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So near and yet so far

Update: February, 18/2014 - 08:18
The only means of getting to the mainland is a ferry boat, so residents of Ha Tinh Province's Hong Lam Hamlet lack easy access to the world outside. — Photo Huu Cuong

by Huu Cuong

HA TINH (VNS)— As the crow flies, Hong Lam Hamlet is not too far away from the rest of Xuan Giang Commune in central Ha Tinh Province – just 300 metres.

But for all intents and purposes, the island in the midst of the Hong Lam River is isolated from the rest of the world, particularly during the flooding season that lasts from August to December.

Even when the river is not in spate, the only means of getting to the mainland is the ferry boat, so residents still have no easy access to the world outside.

Vo Duoc, a 49-year-old resident, said: "Imagine what's like when we need to get to the village's medical centre, we have to wait long hours for the ferry-boat to get to the other side. When someone is sick at night or falls sick during the flooding season, there is no way to get medical attention."

With such difficult access to basic amenities, the hamlet residents have been leaving the place in droves. On an area of four square kilometers, there are just 244 households and a population of 667 now.

Locals say that after a historic flood in 1988, the hamlet's population dropped from around 2,000 to 1,500 people in just three years as many people migrated to southern provinces in search of jobs.

Xuan Giang Commune authorities say the exodus has slowed since, but never really stopped. They estimate that a total of 300 households have left since 2004, and at least 14 since 2010.

It has also been reported that the island suffers heavily from land erosion caused by illegal sand mining. It is estimated that at least 20 hectares of land have been lost in landslides in recent years.

"Those who can work have to leave, only the elders and children are left," Duoc said.

Traditionally, the island's residents used to make a living from growing sedge and making sedge mats and cultivating peanuts. But lack of transportation has made it difficult for the two vocations to thrive, locals say.

Tran Van Truong, chairman of the Xuan Giang People's Committee, said the isolated location made it very difficult for the commune authorities to provide support.

"We can only ask the district to lend a rescue boat and bring residents onshore when there's a storm and it's an emergency," he said.

The island has just one makeshift market that sells just basic necessities. There are no other services and entertainment, forcing the people to make trips to the shore for glimpses of the "civilised" world.

The family of Vo Duc Cuong, a 71-year-old resident, has been living on the island for several generations, growing sedge and making mats. But all of his children have migrated to the south of the country to work as manual labourers.

"Without the bridge, it's as though we're temporarily imprisoned here," he said. "Years ago, we managed to raise VND70 million (US$3,300) to build a wharf for the ferry. But we can't do more than that."

Like other parts of the island, the only elementary school here wears a deserted look. There are just 29 students left from grade 1-5.

Nguyen Thi Loan, the only remaining teacher here, said she tried hard not to miss any classes even though she lives on the other side of the river.

"We don't want the children here to miss any class. They don't have anything to do, so they should at least have school to look forward to," Loan said.

Some years ago, the student population was about 200. It plunged to 38 two years ago and to the current 29.

The remaining population is desperately hoping to get a bridge from the island to the mainland part of their commune.

The residents have been asking for a bridge since 1995. It is estimated that a temporary bridge would cost between VND300-500 million ($14,300-23,800) and a permanent one, which would take six months to build, would need an investment of VND1 billion ($46,700).

Tran Anh Tuan, deputy chairman of the commune, said there is a plan to build the bridge, "but funding is always a problem."

If the bridge does not materialise soon, residents want to leave and go ashore, but this also depends whether they can get some support to stabilise their lives there.

As of now, they are stuck in the middle of nowhere. — VNS

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