ha giang & ha long bay

how fragile the authentic experience can be

Modern tourism destroys precisely that which it is searching for: authenticity. This idea, from the book Grand Hotel Europa by the Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, was stuck on repeat in my head when I travelled through Ha Giang and Ha Long Bay.

In the remote area of Ha Giang in northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border, the local villagers put a lot of effort into protecting their heritage. I met people whose lives have stayed pretty much unchanged over the generations. Often, that means a lot of hard work on the steep terraces harvesting rice and corn, or putting in long hours to make the most beautiful fabrics out of hemp. Though their life may seem tough, they’re not unhappy. You can see it in the way they wear their traditional clothing and jewellery: these people are proud of what they do and the tribe they belong to.

But their surroundings are rapidly changing. Newly built roads lead to big construction areas where new border crossings with China are being built. No matter how hard these people try to preserve their heritage, Ha Giang will change in the next few years – for better or for worse.

What I learned is that the various tribes that live here don’t want their habitat to become another overcrowded tourist destination. So, to help spread the pressure of the growing stream of tourists, and to make sure the resulting income is distributed, some villages use a rotation system that makes sure that every family who has a homestay, receives guests. This community-driven system creates a balance that counters some of the problems that seem a package deal with growing tourism.

Mr. Thien, portrayed with his youngest daughter on the swing under their house, happened to be our homestay owner and one of the initiators of this system in Thon Tha Village. He proudly told us that he received an invitation to present the system at a worldwide tourism convention in Italy. He had never left Vietnam or even Ha Giang. Can you imagine the journey he’s about to make? Not all heroes wear capes.

Only 500 kilometers to the southeast, you’ll find a place where balance is a bit harder to find: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s top attraction. It’s a breathtaking place, with limestone karsts and isles sticking out of the sea in all shapes and sizes. It’s easy to understand why so many tourists come here. But even in my beautiful wooden cabin on the fish farm in a quiet part of the bay, I couldn’t escape the crowds. I lay awake in my bed to the drunken noise of a karaoke rendition of My Heart Will Go On, that blasted from one of the large ships that anchor for an overnight cruise in the middle of the bay.

If thousands of people all come looking for serenity in the same place, it becomes pretty hard to find any. But what I found most confronting is the fact that as a tourist, I contributed to the same thing that I was mentally criticizing. I still haven’t worked out exactly how to reconcile these ideas.

Many thanks to YESD for showing us around these places.

April 2019