On a raft anchored under the shadows of the elegant limestone rock formations that make this landscape famous, a group of people plays cards. They are the residents of floating fishing village Cua Van in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay.
The game is not entirely recreational. One of the card players, 74-year-old village chief Nguyen Van Cho, says they only play because pollution from the village’s daily waste and rubbish from passing tourist boats has killed all the fish and there is no other work to do.
“More and more fish have died over the last few years,” he said. “This year is the first time all the shellfish have died.”
Each day thousands of tourists visit the bay, a Unesco world heritage site. But in Cua Van, 30 kilometres away from the mainland, the village’s 600 residents gain few benefits from tourism. Nguyen Thi Que, 43, said she earns about 1 million dong (£30) a month to row small groups of tourists from the main boats around the village.
“It’s extra money to save for food for my children, just to help my husband,” she said. “It’s not enough to live.”
Instead residents survive by aquaculture – raising fish and shellfish. However, many say sewage and other household waste dumped into the water is killing their livelihood. Que said she is worried when waste water goes under her raft, where her family raise fish, but she said she has no choice. “I just throw it out to finish my work, although I know it’s harmful to the fish.”
In response to the pollution, the local government has devised a plan to move the people living here inland, “to protect environment of Ha Long Bay heritage,” according to deputy head of the Ha Long Bay Management Board Do Duc Thang. “If we do not take action, pressure to Ha Long’s environment will become bigger, causing bad effects.”
Plans to relocate the village have been on the agenda for a number of years, but Thang said the first step of the roadmap, educating villagers on the benefits of moving away, is already being implemented. “We will not move all of the villagers out,” he said. “We will turn the village into a tourist place where the environmental issue is guaranteed.”
But moving people away is not the only solution, experts say. Nguyen Kim Anh, project coordinator in Vietnam for the United Nations Development Programme, said more needs to be done to help the residents of Cua Van and two other floating villages in the bay, some of whom have lived in the area for many generations. “The heritage of Ha Long Bay is not just the landscape, it is also the people,” she said.
“The local authorities need to thoroughly consult with and seek agreement from the local communities on the resettlement issue and have a comprehensive community resettlement plan, especially for their sustainable livelihoods.”
Village chief Cho said some of the villagers want to move and others want to stay. But many agree that things can’t continue the way they are. Que said: “If the waste stays here all the time, we will die. It will be impossible to live here.” halong bay tour