Beyond Green Travel: In Vietnam, Emptied Graves Make Room for Mass Tourism
In "Beyond Green Travel," ADVENTURE Global Travel Editor Costas Christ gives an eye-witness account of the ups and downs of ecotourism in dispatches from around the world.
At Vietnam’s China Beach, local villagers must dig out family members’ remains from old burial grounds to make way for new resorts.
Over the last 15 years, tourism to Vietnam has grown by more than 1,000 percent, putting it among the fastest growing tourism economies in the
world. The U.S. failed to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese during the “American War,” as it is referred to here, but tourism seems to be succeeding in doing just that.
Historic towns like Hoi An, which I first visited in 1994 and was taken by the beauty of its narrow streets and ornate wooden bridges, are now lined with handicraft shops, souvenir stores, restaurants, cafes, and tailors (the best in town is “Yaly” on Tran Phu Street, where 15 dollars will buy you a perfectly fitted silk shirt made on site).
Wandering Hoi An’s streets, which still retain some of the charm that led to tourism’s growth here in the first place, I found most of the local people I spoke with echoing Mrs. Chuong, who sells hand-carved chop sticks in the central market: “Ten years ago we had nothing and today we have jobs from tourism and can raise our families and buy food and clothes for our children.”
The local view on all this tourism expansion in Hoi An is overwhelmingly positive. But it does come with a price, literally.
Mr. Coung, who leads walking tours around Hoi An, told me that real estate prices have skyrocketed, making it almost impossible for the children of families that have called Hoi An home for generations, to buy their own houses.
"It is too expensive to buy land in Hoi An now. It is only for the most wealthy Vietnamese and foreigners," Coung explained to me. But it is a sacrifice that the people of Hoi An seem willing to make for the economic benefits that tourism is accruing for their community.
Just 15 miles north, however, on the new highway that connects Hoi An to Danang, it is a different story. The stretch of pale sand, known as China Beach to American GIs, is being bulldozed for a parade of high-rise resorts. While the people living nearby also welcome this seeming prosperity, things have gone too far for many of them.
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Local and foreign investors have purchased nearly all of the vast track of beach, including ancestral burial plots found there. Villagers are now being forced to break open the coffins of their ancestors and retrieve the remains before the bulldozers level and bury the place, all in the name of another new mass tourism resort.
In a country where ancestor worship is still practiced, villagers have begrudgingly followed orders to remove the remains of their families and find another place for them. But for many families, there is no other place to re-bury their ancestors. They are forced to cremate what is left of their family remains instead.
All of this leaves me wondering: What kind of tourist would be willing to sleep in a hotel built right on top of an ancestral burial ground anyway?
Photograph by Costas Christ