Our first morning waking up in Ha Long Bay, we were gifted with our first sunny day of the whole trip, and people happily scrambled for tank tops, sun screen, hats, and sandals.
After early morning yoga on the deck and omelets made to order in the galley, we set out on a morning outing by boat to a subsistence fishing village just ten minutes away from where our boat was docked.
We tied up at a small dock and six of us at a time got into a sampan, a traditional Vietnamese fishing boat, with a local woman rowing. She took us deep out into Ha Long Bay, and we enjoyed the sunlight and sitting down close to the water. The scenery was spectacular, the calm absolute. I’ve been in a lot of beautiful places in my life, but Ha Long Bay definitely merits its description as one of the world’s great natural wonders.
Twenty minutes after we set out in the sampan, we reached a small floating museum that tells the story of the people who lived in Ha Long Bay’s traditional fishing villages. I say “lived” because they don’t live there any more.
It was only when we got to the museum that we learned that the 123 households of the Cua Van fishing village, 531 people – from 7 villages in the region, including the one we’d just paddled from – had been relocated by the government in June of 2014. They’d been moved to new homes 30 kilometers away on the mainland, given free houses in their new village, so that they could have a “better life,” so their children could have access to schools and medical care. The old people, who’d only known life as subsistence fishermen on Ha Long Bay had to move as well as the families with children. Everyone had been relocated. There had been a vote, a decision had been made, and a traditional way of life was changed forever.
According to one sign in the museum, this policy was established to “protect environment, enhance efficiency in preservation, bring into play the value of Ha Long Bay, to bring stable life, ensure safety and interest of social security for fishermen in the current life as well as in the future.”
Quynh told us that part of the problem was that the the villagers had been throwing waste and refuse into this pristine natural environment, causing environmental damage and marring the pristine beauty that was now drawing tourists from all over the world. Since June of 2014, the only people still living in the floating houses we saw were those who live there on a rotating basis as part of the tourism industry: paddling tourists like us across the Bay.
News of this mandatory relocation brought up a lot of strong feelings in our group. Many people agreed with the woman who said, “But they’re losing their way of life and they didn’t have a choice.”
Quynh countered, “I’ve talked to them. They feel good about it. It’s better for them. Their children are getting an education.” The woman rowing his boat told him that she spends 25 days at a time living out in the Bay, for tourism, and that she only gets to see her children on the mainland 4 or 5 days a month. Aged 10 and 12, they live alone, with extended family looking in on them. This woman had said to Quynh, “I’m sad being away from my children, but it’s better for them this way.”
The idea of these children were living alone horrified members of our group. But others countered that these kids would now have the chance for a better life, that there is always loss and change between generations; progress always has its cost.
As we voiced our concerns, Quynh repeatedly insisted that the changes were for the best. “When you use small boats to fish, you barely catch enough shrimp and fish to live on. During monsoon season, a family could lose its whole year’s work in one night. The roofs of their houses – gone. Their fishing nets – gone.” He insisted that the families were glad to go. “They had no opportunities living here.”
It is valuable to hear Quynh’s point of view and that’s one of the many reasons I appreciate him as a guide. Quynh consistently makes the case for the Vietnamese people’s desire to get ahead, to become a vital, financially successful, thriving part of the modern world. From the stories he has told us, Quynh has clearly come a long way from the village life he knew as a boy. For him, there is no looking back. In his world and from his point of view, nothing should stand in the way of progress.
Our discussion about the fate of these fishing people went on for a long time. One woman said, ‘We like to romanticize people living like this. But if you’ve never lived in poverty and have never been hungry, you have no idea what this way of life is really like. Nobody wants their kids to grow up hungry with no education. We all want a better life for our children.”
Another added, “When I was in Morocco, there was a McDonalds. I’d think, ‘Oh gross,’ but the local people thought it was a trendy, hip place to go. They wanted to be part of the modern world and McDonalds symbolized that for them. People want progress and who are we to stop them?”
Yes, I thought, and we’d have to wait and see the long-term impact of this change on the culture of these people and on their way of life. A year and half after their lives have been changed so radically, how can we possibly know? How will this move impact the next generation? Or the generation after that?
Five minutes before we were set to leave the museum, one woman motioned me over to look at a series of photographs on the wall. On the left side of the display were four pictures of daily life from the fishing villages before the relocation. They were shot in natural light and showed ordinary people going through their daily tasks of living.
The right side featured four glossy photos showing how good life would be after relocation. In one, a highly made-up woman with perfect hair and a bright red dress was smiling and cooking in her brand new kitchen. In another, a beautifully dressed family sat at a dining room table in a freshly painted kitchen, eating an extravagant meal. In a third, a second family sat on brand new furniture, staring at a large screen TV in their new, shiny living room.
Pictures of the old ways:
The “look how happy you’ll be in your new home” pictures reminded me of the ads that filled U.S. women’s magazines in the years immediately following World War II–glossy full page ads full of happy women using shiny appliances and enjoying new labor-saving devices: propaganda designed to entice women out of good jobs in riveting plants and factories back into the kitchen, so that the returning war veterans could get their jobs back.
These photos demonstrate just how great life in the new village will be:
On the way back from the museum to the village, Quynh suggested that we each tip our rower $2 US dollars. “It’s their entire income,” he said. “Their families depend on it.” Judy told us that only 3% of the boats that come out to Ha Long Bay ever ever come out this far (most come only for the day or stay one night, but we stayed two), so groups like ours are unusual, not a daily occurrence. Suddenly two dollars didn’t seem to be nearly enough at all.
Despite the magnificence of the setting and the warm, sunny day, the whole experience left me feeling unsettled about what I’d learned, and about being a first-world tourist. And I wasn’t the only one. Over lunch, a woman from Canada told our table about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has just ended in her country: a five-year process in which thousands of First Word aboriginal people gave testimony about their pain and trauma in circles designed specifically for them to tell their stories. Their stories were recorded and are being used as the foundation of a revised version of Canadian history as well as the basis for new laws designed to change the pattern of cultural genocide against aboriginal people. “What happened to the aboriginal people is actually being named cultural genocide in Canada,” she told us. “That hasn’t happened yet in your country,” she added, referring to the U.S. “In Canada, there is starting to be education happening about our real history – what actually was done to our First Nations people. We’re naming it as genocide. And that gives us a mandate to do something about it. To change things. I feel optimistic, maybe naively so. The damage is so deep.”
I think it was natural for us to have made the correlation between what we saw today and what happened in our countries to our Native people. But it isn’t the same. This isn’t genocide. It’s the trade-off between modernity and tradition.
And that is a subject far too complex for us to understand as Western tourists. All we have is a tiny bit of information. We’re looking at this situation through our own cultural lens, our own biases, our own shame about our country’s history.
We are guests in a country that has been colonized for centuries. The Vietnamese are only now getting to determine their own trajectory and their own fate. Who are we to question or judge their choices?