In Vietnam, Shrimp-Farming a Glimmer of Hope

NPR's Michael Sullivan has been travelling along Route One in Vietnam from the North to the South. He reports from Ca Mau, the southernmost province of Vietnam where Sen. John Kerry and his swiftboat colleagues spent a great deal of time during the war. The province boasts a lot of small-scale shrimp farming, but very little foreign investment.

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Vietnam is marking the 30th anniversary of the end of what most Vietnamese call the American War. On April 30th, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks burst through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, signaling the end for the US-backed regime in the South and the country was united under Communist rule. NPR's Michael Sullivan has been traveling the length of Vietnam's Highway One from the north to the south examining life in Vietnam through the years after the war. Today, he concludes his series in Ca Mau province at the southern tip of the country.

(Soundbite of traffic)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

The end of the road in southern Vietnam literally is in Nam Can at the confluence of the Kam Kwan(ph) and Qua Lon rivers, a bustling market town where vendors sell their wares in ramshackle shops along the river or on boats bobbing in it.

(Soundbite of market noise)

SULLIVAN: It's theoretically possible to get here by road, during the dry season at least, but the most efficient method of travel in swampy Ca Mau province is by speedboat.

(Soundbite of speedboat)

SULLIVAN: During the war, the Viet Cong used the dense mangrove forests here as a refuge or a hideout from US and South Vietnamese forces. US boats often patrolled here. One of those boats was commanded for a time by then Navy Lieutenant--now US Senator--John Kerry. Last year's political attack on presidential candidate Kerry's wartime record concerned an incident that happened on the Bay Hap River, just a few miles from Nam Can. Bay Tang(ph) was a Viet Cong political officer here during the war; he now spends much of his time shrimping. His plot is on a canal that feeds the larger rivers nearby.

Mr. BAY TANG (Former Viet Cong Political Officer): (Through Translator) The American boats could not come here. They were out there in the big rivers like Bay Hap and Carlon. When they came, we would often ambush them, using mortars, B-40 rockets and automatic weapons. Sometimes they came with helicopters and dropped troops here, too. Then there would be a lot of fighting.

SULLIVAN: The Americans and the southern soldiers controlled the towns, he says, but this area belonged to us.

(Soundbite of speedboat; scraping noise)

SULLIVAN: This area once covered in forest is rapidly giving way to shrimp ponds as Ca Mau's people make the switch from rice to shrimp, which is exported to Japan, Europe and the US. During the war years, Bay Tang says, he wouldn't have dreamed that he'd one day own a shrimp farm and a house in town. `All we could think about then,' he says, `was staying alive.'

(Soundbite of speedboat; dogs barking)

SULLIVAN: A half-hour boat ride to the south, two watchdogs sound the alarm as visitors arrive at the home of Nguyen Maktang(ph), a rising star among Ca Mau's shrimpers.

Mr. NGUYEN MAKTANG (Shrimper): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Nguyen points to several concrete tanks filled with what appear to be tiny translucent worms; shrimp larvae he explains. In a few more days, they'll be ready to ship to farmers all over the province and neighboring provinces, too. Nguyen says he's too young to remember much about the war--he was only five when it ended--but he does remember the postwar period of the Communists' centrally planned economy.

Mr. MAKTANG: (Through Translator) There were shortages of everything. Sometimes you would stand in lines all day for your monthly quota of rice or some other staple. And often, when your turn came, there was nothing left to buy.

SULLIVAN: `If the government hadn't changed policies and made it easier for us to do business,' he says, `I wouldn't be able to have this farm.'

And business is booming. He's expanding to other areas and now employs nearly 20 workers, and profit sharing means some months are better than others. Twenty-two-year-old Shin Van Ti(ph) has worked here for three years.

Mr. SHIN VAN TI (Shrimper): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: `I probably make more here than I would almost anywhere else,' he says. `When our business is good, I can earn almost five million dong,' or $300, a month.

Shrimp is king in Ca Mau. More lucrative than growing rice, shrimp farming has improved the quality of life for many. But there are still far too many young people competing for too few jobs. For some young rural women looking for work, lack of opportunity has led to some desperate choices.

Ms. FOT TIV WI (Massage Parlor Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Twenty-two-year-old Fot Tiv Wi(ph) works in a massage parlor in the provincial capital. Her family is poor, she says, so poor that she was forced to quit school and come here. She sends money back home to support her mother and sister. The owner here pays her 30 cents per massage; extra services are provided for an extra fee. With tips, she says, she can make about $6 a day, but she wants a better job, a real job.

Lack of jobs is a problem all over Vietnam. So are corruption, poor infrastructure and inefficient state-run industries, all of which discourage growth. But these are problems shared by almost all developing nations, and Vietnam, some argue, is doing far better than most at dealing with them. Jordan Ryan is Vietnam country director for the United Nations Development Program.

Mr. JORDAN RYAN (Vietnam Country Director, United Nations Development Program): Twenty years ago, seven out of every 10 people in this country lived on less than a dollar a day. Now less than three out of 10 live on less than a dollar a day. That's a dramatic decrease in poverty. China and Vietnam are the only two countries in the world that have done as well at reducing poverty.

SULLIVAN: Ryan says Vietnam's accomplishments in the past 30 years are impressive, but so are the challenges that remain. Progress on human rights and religious freedom and, what Ryan calls the biggest challenge of all, the need to create nearly 1.4 million jobs each year.

Mr. RYAN: It's a young population that needs an education that's appropriate for them. It's got challenges of HIV. It needs to move even more aggressively to the market. So it's a country that's very much in transition, a country that's getting better every day, a country that's got a brighter future than it did 30 years ago. And the results, you know, we can talk about, but it results in poverty reduction, the results in education and health care, you know, are truly felt throughout the country.

SULLIVAN: And while rural areas like Ca Mau province may not be improving as fast as many would like, urban areas like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are booming. Vietnam's economy is growing at more than 7 percent a year. It is a country with an often tragic past, but one moving firmly, confidently into the future. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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