protection and breeding habitat for fish, oysters, shrimp, and other fauna.

It’s low tide now, and out of the corner of my eye I glance a mud–skipper tottering across the mud seeking refuge amongst Rhizophora roots digging into a thick layer of sediment. That is one of its unique abilities. Mangroves disrupt wave energy and allow sediment, which absorbs toxic heavy metals, to deposit. As I stare into the mud-skippers den, I ponder the contradiction. Mangroves that are relieving the environment of industrial pollutants are being cut down to make way for more industry.

Over lunch I listen to CTU professor Dr. Nguyen Van Be explain Vietnam’s current strategy to cope with rising sea levels. Vietnam is in the process of building a dyke that spans the countries entire southern coastline. Yesterday, I stood atop a dyke as I peered out at the ocean and the skinny belt of mangroves pressed between them. The fate of the mangroves is sealed as sea levels rise and the mangroves are locked out behind a dyke.

Posing beneath a statue marking the southern tip of Vietnam, 8° 37’ 30”; 104° 0’ 43”, it’s suddenly very surreal. I’m standing only a few meters away from where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Sea, under a landmark sure to be engulfed by both. With it, mangrove forests will perish behind a prison wall, cut off from society.

Saving the Forest: One Shrimp at a Time

January 11, 2010

Story By Stephan Licitra

Photos By Kevin Radley

We sped over the serpentine waters of the Mekong River, crashing over the wakes of the other boats.  Everywhere we looked there was water, bringing to life one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.  Our journey was to an innovative new project by a local research station in the province of Ca Mau at the southern tip of Vietnam. They are currently studying how to integrate shrimp farming with mangrove forest conservation and restoration.  This integration will bring the two once competitive interests into balance and sustainability providing farmers with income from both the shrimp and mangrove forests while at the same time fighting coastal erosion.

Shrimp is one of the most important products of the Mekong Delta. The industry has helped to rejuvenate the country.  According to Dr. Le Khuong Ninh, shrimp farming is Vietnam’s fourth-most-valuable export. The industry has grown quickly since the government decision in June 2000 allowing the growth of aquaculture.  Since then the industry has grown rapidly, in 2007 making $3.8 billion.  Dr. Duong Van Ni, of the Can Tho University, noted that Vietnam is now the 8th largest exporter of shrimp in the world.

At the same time Mangroves forests are an important and integral part of the coastal ecosystems, and local and national economies.  Mangrove forests provide the natural habitat for wild shrimp, and other animals.  They detoxify and remove extra nutrients from the river water, preventing algal blooms and dead zones, buffer the land from tropical storms, stop saltwater intrusion and trap sediments coming down river.  In short, mangrove forests provide valuable and needed ecosystem services. 

However, in the last half century Vietnam has lost two thirds of its mangrove forests first to war (Agent Orange) and now to shrimp farming.  That is why integrating mangrove forest with shrimp farming is an important solution.

As the boat approached the farm, Mr. Quang waved us up the smaller tributary of the mighty Mekong River.  The boat stopped on the muddy bank with only the slightest of bumps.  Here, in what seemed to be absolutely the middle of nowhere, was a 40 hectare farm, complete with 30 goats. 

The farm doubles as a research station for The Wetland Forest Research Center of Ca Mau province, and Quang is the research manager. The farm is a 30 hectare mangrove forest surrounded by 10 hectares of channels and dykes. Quang led our group around to the only real indication of human activity, a sluice gate, which is a mechanism that controls the flow of water in and out of the system.

The mangrove forest provides the natural food and habitat for the shrimp, meaning no fertilizers, antibiotics or extra feeds are needed.  The shrimp take four months to grow to maturity, but the farm is continuously restocked with larvae shrimp, so the mature shrimp are harvested twice a month.

Quang described the process to our slightly befuddled group; twice a month the moon causes the water in the area to rise extra high and then fall extra low (called the spring and neap tides and it is caused by the alignment of the sun and the full or new moon).  When the tide comes in the shrimp smell the fresh, salty water of the ocean, it awakens their instinct to migrate to the sea to breed, the water drains away and the shrimp sit and wait.

When the next high tide comes in, twelve hours later, the shrimp migrate toward the river.  The shrimp get caught at the sluice gate in the nets and are sold to the market.  Since only the mature shrimp will migrate to the sea the farm only catches the mature shrimp leaving the immature shrimp behind to grow up until the next harvest.  The farmer is also able to sell the wood and charcoal obtained from the mangrove trees, providing extra money.

This project demonstrates that with new innovation and imagination, sustainable develop can succeed.  But until the world comes to an understanding of what climate change and sustainability really mean; we will have to continue saving the forests one shrimp at a time.

Rising Tides

January 10, 2011

Story By Monica Lomahukluh

Photos By Kevin Radley and Bryan Zimmerman

The bus rattled as we drove down the unmaintained road to Vinh Chau district.  I looked out the window while the sight of gaudy houses diminished as we got closer to the coast.  This broader land has more of a pleasant valley feel.  Oh, how much this reminded me of home.  Ranchland, I called it, poor farmers struggling with the arid land, and the threat of sea level rise (SLR).

Off into the horizon, a mound of dirt began to appear.  Construction went through my mind until Dr. Be, a local professor from Can Tho University, exclaimed “there’s the dyke”.   Is this what the Vietnamese call protection against the elements of nature? A mound of dirt called a dyke?  I thought it would be made out of concrete at least.  The bus came to a halt and my classmates and I eagerly stumbled off the bus after the hour ride down the beaten path.  I climbed the four-foot tall dyke to be shown a whole new side of Vietnam.

Feeling on top of the world, I was face-to-face with the west sea, while 10 feet behind me the houses of the local people.  The tide was low and a whole new ecosystem came to life.  Mud-skippers, a plump fish that slithers in the water and hops on land, were playing and fighting with one another.  Roots of the mangroves were uncovered from their water world.  The local professor, Dr. Be explained to the class the importance of the mangroves.

He told us they provide the farmers protection against the constant waves of the ocean and help maintain the dyke’s structure.  One of my classmates asked a question about the maintenance of the dyke.  According to Dr. Be, they have to rebuild the dyke every two years and occasionally make it higher to completely protect the farmers from SLR.  There are plans being implemented for the construction of a 700 km long land dyke stretching the entire coast of the Mekong Delta.

Thoughts rambled through my brain about being disconnected with one of earth’s greatest contribution to humanity—the elements.  I had heard about this before, Dr. Be had stated previously to the fieldtrip that the plan to fight the rising sea is to build the lengthy dyke. I did not understand the thought process behind this plan.  In my mind, natural elements are more powerful than human manipulation.

I tried to comprehend the knowledge being tossed in front of me as happy, yet impoverished children meandered through our group.  Wanting for the first time to be acknowledged of their presence, we took memorable photos of each smiling face.  The children were so fascinated with our picture-taking contraption that they had to see every single shot that was snapped.  Their simple lifestyle is what I strive for, but, if I’m successful, I am choosing to live that way; it’s not my only option.   The Vietnamese farmers are poor, yet humble people that are rich in good heartedness but trapped along a rising sea. A country that has barely contributed to climate change should not have to suffer the consequences.

The management plans for adaptation, in my opinion, should not be suppressed by dirt or concrete dykes.  No amount of human manipulation on the land can fight against earth’s wrath.  Many people are skeptical of sea level rise, but to those skeptics I’d recommend they visit Southern Vietnam and see with their own eyes the impacts of climate change.  What will happen if the dyke doesn’t work? What will happen if a big tsunami hits?  What will happen when the smiling faces disappear? I want to speak for the people but I have no answers to these questions.  Someone out in the world that has a heart as big as Vietnam, speak up and put yourself out there help save a threatened country.