Letters from Vietnam: To France from Abroad
23rd November 2018
Sorry, this letter is so delayed. I ended up on the island of Cat Ba and the post is particularly difficult to access there. So I’ve had to wait a few weeks until I was back on the mainland. I’m writing this as I’m in the crazy capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. I will probably send the letter from Bangkok as I have an early flight to Thailand tomorrow.
Last night was the last of a long and lonely stay on Cat Ba. It wasn’t a bad lonely, I enjoyed my time alone. Every night, I took up the habit of going on a walk in the countryside right outside of town.
First of all, the town is beautiful. There are green jungle mountains that fill the whole landscape and a harbor that is always filled with small local fishing boats. It’s quite a nice scene.
Outside of town gets even more pleasant. I always make it my goal to walk all the way to the river which flows about three kilometers outside of town. It makes for a forty-five-minute walk to get there and I usually take my time getting back.
Perhaps because I knew it was my last walk last night, I paid more attention to my surroundings and I’m glad I did. You know how each time you’re about to leave a place you start to get sentimental and feel like you’re saying goodbye to home? That’s partly how I felt.
Anyway, what I noticed was a simple life; an even simpler life than what the folks live in town. You’re no stranger to island culture, you know islanders live pretty laid-back lives. But the people in the countryside were truly even calmer.
It was a beautiful sunset over the harbor when I returned to town, probably the best since arriving on Cat Ba. It seemed to linger on the horizon for an hour and change the sky a multitude of colors while it sat there. It was magnificent. I sat through until there were no more colors and the darkness had befallen.
During the time I was sat along the water, local fisherman were all returning from their day’s work. I noticed as some of them anchored their boat in the harbor and enjoyed the sky’s colors in solace. I noticed other enjoying the sunset joined by the laughter of friends and colleagues.
It seemed nightly that I would notice the locals enjoying the simple things in life. If it wasn’t the sunset, it was elderly men gathered on the curb for round-talk. I loved how they sat on the curb at their age just like old boys.
Children were maybe the most fun to watch. Gangs of them came out of nowhere on bicycles and with soccer balls in hand. They’d run to the largest construction site or the town square; wherever they had the flattest, emptiest field to play. They soaked up the entire hour or hour and a half while the sun’s heat wasn’t overbearing and still provided them enough light to kick the ball around. They didn’t waste any of their time.
I loved the simplicity of the local’s evenings. They enjoyed the small things they were afforded — that everyone is afforded — like a sunset. Tourists, on the other hand, rushed by on the promenade, hardly stopping long enough to get a quick iPhone photo of the sky set ablaze.
It was upsetting at the time, but I know I’ve been the same way before. Living life in a rush for no reason. I wish I could be more like the locals I watched. They seemed to know what was important for the mind and happiness.
It made me wonder what effect tourism has had on the islanders since arriving about a decade ago. The most apparent of changes were found in town. Tall, high-rise hotels towered and lit up the town at night. Restaurants that surely weren’t needed ten years ago now lined the town and highlighted Cat Ba’s tourism business. I wondered how many fishing boats that filled the harbor used to be there when there wasn’t a need to feed hungry tourists.
There was an obvious and dramatic evolution of Cat Ba Town just to accommodate tourists. So obvious that it was easy to see just a week or two after arriving. If you paid attention, you could tell locals were only learning their new way of life just as tourists were just learning their way around the island.
Obviously, tourism money is good business and undoubtedly puts some change into the pockets of those who needed it. But at what cost? What parts of their beautifully simple lives were lost because western tourists discovered their island as a place they’d like to visit?
I had conflicting views about tourism arriving on the island, as you can probably tell. Cat Ba isn’t the first and is certainly not the last place to be transformed by westerners with little care for a place’s culture other than how Instagrammable and inexpensive it is.
As a ‘travel blogger’, I’m an instigator of the problem. I realize this and feel undeniably at fault.
I was going to write you a happier update, but I’ve forgotten what I was going to write now. I hope you’re well and enjoying Europe for the rest of us. What a great place that is.