Guardian of the marsh islet

(No.8, Vol.6,Oct-Nov 2016 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

One man’s quest to feed his family led him to help
preserve an island

Portrait of the Ru Cha guard man, Nguyen Ngoc Dap.

In 1988, Nguyen Ngoc Dap brought his wife to live in a marsh islet in central Thua Thien Hue Province. Almost 30 years later, the couple continues to be the only residents on the holy, quiet islet.
Set aside from Dap’s home village of Thuan Hoa in Huong Tra District, the Ru Cha marsh islet is a ‘silent zone’ with a condensed population of mangrove species cha (Excoecaria agallocha). An old temple of hau dong grew amidst the cha trees has also made the islet a sacred place to some extent.
Originally, the islet was the most emerging zone of a mangrove forest in Tam Giang Lagoon, which was around 30ha before people cut down the trees and reclaimed the land for cultivation in 1980s.
Life at that time was so hard that residents of the village struggled to find enough food for daily meals, so Dap decided to move to the islet for its bracket water fish source, leaving 10 of his children in the village.
He thought he could manage to feed the kids, as life in the islet was simpler than in the village. No one competed with him in striking for food in the silent islet, which has not been connected to the national power grid till now.
The decision fixed Dap’s and his wife’s life to the islet and made him a devoted guard of the mangrove islet. ‘My presence on this islet deters loggers coming to cut down the trees for burning wood, Dap said. ‘And that has accidentally helped preserve the population for almost 30 years.’

His wife and son help out.
Photos: Nguyen Van Loi

The total area of cha trees right at the time Dap settled down on the islet was almost three hectares and now it has grown up to five hectares. The trees are all green and grow well, making the islet a cool destination.
Last year, local authorities of the province recognized Dap’s attempts and assigned him to be the official guard of the islet. They pay him 50 dollars a year for watching out for the trees.
The amount is humble, but Dap feels contented with it as it shows the recognition for his attempts. Moreover, he does not want to ask for more because the islet gave him food to feed his 10 children, who are all grown up and get married now.
At 71, Dap and his wife do not have any plans to come back home. ‘I am familiar with this life,’ he said, and his wife showed total agreement with him.
Today, Ru Cha is a hot destination for couples and photographers. Leaves on cha trees are green during summer and turn red and yellow in autumn. Visitors come to enjoy cool breeze and shade in the summer and to capture the face of autumn.
In the middle of the islet, local authorities constructed a five-metre tall tower that provides a good view of the islet. They also wanted to make the islet an eco-destination for tour programmes in Hue.
Visitors can eat brackish water fish and shrimp and poultry served by Dap if they make an advance reservation.

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