Brendan Gara Photography

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If you believe the hype of the tour agents in Hanoi, the web and the backpackers you will meet beforehand, the fishing villages are a highlight of the “Halong Bay experience”, where you can see first hand the indigenous population and get up close to the real Vietnam.  To be fair they do look good on the brochures; rickety rafts supporting houses (they would be called sheds back home), kids showing a rare talent for seamanship, all surrounded by the steep cliffs of limestone and the vaguely milky, blue- green water beneath.  And to be fair to the villagers, it’s tough; no drinking water, fishing as their main income and limited genetics.

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As part of our trip we got to visit Cap La village, a smallish community in the bay, but one that the tour company apparently supports through “sustainable tourist based earnings”.  Sounds good, everyone wins.  I can’t help feel though that it’s just another layer of wool being pulled over your eyes and yet more lip service to the western sacred cow of sustainability, so that we all feel better whilst cracking open our “local” crab and clapping over our intricately carved vegetables on board the good ship tourist – junk- dragon- number 3.

Don’t get me wrong I’m all for sustainability, I’m just not 100% sure what it is and fairly convinced that most people really don’t have handle on it either.  Take these people here, their idea of sustainability is going to be way different to any notion I have.  I’ve just flown half way across the world to see theirs, so I don’t really have much of a leg to stand on, and I can eat all the locally grown, low food miles, low carbon lifecycle food I want back home, but I’ve racked up a pretty huge negative balance coming all this way.

These guys though, and their idea of sustainability: does it really extend to ensuring their kids can get an education, then stay on the next door raft and bring up a family in another round of hardship and poverty?  Why not earn what you can, build up a big pot of money and get your kids the hell off of there, let them get a decent job, get a decent place to live, buy lot’s of the shit that we buy, eat what everybody else is eating and then look after you while you spend your old age watching satellite TV and surfing the internet.  That’s what I would do.

We get a rowing boat tour of the village (the all female rowers use a marvelously efficient method, using their body weight to fall onto the oars to drive us forward) and the surrounding lagoons, see the fish farm with the psycho- yapping dog, stop a while in the small bay, row back through the gorge (past all the bright blue and yellow plastic shellfish culturing baskets littering the side) and onto the village central to pay our dues and get the low down on how the tour company is being super- cool helping out.

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The school supported as part of a Darwin Initiative project on Environmental Awareness in Halong Bay looks neat, really neat.  Unfortunately once the UK funding ran out, the project was handed over to the Halong Bay Management Authority, the trained project managers left to do other projects, the teachers were transferred to local government funding, and surprise- surprise they are struggling to get one to stay and teach the kids.  It all looks nice but no substance.  That’s a shame as the Darwin Initiatives are good, the people involved are genuinely interested and keen and the goals are worthy (I know I was involved in setting a pilot project up in the South Atlantic).

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We’re told the all about the fish farm and how it generates income for the villagers, and it’s good to see cobia swimming around in the cages- sinister looking, black and white striped, streamlined fish, but this isn’t real.  There’s too few, they’re too big and they’re all the same size: they’re pets.  I’ve spent more than 20 years working on farms; I’ve picked up a few things in that time.  Why not show us the real farm, the one with the yapping dog?

I asked the two head honchos if I could take their photo, which they obliged.  I got the impression they don’t give a fuck.   I can see their point.

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