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March 22, 2012

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An Overview of Ha Long Bay’s Fishing Villages

Posted by Linh Phuong Nguyen, Director of Research Centre for Management and Sustainable Development in Hanoi
World Monuments Fund

Ha Long Bay, on Vietnam’s northeastern seacoast, is often considered one of the world’s most beautiful bays. In 1994 and 2000, UNESCO recognized Ha Long Bay as a World Heritage site for its remarkable landscape and geomorphology. It was also listed as one of the New7Wonders of Nature in 2011.

Beside its aesthetic importance , geomorphology, and biodiversity, Ha Long Bay is also significant for cultural and historical reasons. The bay is a home of the ancient Viet people with occupation by various cultures dating back some 18,000 years, and many important cultural and historical relics from these peoples have been found. The fishing communities who live on the bay still retain their own special culture.

There are four residential areas of fishermen living on the bay, about 400 households totaling approximately 1.000 people. The fishermen live on boats and floating wooden houses in the core-zone of Ha Long Bay, which is dozens of kilometers away from the mainland. They have no home or land ownership and their main livelihood is fishing and aquaculture.

The first two fishing villages were formed in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and they were called Giang Vong and Truc Vong. Due to rising waters, the people made homes from boats, though they maintained an ancestral shrine on the mainland. For village meetings they simply dropped anchor. From 1946 to 1954, during the war against the French, the people scattered among various islands, and returned to rebuild their floating villages when the region was stabilized. Their decendents are the people of the four current villages in Halong Bay“ Cửa Vạn, Ba Hang, Cống Tàu and Vông Viêng. Cua Van is the largest, with about 185 households. The fisherman of these floating villages take pride in their roles as messengers, combatants during conflict, and transporters.

The people of the village operate as a close-knit family, and children as young as 5 are experts at casting nets. Living away from the mainland, however, has always been a struggle, notably in getting the children educated. Today, the greatest challenges to life in the fishing villages are related to the environment, especially climate change, as increasingly violent storms kill fish or damage equipment. Pollution is also a concern, including byproducts of construction work and industrial runoff enter the water, trash from locals and less conscious tourists, and from the villagers themselves, who have no toilets.

The sustainability of the current way of life of the villagers is also a cause for concern. People are aware that the steady supply of fish and shellfish will not last forever, and there is also a need for the communities to plan out what changes they will need to adapt to rising seawater and the effects of tourism in the area. Living in the Ha Long Bay World Heritage site incorporates many cultural values that are both tangible and intangible, and protecting these assets is essential to protecting these people.

Due to the fact that these tight-knit and well-established communities live in such a fragile ecosystem, their lives are very vulnerable to the slightest changes. These shifts can center on economic changes, such as a loss of tourism income or changes in the demand for their products, or even geological changes, like sea-level rises. Cultural centers, such as the one in Cua Van, are helpful for addressing potential changes to the villages. Other centers like this would be helpful as a venue for meetings on changing techniques to better protect the environment and prevent degradation of the bay. The impact of the lack of education systems and access to vital information also constrains these efforts, and the competative nature of the fisherman may also put pressure on cooperation. Community engagement, involving both men and women, is essential to enforcing different protocols that various clubs and groups create to meet the needs of the community.

The Research Center for Management and Sustainable Development (MSD, www.msdvietnam.org) and the Research Center for Resources and Rural Development (RECERD, www.recerd.org.vn) are two rare Vietnamese local NGOs attempting to improve the quality of life for disadvantaged people in these fishing villages. For years, MSD and RECERD haved provided basic knowledge and skills on sustainable and environmentally friendly livelihoods and better access for public services. However, due to the challenges of the remoted areas and shortage of resouces, the impact is still limited to small groups of people in comparison with the large demands of people in the four fishing villages.

Over the next three years, MSD and RECERD will make a bigger effort to mobilize resources at the international level for the development and protection for the disadvanatged people in the floating villages. The overall plan is to attract the funding needed to build three community meeting places in three floating villages: one for Cua Van, one for Ba Hang, and one for the Vong Hien and Cong Tou. After these centers are finished, MSD and RECER will map out a project to improve the productivity and environmental protection of these fishing communities. By educating target populations within the villages, and spreading the information organically with input from all parties involved, led by locals, there should be meaningful change in behavior damaging the environment and depleting fish populations. Some topics of behavior change discussions will center on ways to cut down on pollution to the water, over-exploitation of the fish populations, the legality of aquaculture, how to come together as a community to manage existing resources, provide information on the adaptation plans for potential rises in sea-level, etc. There efforts are expected to improve the sustainable quality of life for rare disadvantanaged and marginalized people in one of the most beautiful and famous place in Vietnam.