|Nguyen Van Vinh works as a boatman, taking tourists to Vung Vieng Village in Ha Long Bay every day. Since local authorities offered the job to relocated residents like Vinh, he says their lives have improved. — VNS Photo Khanh Duong, Kim Thuy
by Khanh Duong – Kim Thuy
QUANG NINH (VNS) — When 55-year-old Nguyen Van Vinh and his family had to move to the mainland from his boat over one year ago, the emerald and the salty smell of the sea occupied his mind every night.
When his family went to sleep, Vinh still kept the door open. It was his habit over the past 50 years and he didn't want to change it.
Vinh's families have lived on the sea for generations. He was born and grew up on a floating boat in Vung Vieng fishing village. The sea was his home and he never thought of leaving it, no matter what happened.
"I love the sea like fish need water. My parents raised me and my brothers with the fish of this sea. It was my childhood. I have an unexplainable spiritual connection with the sea."
In 2014, Vinh's family and other 300 households of Vung Vieng village had to relocate to Cai Xa Cong resettlement area in Ha Phong ward of Ha Long city.
The local authorities said that the relocation was aimed at reducing pollution caused by exploitation of fishing resources as well as improve the fishermen's livelihoods.
"We have enjoyed better living conditions since we moved to live inland. We no longer have to worry when natural disasters strike," Vinh said.
Since his family moved to the resettlement area, his three grandchildren can learn at an inland school. Previously, there were only some shabby primary schools on floating villages. Children only finished grade five and stayed at home to help their family.
"I know it sounds strange but sometimes I think I hear the call of the sea and also of past generations of my family. I did not feel I was living my life when I was separated from the sea," Vinh said. "That is why I sometimes stealthily went offshore to catch fish."
Moreover, Vinh and his family were also anxious about their livelihoods.
"We faced difficulties finding a job as we have not completed our education. That meant we had to compete with other relocated residents to find manual jobs."
"We did not know what to do on the land. Our family was desperate at that time, everything was uncertain," Vinh said.
Understanding the fishermen's worries, since 2014, Van Chai-Ha Long Cooperative has collaborated with tourist agencies to boost eco-tourism and about 60 selected residents were offered to work as boatmen. Vinh and other boatmen are very excited to return to the place where they feel so at home.
Being used to a floating life, Vinh does not have to spend time learning and finds sailing traditional floating boats a familiar work. People, whose lives are connected closely to the sea, knew how to ride boats even before they started learning how to write.
The daily task of boatmen, who are easily recognised with purple uniforms and name tags on their chest, is to transport tourists to Vung Vieng fishing floating village where pictures and objects depicting daily lives of locals are displayed. Tourists can also visit an aquatic product breeding farm here.
The job is not as strenuous as catching fish, Vinh said, adding that his outcome is more stable as tourists visit Ha Long Bay all year around. Summer is the peak time for domestic tourists while foreign holiday makers prefer travelling during autumn and winter.
During the boat ride, Vinh also talks and introduces the village to tourists. He is also responsible for clearing away rubbish floating on the water surface.
"Some tourists offer to help me with the cleaning," he said.
He enjoys the job not only because he has the chance to introduce his fatherland's beauty but he also feels proud of protecting the waters where he grew up.
Dao Van Tan, 44, has also stabilised his livelihood after one year working as a boatman.
Now, three of the four members of his family work as boatmen, with an average income of VND7 million (US$310) per month.
"Thanks to the stable income, our family can not only enjoy a higher living standard but we can also put aside some money. One year ago, we could never imagine that we had enough money for daily needs, much less saving," Tan said.
Before taking the job, four members of Tan's family had to make ends meet on VND1.5 million ($70) per month from Tan and his wife's fishing.
They used to run out of money and had to eat fish that Tan caught for weeks.
Things got worse when disaster struck as they could not catch fish. They had to borrow money, but sometimes, no one helped them and they had to be hungry.
"We had to struggle every day and we never thought that we had future. But now, we can ensure a better future, especially for my children," Tan said.
His job also brings him happiness and makes his life more interesting.
"I have chances to meet with people from different cultures. I have learned many new things and some tourists have impressed me with unforgettable memories," Tan said.
Many tourists, especially Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese), shared and sympathised with his hardships. Some gave him gifts and money. Some offered him friendship.
"They made friends with me and treated me nicely. When they left, they kissed and hugged me as if we were families. I had never done that with strangers before. It was amazing."
Boatmen like Vinh and Tan have not been provided any training. Therefore, they face language and cultural barriers when trying to communicate with foreign tourists.
"I wish I could introduce and explain to them our culture and interesting story. All I can do now are smiling and using other body language," Tan said.
Tang Van Phien, director of Van Chai-Ha Long Cooperative, said that it would cooperate with tourist agencies to create more jobs as well as provide necessary training for local residents.
"We hope that every boatman will also serve as a tour guide. We consider local residents a major factor to attract more tourists."
Sharing Phien's opinion, Dao Ba Can, representative of Ha Long Bay's management board said that boatmen could contribute to promoting the image of Viet Nam with their friendliness and hospitality.
"Tourists not only want to explore the magnificence of Ha Long, they also want to learn about its people's lives and culture. All of our boatmen have been living in Vung Vieng fishing floating village for decades. If they are trained, they will be good tour guides." — VNS