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.
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!
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.