Ca Mau’s Waterworld


Ca Mau is land’s end. As far west and south as you can travel in Vietnam. It was described by Phong as laid back; more relaxed and much wetter than the big city or even the Mekong Delta and its myriad waterways.  This we had to see! There are two flights a day at Ca Mau Airport; one in and, on the same plane, an hour later, one out. Which means that you have to stay overnight. We had plenty to see and several meetings to attend, so 24 hours in Ca Mau was not a hardship.


I had never seen anything like the apparent flooding, as we descended into Ca Mau.  The fields were saturated and what looked like roads were, in fact, canals and drainage ditches. I once flew over the south of England after serious flooding and was impressed by the water in the fields below but it was nothing like Ca Mau in its ‘normal’ state.

Once on the ground, and heading to our first meeting, we quickly understood how people adapted to the local conditions.  Roads were very narrow and ran along the tops of dikes. Homes were built on lower ground and were reached by bridges across the endless canals that ran either side of the dikes. So, for most people, the canal was literally their front yard.  Behind their homes lay cultivated, saturated fields.

The dikes acted as important barriers. On one side of the raised, packed-mud wall, the water was brackish and supported a considerable amount of shrimp and fish farming.  On the other, the fields were fed by freshwater, enabling a quite different form of agriculture. Rice, fruit and vegetables flourished in this hydroponic paradise.

Every region of Vietnam seems to have it’s own distinctive type of watercraft. Ca Mau’s shallow-drafted boats are ideally suited to the canals which, in fact, were far more important as a means of transportation than the impossibly narrow roads.The trees that line the banks of the canal are not only decorative, they provide shade, help stabilize the bank and, through their root system, absorb some of the moisture from the precious upland. We reached the sea at Song Do and found ourselves at the mouth of one of the region’s wide rivers.  This is one of Song Do’s main streets. Every home and business opens onto the river because everyone has a boat by which they earn their living, either fishing or by providing essential services to the fishing fleet.

A narrow service road serves the waterfront shops.  This clothes store, however, depends on the waterway for its business and so positions its shop front accordingly.

Traversing the ‘streets’ of Song Do was a fascinating experience. The concrete bulkhead in the background is the only protection from flooding for the homes built beside the canal system.


Not everyone visits the store by boat.  And this service road for the waterfront provides enough dry land to support a small daily market.

Hospitality is taken very seriously in Ca Mau. Even at 4pm.  It would be an insult to one’s guests to send them home with an empty stomach. This was our third meal of the day and was not our last. Everything on the table was grown or caught within a radius of a few kilometers. Forget the ‘100-mile diet’; this was a ‘less than 10-mile feast’!


Route One is Vietnam’s most important road and starts in the north at Hanoi. It runs the length of Vietnam, through all of its largest urban areas. Ca Mau is land’s end and the southernmost point of Route One.  This ferry is part of Route One and will soon to be replaced by a bridge. I felt a long way from Hanoi as I joined the evening’s ‘rush hour traffic’ boarding the ferry.

Hoi An: Another world.

After a rather depressing morning’s drive along Da Nang’s poorly planned water front, we left the beach and headed a little way inland along the northern bank of the Thu Bon River to Hoi An. What an antidote! In 1999, Hoi An was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This ancient trading city was once Southeast Asia’s most important port and has been visited over the centuries by seafairers from all over the world and settled by several diverse ethnic groups.

You have to buy a ticket to get into the heart of Hoi An.  It helps pay for the ongoing renovations and is the least you can do to contribute to the upkeep of this fascinating place. Our business partner, Phong from Ho Chi Minh City was somewhat insulted but kindly paid the $9 for his two guests to join him on a tour of the city.

The streets were quiet in September, no doubt much to the annoyance of the shop-keepers.  It was very warm and humid and there were thunderstorms most afternoons. But it was wonderful to experience Hoi An without the crowds and coach-parties.

Once upon a time, these were the homes of merchants.  Now they are shops that house merchandise. These buildings are fascinating, with their narrow fronts, deep wood-paneled rooms and internal courtyards that were essential in bringing natural light to the center of the homes. What were once bedrooms, now open onto a gallery that animates the upper floor.

Several layers into another of the former merchant houses, this bedroom is protected from the noise of the busy street. The windows have shutters but no glass. Deep overhangs protect the rooms from rain while enabling air to circulate through the internal courtyard.

Some of the most important homes faced the quayside which, in turn, overlooked a sheltered arm of the Thu Bon River.  The homes across the water are located on An Hoi Islet, once an island on the river delta. The ‘islet’ is now a peninsula. The waterfront market brings much-needed activity to a quayside that in former times would have been packed with boats.

This waterfront bar opens onto a tiny sidewalk. Across the street the wide quayside provides pedestrians with plenty of room. So, why not reduce the sidewalk to a minimum by introducing several planters and extending the seating onto the street? An example for us all in how to circumvent building codes !

This is a working boat and Hoi An is a working town. While tourism is an important – no, essential – part of the economy, there is a definite sense that the city, which has a population of 120,000, has a life beyond catering for visitors. Fishing, for one, is an important economic activity for Hoi An.

The covered, wooden Japanese Bridge, complete with its own temple (to the left) is Hoi An’s iconic structure.  It’s in every guidebook and every visitor must visit the bridge and photograph it.  How often do it’s two docents have the bridge to themselves? It was too good a moment to miss.

The Japanese merchants and their families were important residents in Hoi An. But so were the Chinese who built temples that were too big and certainly too ornate to install on a mere bridge.  This may be the city’s only other visitor the day that Philip, Phong and I were there.

When the sidewalks are narrow and, in any case, are full of bicycles and motos, it’s probably safest to walk in the road. Decked out in dark pants and starched white shirts, we blended seamlessly with the locals as they went about their business (Phong is on the left, conducting the tour).

Hoi An is a city full of restored buildings but this new street, just steps from the Japanese Covered Bridge, is built to a simple set of design guidelines.  It works, apart from the light poles. But I feel strongly that we can forgive Hoi An this error (and, anyway, they will no doubt be replaced in due course…)

A typical row of shopfronts. The beautiful, weathered aquamarine wash on the plastered dividing wall was a common color choice.  I was also intrigued by the stone bases on which the wooden columns rested.  I wonder what they were for?

Not all of Hoi An’s temples were designed for maximum impact. This one reflects the intriguing ‘layered’ architecture of the city.  It seems that there is always something just beyond one’s vision, out of reach…

Da Nang: Rapid Growth vs Lost Beaches?

Two recent articles in the Vietnamese press attracted my attention. They summarize a worrying dilemma for the country’s leaders. The first piece heralded HSBC’s new branch bank in Da Nang and in so doing made the following point;

(Da Nang is the)…core city of the Key Economic Zone in central Vietnam. The city is a hotbed of development, from upscale resorts and residential properties to industrial and commercial ventures, with a GDP growth of around 11 to 12 percent recorded year-on-year since 2001. Currently there are more than 10,000 businesses across all sectors operating in the city, and jobs are expected to increase annually from 32,000 to 35,000.

The second article was an interview with Nguyen Van Tuan, General Director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, who;

…has admitted that the seaside has been cut into small bits and seaside investment projects should be reexamined.
After development experts and newspapers rang alarm bells over the “disappearance” of beautiful beaches to massive construction of resorts and hotels, Government officials have realized the issue’s importance. Tuan, in a recent interview…admitted that mismanagement is the culprit.


Philip and I visited Da Nang for the first time in September. We knew about the city’s growing reputation as a fast-growing destination and were not surprised to find a vibrant economy underlying its success.
Da Nang is almost equidistant from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City but the real estate conference we were attending was aimed squarely at raising the city’s investment profile in Ho Chi Minh City, a 40-minute flight to the south. Set on an attractive coastal plain edged by mountains and laying at the mouth of the Han River, Da Nang has become a shining example of Vietnam’s aggressive courting of foreign investment. Non Nuoc Beach is one Da Nang’s greatest assets, with 32 uninterrupted kilometers (about 20 miles) forming a vast protected bay.

 

Life Resort, Da Nang. Exclusive and underwhelming.

 

On arriving at Da Nang’s airport, we headed straight for Non Nuoc Beach and the recently opened Life Resort where the press conference was to be held.  Along the way, the growing impact of international real estate investment was evident in one or two new office buildings and a 210-hectare cleared site already under development by the Korean construction company, Daewon. We left behind  the busy, vibrant city center and headed for the beach, joining the new four-lane highway that has been built 300 to 400 back from the water’s edge and runs parallel to the mostly undeveloped seaside.  Florida must have looked just like this in the 1950s.
We found Life Resort almost immediately, its large portico and main reception building blocking any view of the water or beach. Everything was bright and new. The combination of light woods, quiet fabrics and neutral marble floors was meant to engender calmness and relaxation while underlining the theme of ‘man’s ten senses’. There was something Scandinavian about the place, almost ‘IKEA-n’.  A long reflecting pool, lined by detached villas and individual buildings, led to the beach which, at this early hour, was empty.  This site layout, from the highway to the water, is typical of the smaller resorts dotted along Vietnam’s beaches. In this case, a rectangular 4.3 hectare piece of land, complete with its own 145 meter beach front marks Life Resort’s footprint.  It was only, later, after we left the resort and drove along the beach that we began to understand the stultifying effect of this kind of cookie cutter land planning.

 

A section of 'chopped-up' beach at Da nang

 

For mile after mile, the water front had been divided into a series of large lots of varying size, spanning the dune line and perpendicular to the beach. Development was sporadic and felt unplanned and disconnected.  Where construction had commenced, the dunes had been flattened and cleared of all vegetation. Next to the Life Resort was Furama, located on a 6 hectare site and considered the model for this kind of hotel-and-villa-with-its-own-beach program. Furama was followed by a resort over twice the size, the Crowne Plaza, which included a casino and was built by Chinese developers for Chinese visitors.  After a couple of kilometers of empty dunes, the latest new resort loomed, this time with an international ‘flag’; the Da Nang Hyatt is almost complete and will take up a 17 hectare site, stretching from highway to beach front.
Each resort is walled and designed to be entirely insular; a luxurious world of international homogeneity removed from the richer, authentic experience of Da Nang City. The only place to walk is along the beach itself (if you can get to it) because the highway is a bleak, rapid transit corridor bereft of any supporting services. The beach front has no shops, restaurants or any other sign of life outside of the resorts, especially now that the resident population is being rehoused to make way for future development. As the article says ‘…the seaside has been cut into small bits…’ but in this case, even the largest resort is dwarfed by the scale of the beach and its scrubby dunes.

 

Left behind by the receding tide...

 

Earlier, at lunch, I had been seated opposite a bright young local government representative who talked proudly in perfect English of the care and speed which large investors – especially from overseas – were shepherded through the process of obtaining land, gaining an investment license and then constructing a resort. If only I had met him after our tour of the beach. I could have asked him whether there was a regional master plan, why the resorts were so disconnected and when would there emerge a discernible mix of mutually supporting land uses?

 

Another resort. Another empty, private stretch of beach...

 

I thought again of Florida, especially around Fort Lauderdale and Panama City Beach where towering condominiums have destroyed the protective natural dune-scape and long ago eliminated easy access to the beaches.  Da Nang at least has resisted the allure of the high-rise but in its place is an equally destructive model; the sprawling, low-density private resort for the enjoyment of a few and the exclusion of many, especially Vietnam’s fishing communities and the locals who were content to enjoy the great expanses of rolling dunes with their stabilizing scrub vegetation and beaches of spectacular proportion.
The dilemma remains. Can the government harness growth, create sensitive, balanced, regional development plans and preserve Vietnam’s peerless natural environment while meeting the aspirations of a growing, ambitious and youthful population?

Gone Fishing

Relief! We made it aboard!

One of my abiding memories of my time in Florida was watching the fishing boats come and go across St Joseph’s Bay.  It was quite a novelty.  The Raffields and the Woods (related, of course) had for generations operated their fleets from Port St. Joe, surviving the regulations that had chased most other commercial fishermen out of the industry.  The boats were a colorful, intermittent reminder of Port St. Joe’s past and were easily  outnumbered by the numerous sport fishermen in their fiberglass tubs.

Quy Nhon's boats

So what a joy it was to look out across Quy Nhon’s bay on my first night there and suddenly realize that all those lights were not towns further along the coast or busy islands a short distance across the water but hundreds and hundreds of fishing boats, setting their nets to catch the turning tide. There was no doubt that I was in a city where fishing was very much part of the present and, indeed, the future.

Comings and goings in Quy Nhon's harbour.

Early next morning a group of us headed to the harbor to meet a boat that would take us to Hai Giang, one of the bay’s nicest coves and best accessed by water.  The moored fishing boats were almost identical to the ones that Eugene Raffield and Bill Wood operated except in Quy Nhon harbor everything was multiplied tenfold or more. There were more boats, more people, more activity. Motorbikes, laden down with baskets of fish, were everywhere and the dockside was slippery with the remains of the previous night’s catch. Our little boat, looking alarmingly overwhelmed by the rest of the fleet, was moored by its prow,  perpendicular to the quayside.  The slippery steps, rocking boat and oily water looked to me like recipe for disaster but we all managed to make it aboard, much to the disappointment of the watching dock workers and fishermen.

Proudly flying the flag.

We pushed off and headed noisily into the marine equivalent of a six-lane highway, our clattering diesel engine emitting an impressive plume of black, greasy smoke.

There were boats everywhere but within a few minutes of leaving the bustling quayside we had joined an informal flotilla, motoring purposefully for the harbor’s exit and along the edge of a sparsely inhabited coastline.

The trawlers headed out to the open sea while the smaller boats, often consisting of no more than a rudimentary cabin set in the stern of a small leaky hull, were heading home to the shelter of the numerous sandy coves that punctuated the coastline. We eventually spotted our destination, a larger bay with a beautiful beach, wooded hills and an impressive array of boats swinging on their moorings. In minutes, our skipper had dropped anchor in about five feet of water, but still several meters off the shore.  All along the beach lay what I thought were upturned fish baskets drying in the sun. Into the water went our skipper.  He waded ashore, grabbed one of the baskets and hauled it back to the boat by its short hawser. It was, in fact, a coracle – or, at least, the Vietnamese version, thúng chai.  This circular waterproof lightweight basket is made of palm leaves and bamboo, can be maneuvered with one oar in a sculling motion and will tip you out in a second, unless you know what you’re doing.

Philip, our Skipper and the 'coracle'.

Our party managed to reach dry land without mishap, towed ashore by our skipper, one of us at a time, in the thúng chai.  We could see small houses dotted among the trees that fringed the beach. This was the fishing village, the inhabitants of which used the boats that were moored in the bay.  Judging by their modest homes, these fishing families led a hard and precarious life, far removed from the relative affluence of Port St Joe and its tidy, efficient fishing fleet.  But in Florida commercial fishing seems little more than a remnant of the past while Vietnam ranks fifth in the world as an exporter of fish products, with ambitions to progress further and build a sustainable industry.

By the time we returned to Quy Nhon’s harbor, its fish market was closing, boats were being sluiced down and it felt like the end of a long day, even though it was barely 10 o’ clock in the morning. Our next stop would be further up the coast, having transferred to our rented SUV for the drive north. The coastal road gave us a new view of the ocean and access to new beaches.  But one thing remained the same; the omnipresent fishing fleet, moored in the most sheltered part of each cove, the boats deserted if only for a few hours before their myriad lanterns would once again illuminate the night’s activity of one of Vietnam’s busiest and most important industries.

Not quite as seaworthy as it once was

Memories of Towns by the Sea

I could have taken the 30 minute direct flight from Saigon to Quy Nhon but instead, a few friends and I decided to rent a car and explore the coastal landscape of south central Viet Nam.

The eight-hour drive along the famous National Route 1A to Quy Nhon was definitely a long journey. For those of you who are new to this part of the world or Viet Nam, National Route 1A (a two-lane highway) traverses the entire length of the country from Ha Noi in the north and to Ca Mau in the south.

We made several stops at small villages for fuel and food. As one would expect, we passed many inland towns along the narrow road, hectare after hectare of farmland, rice paddies and coastal villages.

 

Hectare after hectare of farmland by Philip G

 

In some places, the road was very narrow and winding. To make matters worse, we found ourselves in a “conga line” of trucks, buses and cars, led by, yes, cattle. It was like a snake weaving its way along the contours of the mountains and through the valleys.

As the road skirted the shoreline, we were in awe of the incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. This brought back many memories. When I was studying in Rome, our class rented a bus to tour the southern cities of Italy. I remembered many beautiful coastal towns, marinas and beach communities clustered along the Italian Amalfi Coast.

 

by Amalfi-coast, Italy

 

There was always a “picture perfect” moment in each town, as it nestled on the shoreline with its deep blue water and beautiful beaches.

The City of Quy Nhon is in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam. It was once a French trading port and later an important American military base. And it is just as beautiful and breathtaking as one would imagine for this part of the Pacific Coast. Quy Nhon, there is no doubt in my mind, is a hideaway treasure waiting to be discovered.

Our SUV had trailed heavily loaded trucks, tourist buses and a few mopeds for hours. We were happy to get off route 1A and finally arrive.

 

Quy Nhon City on the horizon by Philip G

 

The approach to Quy Nhon from the south is spectacular; the blue-green water of the Pacific is very refreshing, the calm and undisturbed beach stretches as far as your eye can see, the white-topped waves gently caress the shoreline and the majestic view of Quy Nhon gradually comes into focus on the horizon to welcome us to its hideaway coastal location.

Quy Nhon is geographically very different from my home town – Tat Cau which is located on the southwest coast of the delta region. It is about 190 Km (120 miles) from Ho Chi Minh City to the East. The image I remember when I left Viet Nam as a child was of my village photographed from the boat before the sun set.

 

A village built on the edge of the river by Philip G

 

Tat Cau is neither a beach town nor a coastal city. It is a village built along the edge of the river near the Gulf of Thailand.

Water ways were the main transportation routes in Tat Cau. Boats were the vessels that transported goods and people throughout the region. Water was everywhere. There were barge/ferries for transportation, boats for living and for fishing and boats for transporting fruit and other food. Every morning those boats gathered on the water’s edge near our town center or at the water taxi stop to sell fresh fruit, fish and vegetables to local merchants.

 

Tat Cau town center by Philip G

 

Back then when I was a child, beach towns like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Vung Tau were far away places where rich people vacationed in extreme luxury – at least to us. Those places were like a dream and only existed on postcards and old pictures that were sent to us from wealthy relatives on their vacation.