Lachlan Marr is currently in South East Asia, and while visiting Hoi An he sees a beautiful city beset by two foes: nature and ignorance.
Hoi An, an ancient city with modern problems.
You can’t fight the future – an adage, ironically, as old as time itself. For generations however, the ancient city of Hoi An has certainly tried, desperately clung to the past. Now it is being threatened by a modern issue. Climate change.
Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s most architecturally unique and ancient cities. Now UNESCO listed, it was originally settled by the powerful Champa Empire, which served as an important commercial capital for thousands of years. In the sixteenth century, Chinese, Japanese and European traders settled there, which bore Hoi An its unique aesthetic.
Within the borders of Hoi An (especially the picturesque Old Town) renovations to properties are subjected to approval processes by the local authorities, but strangely specific laws are imposed on the area. Riding of motorcycles is prevented. Local shopkeepers are required to place colourful paper lanterns in their storefronts.
Despite these efforts to maintain Hoi An’s historical style, the city is being drastically affected by global warming and climate change.
Flash flooding, violent storms, rising sea levels and massive amounts of erosion along the shoreline and riverfronts have led to the virtual destruction of whole areas of the ancient city. Unfortunately for the local authorities these are issues that will take a lot more than some paper lanterns to address.
Perhaps the most drastically affected area is Cua Dai Beach, until recently one of Hoi An’s more popular attractions. Over the past decade, the beach which was once frequented by tourists and locals alike has been nearly completely lost to erosion and rising sea levels.
I spoke to one local who lamented the loss of this once beautiful beach. Their response was emotional and the look of despair in their eyes was clear as they spoke of Cua Dai they knew stating, “It was once very beautiful, but now it is just not there. It is gone”. Sadly though, this reaction is not uniform across all locals, as many with whom I spoke seemed unconcerned about Cua Dai’s destruction.
This is in opposition to the view of a local official, Le Cong Sy, who states that the sea has moved as much as 150 metres inland in the past eight years. While in 2014 the rate of erosion gained ground at an even more alarming rate with 30 metres of the once popular beach being swallowed by the sea in a single month. In ways of a response, sandbags have been placed along the water’s edge in an attempt to halt the rising sea level. There are also plans to plant steel poles in place of the palm trees that have been swept away by severe storms.
My own visit to Cua Dai beach was short lived. The ruins of the failed resort projects noticeably dot the evaporating landscape. The beachfront has a ghostly feel, littered with the skeletons of once-popular restaurants along the strip.
Yet these small-scale solutions may well be a case of far too little far too late.
Clearly, climate change is a major culprit in the destruction of Cua Dai beach. The increasing temperature of Vietnam’s East Sea (also known as the South China Sea, depending on who you ask) has directly resulted in increasingly extreme weather conditions, including the aforementioned flash flooding and storms. The subsequent decision to build large hydroelectric dams and a prevalent sand mining industry has also directly impacted on the beach’s natural ability to protect itself from erosion.
Meanwhile, the golf courses built in the area have put further pressures on the already limited supply of fresh and clean water. And the recently approved move to build a nuclear power plant in the flood prone and storm affected area has been questioned by many.
Unfortunately, the main concerns regarding the loss of Cua Dai beach for Vietnamese authorities and even for many locals, are simply that the loss of the beach may result in the loss of tourist dollars. The more dire consequences may be the large-scale loss of livelihoods mainly through the agricultural crop. One report stated that over the last thirty years, rice production in the area has decreased by as much as 66 percent.
Beyond this, local infrastructure such as roads and water networks are under threat by rising water levels and eroding riverbanks. This is a dangerous prospect in an area where there is extreme poverty and access to clean water is already limited.
For many the simplest solution to the loss of Cua Dai beach is to move their businesses and direct tourists to Hoi An’s northern beachfront at An Bang. Yet this obviously fails to address the real issues.
In a country where climate change denialism is still commonplace and the problems of the environment are often disregarded in the name of progress, it sadly seems unlikely that anything will be done in time to save Cua Dai beach.
Some of the suggestions on how to address this crisis made in a UN report have been taken on board by local authorities. However, the same report published a fairly damning assessment of the local authorities’ ability to implement the suggested policies, with many officials simply lacking an understanding of the realities of climate change.
Cocktail sipping tourists and knick knack selling locals will most likely simply move on to An Bang beach, leaving Cua Dai and its problems behind.
Yet with few real solutions being put in place, the questions remain how long until the problems of Cua Dai beach follow the tourist trail to An Bang, and how long can Hoi An pretend to be unaffected by the problems of the modern world?
A historical setting may be great for the tourist trade, but Hoi An’s commitment to the past could condemn the city to a bleak future.