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

Vietnam 2012

The Balancing Act

January 17, 2012

Story By Aly Heare

Good Morning Vietnam, and an early morning it is in Tram Chim National Park. But our tired eyes are instantly rewarded as we set off in our motorboat guiding us down the watery road system of the national park’s ‘backcountry.’ As the boat slips through the warm water birds explode upward with sudden swoops of their wings. We see kite hawks, egrets, cranes, king fishers, and hummingbirds with everything in-between, everything except the mascot of Tram Chim: the Sarus crane. The birds glide up and away from our obnoxious motor to the safety and solitude this park provides for all these magnificently winged creatures, and humankind alike.

Tram Chim transformed from a national reserve into a national park on December 29,1998. On that fateful day the park made a promise to both the government and the land to protect and preserve its wildlife while also honoring the history and culture of the Mekong Delta. The first half of the promise presented challenges aplenty, but the second half of the promise added an even greater complexity; the balancing act between conservation efforts and livelihood.

Tram Chim is now the proud home to 231 species of birds, 32 of which are listed in the Red Book (IUCN’s threatened species list). Every bird I see is a work of art but the real royalty of the park’s bird population is the Sarus crane. This magnificent species of crane is 1.8 meters tall, meaning it is slightly taller than my 5’9’’ stature. They are romanticized by their mating habit of having only one partner for a lifetime, a husband or wife if you will. If their partner were to pass away the Sarus crane would never remarry and some are even said to have died of a broken heart. Call it corny, but I for one love it. The Tram Chim is the cranes’ feeding ground from January to June, so we would have been extraordinarily lucky to have glimpsed one in the first place. Tram Chim is on the right path for fulfilling the first half of their promise, but what of the second part?

No national park is without the dilemma of people vs. nature and which should have a greater precedence when managing the needs of the park, Tram Chim is no exception. But they have taken a new perspective and have developed a system that implements the people into the internal workings of the park. For example, the local people are allowed to fish in the park, but to a limit. They are also encouraged to come into the park during a designated season to harvest last season’s dead grass. This practice then makes room for next seasons new growth, decreases fire danger, and the people gain a valuable asset in their mushroom cultivation practices. In this way the people of the surrounding community have gained a stake in the park and are more willing to help not hinders it betterment. Furthermore, a quick response team made up of the locals has been trained in fire management practices, due to the very serious threat of wild fire in the dry season. Tram Chim National Park, in my view, is an expert tight ropewalker in the balancing act between conversation and the peoples’ livelihoods.

So far in Tram Chim’s short life as a national park the two part promise has been kept. For I can see each half with my naked eye as I glide along the water lily and lotus flower filled waterways. I see the people in gilt of the little boy with the water buffalo on a leash washing itself in the water and I see conservation in the swoop and glide of the enormous wingspan of a heron. But most of all I see hope for the protected places of Vietnam and the escape they provide for the wild kingdom, human and animal alike.

An old Khmer woman, and I looking in

January 16, 2012

Story By Aly Heare

I step into the welcoming gateway of a Cambodian Buddhist temple in An Gaing province and my breath is taken away. This is not the first temple we have visited yet the beauty of the architecture and the spirit of the place affects me every time. In other words, it never gets old. My path in unguided so I meander through the ornate rooms dedicated to worship and thanks, with wide eyes I try to absorb every detail of the people giving prayers to their god(s).

But my religious stupor is short lived due to the worst tourist trap we have experienced thus far, a bird trap. You can buy the freedom of a swallow from a plastic mesh bag, but the catch 22 is that the seller will just trap it again the next day. It is a revolving cycle of rip offs, Avery (of course) falls for it.

With the temple behind us and a few freed birds circling over our heads we start our ascent of Mt. Sam, the tallest geographical feature in the Mekong Delta. The stairway is steep and winding through locals casas and hammock shops. I peak into their doorways and see their lives inside, what we call back in the states window creeping. The air is being sucked into my lungs at a rapid rate and my heart has gained a stronger beat. It’s not a mountain by Montana standards but it is producing the symptoms. Every step up I take the view improves. I can soon see into both Vietnam and Cambodia, with the border consisting of a large canal. But the geography does not change; rice fields stretch out in either direction as far as the eye can see.

I make it to the top, with my heart pounding in my ears. Then the view hits me, my breath is taken from my alveoli. Its stunning. But my worship is again stained by a tourist trap shooting range coupled with the birds at the peak of this magical mountain. We descend down another way, the roadway that it. I wonder how this mountain survived while the rest of the Mekong was washed flat thousands of years ago? No matter its origins it stands strong and stable now making me miss the protective mountains that surround our valleys back home. I must remind myself of the here and now, soak it all in. I come back to my present surrounding and move on with the adventure that every day in Vietnam provides.

We load up into the dreaded van and drive a short ways down the degrading road into an ethnic Khmer village that lies near the border we just witnessed from the top of the mountain, the Vietnam and Cambodian border. We are welcomed into the home of an older women with hands that weave magic, magic being beautiful hand woven scarves from the finest of silks. Her magic incorporates fine silk thread into a masterpiece, dying the thread with a preconceived pattern in mind then weaving and layering the weaves into a breathtaking masterpiece. (As you may have noticed, my breath has been taken quite a few times today, but that is Vietnam for you.) The mechanics of the craft still jumble my mind but the one thing I grasp onto with an unbroken certainty is the end beauty. The beauty of not only the scarf but the beauty of the women who spend their lives in the quest to make something magical. Something that can bring a smile to others, and their quest was fulfilled when a smile broke through my lips.

The beauty of their craft stood in a rough contrast to their living conditions. The woman’s loom stood a half room away from the livestock’s pen. She weaved by the light of a single fluorescent light bulb, working on her quest for beauty for up to twelve hours a day. Flies encircled the children and water was collected by a pulley system of buckets from the community well. It was the poorest community we had visited throughout the whole trip.
I may be on the outside looking in, but at least I am looking. And through my sight I have seen the flesh and blood of the people on the other side of the planet, giving the word globalization a whole new meaning and I realized we are all in this together, including the old Khmer woman and I.

Agriculture in Vietnam

January 15, 2012

Story By Justin Burns

Vietnam was the largest exporter of rice in the world in 2010, 90% of which was grown right here in the Mekong River Delta. While in Vietnam, it’s been fascinating to visit with professors from Can Tho University (CTU) and many farmers to understand the current challenges that farmers are facing with increasing climate change, and what they are doing to mitigate and adapt to the changes.

In the city of Can Tho, we met with Dr. Nguyen Huu Chiem, a professor at CTU. He comes from a long line of rice farmers, but chose the path of education to assist all Vietnamese farmers in their practices. He stressed that climate change and land use practices are the biggest areas of concern, and that adapting to the current and future changes is a necessity for continued agriculture in the Delta. He spoke so passionately about the land; you can tell farming is in his blood.

Dr. Chiem has already implemented 50 biogas systems on farms throughout the Mekong River Delta and has a goal of 1,000 in the coming years. I learned that biogas systems collect methane from cattle and pigs to then be used in the homes of the farmers for electricity. A genius idea! Not only does it use the methane that would otherwise leak into the atmosphere, but it saves the household from having to pay an electricity bill.

Dr. Chiem then took us to see multiple farms in the Delta, both with and without biogas systems, to see the advantages first hand of the system. As we arrived to the first farm, I was surprised by how uncomplicated the system was, how easy it could be implemented, and how cheap it was to install ($100 usd). After talking to the farmers that had the system installed, it was clear that they were all very happy with the system. They expressed their happiness to be with how it worked, and that it saved them money. The only drawback is that while $100 is readily available to most Americans, most farmers in the Mekong Delta are poor and cannot afford the upfront costs of the system. To combat this, Dr. Chiem is applying for the funding for the farmers from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), where developed nations provide the funding to developing countries to implement climate change mitigation strategies to reduce their emissions.

While visiting the farms, I also was impressed by the other changes that farmers have been making to adapt to climate change. For example, rice farmers are now adding aquaculture to their farms. Aquaculture in Vietnam is the production of growing fresh water shrimp, salt water shrimp and catfish. This gives the farmers another source of income, while at the same time providing irrigation to their farms in case of drought. The fish also replace insecticides that were previously used for rice production. This cuts down on the pollution of the water in the Delta, and saves the farmer from costs of insecticides and health repercussions of the use of insecticides. Another example of a simple, cost effective, common sense plan to help with climate change impacts on the Delta.

I came away from my time with Dr. Chiem and local farmers with a whole new respect for what they are trying to accomplish. Given that these practices are still only being implemented on a small scale of individual farms, you have to start somewhere. Hopefully with proven success of their adaptation strategies to climate change, and economic advantage for farmers with limited income, we will begin to see large-scale adaptation strategies being implemented on agriculture in the Mekong River Delta.

Dragon Cook Book

January 14, 2012

Story By Avery Old Coyote

Vietnam is known as “The Land of the Dragon People.” Legend has it, the patriarch, which is represented by the sea, met the matriarch, represented by the sky or heavens. Together, they had 100 children and they became the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese, or Dragon People, are proud and strong. They are an embodiment of the dragon, which symbolizes invincibility and versatility. The dragon is king of all realms demonstrated by its ability to cross over to all kingdoms: air, land and sea.

America is known as “The Land of Opportunity.” Legend has it, Americans have the opportunity to buy a cheeseburger on every street corner. The producer, represented by the giant corporation, met the consumer, represented by the fat American. Together, they had 300 million children and became the pickiest country in the world.

All kidding aside, the Vietnamese are the most hospitable and welcoming people I have ever met. They also happen to make the best food I have ever eaten. Despite the fact that I can’t pronounce half of the dishes they prepare, I can say how they taste: delicious. And even though I didn’t know half of what they cooked was edible, I do know it was healthy. I also know that, perhaps rooted from the legend of the dragon, the Vietnamese do not discriminate on what type of animal or food they eat or where it comes from. All food, no matter if it comes from the air land or sea, is sustenance.

I had never considered frog to be a nutritious meal. Nor had I thought of squid, turtle soup, fish eyeball or snail as a delicacy. And I certainly had never even heard of mud skipper or balut (duck fetus), much less eating them, but I can confirm from experience that all of the previously mentioned foods are in fact, not only edible, but enjoyable when cooked properly.

I am not saying all Vietnamese try to find the most peculiar animal they can find and eat it. Vietnam has a plethora of absolutely fabulous foods that are quickly becoming popular throughout the world. Pho is the main staple of Vietnam, and can be found on virtually every block, but I am also not suggesting that all Vietnamese eat a strict diet of pho. You can also find a ton of other delicious homemade treats and homegrown fruit along with a pizza or even a cheeseburger if you look hard enough. Nevertheless, I do think that the Vietnamese can provide a valuable lesson to most of the world.

It is no secret that the global climate is changing. As the atmosphere and oceans warm and melts the world’s polar ice caps and glaciers, the sea level subsequently rises. Worldwide implications include water scarcity, mass migrations and food insecurity. This could mean significant shifts in livelihoods in industrialized and developing countries alike. If we all take a page from a Vietnamese cook book, remember the recipe for the versatility and strength of a dragon. Whether from the air, land or sea, all animals, veggies and fruits are valuable and not to be wasted.

Evading Extinction

January 11, 2012

Story By Maggie Matchett

After hours on a bus on roads so bumpy that a sip out of my wide-mouthed Nalgene was a challenge, we all stepped out into U Minh Thuong National Park, with high hopes to see some wildlife, in a country where street rats and geckos run rampant, but seeing other mammals or birds is rare.

U Minh Thuong is one of the last areas of peatswamp forest remaining in Vietnam and recognized as one of the top three highest priority sites to conserve in the Mekong Delta. Peat is an important for the storage of carbon, and the peat extends a full one to three meters into the soil.

We were greeted by a smile and a man eager to share of the park’s biodiversity and success story of nurturing endangered bird populations back to health. U Minh Thuong is home to 243 plant species, 32 mammal species, 188 bird species, 52 reptile species and 60 fish species. Ten of these animals are Red Book species, which means they are listed as endangered and have a high priority for conservation. Some of these rare animals include the hairy-nosed otter, Sunda pangolin, large-spotted civet and gray-headed fish eagle.

The park boasts the highest bird diversity in all of Vietnam, which we immediately saw upon entering the park and seeing two painted storks, one of the Red Book species. Not being able to help but act like tourists, we excitedly crowded around, snapping photos of the majestic birds eating fish. Another important bird species in the park is spot-billed pelican, which went from a population of nine in 2002 when the park was established to now having 41 individuals.

I couldn’t help but grin as I watched how excited the presenter was to tell us of the conservation efforts of the community and it got me thinking about the ramifications of establishing a national park in a country where every square foot of land is so valuable, both for biodiversity and livelihood production.

The park is divided into zones including the core zone, where tourists are not allowed and conservation efforts are high, and the buffer zone, where families that lived in the area before the park was established were allocated four hectares of land and are able to use resources from that land, with some restrictions. There is a limit to the number of fish each person can harvest and they are not allowed to use pesticides and insecticides. Had this park not been established and managed efficiently, resources would be exploited and diminished and precious biodiversity would have been lost.

Even more than habitat loss, another threat to biodiversity and the existence of Red Book species is poaching and black market trade. As Vietnam’s economy grows with its development and industrialization, so does the demand for rare and valuable furs and meat—at the expense of endangered animals. Populations of cobras, pangolins, rhinos and long-tailed monkeys have dwindled due to a desire to flaunt a newfound wealth. As in many developing countries, poaching is difficult to regulate in Vietnam.

It is great to see such gusto in the conservation efforts and recognition in the importance of biodiversity in a low-income country with little land to spare. As long as national parks like U Minh Truong continue to preserve important lands like this peatswamp, pelicans will continue to thrive and pangolins will evade extinction.

Super Trees, To the Rescue!!!

January 10, 2012

Story By Aly Heare

“If you cant go around it you have to go through it. Squish….squish…..squish.” An old childhood song plays in my head as I forge the path through the muck separating me from the mangroves. As I sink deeper and deeper into the black muck of the mangrove forest I realize that I may have gotten in over my head (figuratively speaking, not literally) as I sink deeper and deeper into the soil. But the song keeps its tune in my head and my feet move to the lyrics. With a few hints from the local boys I make it across to the other side, covered in mud, but back on solid ground.

Once back on the gloriously solid path I realize the cliché does apply “The grass is greener on the other side” for I have forged the path into a young mangrove forest. The two dominant species in this coastal region is the melaleuca and rhizophora mangrove with roots that go every which way, like a spider that is just waiting to run. The trunks are a hard wood that splits over and over again pushing their own path to the sky, fighting for their fair share of the every evasive sunlight. The number of trunks from a single rhizophora is dependent on the amount of sunlight (photosynthesis) the tree receives while still young, the more sun the merrier. The forest is still very young but already the competition is fierce for the coveted sunlight.

About fifty years ago many of Vietnam’s mangrove forests had to replanted due to the dual effects of the local deforestation and the American War (what we call the Vietnam War). During the war the US destroyed nearly 160,000 hectares with harmful chemicals such as Agent Orange and Napalm in an attempt to seek out the Viet Cong. The effects from these chemicals on the forest were so devastating that the country thought it would take over 100 years to regrow the mangroves back to their previous glory. But do not doubt the soil of Vietnam, for it is better than any Miracle Grow I’ve ever seen. There is now an estimated 295,447 hectares of forested land in Mekong Delta.

Mangroves are the super power of Vietnam, the saving grace against some of the issues presented by climate change. Mangroves grow thick and long along the coast providing a buffer zone to tropical storms. Mangroves also provide a prime protective alcove to many species increasing the biodiversity of the area. But the magical powers of the mangroves don’t stop there, the mangrove forests prevent soil erosion and the acidification of topsoil and surface water. Mangroves are not the whole solution for Vietnam but they are a major step in the right direction.

Replanting of the mangroves is in the works but so is a huge dike along the coast. This wall of concrete is meant to buffer tropical storms and hold back some of the projected sea level rise but at the expense to the expansion of the mangroves. The wall is too big a barrier to cross to expand their number and to do their super power like jobs. So where should the line be drawn between human made solutions and the ones offered by nature?

As I stand under the thick canopy of the melaleuca and rhizophora mangroves covered from here to there in their nutrient rich mud I speculate how big their role will be in Vietnam’s approach to climate change. Dr. Be, a professor from Can Tho University, stays positive in his outlook on mangroves and their ecological effects. Even now their super powers are being better incorporated into the livelihoods of the Vietnamese people with new aquaculture practices. As I stand beneath the sun-blocking canopy I am comforted by the realization that there is so much hope for the mangroves and Vietnam as a whole when addressing climate change, for they have a super hero on their side.

The Boat to Realizations

January 9, 2012

Story By Kyle Burke

The boat careened around the corner, “Oh No!” I thought, “we are heading in the mangrove forest.” There would be no avoiding the collision with the shore, but then miraculously we rounded the bend and sped farther up the canal and deeper into the mangroves. This boat ride had given me a new perspective on tourism on Vietnam. Previously I had experienced some very stylized parts of the industry. The pig races and fishing for our lunch had provided me with an urban based perspective of tourism. However, now deep in the mangroves I could see the other side, the side that greatly appealed to me. With only 10% of foreign tourists being from America it is hard to say that if this area will ever attract large numbers of foreign tourists, especially when most head to the ever expanding Phu Quoc Island, an island that is being slowly developed for a more western appeal. Ca Mau National Park however, was my paradise. Deep inside the mangroves where we had to get there by a speed boat driven by an expert operator and navigator. My faith in his knowledge and control of the canals and boat grew with every passing twist and turn of the river. With our final arrival at the Ca Mau National Park and the walk down to the southernmost tip of Vietnam, allowed me to envision a side of Vietnam that I had wanted to see: the forests and ecology.

With every passing moment I enjoyed more and more about this remote location. The drizzle of rain had begun and the monkey bridge was calling our group’s name. Led by the enigmatic Dr. Be, we scaled this rickety “bridge” and continued into the forest and onto the walkways suspended above the mire below. The rain continued and only deepened my love for this day in the forest. We continued to traverse these walkways continuing all the way until we popped out right at the ocean. The return trek led us again the bridge which I couldn’t help but notice was not there anymore. “Wait! There it is, right below the surface of the river.” While we were out the high tide had come in and submerged our already sketchy crossing. However, this only added to our adventure. We slopped through the muck and reached the other side with some of us a little more adapted to this environment than others. “See!” says Dr. Be pointing at the mire covered Ally, “The difference between an indigenous and foreigner,” as well all laugh.

Then it was back on the boat for another thrilling ride back to the van, increased by the fact that it was raining steadily and our driver was being pelted by rain and so only on occasion looking at the path of the speeding boat. Still we zig zagged in between sticks and fishing nets hardly slowing when blowing through towns or down narrow canals. Finally we were back into the main river and I began to reflect on the day. The pure beauty of the park, the amazing people that had guided me through it, and the ever increasing danger of it all disappearing. This place had shown me the necessity of the mangroves and the role they play in creating a buffer zone for the delta. Dr. Be created a great view of the importance of the Mangroves and the ecology of the MeKong Delta. This place could draw much tourism from outside Vietnam and with that tourism help to preserve this amazing place. In this one day and one boat ride Vietnam has again completely won me over and changed me in more ways than I can mention.

Where I saw a complete disconnect between my view of what tourism is and should be, earlier in the trip, I now have the feeling of being naive. How could I have judged all of Vietnam on one day in Can Tho? This trip opened my eyes and my mind. Don’t judge too quickly or come with preconceived notions. This is a hard thing to do but my day in Ca Mau National Park helped me to realize that even when attempting not to, it is inevitable. However, in the future I will try to remember what I should have all along, don’t judge a book by its cover. In this one day and one boat ride Vietnam has again completely won me over and changed me in more ways than I can mention.

The Yin-Yang Climate Change Solution

January 4, 2012

Story By Dana Christmas

As we hopped out of our air-conditioned bus we were greeted by a man smiling from ear to ear. (This seems to be standard in Vietnam.) His weathered hands and wrinkled eyes emitted a humble kind of wisdom. He led us to a banana shaped wooden boat alongside a channel of the Mekong River Delta. We eagerly stepped aboard, a little skeptical of the cracks leaking water into the boat’s interior. He gracefully rowed us across the channel, one he must have crossed a thousand times. We arrived at his farm on the other side. The plot did not look like a conventional farm. It was a collage of pigs, chickens, fruit trees, fish, and vegetables all woven into the jungle. We came to find out that this man was a lead farmer in the area and that his family had worked the land on which we stood for three generations.

His farming practices and the meal later prepared for us seemed to reflect the yin-yang principle, which is woven into the fabric of Vietnamese culture. We had learned from Mr. Bich the day before that the yin and the yang represent complementary opposites that interact as part of a dynamic system. Everything in nature has both yin and yang aspects, as light cannot exist without darkness. This principle continued to manifest itself throughout our visit. Like the yin and yang, everything in this farm relied on one another, and apparent opposites could coexist in a “closed system.” The fish rely on a variety of vegetation supplied by the fruit trees and surrounding jungle. The rice relies on the sediment from the canal and nutrients from the jungle decay. The pig’s organic waste is drained from their pens into a methane converter. The methane is then used as energy for the family to cook their meals.

The leftover scraps of food are then fed to the chickens and pigs. Nothing is wasted; each component fuels the next. This system eliminates the use of pesticides and insecticides because the fish will not survive if the rice or fruit trees are sprayed with toxic chemicals. It eliminates deforestation because the people use methane for fuel instead of firewood.

After touring the farm and a thrilling motorbike ride to the neighbors, we sat down to eat. Our hosts had prepared a beautiful meal and laid it out before us “family style.” Each dish was made with intention and encompassed the yin yang principle. The fish that we witnessed wiggling earlier in the day, sat in between a large bowl of fresh greens and a plate of rice papers. The yellow curry prepared was a perfect blend of spices that contrasted vibrantly with the pink fish and green vegetables. For dessert the sweet, tropical fruit was balanced by the bitter and spicy chili infused dipping salt. We devoured our meal; satisfied and content knowing it was made without degrading the environment.

We cannot outsmart nature. When humans try to play God and manipulate the natural cycle, we run into continuous problems. But if we learn from nature and model endeavors and ourselves after it, we become part of something very powerful. This truth has been over looked by our own country for so very long and now places like Vietnam are dealing with the implications.

The farm model I described above is not the solution to climate change in the Mekong Delta. The problems of climate change and everything that comes along with globalization is complex, and there is no easy solution. This farming model serves as a glimpse into what sustainability might look like on a small scale. But more importantly, this farm model offers a way for this farmer and his family to maintain their livelihood, while also preserving their culture and protecting the environment.

Like the yin and the yang, no piece of our global sustainability challenge is unaffected by another, and solutions will have to incorporate the wisdom of this philosophy. We are all interconnected in this struggle. Each part of our current globalized system: the old wisdoms and the new innovations; the local grassroots organizations, governments and global institutions; the indigenous peoples and modern hyper-consumers; the farmers and the scientists, all contradict one another but are dependent on each other at the same time. They all provide perspectives that will need to be balanced to achieve solutions to the global problem of climate change.

Education for Climate Change in Vietnam

January 3, 2012

Story By Justin Burns

I’ve travelled around the world to study the impacts of climate change in Vietnam. Coming here gives me a chance to see how those who will be most affected by climate change are responding. How educated and engaged are the youth here? Is there an educational system in place to teach students at the Universities about the cause, problems, and solutions?

Our trip starts in Ho Chi Minh City where we visit with students from the first all English speaking public university in Vietnam, the International University of HCMC. To my surprise, they even have a Saigon club, and representatives are here to tell us about their efforts. The students take turns presenting on environmental issues in Vietnam, and what they are doing, bravely, to address them. They speak passionately about the air pollution in Ho Chi Minh City, caused mostly by the seven million motors spewing exhaust daily, and the students’ efforts to build a better bus transportation system. We hear about deforestation, the loss of 31,000 hectares every year, and their efforts to promote sustainable forestry through the use of fast growing bamboo. We hear about the problem of waste management, seven million tons produced per day, more than twice what the city can handle, and the students’ innovative work to turn waste into ‘green bricks’ as a source for new construction.

As the students speak, I am immediately impressed by their motivation and efforts, but also concerned that more is not being done to directly address climate change. I am well aware that the Mekong River Delta is one of the most at risk areas for climate change. A sea level rise of just one meter, will cause displacement of more than 17 million people (23% of population) and cause land loss of 40,000 km (21%) of Vietnam. According to the 2007 IPCC Report, this makes Vietnam one of the top five countries to be effected by the impacts of climate change The impacts on Vietnam will also be felt around the world given Vietnam was the largest exporter of rice in 2010, with most of that rice grown here, in the Mekong River Delta.

After our stay in Ho Chi Minh City, we travel deeper south into the Mekong River Delta to the city of Can Tho, the heart of where climate change impacts will occur in Vietnam. We again meet with students working on environmental issues, this time from Can Tho University (CTU). Students here have organized their own environmental club, called the Student Environment Network (SEN). While they are not recognized as an official club at CTU, they are working towards this. They organize every week to talk about environmental issues, both domestic and international, as well as work on their campus to bring awareness to issues like energy conservation, pollution, and waste. Their inspiring and motivating presentation ended with, “Save Can Tho, Save Vietnam, Save the World!” This infused joy in me, and showed me that there are people around the world that recognize the problems we face now and in the future.

Climate change is a problem few in America see as effecting people right now. Too often we hear, if we don’t do something today it will be a problem for our kids and grandkids. However, this is a problem of today; there are people all over the world, not just in Vietnam, who are feeling the effects of climate change. It’s a world problem that has no easy fix. It has many complications, and many different points of views. It is clear to this student that if we are going to begin to address the problem in a serious way that has serious actions and serious results, the first step needs to be education. I have little faith in successfully educating the older generations of the world; however, if we can begin with educating the younger population, we will be on the right track to fix what seems to be the unfixable right now. Save the Environment, Save the World, Save the People.

Vietnam, No Reservation Needed

January 2, 2012

Story By Avery Old Coyote

Something about the pagoda made me feel incredibly comfortable.  Usually when I visit religious places back home, the formality and seriousness of the site makes me feel on edge.  In retrospect, I do not know if it was the pungent but pleasant smell of the blossoming flowers on the trees, the soothing music or the fact that I had to remove my shoes to enter the place of worship, but I felt at home.

As I walked from alter to alter I couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of burning sticks of incense sending smoke billowing up into the sky.  Suddenly, I had an epiphany.  Within my Crow and Salish heritage we, as Native Americans, pray with smudge, a type of incense, if you will.  Usually when we smudge, we burn cedar, sage, sweet grass or tobacco.  With great reverence for the sacrifice of the plant, we send our thoughts and prayers up to the heavens with the smoke of the burning plant.  It is with this same principle in mind that Buddhists in Vietnam burn incense.  It is for this practice, among others, that I believe Native American traditional ways exist in parallel to Vietnamese cultural practices, particularly through Buddhism.


The original Buddhism, Theravada, was introduced to Vietnam by Indians.  Not the Indians Columbus “discovered” but the Indians that inhabited the region he intended to sail to.  Although, he might be comforted to discover we share many similarities through culture. The views instilled by Buddhism in India and carried on to Vietnam are rooted in environmental respect and honoring nature.  A traditional Vietnamese person will move a piece of furniture always by picking it up and carrying it, never by sliding it noisily across the floor.  Even nonliving things are shown respect by the Vietnamese passed on in standards taught through Theravada Buddhism.

Being here in Vietnam has helped me consider my own roots.  Having no historical written language, we pass on our Native American cultural norms and lessons of morality through stories.  It is the lessons from this diverse oral tradition which taught young people in our Native American cultures how to live with nature as fellow citizens, humble and open to the natural wisdom of the land.  In several of Montana’s tribe’s oral histories, there are elements of the natural world that take on roles equal to those of human characters.  The sun, moon, and animals often speak and interact with humans in the stories through various types of relationships.  This connection says a lot about the relationship between us tribal people and the natural world and the way we indigenous people viewed our environment.  Similar to Buddhist beliefs, giving inanimate objects humanistic qualities shows a mutual respect.  Though we cannot survive without the natural world, nature will most certainly survive without us.  Nonetheless, symbiotic relationships in the oral traditions are important and show that one cannot exist without the other and exemplifies the respect we had for our environment.

Elders often talk of the 7th generation. The idea of seven generation sustainability is an ecological concept that urges the current generation to live sustainably and work for the benefit of children seven generations into the future.  This ideology is echoed in actions of Buddhist monks who ask for food similar to the way bees take honey from flowers without harming them.

Unfortunately, Vietnamese culture and Native American culture also share another trend of environmental respect, or lack thereof. The process of economic development by sovereign nations inside the United States and overseas in Vietnam threaten to destroy the environment.  The most obvious sign of this, apparent in both places, is the heaps of trash polluting the waterways and townships. Luckily, these two cultures provide good lessons for human beings on their ways of retracing their steps back to nature, but only through continual immersion of culture to the younger generation is this task possible.  However, both nations are experiencing a significant problem of culture shifts in the wrong direction toward western civilization.  I will be watching for ways to repair my culture while in Vietnam.  If I can reciprocate, that alone will have been worth the trip.

The Outstretched Hand of Vietnam

December 30, 2011

Story by Zachary Brown

My first night here a new Vietnamese friend, the same age as me (21), welcomed me into his home without hesitation. I was a virtual stranger, but we shared a connection to the University of Montana and I displayed an interest in his country. That was all it took to be treated like an honored guest — he and his family made me feel like an old and dear friend with hospitality I had never before experienced.

Yet, this is Vietnam! I carried here the baggage of my country, and had somehow not expected this sort of welcome. Just the name of this country still brings up questions and angst in America, as the history of Vietnam-U.S. relations is dominated by a single connotation: the Vietnam-American War. This was arguably the most controversial war in U.S. history, and it still lingers on the mind of many Americans. It represents a bitter loss to some, and a social and political atrocity to others. Either way, it is a wound in America.

But clearly the story is different here in Vietnam. The people here have turned a new page in their history, and they are proud to be unified. They are proud to share their country with me—an American. And more than proud, they are loving and welcoming.

One of our first activities in Ho Chi Minh City (the old “Saigon,” former democratic capital of South Vietnam) was a tour of the “War Remnants Museum.” Right away, a man approached me with an outstretched arm. He was Vietnamese, and he wanted to shake my hand—except that he had no hands. He was a war victim who had lost one eye, and where two hands should have been he had only stunted forearms. I grasped his fleshy limb and said hello.

Suddenly I turned behind me at the sound of a wailing cry and watched an older American woman run out the front doors of the museum and collapse on a bench directly behind me. A friend rubbed her back as she cried into her sunglasses and trembled.

I turned and walked to the exhibits. I read about the South Vietnamese prisons, with detailed descriptions of the torture techniques employed by jailers on their communist prisoners. I then walked through a large room with walls painted orange (appropriately), and looked at gruesome pictures and statistics that detailed the horrible, horrible affects of Agent Orange poisoning.

I trembled myself as I absorbed proof of humanity at its worst.

My father was in the U.S. Navy, and in 1965 he visited Nagasaki, Japan—exactly twenty years after the U.S. destroyed 80,000 civilians with an atomic bomb. He told me that the people treated him like a hero or a celebrity when he walked through the city dressed in his American military uniform. Since then, he has said that the Japanese people don’t blame Americans for the tragedy but instead feel a personal sense of shame and responsibility. He said that burn victims, disfigured by the nuclear fallout in 1945, were ostracized from dominant society because they were marked with “shame.” The Japanese shamed themselves instead of the Americans.

When I walk the streets of Vietnam and interact with its people, I am met with incredible graciousness and warm smiles. Vietnamese people are happy and welcoming to Westerners, and they seem to love and welcome Americans in particular. What a surprise this has been!

Yet there is no social parallel to be made between the Vietnamese and the Japanese in their responses to American aggression. I don’t get the sense that Vietnamese people revere Americans, and they certainly don’t internalize shame about a war they now regret. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The Vietnamese are proud of what they achieved in fighting the “American War.” Forty years ago, they defended their own sovereignty and united themselves as a free and independent state for the first time in generations. Today, the economic future of young people in Vietnam is as bright as ever, with the country growing as quickly as any other in the world.

And America?—We are a partner in free trade, and something to admire in terms of economic and societal achievement. I have not seen even a trace of resentment or animosity here, only a desire the better themselves and share the beauty of their land and people with their honored guests. They have moved beyond war, I think, because peace is in their roots. For over 800 years (from the 1010 declaration of independence from China, to the French occupation in the late nineteenth century), Vietnam was called Annam, which simply means, “peaceful land to the south.”

What a difference. And how wonderful it is to be here, in the unified state of Vietnam. These people are proud of their home country and they value their collective good—spiritually and in tangible economic means as well. In this pride they seem to hold a collective graciousness for outsiders, and a desire to share their home with the traveler. It seems safe to say that we are amidst the dawn of new day in U.S-Vietnam relations: one of unprecedented growth, sincere friendship, and an undaunted sense of what the future might hold.

Off to Vietnam!

December 16, 2011

Story by Nicky Phear

The Faces of Climate Change: Vietnam, a part of Oxfam Austrailia’s Faces of Climate Change Series, November 14, 2010.