As the apartments and factories on the now sprawling outskirts of Hanoi give way to a more rural landscape of lush green rice fields dotted with ancient temples, ducks swim and forage in the watery fields and potter about in groups on the banks. This is the region known as Van Dinh, famous for producing some of the north’s tastiest ducks.
Like many other areas across the Mekong Delta, villagers here traditionally let their ducks roam free. Flocks mix freely, scavenging for snails and weeds in paddy fields, rivers and ponds during the day and returning to their farms in the evening. It’s a way of life that’s persisted for generations, steeped in the traditions of the rice harvest. But the outbreak of the H5N1 virus, more commonly known as bird flu, which started nearly a decade ago is changing old habits.
Duong Van Bon’s family has been in the poultry business for three decades. Like his neighbours, Bon used to farm ducks and chickens the traditional way. But having seen the devastation caused by bird flu, he now raises his flocks in proper enclosures with their own pond; a fenced-off part of the village lake.
It’s a medium-sized farm by Vietnamese standards; 1,000 ducks and 200 chickens producing some 800 eggs a day. The simple buildings, constructed out of bamboo and cement, provide shelter for the birds and a place for them to lay the eggs that are highly prized in Vietnamese cooking. Eventually the ducks will be sold for their meat.
Bon has taken full advantage of government funds to vaccinate his birds against the virus and disinfects his farm with pesticide on a regular basis.
But while his farm’s managed to avoid infection, Bon admits he’s nervous about a new strain of bird flu that was first detected in August and has spread rapidly through the country. The government describes the new strain as “highly toxic”. It kills every chicken it infects, normally within four days. Ducks have more resistance, but many of them succumb too.
In a modest laboratory at Hanoi’s National Centre for Veterinary Diagnosis, researchers are trying to find out why; working out how this strain of the virus is different and whether existing vaccines are effective against it. Early findings suggest the existing vaccines will be sufficient but the final results won’t be available until October at the earliest.
Evidence suggests the mutation came from outside Vietnam.
“Usually a virus can evolve locally but looking at the genetic data it’s not a local evolution,” said Nguyen Tung, vice-director of the centre. “It comes from outside.”