It is difficult to write a brief summary of our time in Viet Nam and what we observed and experienced. There are very strong contradictions in the relationship between people and the environment. Viet Nam is developing rapidly. The negative side of this are large open cast mines as we observed in Thai Nguyen, intensification of agriculture and the negative consequences of this as we observed in the Mekong. There is no apparent focus on the appropriateness and consequences of such developments. On the other hand there are official programmes to protect and enhance the environment, many of which are supported by NGOs and foreign government aid programmes. With people offering contacts and then not helping us at all it became impossible for us to see any of the more positive initiatives. However, informally, we found evidence of people acting and working positively for the future in their local communities.
If I think about the challenges posed by climate change in the context of the above then it is clear to me that solutions won’t come easily for Viet Nam. Some of the government programmes, such as reafforestation efforts, are having positive impacts as we saw locally in Hue. However, in the ‘rice basket’ of Viet Nam, the Mekong Delta, the challenges will be very great. There are no easy solutions there. Before we came to Viet Nam our Thai friends expressed concern about intensification of rice production and we heard about the consequences of this. There are areas already affected by drought and seasonal effects of salinisation. Insect pest problems, pollution of waterways, erosion of canal banks, are all local issues that will be further compounded by climate change. The push for increased rice production, with three crops a year in many places now, is not sustainable with these multiple challenges.
The Viet Nam situation is in strong contrast to the growing momentum of the self sufficient economy approach in Thailand. People there, albeit a minority still, are awakening to the consequences of unsustainable practices and there is a groundswell for change, along with a growing awareness of the challenges posed by climate change. In Viet Nam the pressure for economic development is creating all sorts of tensions. The most positive impression I carry is the natural warmth and wisdom of the rural people we encountered. This is where the real hope lies for Viet Nam in my view, if positive ways can be found to empower these people and somehow minimise or overcome the real desperation for money that is so evident to a foreigner in the urban areas. I believe the lessons we carried from Thailand could be of great benefit to Viet Nam.
Today we hired a boat, with a boat driver and local guide, from the hotel. The plan was to travel through some of the canals, visit a durian tree farmer on one of the islands and then to a floating market before meeting up with our van.
For the first time in the Mekong I felt as though I could relax and enjoy myself. Driving through the Mekong delta had already caught my imagination… a region with a population of 18 million in 2000 and currently estimated to be 21 million by 2010. A place of people, rice, water, fruit farms, endless bridge crossings over the many canals and larger crossings over the “nine dragons”. Being on the water totally fascinated me.
We eventually came to a bank where we disembarked to visit the ‘wise’ durian grower. As it turned out this was a young businessman and his mother, the Sau Ri family (name of the father), who had converted from rice to durian production about seven years ago with the help of Thai technology and Australian aid. They were extremely nice people, growing durian trees for fruit as well as a large durian tree nursery on their ten hectares of land.
These people have clearly acted positively by diversifying away from rice to a very productive fruit crop. The mother talked about the many problems in the area, pollution of water from heavy chemical use, erosion problems from river boats, insect pests in the rice. She commented that the weather is more erratic than in the past, but they don’t have any major issues as durian growers.
Given the breakdown with assistance we were now in a situation of having committed to the expense of a car with driver and guide, but no plan ahead of us. Doing his best to help us the guide had made contact with a local vegetable grower but this didn’t hold a lot of interest. So I asked for us to be driven to the next province, Vinh Long, where we hoped at the very least to enjoy a boat trip on the Mekong.
The main artery of the “nine dragons” river flows through Vinh Long province, which is one of the lower lying parts of the Mekong Delta.On arrival in Vinh Long we found accommodation, then lunch, and then out to the countryside. We stopped at a couple of households and talked to people. The two main things that we heard here were that water isn’t a problem for them, because it is in such abundance in this province, and that they are also now experiencing insect pest problems with their rice. When asked if there were some good local farmers worth talking to they said yes there were, but they were about 7km walk away!
By mid afternoon we’d all had enough. So we headed back to our hotel, a sort of resort complex by the river… where we sat outside to enjoy a fresh breeze and the coolness of the air as a thunderstorm passed nearby. Then to a room where the power didn’t come on until 5.30pm and even then the air-conditioning didn’t work properly!
That evening I asked our guide, Nhon, if we could somehow try and find some wise people to talk to along the river. This inspired him to call a TV station who gave him some contacts. It sounded promising for what we had decided would be our last day on the Mekong.
What initially held a lot of promise became yet another challenge to us, particularly myself. Basically a counterpart of our good Thai friends offered to assist with contacts on the Mekong but ultimately failed to provide any useful assistance. So it was left to our very good tour guide, Nhon, to do his best to help us out.
We began our Mekong journey traveling south from HCM city (which many here still call Saigon) to Tien Giang Province. Our destination was a rice farmer in Go Cong Tay district, about 15 km from the coast. We had lunch with Mr Pham Van Tu and his family and then talked with Mr Pham and his son. These two farmers and others we met that day talked about a number of challenges they have to deal with. In the past Mr Pham only grew one rice crop per year, then it increased to two, now many grow three crops per year. Even with two crops they have to manage the second crop carefully, to time the harvest before water levels drop too low and salt water intrusion destroys the crop. Now they are also experiencing hotter weather, problems with an invasive insect pest and generally poorer rice.
We then went out into the field, along red dirt roads where many people were drying their recently harvested crop, to film farmers at work harvesting. It is a time of communal effort, with everyone working together to harvest each others crop.
We learnt quite a lot about the challenges of growing rice in this coastal area of the Mekong. It is clear that farmers have to manage their crop carefully, particularly at this time of year when salt water intrusion becomes much more of a problem. Intensification of cropping, increased fertilizer inputs, invasive insects and poorer crops, are all interconnected problems that are clearly made worse by higher temperatures and drought.
Today was perhaps one of the most challenging days we’ve had. With only one more week in Viet Nam we are working as hard as we can to get out and talk to grassroots people. We organized a van and guide for the whole day, again with the help of Mr Tu. In our discussions we made clear that we wanted to meet farmers away from the coast, people growing a mixture of forest trees, fruit trees, rice and other crops. Our guide didn’t grasp this initially so we started heading in the wrong direction. I sensed this and had to work hard to make clear what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. By mid-morning we were driving along the banks of the Perfume River, which runs through Hue, towards the hills on the outskirts of the city. Aside from having to work hard with our guide we were also very challenged by temperatures hitting nearly 40°C and very high humidity.
We managed to meet and talk to two groups of people. The first group was a family, whose land is alongside the main north-south highway. We spoke with Mr Nguyen Chap, his wife Mrs Nguyen Thi Cam, and their son Mr Nguyen Xuan Thoi. They have 6 children, with the one son (aged 23) living and working with them. This family has about 2 ha of land and grows a mixture of citrus trees and a small area of rice.
The second group was a small community, who were helping with house extensions for a community member. We interviewed Mr Pham Dung and his sister Mrs Nguyen Thi Quyet. Brother and sister both grow citrus, corn, peanuts and rice crops. The community also works together to plant forest on the slopes behind their houses, with support from the government.
When we started out in Viet Nam I was told that the majority of Vietnamese farmers are poorly educated and ignorant of what is happening around them and in the world. This is an unfortunate perception held by too many people around the world who have little contact with farmers. Without much support in Viet Nam we have begun to focus more strongly on doing things ourselves, working with a guide to find people to talk to. Even our guide here initially had the view that it would be hard to find good thinking farmers, despite coming from a farming family. I think he has changed his point of view over the last couple of days.
The people we spoke to today, along with Mr Khoai yesterday, are experiencing hotter temperatures and more erratic weather. They read the paper and listen to the radio and know that what they are experiencing locally is connected to what is happening globally. They understand the problem to be the result of deforestation and industrial development and release of greenhouse gases. These people may not be well educated but they are far from ignorant. We are consistently hearing these people talk about the need to be planting trees and protecting our water resources. They are doing the best that they can in their local environments.
We managed to do a few things today, with mixed success. In the morning Mr Tu, our contact here in Hue, took us to a small community who are growing vegetables and flowers communally for the local market. It was interesting to see how this group of people is working together in a very positive way.
In the afternoon we hired a car and guide to take us out toward the coast, about 15 km away. Our intention was to go to the beach and also hopefully meet and talk to some farmers along the way. After a brief visit to the beach we drove back on the lookout for a couple of farmers to talk to. Our first stop proved to be unsuccessful. We then met Mr Khoai, from Thuan An Village. He has been growing rice since he was 13 years old, for 40 years now. Mr Khoai grows two rice crops, in the November to January period and in the March/April to May period. He has noticed temperatures getting higher and the weather in general becoming less reliable. The rainy season is tending to be more extreme, with more flooding problems and the dry season is often drier than in the past. His greatest challenge with the less predictable seasonal climate is the timing of his crops. He has to think more carefully about what varieties he grows and the timing of his production. Mr Khoai and other farmers in his village have observed these changes locally and are also aware of what is happening globally from watching television and reading the paper. He said the only solution for them locally is through seed selection and timing of production. His message to people was to keep the environment clean.
Today we drove out to Tan Cuong Commune, one of the main green tea growing areas of Thai Nguyen Province. We went to meet with Mr Kim, leader of a group of 19 organic growers. These growers have moved to organic production because of health and environmental concerns from heavy use of pesticides in the area. The majority of the growers in this group are presently struggling with both lower yields and lower prices for their product, but are committed to staying organic because of their concerns. Mr Kim is setting an example by now achieving comparable yields to other tea growers and is working to resolve the marketing problems. He is aware that temperatures have been getting warmer, both locally and globally, and that weather patterns are becoming more erratic. However, these don’t seem to be major issues at present. Water is not a concern for them with many ponds in the area. These are fed from nearby Coc Lake, as part of an irrigation scheme. His focus is to build up the soil on his farm. He and others have already noted that the soil has considerably softened in the time that they have been in organic production. More immediate concerns of this group of growers are problems with an insect pest and marketing of their product. They are calling for support to assist them further in their efforts to both improve their local environment and make a reasonable living.