CCSV13: In Search of Vietnam’s Elusive Oaks

Castanopsis fissa, Ha Giang Province

Since 1987, when Vietnam officially reopened its doors to foreigners, there have been numerous botanical expeditions organized by official institutions as well as by amateurs. None have specifically targeted oaks or even the Fagaceae in general, although the diversity of this family in Vietnam is quite extraordinary. From October 24  to November 17, 2013, Olivier Colin, Charles Snyers, and I explored Northern Vietnam with the aim of finding its oaks.

The great French explorers of the first half of the 20th century who roamed the wilderness of what was at the time called Tonkin (Northern Vietnam) and Annam (Central Vietnam) left a legacy of oak discoveries behind them as can be seen in Madame Camus’ Les Chênes, (The Oaks, Monograph of the Genus Quercus) and in Henri Lecomte’s Flore Générale de l’Indochine (General Flora of Indochina) Unfortunately for us, their descriptions did not include extremely precise indications of where the oaks could be found. But the question comes to mind: would a modern-day explorer write a detailed description of where to find Quercus robur L. in France? That would be silly—it is all over the place! He would probably just write, “very common in…” which is exactly what the French explorers wrote for a number of the oaks in Vietnam. Are many of these species no longer common? Significantly, hardly any of the farmers and villagers (who use everything the forest offers) to whom we showed acorns and drawings knew what these were. And except on one or two occasions, when they said they did they would show us Lithocarpus or Castanopsis species.

Bamboo Forest at Tam Dao National Park (Ph. Charles Snyers)

The first part of CCSV13 (our abbreviation for Chassé-Colin-Snyers/Vietnam 2013) took us to Ba Vi National Park and to Tam Dao National Park (west of Hanoi) and then further north to the area around a village called Mu Cang Chai, where we had the opportunity to eat fried grasshoppers and drink rice wine that our hosts explained was flavored with opium, though it seemed to us upon drinking that it is probably another part of the poppy that is used.

Some of the oaks encountered along the way included Q. braianensis A. Camus, Q. xanthotricha Drake, Q. neglecta (Schottky) Koidz., Q. macrocalyx Hickel & A. Camus and several other as yet unidentified oaks (hopefully these questions will be resolved by the time a full account of this expedition is published in International Oaks, No. 25). Even more frustrating than the difficulties encountered in finding the oaks were the difficulties encountered in identifying them correctly! Without the help of Dr. Min Deng, who has spent a great deal of time looking at our photographs and herbarium specimens, I would have given up a long time ago.

Sapa, Lao Cai Province, picture taken with a smartphone (Ph. Charles Snyers)

Continuing our route north, the second part of the trip was spent exploring different areas near Sa Pa, the mythical Phan Xi Pang mountain, and another mountain called Nhiu Co San, very near the Chinese border. Lithocarpus and Castanopsis spp. were in great abundance, but representatives of our favorite genus were few and far between as we climbed these steep mountains.

View of the Fan Si Pan (Ph. Charles Snyers)

The last part of our voyage took us even further north and east to the Ha Giang Province, before eventually heading south back to Hanoi. This is probably one of the most unexplored regions of Vietnam to date. Here we found (along with numerous species of Lithocarpus and Castanopsis) Q. gomeziana A. Camus, Q. asymmetrica Hickel & A. Camus, Q. aliena Blume, and Q. austroglauca Y.T. Chang.

Road 4C from Yen Minh to Dong Van, Ha Giang Province (Ph. Charles Snyers)

A lot of work remains to be done to identify all of the things we saw, collected and/or photographed. The mind boggles at the diversity of these forests where extraordinary names abound: Rehderodendron, Polyspora, Aspidistra, Cyrptocarya, Holboellia… the list is seemingly endless and a great lesson in humility for one coming from the very calmest of places botanically speaking, i.e., the temperate forest.

This voyage would not have been possible without the generous support of different individuals who recognized the importance of attempting to update our knowledge of the oaks of Vietnam.