Challenges in the Mekong Delta

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.

Mr Pham Van Tu and his son, with Gavin and our guide Nhon. They talked about the various challenges they are facing with their rice crops
Mr Pham Van Tu and his son, with Gavin and our guide Nhon. They talked about the various challenges they are facing with their rice crops

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.

Hand harvesting of rice
Hand harvesting of rice

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.

En route to Ho Chi Minh city

We had a long, but fascinating, train journey from Hue to Ho Chi Minh city. With more time we would have stopped at a couple of places along the way, but with only four full days left in Viet Nam our focus now is to get down into the Mekong Delta.

The first part of the train journey, between Hue and Da Nang, was quite spectacular as we wound around the coastline, in and out of tunnels and with stunning views. Along the way we saw a few bunkers, obviously from the Viet Nam war. In our four berth sleeper compartment we had a power connection so were able to plug the laptop in and watch a DVD to while away part of the afternoon. Then it was a fairly short sleep and a very early wake up call!

En route to Ho Chi Minh city
En route to Ho Chi Minh city

Ho Chi Minh city has a real buzz to it, which we are all enjoying in our one full day here. After working very hard to do things in Viet Nam things seem to be coming together for our trip to the Mekong Delta. A contact through our Thai friends is assisting with people to visit and we have a very good guide who is presently organising things.

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post from Hanoi, one of my main goals in Viet Nam has been to do some good work down in the Mekong. This region, the rice basket of Viet Nam, is presently being affected by drought, fire risk and salinisation in some places. I have been partly inspired to go here by a New Zealand farmer, Doug Avery. Doug came here about two years ago and when down in the Mekong spoke with a Vietnamese farmer. It was at this time, talking to another farmer about changes in the weather and water supply that he was experiencing, that Doug became convinced that climate change was a reality.

A challenging day in Hue

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.

Mr Nguyen Chap, Mrs Nguyen Thi Cam, their son Mr Nguyen Xuan Thoi
Mr Nguyen Chap, Mrs Nguyen Thi Cam, their son Mr Nguyen Xuan Thoi
The Nguyen family farm with forest behind
The Nguyen family farm with forest behind

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.

Mrs Nguyen Thi Quyet and her brother Mr Pham Dung with Gavin … very hot even inside
Mrs Nguyen Thi Quyet and her brother Mr Pham Dung with Gavin … very hot even inside
A view across Mr Pham Dung’s farm to their community
A view across Mr Pham Dung’s farm to their community

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.

In Hue

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.

Woman watering the community garden in Hue
Woman watering the community garden in Hue

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.

Mr Khoai talked about the challenge of less reliable weather patterns, which is making him think more carefully about seed selection and timing of his crop
Mr Khoai talked about the challenge of less reliable weather patterns, which is making him think more carefully about seed selection and timing of his crop

Organic tea growers, Thai Nguyen

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.

A typical tea farming scene in Thai Nguyen Province
A typical tea farming scene in Thai Nguyen Province