Sang’s home is a forest guard station on the bank of a river that runs through Can Gio, a large mangrove forest and Unesco biosphere located some 40 kilometres southeast of Ho Chi Minh City.
As the familiar sound of a long-tail boat grew louder, Sang spotted the garish pink nón lá (Vietnamese hat) of her fellow guard, 42-year-old Lan Thi Truong, across the silver stream. Lan, who leads the self-governing group of forest protectors in Can Gio, and Sang were meeting to welcome a new co-worker, a third woman who would join them in their work as forest guards.
Though all three grew up near the river, none know how to swim, and so they carefully put on life jackets. The water had risen above the mangrove roots, making it a suitable time for the women to start their patrol. They manoeuvred the long-tail boat along the forest edge, snaking their way through each small canal, as the day slipped away. Once the boat was tethered and headlamps were strapped to their heads, the three women started wading into the forest’s core.
‘It’s quite scary to patrol in the forest alone, so we ask each other to go together,’ said Sang. ‘Men are stronger so they could go faster. We women go slower so if we can’t finish in a day, we’ll continue the next day, making sure that no plot is skipped.’
Spreading across 2,000 square kilometres, Ho Chi Minh City is known for its relentless construction and lack of green space. Under the circumstances, the Can Gio mangrove—one of the last green spaces—plays a role in the vitality and survival of the city.
Decades later, the 30-hectare forest represents a miracle. In the early 1970s, US biologists estimated that it would take ‘100 years to restore the biosystem of Can Gio mangrove forest’, said Cuong Dinh Nguyen, the former head of the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Service.
‘This would be impossible without the women of Can Gio. Three or four men working in a day could not reach the productivity gained by a single woman,’ he said.