Viet Nam News
KIÊN GIANG — In almost every village in Việt Nam, one common complaint stands out among residents, to be precise, remaining residents.
They say that the youth are no longer interested in traditional vocations and are fleeing to urban centres, near and far, in the hope of finding jobs and realising their dreams. The remoter the rural area, the greater the desire to leave.
Amidst this rural flight, or the ‘exodus’ of young people leaving villages and small towns behind to make a living in cities, a common phenomenon throughout Việt Nam now, a few homing pigeons are bucking the trend – millennials who are ignoring obvious opportunities to make a life in major, dynamic urban centres like HCM City or Vũng Tàu in the south, Đà Nẵng in the centre, and Hà Nội in the north.
Among these are a few natives of a remote island in the south of the country.
Đặng Hùng Cường, a 30-something man with a sun-kissed tan typical of a coastal resident, has chosen to be a homestay host on the Lại Sơn Island Commune in Kiên Giang Province’s Kiên Hải District. Cường’s ‘specialties’ include, but are not limited to, guiding guests to snorkel and hunt for spiky sea urchins amongst colourful coral reefs.
Listening to Cường listing the must-see sights in Lại Sơn with evident enthusiasm and pride, it is hard to imagine that he used to be an engineer.
Most people on the island were fisherfolk, and Cường’s father was no exception. After graduating from high school, Cường studied marine electronics for three years, then set up a shop to repair electronic devices used on boats. However, his little business quickly faltered as fishing in Lại Sơn started to dwindle, with fishermen gradually abandoning their vocation and young people leaving en masse for the cities, he told the Lao Động (Labour) newspaper.
“While the islanders were leaving, the number of tourists to the island kept climbing, which led me to consider trying my luck in the tourism business,” he said.
With encouragement and support from his younger brother, Cường remodelled his home and turned it into a guesthouse. With the experience and knowledge gained from the days of accompanying his father on fishing trips, Cường decided to double as a tour guide.
“I went online to see how a homestay business works. I also attended a crash course on hospitality. My wife cooked and accompanied guests in trips to the markets, helping them select the freshest seafood available. After two years, I started to get the hang of the business, and began earning a stable income,” he said.
He still occasionally dusts up his repairing and mechanical skills for those still sticking to fishing.
“Since I have decided to remain on the island, I will do whatever people here need,” he added.
Following Cường, his two younger brothers have also decided to stay back and make the island their home.
We owe this place
Đặng Văn Hường, an aquaculture major graduate from HCM City, could have chosen to stay in the southern economic hub, but decided to return to the island and engage in agricultural extension work. He was later made vice chairman of the Lại Sơn Commune in charge of social affairs.
Hường has recommended and led many community tourism programmes, including co-ordinating with universities to hold short training courses for locals in cooking, communications and basic hospitality. He has also forwarded the idea of building a sea bank as an open space for locals to set up shops and organise entertainment activities for tourists.
“My father was originally from the central province of Bình Định. He followed a fisherman to the south and settle here to dodge military service during the war. The island has saved and nurtured my father, and brought my father and my mother together. This is also where we have grown up, and we owe this place an enormous debt,” Hường said, explaining his decision to return.
His youngest brother, Đặng Thanh Phong, 27, learnt to repair phones and found work in several urban areas. Later, when the island was finally connected to the national power grid in 2016 and people flocked to buy modern conveniences like TVs, fridges and washing machines, Phong saw an opportunity for an electrician to do well.
“When I was younger, I worked in Bình Định, Vũng Tàu and Bình Dương. With my trade, I was just a small grain of sand in the big cities, but, here, I have found myself more than helpful... My work is needed by the people here.”
Future of the island
While some people have fled their rural homes after spotting economic opportunities, others have been influenced by just “liveability.’
“In 1997, the devastating typhoon Linda hit the southwestern sea. I was 10. My grandparents ordered that the whole family abandon this place and go to Vũng Tàu. Ten years later, I decided to return to the island after finishing my training as an English teacher in a university,” Nguyễn Thị Phương Thi, who now teaches at the Lại Sơn High School. She is one of a dozen or so young natives aged 24-33 who have bet on a future on the island. It might not be a risky bet as one would assume.
Until as late as 10 years ago, the island was a hard place to live in. Infrastructure, electricity and clean water were virtually non-existent, and it would take hours to go reach the mainland on rickety boats.
“My family remains in Vũng Tàu, and I am here on my own. As fate would have it, on the boat to get here, I met my childhood friend who’d recently graduated from the Chemistry-Biology pedagogy faculty and was returning to the island to be a teacher here, like me. Of course, we were thrilled to see each other,” Thi said.
Happiness was writ large on the face of Lại Sơn High School principal Tô Thị Minh Hoãn as she talked about the returning islanders.
“We have really struggled to hire teachers, locals were of course not available, so the provincial education authorities had to mobilise teachers from elsewhere. Difficulties to adapt to local lives, as well as difficulties of living on an island, meant that most barely stayed for three years before asking to go back to the mainland,” Hoãn said.
Locals returning to teach has improved the situation considerably.
“One headache here is students’ dropping out. Upon turning 15, most would abandon their studies to either go fishing or leave the island altogether for Bình Dương or HCM City to work in factories. The smaller ones would follow their parents to other provinces and cities, and in many cases, without supervision and care from their parents who are busy with work, get tangled in social evils.”
Local teachers, who can really understand and sympathise with each family’s background and difficulties, would find it easier to work with parents and help reduce the dropout rate, she said.
The youngest teacher in the school, Phan Mộng Tuyền, 24, admitted that island life is ‘less fun’ than in cities, but “there are too many things that attach me to this place.”
Other people on the island are being influenced by the youngsters, and encouraging their children to continue studying and saying it is possible for them to make a living here.
“Previously, when I was student, every time I heard that a teacher was moving back to the mainland, we were really sad and resented them for ‘not loving the island, not caring about us.’ When I got older, I could understand their reasons, they just wanted to be with their family. It was a natural thing,” Tuyền said.
“The responsibility of building a future for this island ultimately falls on people like me and coming generations... We do not regret our decision to come back.” — VNS