Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Days in Đà Nẵng (3): Hoa's Place

« Toute la Gaule est occupée par les Romains... Toute ? Non ! Car un village peuplé d'irréductibles Gaulois résiste encore et toujours à l'envahisseur... » - René Goscinny
Kleptocracy, alternatively cleptocracy or kleptarchy, (from Greek: κλέπτης - kleptēs, "thief" and κράτος - kratos, "power, rule", hence "rule by thieves") is a form of political and government corruption where the government exists to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class at the expense of the wider population ... - From Wikipedia
September 2009. We return to Vietnam after a one-month trip to Europe, where she met my family for the first time. After a long journey, including 18 hours spent at an ugly Moscow airport, we arrive in Danang. We are tired and penniless, and not sure where to go next. We want to move somewhere we can live together, even though we are not married yet; we want to live free and anonymously. She got an offer for an MA program in Ho Chi Minh City, so she takes the plane there to complete her registration, but she is refused entry to the program because she arrives too late. Meanwhile, I am spending some time at a small guesthouse near the beach south of Danang, taking a rest, thinking about what to do next. She returns to Danang and meets me at the guesthouse. After two good nights of sleep, we decide to move to Hanoi.

The guesthouse where we stayed is called Hoa's Place, and it is located in a small hamlet near the Marble Mountains. It has been there for almost twenty years, and in those years it has become a true backpackers' institution. It was visited by independent travellers long before there were any large beach resorts in this area; back in the days when Lonely Planet guidebooks still signified adventurous low-budget travel, instead of mass tourism and hyperconsumption. In all those years, it has not changed much. There is nothing special about the rooms. The location is great if you want to stay near the beach, but inconvenient if you want to spend much time in either Danang or Hoi An. However, it is the atmosphere that makes the place special: the relaxed vibe, the friendliness of the owner and his family, and of course the communal dinners, which are a great opportunity for meeting fellow travellers. Judging from the high rating on Tripadvisor, this atmosphere is much appreciated by almost everyone staying here.

Hoa's Place has not changed much, but the surrounding area has. As I wrote in earlier posts, in the past ten years or so, nearby Hoi An has changed dramatically; so has the city of Danang recently. In only five years, the thirty kilometres of sandy beach between Hoi An and Danang have been turned into one large construction site. Local communities have been displaced, their villages given way to monstrous resorts, casinos and golf courts. Those who did not leave voluntarily were forced to leave. As Human Rights Watch reported recently, in 2012 the human rights situation in Vietnam has deteriorated significantly. "Land was a flashpoint issue, with local farmers and villagers facing arbitrary confiscation of their land by government officials and private sector project operators", they wrote. Local activists and bloggers have been imprisoned for many years for demonstrating against the confiscation of land by corrupt government officials and project developers.

The problems are interrelated. First, one of the very few remnants of the communist system is that people do not actually own the land they own; they merely 'rent' it from the People, and the Party (i.e., local officials) can confiscate it at any time, fairly easily, for comparatively little financial compensation. Second, local government officials are easily bribed, and earn a lot of money by selling land to domestic or foreign project developers. Third, resistance is generally poorly organised, and easily crushed - not in the least because the army is one of the most powerful economical actors, running banks and phone companies, and being in charge of mining and logging activities. Nepotism is widespread; local governments, private investors, and army officials happily divide the cake, while those who have been living on and working land for decades get next to nothing. As land issues are becoming more and more controversial, and the national economy is stagnating, dissatisfaction is likely to increase in the near future.

We visit Hoa's Place for a cup of coffee. It still looks the same as four years ago, and we enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. Sadly, though, destruction seems imminent. The guesthouse is one of a mere handful of houses still standing. On both sides, empty wasteland is waiting for investors. If it were not for the high fences and security guards, one would not know they are destined to become five-star resorts. However, it is only a matter of time before this area of beach is also filled with concrete blocks. Meanwhile, the nearby Marble Mountains have also been 'developed': these days, there are more shops selling marble statues than customers. One wonders where all the marble comes from - not from these mountains, that much is certain, otherwise there would not be any mountains left for the tourists to visit.

We talk to one of Hoa's relatives. She tells us the amount of money they have been offered for their guesthouse and land. It is barely enough to buy a small apartment in Danang. Thus far, she tells us, they have refused to sell their land. However, she does not seem very optimistic. Sooner or later, she knows, they will be forced to leave. It is the story of many Vietnamese people today. But until that moment, they will keep the guesthouse. Who knows, a miracle might happen.

Two hunderd metres down the road is a large army office.

Update (April 25, 2013): One month after I posted this story, Hoa's Place was destroyed. The life of this popular backpackers' institution has come to an end. Worse, the entire beach between Danang and Hoi An has now been confiscated by corrupt local authorities, and sold to project developers. They are constructing hideous concrete blocks, which are believed to attract thousands of tourists. In all likelihood, though, most of the rooms will remain empty. But the natural and social landscape of the coastal area are changing beyond recognition. I cannot help but think that the demolishment of Hoa's Place, and the traditional coastal hamlet where it was located, is of great symbolic significance. It is illustrative of many things that are going wrong in Vietnam today: corruption, land confiscation, cowboy capitalism, and the ruthless exploitation of environmental and human resources. 

One expat has been so kind as to document Hoa's Place' destruction, and post the footage online (original post here):