Lang Du

Recognized by UNESCO as one of the most important biosphere reserves in Southeast Asia, U Minh Forest is a valuable nature preserve that has inspired poets and artists since the first settlers came to Vietnam’s Southernmost region. Located at the nation’s tip, U Minh Forest is an enchanting place to explore nature. Its cool marshes and woods invite visitors to travel back in time.   

Exploring U Minh Thuong National Park by boat

Nature’s soothing greens

As the hot dry season ended and the rainy season began, we returned to U Minh Forest. This is the time of year when the waters of the Mekong River flow into the Mekong Delta. Mother Nature seemed invigorated, her trees budding green, and the rice fields full of fish and shrimp.

U Minh is the general name, but in terms of administration management, this biosphere reserve is divided into two forested areas: U Minh Thuong (“Thuong” means Upper) in Kien Giang and U Minh Ha (“Ha” means Lower) in Ca Mau. Those two areas are separated by the Trem River.

After being warmly welcomed by the Management Board of U Minh Ha Forest in Ca Mau province, we immediately entered the flooded forest on a composite sampan boat (called a ‘vo lai’ or ‘tac rang’ in local slang). This type of motorboat is common and very useful in this flooded region.

U Minh Ha National Park

After heavy rains, the weather was cool. On the horizon, a bright rainbow appeared among the grey clouds, which gently drifted away. Refreshing green flora and crystal-clear water surrounded us in all directions, yet, magically, the water was deep black in color, unlike the water in major rivers like the Tien or Hau. This special color results from layers of peat deposited on the bottom of the canal over thousands of years. The water is so transparent that the peat layer is reflected to make the water’s surface appear black. To prove the water’s exceptional purity a forest ranger scooped up a handful and drank it right then and there in the middle of the forest.

We edged through grassy areas caused by big forest fires over the past few years. Patches of burnt trees have given way to marshy patches covering some hundreds of meters. A wide range of reeds and cattails grow here, forming an unusual ecosystem that shelters flocks of endemic bird and even otters.

One of our most memorable activities when visiting U Minh was accompanying residents as they erected wooden trusses and harvested wild honey. This is an effective and legal way for local people to make money since it does not harm the local flora and fauna. This practice began centuries ago, when newcomers to this region moved to U Minh in search of new livelihoods.

Such a scene is depicted in the short story Huong rung Ca Mau (The forest scent of Ca Mau) by “the old Southern man” – the famous writer Son Nam. His story elevated the job of harvesting wild honey into a type of “religion” in the old Southern culture.

We also learned how to harvest the tops of cattails to collect their white shoots and make dried snakeskin gourami fish salad – a Southern culinary delicacy.

Our boat carried us deep into the endless forest. The trees were so dense we could not see sunlight shining through the woods. We were immersed in the forest’s magical sounds. The birds chirped loudly and fish splashed in the canal. When the boat’s engine was shut off only the gentle tap of paddles striking smooth water remained.

U Minh Thuong National Park

Our guide told us many interesting stories about the plants and birds, and how the forest rangers had to closely follow the honey-harvesters to ensure they didn’t cause forest fires. All of the forest rangers and local guides have dedicated their heart and soul to U Minh Forest, cherishing what Mother Nature has given them. They are wholeheartedly committed to protecting this “green gold” land.

Rural hospitality

“Mosquitoes whine like a singing flute, leeches crowd in like a bowl of banh canh (tapioca noodles)” … This memorable verse is from a local folk song.

If you haven’t heard the high pitched whine of a mosquito’s wings, then you haven’t truly experienced the nation’s Southernmost point at Ca Mau – U Minh. As the veil of night falls, the sounds of nature are occasionally joined by the mysterious strains of a local Southern Amateur-style music band. The strum of their stringed instruments reverberate with longing while the honey-sweet “xuong xe” (going down to E note) singing will surely capture your heart.

Our dinner was a feast of rustic local specialties such as grilled snakehead fish, fermented fish hotpot with water lilies, and cattail stem salad mixed with dried snakeskin gourami fish. We were also served three-leaf cayratia liquor, which had such a strong flavor that it knocked us out. As the liquor was poured, everyone grew emotional. Mr. Ba Thanh, a farmer whose family has made their living in this region for four generations, emptied his heart to us, describing their silent sacrifices in these dangerous swamps, as well as his intense love for Mother Nature.

Honeycombs harvested from the woods

“Those who take from nature must pay with tears,” he said, quoting a saying that has been repeated for many generations to remind us not to turn our backs on Nature.

Mr. Ba Thanh also recounted local legends, describing crocodile hunting trips in the primitive forested swamps, tracking wild boar, and long nights spent catching gigantic snakehead fish that can weigh dozens of kilograms… 

The stories went on and on, like epics set in the forest. Several famous authors have written stories set in the Mekong. Some of the best works of “the old Southern man” Son Nam focused on U Minh. The prominent writer Doan Gioi’s story Dat Rung Phuong Nam (The forest land of the South) was later adapted into a hit TV series. Today, Ca Mau is home to a younger generation of talent such as Nguyen Ngoc Tu, who has written many books based on growing up in the embrace of U Minh’s forests. U Minh is not just a symbol of nature’s resilience but also synonymous with the heartwarming hospitality of the Mekong Delta.