by Tran Trong Trung
|Green lungs: Tourists disembark canoes at Gao Giong cajeput forest eco-tourism zone in Phong My Commune. The forest covers an area of 17,000 hectares and is home to numerous vertebrate, amphibians and reptiles. — VNS Photos Tran Trong Trung
|Eco warrior: Tran Thanh Cong (middle), the man spearheading the development of the eco-tourism site, takes time out from eating lunch to pose for a snap with relatives.
Tran Thanh Cong, also known as Ba Cong, is widely regarded as the pioneer who reclaimed and developed a wild, deserted field to form the Gao Giong cajeput forest eco-tourism zone.
Cong is the third child of a family steeped in revolutionary tradition, with five siblings. At the age of 20, Cong joined Cao Lanh District's Youth Union to develop the countryside.
Located in Phong My Commune, Gao Giong used to be a harsh, inhospitable land covered in wheatgrass and wild rice that somehow survived in the alum soil and dirty water, along with mosquitoes, leeches, snakes and rats.
It belongs to the Dong Thap Muoi (Plain of Reeds), a tremendous wild field that locals used to say had "mosquitoes buzzing like flutes, leeches as crowded as rice noodles, grass that turns into evil spirits and snakes that can crow".
"In the dry season, the soil cracks so it looks like a giant chess board, but when it rains, the water becomes rich in alum. There were no roads or running water, so we had to use buffalo to transport clean water over tens of kilometres. Rice could not grow because of alum water. In the rainy season, we had to link small boats together to use as temporary accommodation," Cong recalls.
At the end of 1985, the Cao Lanh District People's Committee decided to establish a youth volunteer force with Cong as the chief exploiting the Plain of Reeds.
With a youthful dynamism and enthusiasm, he and hundreds of volunteers began to dig canals, develop an irrigation system to remove the alum water, build bridges and sewers, and plant cajeput trees.
Thanks to their hard work, the trees have thrived in their new environment, and become home to a host of different species of flora and fauna.
In 2001, the Gao Giong Cajeput Forest Management Board was established, with Cong as its head, responsible for the management, protection and development of the forest, and other rare plants and animal species.
The forest now covers an area of 1,700 hectares, and boasts 15 species of water birds, dozens of species of freshwater fish and numerous amphibians and reptiles, including snakes, turtles, eels, frogs, snake head fish, catfish and perch, among others.
Various facilities have been set up for tourists to enjoy, including a bird sanctuary, a place to fish, areas to relax, and a dining area with a range of impressive dishes.
The site has attracted tens of thousands of tourists who kick back and relax in the romantic, scenic landscape, surrounded by the subtle fragrance of cajeput flowers.
Nguyen Van Ngo, a farmer from Phong My Commune, says he loves relaxing at the eco-tourism site with his friends. "In our free time, we go fishing and enjoy local dishes including grilled snake head fish wrapped in lotus leaf, dragon blood rice steamed with lotus seeds, snails steamed with pepper, grilled snake, fried rat, salted frog, and fresh fish in sour soup with pepper, washed down with rice wine mixed with pure aromatic honey."
Annual tourism revenue is up to a billion dong, and the forest management board makes about VND4 billion (US$192,000) per year from logging.
Since 2003, the management board has invested more than VND700 million to conserve 300 hectares of cajeput aged over 10 years to serve eco-tourism.
Dang Xuan Huy, managing director of the Kim Long-Dong Thap Jewellery and Gemstone Company, says: "After days of strenuous work, my family, friends and I often visit Gao Giong to relax and go sightseeing because the site has fresh air and a diversified ecosystem featuring the Plain of Reeds, with many rare plants and animals. The site is known as the "green lungs" of the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta. We also enjoy the food, and folk music performances."
To help protect and develop the site, Cong and his colleagues often remind locals to protect the forest and wildlife, but allow them to benefit by trimming tree branches to use as fuel.
Every year, Cong donates about one hundred million dong to a variety of charitable activities.
Everyone can see the transformation that has occurred in Gao Giong. The wild field has become an eco-tourism zone with electric lighting.
Nguyen Thanh Hung, National Assembly deputy of Dong Thap Province and Party Secretary of Cao Lanh District, says: "Young volunteers started the arduos task of transforming the area more than 25 years ago, and today, staff under the supervision of Tran Thanh Cong are continuing to develop the zone."
Over the years, Cong and the management board have been awarded numerous certificates of merit by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Forest Protection Department, the provincial People's Committee and Cao Lanh District People's Committee.
In 2011, the eco-tourism zone was awarded a Labour Order by the State President, and Cong was awarded a certificate of merit by the Prime Minister.
Before we finished our interview, he explained his concerns and desires to me. "In the future, we hope the government will give more support to the eco-tourism zone so we can develop more facilities and create favourable conditions for people to enjoy the simple things in life, such as picnics. We want the zone to become a green tourism centre and natural museum, with the hospitality and generosity of the southern people attracting more tourists to visit and rest after a hard day's work." — VNS