Ha Long Bay's Floating Villages
Around 1,500 people live on four floating villages in the shelter of the Bay’s many mountainous islands. They rely upon the sea for a living, and have evolved a unique culture based upon an entirely waterborne existence. Most are poor, and a few have never set foot on the mainland.
The main business is aquaculture – usually fish and shrimp farming in large net cages alongside their floating houses. The catch is sold to dealers at Ha Long Market or direct to tour boats. All aspects of life are carried out in the villages as if they were on land. There is a floating school in Cua Van, the largest of the villages. Children as young as five arrive either singly or in groups using small craft – their familiarity with the sea and their agility on the water is astonishing.Their culture has diverged from that on the mainland. Marriage, for example, involves buying the necessary goods on shore, then linking boats and rafts together to create a large platform for the celebration. When deaths occur, the bones of the deceased are interred in tiny shrines built in niches on the islands. In common with their fellows in other coastal areas, most of the villagers are adherents to Vietnam’s mysterious whale cult.
Over-fishing by large ‘factory trawlers’ operating off-shore in deeper waters and pollution has impoverished most of the fishing families. In the past, they turned to dynamite fishing, collecting and selling coral and rare plants, and creating ‘souvenirs’ from limestone and stalactites from the islands. More effective policing has more or less stopped such practices, but further reduced their income.
Fortunately, the tourism value of the fishing villages is now being recognised. The Norwegian government and UNESCO are developing a floating cultural centre in Cua Van, the first step towards using tourism to alleviate the poverty in the villages. This is an element in the development of the Ha Long Ecomuseum project, a long-term strategy to improve the quality of tourism by creating ecologically sound visitor attractions and employment.