Scotland-Vietnam coastal research collaboration: intensive field visit to Quang Nam Province

The second half of May saw a visit of a team from the School of Applied Social Sciences at Robert Gordon University to the Institute of Human Geography in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, for a week of joint research. This collaborative venture connects the projects ‘Ensuring social wellbeing in climate change adaptation through ecosystem management’ (funded by the RGU’s Research Investment and Scottish Funding Council GCRF allocation, PI Leslie Mabon) and ‘Sustainable livelihood adaptation to climate change of rural residents in the South Central Coast: Approach from human ecology’ (funded by the National Foundation for Science, Technology and Education’, PI Nguyen Song Tung).

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Interview at Thang Binh District office

This time, our focus was on Quang Nam Province on Vietnam’s South Central Coast, and in particular on how livelihoods are being affected by climate change. In the spirit of collaborative research and intensive data collection established during our previous RGU-IHGeo projects, the week involved a mix of workshop- and field-based activity – albeit this time, the balance was tipped very much towards the latter. We had one workshop session in Hanoi on the Monday, then three days of data collection and initial analysis in Quang Nam Province (more about that in a minute). The core team this time consisted of myself (Leslie Mabon); Natascha Mueller-Hirth and Stephen Vertigans from the RGU side. From IHGeo, we had our old friends Nguyen Song Tung, Pham Thi Tram, Tran Thi Tuyet and Le Hong Ngoc, as well as their new Politics and International Cooperation team member Doan Thi Thu Huong. Also joining us for the week was Hoang Thi Ngoc Ha, a researcher from ECODE who is collaborating with IHGeo on their current project.

The week started on Monday morning with two talks. The first was from Dr Nguyen Song Tung, Deputy Director General of IHGeo. She introduced her NAFOSTED project, and gave an introduction to Quang Nam Province – one of three provinces IHGeo are researching as part of their work. I then gave a talk on resilience in coastal communities, with a recap of the key outcomes of our previous collaboration in Nam Dinh as well as possible strategies for developing collaborative research. In the afternoon we followed this up with the rapid development of an interview schedule, which would allow us to explore a specific dimension of the research further in Quang Nam Province. For this, IHGeo Director General Tran Ngoc Ngoan joined the session too!

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Chair of Binh Minh Commune People’s Committee, with a climate change information panel

On Tuesday morning, we had a 5am alarm call to catch the 8am flight to Danang, from where we drove on to Tam Ky in Quang Nam Province. As someone whose previous experience of Vietnam was limited to Hanoi and a brief visit to Nam Dinh, I was startled by (a) how flat, dry and agricultural the landscape was; and (b) how unbelievably hot it was. First stop was the Quang Nam Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Development offices in Tam Ky, where a cross-departmental panel told us about environmental change, livelihood transitions and vulnerability in the province.

Wednesday was even hotter, reaching a scorching 35 degrees with direct sunlight and not a cloud in sight. Perhaps unfortunately this would also be the longest day, where we would focus on Thang Binh District and on people working at lower levels of government – as well as those living off the ecosystems themselves. With the sun blasting straight down, we staggered into the Thang Binh District office for agriculture and rural development. In a room which opened directly out onto the adjoining courtyard with no doors or windows and three fans going full blast, we had a more specific discussion about what is being done about livelihoods and climate change on one of the coastal districts of Quang Nam. It was then back into the minibus and up a ruler-straight road across dried-out rice fields, until we reached the offices of Binh Minh Commune. At this point, in the interests of efficiency the group split in two. I joined Tung and Ngoc to interview the Chair and Deputy Chair of the commune People’s Committee, to benefit from his strong knowledge of disaster prevention and management. Stephen and Natascha, meanwhile, headed to the village hall a couple of kilometres away, where the commune’s farmers had come out in force to talk about how storms and extreme weather events were impacting upon their livelihoods.

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Research team lunch on the seafront

A magnificent seafood lunch of crabs, squid and cockles followed on the beach. In the afternoon we drove south to Binh Nam Commune, where again we broke into small groups to interview both the People’s Committee Chair and some assembled citizens. The day finished with a drive into the village to interview residents in their homes – for me, this meant visiting a small bakery and roadside stall run by a small family. To illustrate the risks of increased intense storms, the electricity went off halfway through the interview, as a storm was coming and the local government elected to temporarily shut down power in the interests of safety.

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Leaving Binh Minh Commune after a workshop with local farmers

Despite lingering tiredness after an exhausting day in the field, on Thursday we gathered in the hotel in Tam Ky at 8.30am for a debrief session and an initial attempt at thematic analysis from the data. In practice, this involved a lot of me writing things on big sheets of paper, and even more of Tung arranging post-it notes into long columns. By the end of the session, we had something resembling a first-pass attempt at a grounded interpretation of our findings. Unfortunately, you’ll need to wait until we have thought about it a bit more before I can share the contents…

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Starting to make sense of everything we’ve heard…

So what are the next steps? Well, first of all we need to systematically go through all the information we got from the interviews, and flesh out some of the themes we identified in our analysis workshop at the end of the week. Then, we all need to work together to write this up into a publication, which is important for formalising our findings and building credibility for the projects. Lastly, I am acutely aware of the importance of somehow feeding back what we found to the local authorities who were very supportive in arranging the field work. This is something the IHGeo and RGU teams will be discussing in due course, with the hope of maximising the practical benefit of our work.

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