Triem Tay is a village in the island of Cam Kim, surrounded by the river Thu Bo, three kilometres away from World’s Heritage town Hoi An, Vietnam. The location of Triem Tay is prone to floods during rainy season (water can reach up to 3 meters), washing away entire ecosystems and crops, dramatically increasing the riverbank erosion and forcing inland migration of local residents.
In 2015, Triem Tay got help from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNESCO to promote ecotourism in the island together with the cooperative of villagers. One of the results of this plan, was the concept of floating restaurants as an innovative way to draw visitors to the island. As a whole, this project allowed people to adapt to their current situation and provide work in the village through tourism, but lacked on giving the population the tools to solve the real issue: acting against land erosion.
However, also in 2015, a group of visionaries got together and bought a piece of land in one of the river banks that most suffered from erosion. Here they created An Nhien Farm, a place where natural river banking restoration, regenerative gardening and sustainable skills education merge to create opportunities for nature, and for the people.
Building social resilience
“At first our goal was to resettle the human lives in a deprived area where due to environmental and political issues, the community was kind of forgotten”, Hanh Vu tells me, as we sat at dusk at the front of my cabin. She runs the farm, which is also the hub of The Green Youth Collective, a social enterprise lead by her and focused on working with the youth and the local farmers to develop sustainable entrepreneurial skills.
Hanh´s background is as exciting as the story behind the farm. For years, she has been actively engaging in grassroots initiatives on sustainability and climate change adaptation around Vietnam. Until she discovered Triem Tay. Three years ago, she decided to move to the village from Hanoi to understand what shapes people in the area, both naturally and socially.
“It was not easy” she remembers, “even if you speak the same language, it is hard to be accepted in a community where you are seen as a stranger. However, our aim was to involved everyone and work together. We did not want to be seen as a group of people that came from the big city and impose their own way of doing things”.
Although the farm is the heart and soul of the project, The Green Youth Collective is their tool to gather farming traditions and ancestral uses of the land. The project it targeted to farmers, youngsters and individuals interested in sustainability as a way of living and working with the land. Regardless of their ethnic and economic background, the farm is also able to provide scholarships for disadvantaged local young people. “The idea is that we do not aim to produce, but to give back to the soil. This way volunteers learn how to work with nature and how to share, avoiding pressure on the ecosystems and being able to replicate our model when they return home”, says Hanh.
Building ecological resilience against land erosion
Their approach towards land erosion has focussed on building resilience through regenerating the ecological system of the river bank. By using native species of grass and mangrove, which root system can withstand floods, a natural barrier that stops erosion is created.
How is this natural barrier created? The answer is bamboo and bio-locks. Bamboo is used as the first bio-lock, as it is flexible enough to take the water in an out to protect the mangrove forest. One this is settled, the roots of the bamboo are used for the second bio-lock following the first one. This locks are finished by the implementation of a giant net of bamboo bricks where the mangrove and native grass will be planted. When these species grow strong, have the potential to keep the land and withstand floods. “After these actions, we get nature’s feedback. You just need to watch and see how the river bank reacts to what you are doing. It’s all about observation,” Hanh explains.
However, late in 2017, a man-made flood unexpectedly shocked the village before the rainy season, taken away the young mangrove forest whose roots where not deep enough to withstand a flood. Everything but the bamboo barrier got washed away by the disaster. However their river bank stayed almost intact. This was not the same in the neighboured bank, where land erosion was significantly evident.
The flood proved right one thing: their approach towards building resilience was on the right path. “The local authorities understood that we had developed a way with the greatest potential to stop land erosion and we are now in the process to work with them and create the same system in their land”, Hanh tells me with great hope.
The role of the farmstay program
Today, An Nhien Farm is back reforesting the river bank and they also began offering accommodation and experiences to visitors in effort to fund their programs. The farm not only counts with wooden cabins in the bamboo forest, but also with experiences that allow the visitor to connect with the land together with the current volunteer team.
During my short stay, I meet with daily inquisitive visitors who came to find out more about Anh Nhien’s Farm approach towards building resilience. Over the last year, hundreds of people have visited the farm to learn about their work. “It is with my greatest pleasure that I explain out methodology to anyone interested. It would be amazing if we can be of an inspiration to other people facing similar challenges”, Hanh says.
Vietnam’s tourism is experiencing a rapid growth in the last few decades. This is already presenting many challenges that will only keep on growing in the mid to long term. An Nhien Farm is a clear example of how regenerative tourism takes place in the middle of the Vietnamese tourist track. Staying here and learning the value of working with nature and providing the tools for it to thrive, creates a transformative experience in times where the human being is more disconnected from nature than ever before.