Simon Barnes, journalist and World Land Trust (WLT) council member, answers our questions about his visit to Vietnam.
As a long-term supporter of (WLT), you’ve visited several of our projects – what struck you most about Vietnam?
What struck me most was the feeling of war and struggle, the residue of war and how the fact that now the war is over, conservation comes in. Conservation is the great art of peace, restoring the country to what it should have been all along. We saw the areas of American grass – 10 even 12 feet high – this horrible invasive grass that had been cleared by hand allowing the trees to come in. The trees were beginning to take a grip on the land. I said to Pham Tuan Anh, the deputy director of Viet Nature, “This is a really beautiful project; it’s going to be really nice in about 500 years!” And she laughed and said, “Not so much, maybe 200!” We have to think like that.
When you were in Vietnam did it surprise you to find such a vividly stark legacy of war?
Yes, indeed it did. The Vietnam War was something I grew up with as a boy at school. Every night on the news you could see the over-the-shoulder shot of the man with the machine gun hosing down alleged insurgents from the shifting helicopter. Vietnam meant conflict as far as I was concerned, so I was thrilled to go there and see what happened.
Tuan Anh told me, “Their plan was to bomb us back to the stone age. They failed.” That is not forgotten. She was absolutely determined that I should visit a series of tunnels where an entire village would go during an American bombing raid. I’m claustrophobic and I don’t like being down tunnels, but I thought that if these guys could last out a war in a tunnel the least I could do was walk though it in half an hour. There’s a consciousness of the war.
They managed to restore the economy for considerable prosperity for some, but the countryside was dying. The rainforests were dying and a small courageous group was trying to fight back. They were still at war but the opponents had changed. The opponent was perhaps time itself.
What could it be like after restoration? Paint a picture for us of a healthy, vibrant Vietnamese rainforest.
From the edge of the Ho Chi Ming Highway you can look out at the towering cathedral rainforest –beautiful undulating land with different layers of trees; we could see the gorgeous Red-shanked Douc, which is a monkey wearing bright red trousers. It looks like Michael Portillo sitting up in the branches. I remember walking into the forest and getting the feeling of being surrounded by teeming life. Vietnam and the rest of the world needs more of that – as much as possible – not only because it’s beautiful and full of life but also because it’s the world’s air conditioning unit. I would love to think that in five to eight years Vietnam will have a thriving mosaic of forest the length and breadth of the land.
Rainforest, mountain, desert, ocean, savannah… where would you most like to be?
Rainforest every time. It’s so hard to see anything, but I just love that feeling of life going on all around you, sometimes all over you. It’s never a particularly comfortable environment. It’s hot and it’s sweaty. But it’s absolutely teeming with life. It’s the most enthralling place.
Help us reforest Vietnam
Donate now to the Scorched Earth to Forest Haven appeal and help us restore the tropical forests that once covered this landscape: