Ba Ria Vung Tau Province, 1/27/03

Mark Walker MWalker at
Wed Feb 5 05:36:34 EST 2003

I was 16 when the U.S. war in Vietnam finally came to an end.  The following
year, at 17, I found myself enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  At 20, I was
floating in the South China Sea - at watch on the wheel of the steam
throttle for engine #2, onboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Long Beach, CGN-9.
Our captain was sending down the navigational commands as we maneuvered the
nuclear cruiser towards a tiny, dilapidated, and sinking wooden boat.  We
pulled 137 desperate people off of that boat - just one of several "Boat
People" vessels we encountered that spring.  It would be the closest to
mainland Vietnam I would get for the next 23 years.


On January 24th, 2003, my wife Maria and I had the outrageous pleasure of
joining a medical ministry team to Ba Ria Vung Tau Province, some 100 km
southeast of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  We were representing "His Healing
Hands", a Christian partnering ministry that provides medical diagnosis and
medications to impoverished peoples throughout the world.  In Vietnam, we
were partnering with the Vietnamese Red Cross, Campus Crusade for Christ,
the Christian Missionary Alliance, generous hospitals and pharmacies,
numerous friends, and our local churches.  The all volunteer team consisted
of doctors, pharmacists (that would include my brother), nurses (that would
include my wife and niece), and support persons (that would include me), who
spent the week visiting small villages and churches throughout the province.
It was truly an incredible and humbling experience.


January weather in southern Vietnam is hot, humid, and quite tropical.  I
knew as soon as I walked off the plane from Taipei that I would be
encountering Lepidoptera.  I also knew that I was in Vietnam for reasons
that surpassed my passion for butterflies.  It was altogether possible that
I would only get to enjoy them as they blew past the moving passenger van.
I had to reconcile this internally before ever checking any baggage at Los
Angeles International Airport.  Besides my wife and brother, none of the
team members had a clue that I was a closet entomologist.  It wouldn't be a
secret for long.


I saw my first butterfly just minutes after arriving.  It was difficult to
contain myself.  During the long three hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, I
sat glued to the window of the van - gazing off into the lush green tropical
countryside.  It's dry season in Vietnam, and the leps are enjoying the
luscious growth from last years monsoon rains.  The heavy air brought back
vivid memories of my prior visits to other Southeast Asian countries some 25
years before.  Some of these memories I had long forgotten - others I had


And then on Monday, January 27, 2003 - we hit a minor snag.  The Vietnamese
Red Cross at Vungtau called for an executive meeting with our team leaders
to discuss the requirements for obtaining permission to treat patients in Ba
Ria Vung Tau Province.  The meeting would run until 3:00 p.m. - and I found
myself with time on my hands.  While the other team members ventured out
into the marketplace, I headed to the rugged hills overlooking the gorgeous
Bai Tam Duong Harbor.  Somehow, I hadn't forgotten to bring my net.


Obtaining access to the highlands turned out to be somewhat of a problem.  A
band of residences and small businesses formed a barrier between the
mountains and the waterfront roads.  With few options, I made my way along a
small concrete drive that headed back into the private realm of village
residents and in the general direction of the rising hilltops.  Before I
knew it, I was deep in the heart of a place where I could no longer be
invisible.  And right on cue, the children came.


All of the children came.  One and two at first - and then three, four,
five, six, seven, and eight.  I brought them all with me to a small,
open-air, village bar, where we enjoyed cool refreshments and shared in a
derived sign language of our own making.  Somehow I managed to communicate
to the proprietors that I desired to venture into the woodland habitat
behind the bar.  Their hand gestures indicated that while I had their
blessing, they wondered about my sanity.  The hillsides were steep and tough
to traverse, but I was in good hands - about 16 of them to be exact.  Each
child took turns taking my hands, guiding me through tight spots, and
warning me concerning holes and hidden barbed wire.  The trail headed up
through the scrubby woodland in gradient ascent.  Various Pierids floated by
as I panted for air, already heating up in the midday sun (most of these
were the Striped Albatross, Apias libythea -
<> ).  When we reached a level road,
the whole entourage fanned out in search for flying insects.  The first one
I netted was the showy little Athyma perius (Common Sergeant).  At first my
companions marveled at the sight of the large bearded stranger scurrying
after bugs, half-hazardly with net in hand.  It wasn't long, however, that
they insisted on showing me how to do it properly.  I guess it was
unbearable for them to see such bad acrobatics and lack of technique.  Not
surprisingly, a few of them turned out to be real gifted with the net.  I
watched in amazement as one little guy bagged a spectacular specimen of the
Plain Tiger, Danaus chrysippus (
<> ) in strong flight.  Another boy
managed to net an Elymnias hypermnestra (Common Palmfly)
20undularis%20M.html>  with one quick swing.  Other roadside catches
included Phalanta phalanta (Common Leopard), Zizina otis (Common Grass
Blue), and the Peacock Royal (latin name?).  We saw, but did not net, a
number of other incredible butterflies, including Catopsilia scylla
<> ).  There were also lots of
Papilio demoleus
us.html> ) in flight.  Perhaps the highlight for me, though, was a pretty
common leafwing butterfly which favored the shade of the trees and sported a
dorsal sheen of purplish-blue.  


In the deeper woodland, we spotted many Leptosia nina
<> ), also known as The Psyche,
flopping low to the ground.  Other butterflies preferring the deepest forest
included the rapid flying and spectacular turquoise colored Pareronia anais
<> ).   Among the bamboo thickets we
found Loxura atymnus (The Yamfly)
us.html> .  In the grasses we found an yet-to-be identified Ypthima
(multi-spotted Satyrinae), which proved to be difficult to net.  Along
roadside flowering weeds we found Acraea violae (Towny Coster)
<> ,
Eurema hecabe (Common Grass Yellow)
<> , Precis lemonias (the Yellow
ias%20lemonias.html> , and various unidentified blues and hairstreaks.
Attracted to coffee blossoms was an unidentified green species of Graphium
and a stunning silver dollar-sized, powder blue hairstreak that reminded me
of our own Atlides.  I missed it by that much....


We spent two hours together on that mountainside, the children and I,
laughing and running and making faces at each other.  I can only imagine
what they were really saying about me, but we were a real unit nevertheless.
As for the butterflies, well - I have managed to identify only a handful of
them so far.  The rest of the week was busy and rigorous, with only a few
moments for gawking at passing leps.  But no matter - the people turned out
to be just as colorful and diverse.  While the thrill of experiencing
Vietnamese Lepidoptera was once-in-a-lifetime, it seemed pale and shallow
when compared to the rewards that came from the faces of the villagers of Ba
Ria Vung Tau.


Mark Walker


check out photos of my butterflying friends and Ba Ria Vung Tau in the photo
section of


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