Tom McDonough asks, are locals embracing the explosion of the tourism industry in Mui Ne? For me, witnessing Vietnam’s Mui Ne beach area develop from little known bolt-hole for expats and savvy tourists to an internationally celebrated tourist hot spot has been as painful as watching a healthy baby grow into a pimply faced, self-harming teenager.
In the early noughties, when I was still living in Saigon, Mui Ne offered an empty stretch of beach flanked by a traditional fishing village and a mere handful of low-rise guest houses, resorts and restaurants. Mui Ne was my sanctuary, the only tourist area in Vietnam where I could relax away from the tourist masses and the accompanying sales pitches of local guides, drivers, traders, sex workers or pimps. A night time walk along the village’s main road from one guest house bar or restaurant to another offered something of minor adventure, the road being deserted and the stars the only source of light. Mui Ne was that rarest of things in Vietnam: a tourist area that was quiet and hassle-free.
How things have changed. As my air-conditioned Japanese bus rolled into Mui Ne on my last trip back there in early 2013, I winced at the sight of crocodile skin shops, restaurants, massage parlours, ATMs, restaurants and 24-hour convenience stores on both sides of the vehicle.
It was immediately obvious that the Mui Ne I had known and loved was a thing of the past. Small businesses occupied almost every piece of land as far as the eye could see and a forest of signage competed for tourists’ attention, much of it in Russian. It was sad, but not surprising. Indeed, the writing had been on the wall for Mui Ne for some time and, if anything, the surprise was that it had retained its ‘secret garden’ charm for so long.
Located about four hours drive from Saigon, Mui Ne and its environs boast some of the lowest rainfall in Vietnam together with year-round sunny weather, strong winds, beaches and sand dunes. These attributes, coupled with Vietnam’s relatively low prices and exquisite food, make Mui Ne an inevitably enticing location for both water sports enthusiasts and ordinary sun-seeking travellers.
But with Mui Ne already having lost most of its charm in my eyes, this was not a leisure trip. I was here this time to research local people’s views on tourism for a Masters dissertation on the impact of tourism on local people. Horror stories on this subject span the globe, with many highlighted by the organisation Tourism Concern, but they are by no means inevitable and I was here to find out what the experience of locals in Mui Ne was.
The morning after my arrival I rose at dawn and met up with Da, my floppy-fringed guide, outside the Full Moon resort. A ten minute scooter ride took us to an area of beach designated for fishing. It was just past 7am, near the end of the fishing shift, so people were either sizing up their catches or hauling their plastic fishing vessels back up the beach. With a mild taste of sea salt in my mouth and sand blowing onto my mobile phone voice recorder and note book, I waited for Da to pick out a suitable interviewee.
The first person to speak to us was a 40 year old woman named Huong who stood no more than five feet tall and had every part of her skin covered in clothing, like a ninja. After peeling off her face-mask, she looked up at me and, smiling broadly, told me how she’d been earning her keep from sea since the age of 18.
How had the rapid rise of tourism affected her I asked? “Oh it’s good, she said, “in the evening I sell cigarettes on the street to tourists. I don’t make a huge amount from that but every bit helps. Thanks to tourism we can all earn a bit more money now.”
This interview set the tone for the morning, with Huong and all but one of the other five people we interviewed saying that they’d turned tourism to their advantage economically and were in favour of it.
Later that afternoon, Da drove me to a family home in an alley way near the tourist district. Sitting on the floor of their spacious and shaded front courtyard Da and I waited while the father, Hung, put on a shirt for the occasion and the mother, Diep, finished watering some plants. Once they were ready, they were both keen to talk, especially the mother.
“We used to live on the beach front where the Saigon Mui Ne resort is now, but after tourism started we lost our land and they didn’t pay us anywhere near enough compensation,” said Diep. “But if we didn’t accept the payment and leave they’d have forced us out without making any payment at all. The police came several times to threaten us.”
I asked her what she’d think if the area returned to how it was prior to tourism.
“Oh”, she said, clasping her hand together in prayer position and closing her eyes. “That would be a dream come true.”
I left the interview feeling angry on the family’s behalf and wondering if I might now be on the cusp of discovering that all was not well with tourism in Mui Ne.
Over the following couple of weeks, Da and I ploughed through 30 more interviews (28 local Vietnamese people and two expatriates), asking about the environmental, economic, aesthetic, cultural and security impacts of the industry. We spoke to more fishermen and women, construction workers, bar staff, lottery ticket sellers, jet-ski riders, shop staff, fish traders, resort security staff, taxi drivers, freelance tour guides and resort or guest house owners.
But my expectation of discovering a widespread malaise among locals was to prove unfounded. Over and again the message was the same: most people (88%) had managed to turn tourism to their advantage economically and were therefore supportive of it. Even those few people who felt their personal economic circumstances hadn’t changed were generally (71%) in favour of the industry as they felt it made the area as a whole more affluent.
We found only one other evictee but, despite his bitterness with the local authorities, even he was a fan of tourism as he was earning good money from renting out a property as a massage parlour. The sole complaint that surfaced with some consistency (64% of resort staff) was that resort employees had to work too many hours for low pay. But even this gripe was about people not getting their fair share of the spoils rather than a grievance against the industry itself.
As in the gold rush towns of 19th Century America and Australia, the race was on to make money in Mui Ne and concerns about crowding, pollution, aesthetics and cultural integrity were far from most people’s minds.
There were, however, some dissenting voices, primarily among the long-term resort and guest house owners. Pascale Lefebvre, pioneer of Mui Ne’s kite-surfing craze and co-owner the Full Moon resort and Jibe’s bar, both established in mid-90s, believes the environment and appearance of Mui Ne are casualties of tourism’s rapid growth.
Sitting in Jibe’s bar with surfers milling around behind him, Pascale took drags on his cigarette as he talked about the down side of Mui Ne’s rapid changes.
“They’ve only built a pavement on one side of the road so there’s always some people walking on the road. There are some deaths on that road every year now. Last year a corn seller was killed by a drunk Russian driver and two street cleaners were killed by another drunk driver,” said the bronzed Frenchman.
“Until 2005, development was controlled but since then it’s gone a bit wild,” he says. “The Saigon Mui Ne resort was the first one to break the law about not building above the height of a Coconut tree. Others have followed suit. And the hotels are throwing rubbish into the sea. Last year, someone filmed a hotel pumping human waste directly into the sea.”
But such comments were rare. Most people clearly felt they’d never had it so good. And even for me, Mui Ne as a whole is not completely ruined. A motorbike ride eastwards toward Mui Ne town, soothed my soul. Slowly, authentic Vietnam unfurls itself on this route as resorts become less numerous and local houses and eateries start to appear. Once beyond Mui Ne town, itself a quintessentially Vietnamese place with a fishing bay and thriving market, I had the road almost completely to myself. I drove for hours, lapping up the sight of blue skies and endless empty beaches lined with palm trees. It was a pleasure to see after being in the tourist area for two weeks. Tom McDonough
The Full Moon Beach Resort has remained small scale and tasteful, with classy rooms in a tropical garden setting, a beach-side restaurant with excellent buffet breakfast and a small outdoor pool. An abundance of well kept plants, trees and flowers give this place a hidden garden feel although over the years, as the resort has upgraded its facilities, it has made the transition from being basic and reasonably priced to being more expensive. $70 to $95 for rooms; $100 to $190 for family room or house.
84 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Mui Ne, Phan Thiet, Vietnam, t: (84 62) 3 847 008, email: firstname.lastname@example.org web: www.windsurf-vietnam.com or www.kitesurf-vietnam.com
Wind Hill guest house is a short distance away from the beach on a sandy hill. Decent though not special rooms at $10 to $20 per night. Alleyway 69 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Ham Tien, Mui. t: (062) 3741 087
WestEast travel offer good rates for flights to Asia including Vietnam and will arrange your visa for you. http://www.westeasttravel.com/