Sampling on the Mekong

So I wanted to post this in December but that turned into another crazy month – my first trip to Vietnam now seems like ages ago! November was hectic… I got back from Switzerland and had to immediately pack for Vietnam as I left on the 2nd. I was only in Vietnam for just over a week, then went to Hong Kong and China for 2 days. I flew home, went to London the day after and had about 5 days in Hull before going to Exeter and finally Edinburgh for my MSc graduation!

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Vietnam was amazing! My plan was to go out there to test a few methods and just see how I got on because I didn’t have much time and it’s always tricky to predict what things are going to be like until you’re actually there. This meant I would know for next time what our resources and equipment was and how things worked when I was out there so I could plan much better and collect more data.

I flew to Ho Chi Minh City and was met by one of the guys from the Southern Institute of Water Resources Research (SIWRR) who Hull University collaborate with, as Greg (a postdoc who’s project I was hitching on to!) and Xuxu (who was assisting Greg) were already in Can Tho about 3/4 hours away.

I was shown around the Institute, met a lot of people including the boss and given some much needed tea – my flight arrived at 7am and after 18+hrs of travelling I was pretty tired. I was told we would be getting a taxi to Can Tho but that soon turned out to not be the case as I found myself with Mr.Dung at a packed bus station in Ho Chi Minh (although everyone we worked with speaks really good English, the language barrier can sometimes be quite confusing – I asked Mr.Dung if we were getting a taxi and he told me his age…)

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Driving in Vietnam is crazy, mopeds everywhere, continuous beeping and near misses all the time! The bus was fun! You had to take off your shoes and there were no seats but sort of bed compartments that you couldn’t sit up in so had to lie down – and 2 levels of  them! I felt really weird at first but was soon asleep.  Next thing I knew we were in a massive downpour and stopping for lunch where I had my first experience of Pho which was interesting as I am vegetarian and was served chicken… 2 hours later we arrived at Can Tho and took a taxi to the harbour to find Greg and Xuxu.

Can Tho was not what I expected – it was so much bigger than I thought and our hotel was amazing, we even had a pool that I took full advantage of! It was quite touristy as people go there to get boat tours of the Mekong. I relaxed for the rest of the day and found myself trying to stay awake at dinner as jet lag kicked in.

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I spent the next few days setting up my equipment and trying it out, running to the supermarket when we realised we had forgotten something and getting used to how hot our tiny boats get! You would walk from the hotel at 7am, 10 minutes to the boat and would already be drenched in sweat! Once the boat was moving it was better. One day something got lost in communication with our boat captain and while I was collecting samples using a plankton net from near the back of the boat while stationary, the captain moved off quite quickly causing my net to get pulled into the propeller… Luckily I brought a spare!

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So what was I actually sampling? I collected sediment samples and surface water samples. The initial plan was to collect sediment using a simple grab sampler but it didn’t work well with the type of sediment there (mainly mud). The guys from SIWRR had another method although we don’t know what it’s called. It looks like an anchor with 2 cylinders at either end, you throw it in and drag it and it collects sediment really well! For the surface water samples I just used a plankton net. I could already see microplastics from the plankton net samples which was worrying. I also did litter surveys when Xuxu was running transects.

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We were in Can Tho a bit longer than planned, as the sonar wasn’t working and it was the best place to be if Greg needed to buy equipment. Although this was a bit frustrating, I did collect samples from more sites around Can Tho then was originally planned and it meant I was more confident in what I was doing. Before we left we also managed to catch up with Flo who is in her second year of her PhD looking at how flooding effects children’s perspectives in Vietnam, which was lovely!

Greg made a breakthrough with the sonar and decided it was best we move to a new location, Hong Ngu, very close to the Cambodia boarder. It was around 4 hours in the taxi. About half way in we were all nodding off when there was suddenly a big SMASH as our car hit something… I was worried it was one of the crazy mopeds but luckily we had just gone straight into a lorry coming the other way and carrying propane gas. Everyone was fine; the car not so much. Fortunately we were in a town and a crowd of locals seemed to form instantly, helping our driver and diffusing the traffic. Our taxi driver was adamant he could still take us to our location but we insisted we get a new car seeing as the front of his was completely smashed, the tire was burst and the engine seemed to be pouring oil onto the road! We were prepared to be stuck there for hours but a new car turned up pretty quickly and we were soon on our way. We arrived in Hong Ngu with no more drama and you could instantly see it is the complete opposite to Can Tho. Hong Ngu is very rural, a small town on the Mekong River with no tourists or fancy hotels. It was fun though, we found a busy restaurant in the centre of town where I had the best tofu yet!

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We woke up early the next day for our first full day of sampling. It took an hour to transit to the sample location and transects took much longer as the river was much wider. I didn’t see as much litter on the water surface as before which was good, but will have to wait and see about microplastics when I do the lab analysis. Lunch was really yummy although I had no idea what I was eating – we stopped by the river banks and the Vietnamese guys went and got us something. We were on the penultimate transect of the day when the captain starts pulling up the wooden slats of the boat and looking at the engine – not the best sign! Turns out the gear box is broken and he can’t change gear so we have to very slowly make our way back. On our way the heavens opened and the winds picked up and we made our way through a massive downpour. We eventually made it back without having to be rescued to find that Greg still hadn’t had much luck with the sonar – he actually missed dinner and was working on it for the majority of the night!

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That was my last day sampling in Vietnam – the next day I got a taxi back to Ho Chi Minh to fly to Hong Kong. I woke up to find that Greg had sorted the sonar out (yay!) but the gearbox was still not fixed on the other boat so there was not much chance I could do any sampling before I had to leave. I was a bit nervous about travelling by myself, especially after the crash, but Mr.Dung arranged a taxi for me and it all went fine, although I can’t say I will miss their crazy driving!

I flew to Hong Kong to see my brother who has been working in China for over 6 years. I only get to see him about once a year usually at Christmas and have never been able to visit him so I jumped at the opportunity. I arrived on his birthday as well which was lovely and we found a bar that was showing England play rugby! I was only in Vietnam for a short amount of time because I had other commitments I had to get back for, but I feel like I learnt so much and will be much more prepared for next time. I feel very lucky that I get to conduct my research in such an amazing country and work with the Vietnamese at SIWRR. I will hopefully be going out again in 2019 for a lot longer! Now I will be analysing the samples for microplastics, trying to identify what type of microplastics there are, the concentration of microplastics in different locations and combing with concurrent and historical flow data taken throughout the Delta to quantify microplastic flux. Greg and the team collected samples for me while they were out there too so I have a lot to be working through. Wish me luck!

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