Round rowboat: A local resident paddles a coracleat a farm of nipa palm in Cam Thanh commune. Photos: Cong Thanh/VNS
Vo Tan Muoi, 74, has been living and preserving vast forests of nipa palms since they were grown by his great-great-grand father in Cam Thanh Commune over the past three centuries.
An area of forest spanning 140ha, which was planted in the 18th century, has been a safe shelter for generations of Cam Thanh villagers through wars and natural disasters like storms and floods.
Prolonged flooding hit and damaged the central region through November 2016, but Cam Thanh Commune remained safe as larger waves and flood waters were blocked by the dense nipa palm forests.
Over 2,000 residents of Cam Thanh benefit from the wetland forest, making a living from eco-tour services and crafts.
Muoi, who was a teenage courier and then a guerilla during the war, said his life had never been far away from the nipa palms.
“The nipa palm forest worked as a powerful ‘bunker’, when troops took advantage of the forest to avoid shelling and raids during the American war. Shrapnel couldn’t penetrate the thick palm trees, and we were mostly protected during the fierce war of the 1960s,” Muoi recalled.
“The forest was a treasure for my ancestors 300 years ago. My great-great-grand father took the first sapling from wetland forests in the south of Viet Nam during a boat trading trip in the 18th century. The plant gradually took root in the new land, and it became a powerful green belt for the commune during annual disasters,” Muoi said.
He said the primary forest was developed on an area of seven mau (Bay Mau or seven hectares of swamps), and thus the initial name of the forest was born.
He said the name reminded local residents of the first hectares of forest planted centuries ago, but it has become a popular eco-tour site – the Nipa Palm forest of Cam Thanh in the area of Hoi An.
The old man, known as a guard of the forest for almost all his life in the commune, said local craftsmen could earn a work day of a million Vietnamese dong for their house decorations made from nipa palm material.
Muoi said villagers used nipa palm leaves as a primary material for their own cottages or firewood in Cam Thanh Commune, and it is used as traditional pattern in modern design and architecture.
Nipa palm expert Chu Manh Trinh, a team leader of the Cham Islands Protected Marine Area, said poor planning and development had resulted in the destruction of half of the nipa palm forest area between 1975 and the late 1990s.
“A salt field in the late 1970s and an aquaculture farm development in the late 1990s had claimed 40ha of nipa palm area, while rapid urban expansion encroached on a further 20 per cent of the forest,” Trinh said.
“The situation was halted in 2014 when a series of research and warnings on the important role of the forest were given by experts and international organisations. The forest played a role as a safe shelter not only for local residents and fishing boats, but it was a source of fish and seafood in offshore Cham Island,” Trinh explained.
“A number of scientific studies and dialogues proved that nipa palm is the most powerful plant in the wetlands of Cam Thanh and the ecological system ranging from Hoi An to Cua Dai estuary and Cham Island,” he said, adding that nipa palm had a long existence of hundreds of years.
Trinh said a reforestation project, introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, had replanted 30ha of nipa palm in Cua Dai estuary.
Tran Ro, a resident of Cam Thanh Village, said the forest had protected the commune from erosion and big waves during storm season.
“We recognised the importance of the nipa palm forest when we were educated on the ecosystem. We suffered from poor fishery when the forest was seriously damaged in the past, and we couldn’t explain why,” Ro said.
Teams of coracle paddlers, craftsmen, cooks and tour guides all serve eco-tours in the forest, but they take every chance to communicate the importance of environmental conservation.
“Any illegal actions of harvesting nipa palm and over-fishing in breeding season are met with warnings by community teams in combination with local administration,” he said.
Expert Chu Manh Trinh said constant dialogues and scientific conferences had been held in Hoi An for years, raising awareness of the nipa palm among the community and leadership of Hoi An City.
“The most important issue is that local residents are aware of the role of the nipa palm and their livelihood is connected with the growth of this wetland plant. We are thinking of creating more jobs for the local community in limiting human impacts on the existence of nipa palm,” Trinh said.
He said many international organisations including the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Mangrove for the Future (MFF), UNESCO, ministries and universities had joined locals for the past decades in raising protective measures for the nipa palm forest.
Chairman of Hoi An City’s people’s committee, Nguyen Van Dung, said the city had been seeking funds to replant 140ha of nipa palm along the Thu Bon River.
“The existence of the forest will protect Hoi An from sea erosion, and ease the flow of the river as well as reducing sand drift on the beach. The nipa palm forest is part of the world biosphere reserve of Cham Island-Hoi An,” Dung said.
He said the majority of forest land in the area was destroyed in recent years to make way for aquaculture farms, but many of these had now been revoked so replanting could commence.
The nipa palm forest, which is part of the Cham Island-Hoi world bio-reserves, recognised in 2009, is a popular site for thousands of tourists each day.
“The most crowded day saw nearly 2,000 tourists visiting the forest on bikes, coracles, kayaks and motorboats,” Tan said.
Huynh Anh Phien, 64, earns around VND200,000 (US$8.8) or even much more, a day from processing palm materials.
"We collect big leaves for roofing the cottages for eco-tour services, and the hand-made work helps me earn much more than other jobs,” Phien said.
Elderly Vo Tan Muoi still worries about the existence of the forest.
“More strict actions must be taken by local administration to curb the destruction of the forest. They (local residents) must be warned about the appropriate harvest season between March and May, and told that only old leaves can be used,” he warned.
He suggested local administration should allocate land for palm afforestation, and local growers must take responsibility for the protection of the plants.
Muoi, who reserves his garden for construction of a bridge spanning the Thu Bon River, was allocated a new living quarter – a few kilometres away from the old houses in Cam Thanh Commune.
“It’s my ancestor’s sampling. The first nipa plant from the 18th century is still helping thousands of villagers. We still keep the ‘green treasure’ producing benefits for the community, as we have lived well from the forest for generations.”
The forest is just 5km away from Hoi An ancient town, and visitors can reach the greenery in just 10 minutes by bicycle, to breathe fresh air in the forest and enjoy the warm hospitality of the villagers.
Tourists can visit cottages made from bamboo and palm leaves in the village, featuring old stories of Cam Thanh.
Circle of life: Fruits of the nipa palm age over a short time. The fruit often drops into the water and a sapling will grow again.
Useful leaves: A craftsman makes a roof from nipa palm in Cam Thanh Village.
Traditional work: A fisherman amongst the nipa palm forest in Cam Thanh Village.
Take a break: Tourists cycle in Cam Thanh Commune under the shadow of nipa palm.
Water adventure: Coracles carry visitors to explore a vast area of Nipa palm forest.
Rural getaway: Visitors enjoy a peaceful environment at a farm in Cam Thanh.