It might go without saying, but Vietnam is a stunning country. Really, words cannot properly describe how lush and vibrant the landscape is (both around and within the city, as well). However, my fellow students and I were recently given the opportunity to venture outside of Saigon, to the Mekong Delta and check out some of the truly-green spaces that Vietnam has to offer. Beyond the breathtaking views and literal breath of fresh air after living in the city for a few weeks, the trip to the Delta was an eye-opening experience into some of Vietnam’s environmental issues.
Located a few hours south of Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City), the Delta is about 10,000 square kilometers large and stands as one of the most important and fragile ecosystems in the world. It is fed by the Mekong River, which begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through six countries before emptying in the ocean through the southern tip of Vietnam. It’s the twelfth longest river in the world and has been utilized by the people of Southeast Asia for thousands of years for farming, irrigation, fishing, and travel.
The Delta itself, where the river splits into several heads, is a crisscrossing maze of rivers, tributaries, and canals. It is home to a fifth of the 80 million people living in Vietnam and is one of the world’s main regions for growing rice. Other forms of farming, such as fisheries, shrimp harvesting, and Mangrove forests, have helped to turn the Mekong Delta into the bread bowl of Vietnam — a title rightly earned as roughly half of Vietnam’s food production stems from this area. The people living in the Delta live in small towns and villages and many commute through motorbikes and boats.
However, there are severe problems lurking under the surface of all this beauty. Several factors, such as upstream damming, pollution, salt-water intrusion, urbanization, over-intensive farming practices, and climate change have all contributed to an alarming destabilization of the zone. The Delta itself is sinking every year and while the territory is one of the most stunning and diverse ecosystems I have ever witnessed, the issues confronting the area are alarmingly real and rapidly manifesting.
Before our trip, and like the rest of my journey here in Vietnam, I had no idea what to expect. I had heard the term “Mekong Delta” in the past, but I had never learned anything beyond the name. It was quite shocking to me to discover the area, impacts, and challenges of the region. With the help of our outings, guides, and lecturers, I feel as though I have scratched the surface of a complex and chaotically beautiful corner of the world that I never knew existed only a few weeks before.
My weekend in the Delta was corner-stoned by several early mornings and some jam-packed days! All of the Loyola University students and I loaded up for the Delta at 6am on a Friday morning and traveled to Cần Thơ University, which enrolls around 60,000 students. There, we were fortunate enough to sit in on a lecture from one of Vietnam’s leading environmentalists on the challenges facing the Delta today. He discussed the uncontrollable factors that the delta region is facing, the local activities playing a part, and the impacts stemming from both area.
As far as uncontrollable factors goes, upstream water abstraction, rising sea levels, and land that sits weak and low are all contributing to the sinking of the delta. Coupled with climate change and more extreme weather, scientists are worried about the safety of the region and the people if the water continues to rise and the groundwater continues to deplete. Humans are also negatively affecting the area with overfishing, over harvesting, neglecting to rotate their crops, building dykes, and building dams. Infrastructure in the region cannot keep up with the demand, leading to improper planning and execution. Also, increases in migration, populations, urbanization, and industrialization have all taken an unfathomable toll on the delta. All of this has led to salinity intrusion, increased flooding, intensified pollution, river bank erosion, and dramatically decreased biodiversification. Unless action is taken soon, the delta is going to be in huge trouble.
However, we did learn about several projects underway to help negate all of these harmful scenarios and situations. One of them came in the form of the wind farm we visited, from which the surrounding region receives their energy.
Extending far out into the sea, 62 wind turbines spin in the breeze and stretch toward the sky like gigantic flowers. We were able to meet with one of the engineers and discuss their impact, how much energy they produce, and how long it took to build them. While we were touring, the farm was in stage two of a three step process, and it was mind-blowing to imagine all of the additional turbines they were going to put in. With wind energy, trees and wetlands don’t have to be removed to make room for solar panels, and it tremendously cleaner than electricity produced through oil or gas. After a long lecture discussing all of the environmental stressors the area faces, it was refreshing and hope-inducing to see a positive step being implemented for the delta.
In Saigon, garbage liters the busy streets and the air pollution is a tangible, breathable thing. Almost all motorists wear face masks whilst commuting, and one always has to keep an eye out where they’re stepping. Being in the Delta, it was so nice to be able to breath fresh air and be away from the city. However, it didn’t take long to notice that the garbage issue was not only prevalent in the metropolitan area. Far too many of the slews and marshes were plagued with a blanket of floating trash. Many roads we traveled on had evidence of deforestation and tree-clearing. And streets were still littered with trash.
Anyone could tell you that the Vietnamese are not a dirty people. In many cases, their ideas of cleanliness far surpass what my American values would dictate. However, a shortfall of government funds and mobilization toward fixing the problem, coupled with a general lack of education and awareness on the environmental issues has led to some deep-rooted ecological problems. What’s worse is that many of these sleepy little Delta towns do not have anywhere near the funding required to clean up the entirety of the city.
As part of our program here in Vietnam, each Loyola student is in a partner group with a Vietnamese University student. It’s been such an immersive and beneficial experience, and the friendships we’ve been building with these partners are irreplaceable. After our trip, I asked several of them what their opinions on the trash problem were. Of the four I talked to, two of them group up in the Mekong Delta.
Interestingly, their view was that the pollution problem is the result of the attitudes of the people, not the government, and that the people of their parents’ generation don’t necessarily know enough about the issue. “Generally the awareness is quite low,” said one student. “There’s campaigns in the city to clean up the garbage, but not in the countryside. Everything should be changed and improved. We feel like other countries are better about cleaning than Vietnam.”
When asked whose job it is to clean up the garbage, they were almost reluctant to place sole responsibly on the government. One suggested that there could be a joint task force involving the government and the citizens, and another reminded me that the government is doing something, as evidenced by the trash cans set up around the city.
On the subject of climate change, they all admitted there isn’t much discussion or awareness surrounding the issue. I tried to ask whose responsibility it was to help curb global climate warming effects, and each one had to think a long time before their answer.
“We do care about it, but we cannot do something…it’s a global problem. It’s up to each individual to solve it.”
“Maybe we have to care about it, but with my major I don’t learn much about it so how could I care for that?”
“Other countries DO have the knowledge, so they could do something about it.”
“Maybe some expert should do something first and then I’ll do something about it.”
At first, their answers dismayed me. After all, Vietnam is a country putting a lot of money and effort into rapid development, and that has led to several environmental issues. As discussed before, many of those are directly impacting the Mekong Delta. But upon further reflection, I had to ask myself how many people in the United States would be asked the same question and give remarkably similar answers. Or how many would flat out deny the existence of climate change. No matter where one goes, there are going to be issues with several complicated and controversial solutions. And while the students I talked to may not have had the scientific knowledge that I have had available to me, they still care about their country and their planet. They all agreed that green technology was a fantastic step for Vietnam, despite the high costs, and eagerly told me about all of the solar panels in the city and at their own university! Vietnam is moving more toward green energy, green building materials, and more environmentally conservative practices, and that is an exciting thing.
Climate change is always going to be a touchy topic, despite how I might wish it weren’t. But for every dire situation, there are people out there who care and who want to make this world a safer, more sustainable place for all of us. There are several obstacles facing Vietnam and the Mekong Delta, but such a beautiful and critical corner of the world is not going down without a fight.
Finally, I feel as though I can’t conclude this entry without showing off a little bit of the stunning scenery I keep referencing!
The Delta is home to some of the best seafood Vietnam has to offer and we were never too far from some delicious meals! From shrimp to catfish to eel, it was definitely a trip of many ‘firsts’ for me and my friends. Because of the size of our group (32 students plus our instructors) we ate at long tables with numerous plates of differing dishes appearing throughout several rounds.
We were also granted the opportunity to visit the Cần Thơ floating market, which is one of the largest floating markets remaining. Before the roads and bridges and infrastructure needed to get around in the Delta were built, boats were the main forms of transportation. Because of this, several markets popped up in the Delta, where transactions were done entirely on boats. Back in the 90s, the markets were said to be gigantic, with boats early able to move due to the vast quantity of them. Since the rise of tourism in the markets and the flood of youth and labor migration to the metropolis areas, the markets have died down from what they were. However, we were still able to witness one of the most fascinating economies I have ever witnessed.
After getting on a boat at 5am, my group and I were treated to a sunrise on the river as we sped to the market. All around us boats were selling fruits, vegetables, drinks, and other treats. Smaller boats would come alongside ours and attach hooks to our windows before yelling out offers for coffee and mangos.
And finally, like something out a movie, we were granted the experience of a boat ride through the Delta, complete with a walk over a bamboo bridge to an observation tower in the middle of a national forest! With every single adventure we went on, I found myself in a state of pure elation. I couldn’t stop thinking, “How cool is it that this is what I’m doing for school?!”
It can be difficult to balance out the negatives when faced with so many troubling factors. In many ways, it felt a little superficial to be taking pictures of the flowers and river when I knew what challenges lay ahead. But at the end of the day, the Mekong Delta is a region brimming with life, energy, and heart. There’s a long road to climb before the environmentally sustainable goals are obtained, but that’s no reason to give up hope. Learning about issues is the first step towards making an impact. As for me, I’ll be watching my water usage here in Saigon, refilling my water bottle rather than purchasing plastic ones, and walking to and from where I need to be, rather than taking the bus.
And in the future, I will remain wary of the environmental issues the area faces, and I will eagerly speak of the challenges, qualities, and beauty of the Mekong Delta to everyone I know. This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I don’t ever want to take that for granted.