Restoring the Can Gio mangrove forest in the Mekong Delta

Can Gio or Sac mangrove forest, a large wetland area not far from Ho Chi Minh City, is listed as an UNESCO biosphere reserve for its rich biodiversity. Since the wetlands area is a major tourism attraction, the risk of degradation is high. Bui Van Dai, a student of Hanoi Medical University, writes about the natural beauty of Can Gio, its history inseparable from the destruction caused during the war, and why young people need to conserve this invaluable ecological heritage for future generations.

Covering 75,740 ha or a little more than the size of the island state of Singapore, the Can Gio or Sac biosphere reserve located in the Mekong Delta is rich in biodiversity, and listed as a biosphere reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Apart from the lush mangrove forests, the area is home to many mollusk, crustacean, fish and amphibian species. The tidal mudflats provide a habitat to migratory birds.

The forest provides a host of ecological functions including protection against coastal erosion, oil spills and the regular storms that buffet Vietnam’s coastal areas. Given its dense forest cover, the wetlands are a huge attraction for tourism which is posing risks to the ecological integrity of the area.

Many young people are putting efforts to protect the wetlands, by raising public awareness about the value of the Can Gio mangrove forest.

“Local Recovery of Mangroves Project” in Can Gio in which young people are making efforts to raise public awareness about the wetlands and help restore the forest. (Photo by Bui Van Dai.)

I visited the forest in 2017. One can only explore the area using light boats that can navigate the maze of half-submerged trees and tidal flats. During my visit, I met and talked with Nguyen Van Tam, a former Vice President of the prefecture, and a decorated war veteran of the legendary 10th Commando Regiment that was based in the heart of the forest during the US-Vietnam War.

As we moved from the delta area towards the Can Gio Forest, the surrounding landscape began to change from lush riverside water palms to dusky mangrove swamps. The first thing I noticed about the landscape was it was filled with life. Hundreds of bird calls came sweeping over the canopy and filled the sky. As we meandered along the canals, I kept an eye out for the saltwater crocodiles that were reported to live here. Apart from the diversity of fish, birds and mollusk species, the forest provides habitat for many bat species and monkeys.

Can Gio Mangrove Forest in the Mekong Delta is listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve for its rich biodiversity. (Photo by Bui Van Dai.)

After a delicious traditional Vietnamese lunch at a riverside location, we arrived in Vam Sat Eco Park which houses a crocodile reserve and enjoyed some crab fishing and bird watching.

I asked Nguyen Van Tam about the remarkable tenacity of the mangrove forests, their roots holding on to the earth despite the strong currents, and able to withstand huge storms that often batter the delta region. I felt these mangroves represented the tenacity of the people who live in the Mekong Delta, who have suffered many storms including war in history, yet have not only survived but also flourished.

When Nguyen Van Tam talks about the US-Vietnam war, his voice displays a mix of reminiscence, pride, and an inevitable sadness at the lives lost.

He recounted how the forest was twice as big before the war. More than half a million gallons of chemicals were poured on it by US planes that rendered many areas barren of life. He reminisced about each place that we passed by, the battles, his fallen army colleagues, until finally we reached the Sac Forest’s Army Cemetery. A large plague stands engraved with the words: “In memory of the 860 fallen heroes of Sac Forest”.

Lighting incense at the altar of the cemetery, the old veteran bent his head and prayed for the memory of the many friends he had lost in the war. As we walked back, he gave me a soft smile that spoke volumes for his affection for this place: “I can never bring myself to leave this forest, or leave my fallen friends”.

A day spent in the company of this gentle old veteran who had suffered much as well as being amidst the natural beauty of the mangroves and our journey into the past had left me deeply moved. I was not only in awe of the nature around me but also gained a deeper appreciation of the value of peace.

I vividly remember one sentence that Nguyen Van Tam said: “The Sac mangrove forest sustains the people who sustain the mangrove forest.” I hold these words with me to inspire me and other young people as we take efforts to protect the forest and conserve its beauty and biodiversity for future generations.


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