By Anastacia Crowe
During my stay in Vietnam I met a great deal of people who I came to adore, and even love, but there were few who made such an impression on me. Tai, a malaria survivor, soon-to-be father of three, and nature guide in Cat Tien National Park, was one of those people.
From the moment we hiked in to Crocodile Lake, until the moment that we were dropped back off at Cat Tien National Park Headquarters, Tai was there to watch over us. Throughout our three-day trip to Crocodile Lake, Tai, with his trained eyes was there to point out and name all the birds, primates and other creatures that we wouldn’t have noticed with our untrained eyes.
Tai’s job as a nature guide in the jungles of Cat Tien fits his personality remarkably well: He is a man of few words, choosing to observe everything and everyone around him, rather than talking. Without his stoic demeanor, observant eyes, and humble attitude, he wouldn’t be excellent guide that we came to know.
During our trip, I came to realize just how much Tai loved the jungle and the creatures that inhabit it. When we were packing up to leave on our last day at Crocodile Lake, I asked him what led him to spend his life as a nature guide, he simply stated, “The forest”. From the few short days that I spent with Tai, I could tell that his love for nature and wildlife far outweighs his love for people, as he seems to search for solitude outside, rather than choosing to spend time with large groups of people. Who could choose to spend their lives leading people on overnight trips deep into the jungles of Vietnam if they didn’t love the quietness that nature provides in the way that he does.
By Shannon James
I have been staring out the window for a couple of weeks, cruising all around the Southern Mekong River Delta. Coming from Montana, it was striking to be covering so much ground and mainly be looking out on busy streets full of people, shops, and motorbikes. It wasn’t until I reached some of the protected areas of Vietnam that I was able to catch a glimpse of the diverse, natural environment that has been left undeveloped.
The National Parks in Vietnam run under a management scope that differs from the United States. Here, the parks require active management. Forests need restoration due to the American destruction from Agent Orange. Climate change impacts present an immediate need for adaptation planning. And water management is a crucial focus.
Throughout our travels we had the opportunity to visit various National Parks within the Mekong Delta region. U Minh Thuong and Tram Chim are two protected wetland areas that support tremendous biodiversity. We toured through both parks via boat; witnessing expansive grasslands and various bird species. Such diversity, it turns out, depends on intensive water management. Both of the parks were recently established following massive fires. Preventing future fires, as well conserving the rich biodiversity in these areas, requires active management to pump water into the parks during the dry season.
The conservation of these remnant wetlands is not an easy task, one made more difficult by the unraveling consequences of climate change. The seasons are becoming more extreme, resulting in more drought during the dry season and more floods during the wet season. Efforts to deal with the challenges of the changing climate include building dykes and pumping water into the parks from the Mekong Basin. This, however, brings its own challenges as highly polluted water is then pumped into the parks. Unfortunately, while both national parks we visited are monitored for water quality, there are no current practices of cleaning the water of pollutants.
While visiting U Minh Thuong Park we learned about the rare peat swamps that reside in the area. Much of the carbon rich wetlands across the globe have been lost due to land use change for agriculture. Peat swamps are carbon sinks, making them vulnerable to intense burning if they are exposed and dried out. The peat gives the overlying waters a dark black color, creating quite a contrast with the vibrant green foliage. It was really quite beautiful to witness, making it slightly easier to overlook the insane expansion of invasive species crowding the dark waters.
It is striking to me how essential water management is to sustain what remains of Vietnam’s natural environment. Those working on preservation face many challenges: financial support for the necessary science, global climate change impacts, invasive plants, overpopulation, and the high dependence of the surrounding communities on resources within parks. On top of all this is the most pressing concern facing the Mekong today, new large-scale dam. Upstream from Vietnam, eleven large dams have been proposed, which would fundamentally alter the flow of water and sustainability of these parks. Breathing in the fresh Maleleuca forest air in Tram Chim is not a luxury of leisure. A large amount of work is put in to protect the parks and continuously manage the valuable wet lands that sustain Vietnam’s natural gems.
By Kyla Crisp
Imagine seeing a flock of white birds flapping their way through the sky. On first thought, you might just assume they are some boring seagulls, especially if you are from the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately, the birds we saw at Tram Chim National Park were anything but ordinary. The diversity ranged from Egrets, Grey Herons, and Cormorants to Kingfishers and Purple Swamphens. However, the elusive symbol of the park, the Sarus Crane, was nowhere to be found. The park is a sanctuary for many of these species. Without protection, the biodiversity of the area will decline.
While boating through the tunnels of trees watching the birds fly overhead, I understood the meaning of the park’s name. The National Park is appropriately named after its two main inhabitants: Tram, which describes the constant Melaleuca forest, and Chim, the Vietnamese word for bird. Tram Chim National Park is a 7,588 hectare protected ecosystem with the goals of species conservation and wetland preservation. With 130 species of plants, 140 species of invertebrates, 90 species of fish and 130 species of birds, the amount of biodiversity is evident. Although the park is located inland, near the border with Cambodia, the park is strongly affected by the floodwaters of the Mekong River.
The park is divided into five separate management zones with dikes and sluice gates providing the equipment for water management in each section. Zone 1, the place we boated through, is focused on sustainable tourism. The other zones have the main goal of ecological restoration. Within the park, there is also a buffer zone, where residents from the surrounding area are able to use the natural resources.
As we were told by some of the park biologists, these individuals threaten the sustainability of the park as their population and use of resources grow each year. As we spiraled our way up a four story observation tower, the park boundary couldn’t have been clearer. To the left, all I could see was cookie-cutter catfish farms lined up against the horizon. To the right, however, the greener forests and grasslands of Tram Chim National Park were visible as far as I could see. Seeing this contrast, I could understand how important the park is to protecting the biodiversity of the area.
Our guide for the day was an avid bird watcher. Although it was 70 degrees and sunny, it is winter in Vietnam, and she led us on a quest to find the elusive Sarus Crane wearing her winter clothes and with bird identification book in hand. As the tallest of the flying birds, the Sarus Crane can grow up to a height of 1.8 meters.They live in Vietnam from January to May and spend the rest of their time in Cambodia where they breed with their long-time pair-bond. Unfortunately, the Sarus Crane is considered a vulnerable/threatened species. This is mainly due to the decrease in their food sources and an overall decline in their world population. The park serves the purpose of protecting the few individuals that are left. Although eight individuals were seen in the park earlier that day, we were unsuccessful in finding them.
Tram Chim National Park is beginning to face some major challenges that will only get worse in the future. Climate change is only one aspect. Both sea level rise and changes in precipitation will lead to flooding in the park and throughout the Mekong Delta. Already, intensive water management is needed to remove water during the flooding season and add water during the dry season. Dams proposed upstream on the Mekong River present the greatest threat, decreasing water flow in the dry season, leading to increased drought and fire. Invasive plants present another great threat to the park’s biodiversity. Given these pressures, and with limited funding for research and conservation, Tram Chim National Park might struggle with species conservation in the future.
Compared to some of the other national parks we visited, Tram Chim actually had other tourists in addition to us. They had a total of 61,000 last year, which is a lot given the challenge necessary to reach the park. The park saw nearly a 150% increase in visitation over the last year, likely due to its declaration as a RAMSAR wetland of international importance. Obviously people want to see the biodiversity of the park and I am glad we endured the long bus and ferry rides in order to reach it.
By Lauren Miller
Motorbikes zipping past you, horns honking, and near head on collisions. There are really no words to describe the traffic you encounter in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; it is something you have to experience for yourself. From the moment I got into a taxi to drive us to our first hotel, I was holding my breath. The taxi driver weaved in and out of traffic. The lines on the roads didn’t seem to matter and speed wasn’t a factor. Basically, my first perception of transportation in Vietnam was that there are no rules. Traffic lights exist in bigger cities but are rarely used in rural areas. Motorbikes can drive down the middle of the road and on the sidewalk. To be honest, it was at first absolutely terrifying. However, as I learned to trust our experienced drivers, I saw there were rarely accidents.
Geography has always been something that has interested me, learning about how people are connected through places, culture, and language.Once I made the decision to study Geography at the University of Montana, I focused on community and environmental planning. With Vietnam’s heavily concentrated population, it is a perfect focus area for seeing how densely populated communities are planned, specifically their roadways and transportation systems. Vietnam is the 13th most populated country in the world, with 92 million people in an area smaller than Montana. Each person has his or her own way of getting around, mostly by motorbike. The roads are crowded, but somehow people are able to communicate with each other in a way that works. In Montana when a traffic light goes out, complete chaos ignites, but not so in Vietnam.
In the Mekong Delta, before roads were built, the rivers formed the first transportation system. Under French colonization a vast canal system was built. The French encouraged travel on these waters, which allowed for easy trade and the export of goods.
Today, the livelihoods of many people still depend on the water for boat travel, and many products are transported this way.
For visitors, traveling by boat on the Delta makes for a fun and exciting experience, if you ever get the chance to travel to Vietnam.
In the United States, as compared to Vietnam, the transportation system was designed for the automobile. The roadways and highway system moves traffic steadily and laws are enforced to keep people safe. Without these laws, more accidents would occur on a daily basis. Roads are also designed so driving doesn’t take much thought: when the light turns green, you go. Driving is designed to extract yourself from the outside world, turn on your favorite tunes, and be alone for your commute. Vietnam, however, has a system completely opposite; and it works. Roads are designed simply, usually two lane roads and four lanes in the bigger cities. People use their horns to communicate with one another, informing the other person they are driving behind them. Eye communication is crucial when crossing busy intersections. Unlike the United States, this system involves a heightened sense of awareness and communication between drivers.
Looking into the future, Vietnam will see a rise in automobile traffic as taxes are lowered (now at 300%) and more people will be able to afford their own vehicle. What will Vietnam look like with more cars than motorbikes on the road? Cities will be even more congested and I believe more accidents will occur. The lack of parking infrastructure is already an issue and the space is very limited as to where more can be added. Cities will become even more polluted and Vietnam’s CO2 emissions will rise significantly.
Vietnam is a beautiful country, full of life, and traveling around is an experience all in its own. If you ever travel to Vietnam, riding on the back of a motorbike is one of the most fun and exhilarating experiences and immerses you in to the hustle and bustle of the cities, something you can not experience anywhere else.
By Shanti Johnson
The creature’s eyes stared blankly up at me from my plate. I stared back, taking in the curling antennas and the bulging, purplish-grey egg sack clutched between its legs. I could feel my Vietnamese host-mom watching me.
Normally, I like eating shrimp. Well, I like eating shrimp tails, cleanly separated from their eggs and eyes so as to make for a secular eating experience. Back home in Montana, I rarely ever eat fish or meat and prefer a mostly vegetarian diet. But I wasn’t sitting in Montana; I was sitting in an open-air restaurant, half a world away, in Vietnam, where shrimp eggs, eyes and brains are all part of the eating experience.
I picked up the steaming creature and began peeling away the thin shell—the only thing separating me from my newest cultural eating experience. As I worked away at the exterior, I wondered about where my shrimp had come from.
Shrimp are everywhere in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. They appear in big ponds across the landscape where they are being farmed; they are show up alive and squirming in buckets at the market; and they show up in soups, spring rolls and dried mounds in restaurants. The tasty crustaceans fetch a much higher price at market than rice, causing many land-owners to convert some—or all—of their land to aquaculture (which is the farming of shrimp, fish and crabs).
Like most other kinds of rapid industrialization, the boom in aquaculture has brought with it a variety of environmental problems. For instance, in order to gain a maximum yield, farmers will often dump excess amounts of feed into their stock ponds. Farmers will also use antibiotics to ensure their shrimp and fish stay disease-free until they make it to market. The creatures can’t consume all of the food and antibiotics being thrown at them, so the excess ends up washing downstream and into local water sources.
The effects from this water contamination can easily be seen on Son Island, near the city of Can Tho. On Son there has been a major increase in catfish farming and both ends of the small island (the perimeter is only about six kilometers) have been converted into stock ponds. The island lacks an adequate water treatment facility and the excess nutrients washing out of the ponds pollute the local water and make it undrinkable for residents.
Problems with aquaculture, such as the water pollution, have not gone unnoticed. Several sustainability-conscious researchers are pioneering new ways to decrease environmental pollution, while still protecting people’s livelihoods.
One solution promoted by researchers at Can Tho University is to combine rice and aquaculture farms. In this model, ponds holding crabs, fish and shrimp are maintained alongside plots of rice. The technique is symbiotic in that the rice and shrimp support each other. The shrimp help fertilize the rice and the rice helps filter the shrimp-polluted water before it leaves the farm. Additionally, farmers cannot apply pesticides or fertilizers to the rice, for fear of killing the shrimp. They must also be conscious of how much food or antibiotics they give the shrimp, for fear of harming the rice crop. The combination naturally lends itself to a more environmentally friendly outcome.
A second solution, that addresses both pollution and land-use by farmers, focuses on raising shrimp in natural mangrove habitats. In parts of Cape Ca Mau National Park, farmers are allowed to develop and cultivate 30 percent of their one-hectare land plots. Many farmers within the park are choosing to use the mangrove forests to naturally cultivate shrimp. Much like the rice/shrimp model, the relationship with the mangroves is mutually beneficial. Leaf litter from young mangroves serves as a natural food source for the shrimp, and farmers are not allowed to use artificial fertilizers, feed or antibiotics within the park, in order to protect the mangroves. Though not all farmers adhere to the rules, overall the solution seems to be working well and is helping support local and environmentally sustainable livelihoods within the park.
The next step in supporting these livelihoods is to begin marketing the shrimp as sustainably-raised and eco-friendly. Educating consumers about where their food comes from is critical to keep the environmentally-friendly industry going. As a consumer, I take my power of choice very seriously, purchasing sustainable, organic products whenever possible.
My thoughts brought me back to my pregnant shrimp. I wondered if she had come from an eco-friendly farm, or one of the more intensive shrimp farms. As great as the eco-friendly models might be, the number of shrimp per harvest is lower than what an industrial farm outputs. Intensive farming is one way Vietnam can continue to bolster its economy while also meeting local and international demand for its products, like my shrimp.
I was almost done peeling away the shell and was nearing the inevitable. It was time to take a bite. I went for the eggs first, to get it over with. I pushed my psychological chatter aside, my weariness to indulge in food with unknown origins. I tried to embrace what was in front of me.
The purplish-grey paste hit my tongue.
“It’s good, yes?” My host-mom asked, beaming.
I mulled the eggs around my mouth. Smiling, I and turned to my generous host and said, “Actually, it’s delicious.”
By Cassandra Kritikos
Before the sun had stretched its rays across the horizon, our group was aboard a long boat headed towards the Can Tho floating market. At just past five o’clock in the morning, all of us were tired, and many dozed off as we made our way across the river, the boat splashing against the waves. Too dark to see far ahead, we scanned our visible horizon for any sign of market activity, eagerly awaiting the soon-to-be-seen community drifting in the river. After what seemed like ten-or-so minutes we arrived at our destination, the floating market only populated by a meager fraction of what was to come.
With each passing minute the sky seemed to brighten ever so slightly, allowing us to take in more and more of our surroundings. Almost like clockwork, additional boat-vendors began to drift in, crowding the floating market district. Vendors sold many varieties of fruit, from mango to pineapple, coffees and drinks and even had hot woks and grills ready to cook fresh food for customers. We snacked on bananas and mango while sipping our strong Vietnamese coffees laced with not nearly enough condensed milk. As a new boat would drift into the market grounds, a subconscious connection between other vendors was necessary to successfully guide their boats into the small spaces between the floating shops. Despite the early hour and still hidden sun, smiles were seen stretched across every passing face. The history between boat vendors was evident – years of selling their goods at this market had engrained strong relationships between merchants.
The beauty of the market is its history, one drawn from a time before cars where Vietnamese traveled by boats down the Mekong River. Each major city in the Mekong Delta is separated by roughly 60 km, a distance traveled in a few hours with a downstream current. The location of the market, as explained by our teaching assistant Duyen is a historic stop made during one’s travels down the river. The market has been around for years, and despite the large amount of tourism in the region and Vietnam as a whole, the market seemed largely untouched by tourist activity. Dinh, another teaching assistant to our program, explained to me that the market is often the sole form of income for the vendors, who boat from many parts of the province through distributaries connecting to the Mekong River. This intrinsic part of Vietnamese culture is just for the locals, and those lucky enough to venture down the river at the crack of dawn.
Food, culture and community are synonymous—each culture possesses a unique dichotomy of food, one that brings together every corner of the patchwork-quilt that is life to form community. Food has always been an important aspect of my life, helping me grow in my friendships, my life and show my love to others in an indirect manner. From the way my grandmother would feed me until I was close to bursting, or from the communal dishes spread across the dining table as my friends and I feasted on delicacies while enjoying each other’s company. The ability of food to both express the subtleties of one’s culture while also bringing people together is remarkable, and a common denominator found in all cultures across the world. My excitement to experience the floating market hovered around this central idea of community and culture, the market an outlet of Can Tho to express a deep engrained piece of cultural identity that has embedded itself within the community for ages, just as the taste of sweet Vietnamese coffee sticks to your tongue.
While our time at the market was short, the energy felt and connections seen stretched far beyond our short stay. As we rocked in our boat observing the market activity, sounds of traditional Vietnamese river music echoed in our ears as water lapped against the hull of the boat. We pointed the bow of our boat in the direction of our guesthouse and headed towards our temporary home, sailing past floating fields of vivid green water hyacinth plants rising and falling in the waves produced by our speeding boat.
As the sun rose above the horizon and stretched its arms across the sky, our tired eyes finally opened wide with our stomachs full of delicious fruit as we reflected on our experience. Each boat in the market was a swath of new food and goods to shop from; each boat a home and business to a Vietnamese; each boat interconnected to form a community, a community of food floating in the Mekong Delta.
By Sam Cheney
I was anxious leading up to the taxi ride away from our cozy hotel to unknown location for a three day homestay. I didn’t know the people taking us home with them, I wasn’t sure if they were going to like me, or if I would offend them somehow with a rude gesture. When Thai, my host sister, arrived at the hotel, she was so perfectly nice and she spoke fluent English; I really didn’t expect that.
Expectations are funny things that can often lead to people jumping to conclusions or being upset when something doesn’t go their way. But it can also lead to new experiences and surprises that can take people somewhere they never expected.
“I never expected for my host family to have so much,” said Lauren, whom I shared a host family with. She went on to say that she didn’t know that they would have such a nice home. She also thought that they would have many different cultural practices that we would also have to take part in, but neither of us noticed those kinds of things.
When I got to my host family’s home, Thai led me through a gate where I would expect to find a front door, but I found out later this area was to accompany the family’s motorbikes because they can’t leave them outside and there is no garage. Their house had very high ceilings and banana trees in the back. They also had a pet rooster who crowed once every half hour.
Thai is a 22 year-old pharmacy student who spoke to us in fluent English. From the moment she picked us up she had such an enthusiasm about knowing about us and our culture. She lives with her parents who work at Can Tho University as accountants. Then she has a little sister, 9, and a cousin, 19, who was also going to the university. Her 80 year grandmother lived in the house as well. We would also see an 8 year old boy, who looked in our room occasionally who turned out to be their cousin.
“I ate a rat.” Cassie said, who lived in a different house but had many of the same experiences as Lauren and me except for that one. “I definitely tried it,” she shared. I think that is really all she wanted to say about it, and that she and her roommate Hannah overall enjoyed the cooking at their homestay.
Everyone’s food experiences were different. Some people got to go out to eat with their host families while others were made more traditional Vietnamese food at home. Our host family made us what we thought was similar to American food while incorporating a lot of fruits from Vietnam. On the first day Thai asked us what kinds of food we had liked while we had been in Vietnam and she also asked about what kinds of fruits we liked back home. Lauren and I both agreed it was apples. While staying at the homestay we were provided with both our favorite Vietnamese dish, Pho and apples. They definitely tried to help us feel at home.
The time that Lauren and I were there, we always felt like they wanted us to be there. They wanted to see photographs and hear us speak English. The younger children wanted us to help them with their homework and they tried, somewhat successfully, to teach us their way of playing dominoes.
“It was nice to see the family dynamic and that they are all just people. It’s nice to see that stuff crosses over cultures,” said Kelsey, who roomed with Kyla. They stayed with an older married couple who had adult children, but they still enjoyed poking fun at one another for being bossy. “You could tell they really loved each other,” Kelsie shared.
It was nice to see that so many students, including myself, really enjoyed the experience of being with a family. There is something about being in a country and getting to experience their norms, their large family, their hospitality and sometimes the strange quirks that come with every family. I thank Thai and her family so much for taking us in for a few days.
As Lauren and I were whisked away by Thai and her best friend on the back of a motorbike for the first and last time during our homestay, we weren’t anxious at all. We felt right at home.
By Henry Lilly
Vietnam is a place of variety, to say the least. This can be said about the food, geography, traditions, culture, and ethnic groups of the country. During our time in Vietnam, we have been able to have a first hand look at a number of different ethnic groups of Vietnam through discussions of history, culture, and the arts and by visiting some local pagodas, which was quite different than I expected. One thing that I have learned during this trip is that surprises are around every corner in Vietnam, from the people you meet to the places that you visit.
With an ever growing population that is closing in on 90 million people, Vietnam has 54 different ethnic groups. These groups differ in belief, tradition, customs, and much more. During many of our lectures, the speakers have focused on the main groups of southern Vietnam, which are Khmer, Champa, Funan, Chinese, and Vietnamese. These four groups have been known throughout the centuries to have the longest lineage in Vietnam, but differ in many aspects, especially in religion as well as music. Two of the main groups that differ are the Vietnamese, or Kinh, and the Khmer. Within the religion both the Khmer and Kinh have Buddhist roots but worship two different gods. The Khmer worship the god Therauada, while the Vietnamese worship the god Mahayama. When visiting the Khmer pagodas I found that the monks also wear yellow robes while the Vietnamese monks dress in different colored attire. These are only a few of the differences between these two different ethnic groups. As a group, we were able to visit and focus on the Khmer religion and look more in depth onto the ideology and traditions of the Khmer people.
My first introduction to the Khmer lifestyle and religion was through a lecture on the overall aspects of the cultures of Vietnam. From this we learned about the music and traditions of the Khmer culture. During our lecture, we were graced with the presents of Khmer musicians who played traditional songs as example of their culture. It was honestly one of the highlights of my experience so far. The talent of these so called “amateur” musicians was impressive and gave me a wonderful impression of how artistic and musical their lifestyle and culture really is. My second impression of the Khmer culture was during our experience at the Phu Tan Commune in the Soc Trang Province.
The Phu Tan Commune is a low income area that has the chance to participate in a Heifer international Program. We toured throughout the community and learned about how the projects had effected the families and the area’s economic development. These projects have made a large scale difference within the community. The Khmer community as a whole seemed extremely united. With women’s groups, as well as a community meeting area and committee, it seemed that togetherness as a community was a major priority among the Khmer people. When visiting with the community members I noticed a sheer sense of happiness among them. Even though they had little in material goods, they lived as if they were wealthy in a sense of community belonging. As a complete outsider to this culture, I found this to be extremely profound, especially as they opened their doors to us. Finally, my third glimpse of Khmer culture was found during our visit to the bat pagoda.
At first thought, I believed that the Bat Pagoda was a place of worship to bats, however, this thought was changed immediately as we listened to the lectures by the local conservationists. The Khmer Bat Pagoda is a Buddhist temple of worship that also doubles as a sanctuary for the bats of the area. These bats are important because they are listed upon IUCN Red List of endangered animals in Vietnam. The ones that are mainly at the pagoda are large and small flying foxes. These bats are also considered a hot commodity in Vietnam; each sells for almost five times the price of a chicken on the food market. However, these bats are very important to the Khmer religion and culture. Through acts by Can Tho University, there has been a large movement to save the bats of the pagoda. Saving the bats helps to save the Khmer Culture. When visiting we were able to meet with many advocates of bat protection, ranging from professors to grade school children. This was one of the most surprising moments of the trip. I had no idea that there would be three foot long bats hanging within the trees above the pagoda. It was extremely surprising and interesting, and it was also inspiring. The idea of promoting conservation from the professional level to grade schools is aggressive measure, and was accomplished by the foresight of members of Can Tho University and in particular Mr. Dang, who is himself Khmer and grew up visiting and studying at this Bat Pagoda.
The Khmer culture and religion is an extremely interesting and impressive. With deep and symbolic roots in music and the arts, Khmer traditions run deep among its people. This can be said for most of the ethnic groups of Vietnam. I personally have been greatly influenced by the cultures, traditions and people of these ethnic groups and have found this part of our studies in Vietnam to be one of the most important in my overall experience.
By Hannah Tibke
Throughout my travels in the enchanting country of Vietnam, a definite constant is the people’s fascination with Americans. No matter where we go, people look, especially the children. When traveling in the Phu Tan commune, Soc Trang Province we had a crowd of children watching us, their eyes alight with curiosity. When asked for a picture, the children would smile big, waiting expectantly. The children here are fearless. They will jump onto a motor scooter, run across a monkey bridge, and explore and play on their own at a very young age. The monkey bridges are pieces of wood tied together with twine and lead unsteadily across a river. The children are so comfortable in their own little world. I saw a child of around eight years old biking around his little sister that was only one year old. The brother cared for his sister in way that seemed as if he had cared for her every day since she was born. The children in these small villages grow up unsheltered from the world.
The once impoverished village in Soc Trang where the children live has the International Heifer program helping the townspeople develop a steady income and food supply. The Heifer program builds up poverty-stricken communities by giving them livestock The village of Phu Tan is only an hour outside of Can Tho, yet there is a whole new cultural background and language. The Khmer people live in this village and speak their own language. We needed translators that spoke English, Vietnamese and Khmer. The Khmer live a life of simplicity and opened up their homes to show us their crops, how they make rice, how to weave baskets and showed us their cattle. When a new cow is born, it is given to another family in need somewhere in the community. Getting the chance to visit this community and see how Heifer International has helped them was a humbling experience that won’t be forgotten.
The locals have a way of work that almost mimic an art. When beating the rice, the women do so in a steady beat without falter. The beating sounds like music. When cutting the potatoes out of the bushels there is a tedious pattern and skill that has been passed down through the generations. The sound of the bamboo swaying in the wind even sounds like music that would be equivalent to the patter of rain on a roof. The culture in the small village is rich and the traditions strong. It is intriguing that such a timeless village with such a rich culture has a modern convenience of a TV. A one bedroomed shack will have a TV, if not anything else. The modern world has certainly reached many parts of the world in ways I would not have expected. Out of all the wonderful, helpful technologies there are in the world, the TV seems the most widespread. When visiting these homes I happened to glance over and see that Reese Witherspoon was on the TV. Perhaps the fascination with the Americans is correlated with the spread of the TV.
By Mara Menahan
This story is a happy one. It’s a story about local people, regeneration and hope. But first, I want to remind you of a tragic past. In 1961, American troops in Vietnam unleashed the toxic chemical in the sunny skies of the Mekong Delta. The goal of Operation Ranch Hand (the codename for the attack) was to force a mass migration of peasants from their rice paddies and fruit orchards to pro-American cities. With the countryside cleared of people, the Americans prayed that the Viet Cong would be starved of their supporters. Between 1961 and 1971, planes and helicopters dropped a total of 20 million gallons of Agent Orange at a dose 13 times higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends. The use of the American-made chemical in Vietnam was a warcrime, not just for the cost to human lives, but for the cost to all life. Some call it for what it is–ecocide.
To an American, the destruction of the mangrove forests in the Mekong delta would be like bombing the Redwoods after destroying California’s food-crops. Like the Redwoods, these forests are vital to ecosystem health. If the Redwoods are like lungs, sending sweet oxygen into the air, then mangroves are like kidneys, filtering out toxins and restoring aquatic health. Today, they are even more important since they are helping to keep the rising sea at bay, preventing catastrophic flooding and coastal erosion as the climate warms.
The only way to experience the mangroves is by boat. Soon after we arrived, we loaded onto a wooden boat with a loud diesel engine. The boat putted down the Long Tau River, passing houses on stilts and shrimp nets. I would never have seen the canal, except that a long narrow boat shot out of the dense foliage. To get a closer look at the mangroves, we needed a smaller boat. We were guided by a shrimp farmer. His boat could only take a few at a time. The first group of students sat cross legged in the bottom of the tiny boat, clinging to the edges white knuckled as the shrimp farmer plunged the motor into the water with a smirk and a wave. As I waited for my turn, watching a kingfisher swoop across the murky water and mudskippers dip into their underground nests, it was hard to believe this area was a no-man’s-land just thirty years ago.
The southern tip of Vietnam is all river. Thick, full silty rivers rimmed with fan palm, coconut trees and mangroves. The nine branches of the Mekong braid across the flat landscape. Swamps, sloughs and canals fill the space in between. Like everything else in the region–the houses, the rice paddies, the markets–the forest also floats. Mangroves adapted to the dynamic waters of coastlines. They specialize in changing salinity and water levels. Their roots thrust deep into the mud, holding up the trunk and the lush branches high above the tides. There are more than forty mangrove species in Vietnam. Interlocking roots trap sediments and without the trees, Vietnam’s coastline would slowly erode.
When we arrived at a house deep in the Can Gio reserve, I was a little surprised. I’m not used to seeing people living in designated wild places, but here in Vietnam, this is the way conservation gets done. The shrimp farmer lives in a house on stilts, surrounded by water and mangroves on all sides. He uses a small dam to grow shrimp among the mangroves. The forest provides both food and habitat for the shrimp, and the shrimp acts like fertilizer for the mangroves. Dr. Be explained that this “integrated livelihood system” allows for people to continue to make a living while pursuing conservation goals. Over a meal of catfish, fresh vegetables and rice, we learned that not only is he a shrimp farmer, but he is also a forest guardian. The shrimp farmer earns a bit of income for protecting his part of the mangrove forest from timber harvesters by reporting to local authorities.
After our meal, we retraced our path down the canal through a tunnel of mangroves, back on the boat and eventually, the bus. We drove a few kilometers further down the road we had taken earlier that day, to a sweeping mudflat. I could see now what the area looked like before the restoration work. We pulled on rubber boots and tromped out into the open field, into the sucking mud, carrying shovels and mangrove seedlings. We passed mangroves that had already been planted, but most of them were less than four feet tall. Our seedlings were about two feet tall with a single stem and a few clusters of leaves branched on top. We waded our way into the mangrove planting zone. Dr. Be showed us how to squeeze the sapling out of its plastic wrapper at the roots, and dig a five inch hole. I dug my hole with my bare hands, wanting to experience that strange black mud with each one of my senses. After we’d each planted five seedlings, we stood smiling, covered in mud. We shook hands and posed for pictures. Dr. Be awarded us each a certificate. It felt silly, but there really is something ceremonious about restoration work. Healing people, healing land. To me, it felt like some small token of apology for the ecocide my country inflicted. Collectively we planted 65 mangrove trees, a small step in recovering what was lost.