Plants and Animals in Vietnam
When I first learned of this trip to Vietnam, İ was attracted to it for a number of reasons. One of these was the opportunity to explore and experience the biodiversity of a country that covers a lot of latitude in the Eastern Hemisphere. Although the trip’s primary purpose concerned Art and Visual Culture, İ was able to get some solid first-hand observations of the many organisms that cover the many different geographic regions of Vietnam. Each area provided a host of different species of both plants and animals. As we moved south from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta, İobserved a change in large and small ecosystems that mirrored the huge changes in climate and topography. The next few pages will take you through the casual, first-hand observations İ have made in the past four weeks.
As expected, the city of Hanoi had little to offer in the way of biodiversity. İ had only two memorable encounters with animals inside the city limits. On an island pagoda on Hoan Kiem Lake there is a preserved specimen of a soft-shelled tortoise—akin to the one in Vietnamese mythology that carried a magical sword. Its shell was over a meter in length, making the entire specimen easily the largest tortoise İhave ever seen. İ did not get a clear answer as to whether the species still inhabits the country in abundance. The other animal encounter İ had was on the edge of West Lake. İ was walking the banks late at night and saw a rat slap across the shore puddles. İ later saw a horde of rats on a sidewalk in Nha Trang, but failed to see enough of them to distinguish any similarities or differences to the rats in the north.
Once we left the city, though, İ had more than enough to see and was kept quite busy by other members of the group pulling me over to look at bugs and other animals. On our cruise of Ha Long Bay, in the waters of the South China Sea, İ spotted a jellyfish about half a meter in diameter with its tentacles drifting a good meter behind its head. While swimming the backstroke off one of the islands in the bay, İ watched a hawk circle overhead for half an hour, making several plunges for fish. İ thought İsaw a successful catch from a distance, and the hawk’s subsequent disappearance seemed to support the idea. The rocks at the base of that island were studded with razor sharp barnacles, limpets, and clinging shellfish. Several of us ended up with nasty slices in our hands and feet.
Throughout the temple-visit-heavy portion of the trip during Week Two,İ saw dozens of species of insects, some plainly colored and patterned, but others vividly colored. In Hoa Lu, İ tracked a beetle similar to our own junebug across a temple wall. When lightly prodded it locked down into a defense position, much like a turtle withdrawing its entire body into its shell. The beetle’s grip on the stone was as strong as a limpet’s, which proved difficult when trying to pluck these bugs off of our arms and out of our hair. Eventually the beetle resumed moving and İ was able to discern two sets of interlocking wings. The outer set appeared to serve more of a defensive purpose, shielding and protecting the inner, more delicate wings. In this same temple, İ found a number of dried insect carcasses and was able to get a better look at their exoskeletons. The variety of insects one can find in a square meter never ceases to amaze me.
In nearby Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh İ got to see a number of domesticated animals. Although tame, they were still remarkable. On a boat ride up the Ngo Dong River, at Tam Coc in Hao Lu, İ saw a few stray goats chomping on the stubbly growth on the rocks above the rice paddies and at the base of the mountains. My boat driver laughed and pointed to them, saying “manger” the French verb for eating. My family used to own a small herd of goats, and İ have gotten to know these creatures quite well. Later on the streets of Hoa Lu İ walked by a herd roaming along a bridge. The looked very different from the Nubian goats İ had grown up with. Their proportions were different, with shorter legs and boxier frames. One goat was clearly pregnant, perhaps with twins.
Over the trip İ have seen many cows and water buffalo. The cows are nothing like the typical New England dairy farm cows so familiar to me. These ones were skinny, but not necessarily an emaciated skinny. Their weight seemed to hang low from the body, as if their skins were super elastic. Most of the water buffalo İ saw were either out in the fields at work or lounging in some cool spot. Once İ saw a water buffalo which was so submerged in the river, with only its eyes and nose above water, that İ couldn’t help but wonder if its was stuck in the mud! İ did have an encounter with two buffalos on a rural pathway. They were being along by a small, elderly woman with a loud switch. They hung their heads low, and İ could see big, glassy, dark eyes. İ could see their huge muscles twitching underneath muddy flanks. It was strange to see such huge creatures so skittish by the proximity of people.
The tombs of the first Nguyen kings were great for insect hunting. İ must have seen a dozen varieties of brightly colored caterpillars, some furry, some spiky, and others with ridged or smooth bodies. The diversity of caterpillar species accounted for the many shapes, sizes, and coloring of the myriad butterflies İ have seen in the past month.
While at Phan Rang, one of the most spectacular Cham monuments of southern coastal part of the central Vietnam, İ spotted a millipede about six inches long on the prowl around the monuments’ foundations. İ saw the same species in abundance later in Cu Chi, where one could hardly take a step without spotting several of these many-legged and slimy creatures. İ saw these millipedes use their legs in two distinct ways. The first way was a straightforward mobilization of all the millipede’s legs. The second way seemed to utilize bunches of legs at the same time as a means of propulsion. Because its legs were not moving individually, the insect seemed to be undulating across the ground. İ can offer no reasonable explanation for this. When provoked, these insects engaged in a wild thrashing and coiling and roiling of the body. This amount of movement was obviously a defense mechanism against birds, [who would have had a hard time spearing the millipede with a pointed beak. They seemed to stick to moist areas, and were more than at home in the small and moist Cu Chi Tunnels, used to shelter Vietnamese soldiers during the French and American wars.
The highlight of my insect adventures took place in and around Hue, where the shrill calls of thousands of cicadas filled the air. The cicada’s call is so comforting to me, even with its shrill, metallic quality.
We got a decent amount of cave experience: in Huong Son Temple, Ha Long Bay, and Phong Nha. İ was surprised to see a number of reasonably-sized upshots of vascular plants. It’s not uncommon to see plants growing out of what looks like solid rock, but it is rare to see plant growth in areas where the sunlight is limited to a few faint rays here and there. İ suppose that plants growing in caves would have to be fairly low maintenance in their photosynthetic needs. But the best part of the caves was seeing bats. Although in quantity they couldn’t compare to any of the caves İ have visited in the United States, there was something eerie and mystical about the scattered chittering. All the formations were lit with electric colored lights, and every so often the enlarged shadow of bat wings would be projected onto the cave walls. Some sections of the cave were slick with guano, and İ had the distinct privilege of sitting in bat urine.
In and around Nha Trang, İ saw a number of reptiles and amphibians. Vietnam is heavily populated by small geckoes and iguanas that can be seen crawling in every direction on every surface—stone, plaster, neon lights… At our beach-side hotel just south of the sand dunes, we spotted an iguana, some ten inches long, its body a speckled green and its head an electric blue. It stopped and froze at the sight of me, giving me just enough time to see its neck bobbing ever so slightly. Then it darted into the nearby undergrowth and disappeared.
There were also a number of frogs in the same location. During the night their croaking was a nice serenade, even through my closed door and window and over the humming of the air conditioning. İ went out at sunrise the following morning and saw a frog no bigger than the palm of my hand. İ very much wanted to catch it in order to get a closer look, but then thought better of it considering how poisonous some frog skins can be.
There is no doubt in my mind as to what was my best experience with the natural world. On a day off in Nha Trang, we hired a boat out to the outlying islands, where we spent the morning snorkeling and scuba diving. There are a reputed 350 species of coral in the South China Sea off of Nha Trang, inhabited by thousands of fish and other sea creatures. Some coral were long and spindly, in reds, greens, and browns. Others were shaped like giant sheets, with cavities underneath large enough to fit my entire six foot frame underneath.
Coral reefs grow in every direction. While it is sometimes amazing enough to float on the surface and get an aerial view of the system, the real gems and beautiful species are often found deep down, in the crevices and pockets between the rocks and coral. Everything grows together, seamlessly, with so many animals and plants coexisting in what looks like a disorganized frenzy. Underneath all the activity, though, is a system of coexistence and co evolution that has been honed for millions of years.
What İ have described so far has been a mere taste of what Vietnam has to offer. İ could have spent the entire month cataloging species in a square kilometer. While it was impossible to do any more than watch and observe the wildlife, what this trip has shown me is that as remarkable as Vietnam is, if it does not pull its act together, then organisms across the board will suffer. The coral reefs in Nha Trang are evidently under threat—even without any scientific data. Not only were the waters surrounding the reef far too heavily trafficked, but the water itself was severely polluted. Plastic bags snagged on corals, gasoline spills on the water surface—and this is only a sampling of the pollution. Nearly every hike into what we think of as pristine nature turns out to be trashed and polluted. While hiking Huong Son sacred mountain İ saw a woman unwrap a rice cake and simply drop the plastic wrapping on the ground. Of course this is shocking to me only because İ grew up in the United States, but even so, the general lack of knowledge and awareness has got to change. İ saw a diver in Nha Trang hacking away at a coral with a hammer. İ wanted to find a way to tell him how long it takes a coral to get that big, but it was impossible.
There is hope in the concept of ecotourism, which has become a driving economic force in many south and Central American nations. However, right now the economic incentives of waste management and conservation do not outweigh the potential of continued industrialization.
This sounds a little silly, but İ think that İ could help in my own way. İhave wanted to go into conservation for a while now, and maybe Vietnam is the place to do that. Thanks to this trip İ have a solid taste of what Vietnam has to offer, and maybe the next time İ come back, it will be for a different reason.