A Book as Green as Its Cover: Environment and Bioresources of Vietnam by Dr. Cao Van Sung

by Steven K. Bailey, Feb 1, 1997 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

In rapidly modernizing Southeast Asia it sometimes seems that all the environmental news I hear is bad. Overfishing depletes the seas. Dynamite fishing ruins coral reefs. Overdeveloped beaches erode, become too dirty for swimming and lose their former beauty. Unregulated logging fells irreplaceable hardwood forests. Poaching threatens endangered species with extinction. Traffic fumes and industrial smog reach spectacular levels in mega-cities like Bangkok and Jakarta.

I am happy to report, however, that there is some good news in the form of Environment and Bioresources of Vietnam: Present Situation and Solutions. This heartening book is as green as its cover. Edited by Dr. Cao Van Sung of the University of Hanoi and printed by The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi (1995), Environment offers a collection of papers written by some of Vietnam's foremost environmental experts. The book is divided into three sections: Biological Resources, Environmental Pollution and Environmental Protection Policy. The prose tends to be technical in tone and geared more to the scientific researcher than the general reader. Plants and animals, for example, are often referred to by their Latin designations instead of their common English names. Nonetheless, a layman can certainly read and appreciate this book and travelers will find the chapter detailing various national parks such as Ba Vi, Cuc Phuong, and Yokdon National Parks, useful for trip planning.

Be warned that the authors are environmental experts, not linguists. Consequently, their English skills range from quite good to downright rough. To me, this is almost an asset because the mistakes whited out by hand and the penned-in corrections just lend the book an amusingly eccentric flavor. I find the quirky spelling and word usage to be quite entertaining. Where else but in a book from The Gioi Publishers could lung cancer, Sri Lanka, and a garbage dump become "slung cance," "Srilanca," and a "discarding site"?

All books from The Gioi Publishers come jam-packed with statistical data and other obscure details, and Environment and Bioresources of Vietnam is no exception. Like the unorthodox English, the more bizarre factual items are what make the book such a good read. Where else could you learn that "defective paper" and "shellfish and mollusk shells" comprise a precise 2.72% and 1.06% respectively of Hanoi's garbage? Or that the United States Air Force dropped exactly 18,582,101 gallons of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the war? Or that the Sao La, a sort of long-horned goat, was first discovered in Ha Tinh Province only four years ago? Or that one kilogram of the right wild animal musk fetches $80,000?

Despite the occasional amusing typo or factoid reminiscent of Ripley's Believe It or Not, there is no question that this book is addressing a serious topic. With the country undergoing rapid modernization, the cities are already badly polluted. You'll never drink the water in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City after reading about what gets into the municipal water supplies and if you think both cities are painfully noisy, you are correct: noise levels routinely exceed the recommended limit of 55-60 decibels. The authors are not afraid to name names and they blame industrial complexes like the Lam Thao Super Phosphate Plant and the Ha Bac Nitrogen Manure Plant for contaminating the environment and causing health problems among their workers and the surrounding populace. For example, 50% of workers at the Gold Star Rubber Plant have contracted a permanent cough; a medieval 80% of coal miners suffer from silicosis or other work-related afflictions.

The authors' genuine concern for both their fellow countrymen and their country's ecological well-being is obvious on every page. This concern, in fact, is the strength of this ground-breaking book that dares to raise environmental issues at a time when many in Vietnam are more focused on modernization, whatever the ecological cost. Environment and Bioresources of Vietnam is a courageous and far-sighted book and its publication bodes well for Vietnam's future.