Sang Thi Phung

Forty kilometers southeast from Ho Chi Minh City, on the stairs up to the little stilt house standing alone on the edge of Can Gio mangrove forest, Sang Thi Phung, 39, was putting on her rubber boots, a rare moment as she was always usually barefoot.

“Here, it’s a few steps back and forth, and that’s the end of the land. I only put on slippers when I come to the mainland,” said Sang.

Home, to her, means the forest guard station built on a few-meter-square ground, piled up on the bank of a river that runs through Can Gio. Sang is a second-generation forest protector in Can Gio.

Dried alluvium has colored both her feet, something about which she doesn’t care much, because where she lives, clean water is scarce and guest visits are unusual. Rainwater stored in their plastic barrels isn’t even enough for Sang and her husband to use for their daily basic needs. They bathe and wash their clothes in the river, then quickly rinse again with a bit of clean water.

Lan Thi Truong

Exquisitely applying red lipstick and foundation to her face, Lan Thi Truong, 42, put on her floral-coated nón lá before her patrol into the forest. Like Sang, she continues her parents’ work of binding their lives to protecting the trunks of Sonneratia trees in the mangrove forest.

Sang and Lan have devoted all of their youthful years for Can Gio forest protection. Photo by: Vo Kieu Bao Uyen

“Even if all I see the whole day are just trees and trees, I still have to look beautiful. Living in this vast forest, what else but doing makeup could bring us amusement?” she said, while tightening her hold on the long-tail steering boat.

Lan started guarding the forest when she was 19 years old. Her parents are the first forest guard generation in Can Gio, bringing their children with them, while accepting a life that was isolated from the city.

Lan’s children, however, chose a different path and moved to the mainland to work. She says it’s impossible to ask their children to stay when they had limited clean water and no electricity in the forest. But for her, she will be guarding Can Gio for the rest of her life.

“Years of living with the forest has deepened my love and compassion for it. If something bad happens to it, I’d feel hurt, too”, Lan said. “First, it’s my parents, then it’s my husband and me. We have buried all of our younger years here, to take care and to protect the forest. Our life has only been here in Can Gio.”

Nguyen Thi Don

Nguyen Thi Don, 68, Sang’s mother, planted the first Avicennia seedling from Ca Mau in what used to be a barren swamp where Can Gio now lies.

Like other forests in Vietnam, nearly 40 000 ha of flora in Can Gio was wiped out completely by millions of litres of defoliants sprayed by the U.S Air Force between 1964–1970.

The forest died. Salinity invaded deeper into the south of the city while in some areas land slid, according to reports by Ho Chi Minh City Union of Science and Technology Associations. Three years after taking over Saigon, in the summer of 1978, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, chaired by Vo Van Kiet, decreed an urgent action to restore the biosystem of the Can Gio mangrove forest.

A labor force mobilization for the forest restoration followed with the locals, voluntary youth and re-education prisoners. Five hundred residents of Can Gio, mostly women and children, registered to join the replanting. Don was part of this pioneering generation.

Reviving the Can Gio forest was deemed an urgent action for the nation’s post-war revival. For many Can Gio women like Don, replanting the forest was a job opportunity with which they could earn some extra money to buy enough rice to feed their children.

They started the replanting based on economic motivation, and 20 years later, they have achieved a miracle with a 30 000-hectare forest now fully covered in green. A “miracle” because in the early 1970s, American biologists had estimated that it would need 100 years to restore the ecosystem of Can Gio mangrove forest.

“This would be impossible without the women of Can Gio. Three or four men could not reach the productivity of a woman in a day’s work,” said Nguyen Dinh Cuong, former head of the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Service.

The working hours of those who planted the forest had to be adjusted to phases of tides so that they would be able to arrive at the planting site at the right time to work, no matter if it’s day or night, sunny or rainy. They ate rice mixed with sorghum, wading through mud that reached up to their thighs, putting aside their bleeding thorn punctures, all to revive this landscape that was once dead.

In 2000, the Can Gio forest was classified as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. According to a report by the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystem (ISME), Can Gio was one of the most extensively renovated and beautiful landscapes in the world.

The price of the “miracle”

Don, as she sits under the canopy that is now again fully green because of her years of care, says, even the sorrow of living in the forest isn’t as heavy as her only daughter growing up illiterate.

“PHUNG THI SANG- those, three words of her name, are the only three words she knows. She would never forgive me for not sending her to school. We were poor so we had to choose forest guarding and now our children are illiterate,” she says.

After rehabilitating the forest with mangroves, Don and her husband asked to stay as the forest protectors. The couple and their six children have been living an isolated life to the mainland, which is only one hour away from the city by canoe. She took Sang with her to the forest when she was just one month old.

“She’s the only daughter so I cherished her most. My sons, there’s no need to worry about them, but my daughter, I was afraid that if she came back to the mainland without anyone watching she would become naughty,” Don recalled the old days.

The decision to not send Sang to school has deprived her of all the livelihood options she could have chosen 30 years ago.

“Illiterate. Jobless. How could I find my place in the mainland?” Sang said. This is one reason why she has accepted to continue her parents’ work of protecting Can Gio forest.

“At the beginning, my parents tended to pass their job on to my older brothers because I am a woman. But none of my brothers agreed so I had to do it,” she said. “This guarding station is almost an hour to the other nearest one by canoe. I see only my husband the whole day. Not many people could stand doing this job”.

Sang’s household receives US$300/month for protecting the Can Gio mangrove forest, which according to the forest management board is already twice the amount assigned by the central government. Still, it’s lower compared to the earnings of a factory worker in the city.

“At night, my husband doesn’t sleep. He goes out to catch fish and crabs. There are days when what he caught could be sold for an extra US$10, but there are also days when he comes back empty-handed. Our livelihood has become more and more challenging as the volume of natural fish and shrimp has dramatically decreased over the past five years,” she said.

Sang’s oldest son, who dropped out of school at 17, is now a worker in the city. She said, if he works in the plant he could earn a higher income and go out to have fun after work. While in the forest, after work, he’d be left with nothing else but mosquitoes. She doesn’t want to attach her son’s life to the forest as she and her husband did.

Many other households have returned to the forest due to low wages and poor living conditions. For Sang, however, she doesn’t think much of leaving or staying, because after nearly 20 years since she inherited the forest guarding job from her parents, she had and has no other choice.

“If I come back to the mainland, I have nothing. No land. No house. No job. No capital. No money to start any business,” she said.

Protecting the protectors

The 30 000-hectare forest is seen as the “green lungs” of the city, as the shield protecting millions of residents of Ho Chi Minh City from typhoons that came from the sea. It is the “kidney,” with which wastewater is filtered from the industrial complexes in the city, as well as in neighbouring areas. More than ever, the Can Gio forest is vital to Ho Chi Minh City, as the urban metropolis faces subsidence and the risk of sinking in the next 50 years.

Several economic development projects in Can Gio District have been approved by the Ho Chi Minh City Administration, convinced that these projects will help enhance the district’s development and bring about job opportunities to the locals.

But for Sang, changes for the development are fine, as long as it doesn’t affect the forest or their livelihoods.

“The lives of the households that protect this forest rely on nothing else, but those simple things,” she said.

This article was summarized and translated to English from the original in Vietnamese for information purposes only. In case of a discrepancy, the Vietnamese original will prevail.

It was produced with support from the SEI Asia Media Grant.