Contextualizing Climate Change in Vietnam

The first time I crossed the street in Vietnam, I looked for traffic signals. Stuffed backpack high on my shoulders, I remember wondering if we were just bypassing the crosswalk; a slew of motorbikes and vans weaved between my classmates and me, honking and maneuvering without hand signals. Unnerved and steeped in 15-hour jet lag, I pondered strategies to create a gap in the continuous flow.

I am a jaywalking enthusiast anyways, but the streets of Vietnam go beyond mere corner cutting. The green light is always on. As obstacles arise, you weave around them. You adjust quickly. You move on. A short honk is an indicator of presence; a prolonged honk means that someone is approaching quickly, not that they’re angry or going to crash into you.

It’s different from the rules and regulations that govern roads in the United States, but also refreshing in the sense that being in the street requires being aware and ready if another car veers into your space.

After a few weeks, this road chaos has become natural. I feel very comfortable walking and biking between farms for site visits, to class in the heart of Hoi An (a small city along the country’s central coast), and through the rice fields to the beach. I’m only in Vietnam for one more week before moving along to our comparative program’s next place of study in Rabat, Morocco. I’m a visitor here, immersed in the humidity and sounds of this country for a month, but from an angle that’s important to recognize.

I don’t speak Vietnamese, apart from “hello”, “thank you,” “very good,” and “five.” My host family and I communicate through a lot of nodding and “Cám Ơn’s,” laughter about pronunciation, and unsuccessful attempts at the six tones of Vietnamese, thumbs up and smiles over dinner, and hugs before my homestay partner and I leave for class. Over the course of 10 days, we’ve established a simple mode of communication that works.

Last night, my host mother and I made spring rolls side by side in the kitchen, laughing together and jointly flipping rolls as they grew crisp in the cooking pan’s oil. We hum along to nonsense tunes together and imitate the wheezing rooster in the backyard to make her laugh. Sometimes, we write our host parents notes using Google Translate or use it as a tool for communicating, but it makes me think more about barriers of understanding across culture. As tourists, we’re limited in our ability to understand and translate information to fit into the context of a new place. There’s a lot of understanding that’s lost.

At any given spot in the streets of Hoi An, there are likely far more tourists than locals. Europeans, Australians, and travelers from other Asian countries are consistently present, browsing and biking and speaking in their various languages. The city is, in many ways, catered to aesthetically satisfy tourists with its colorful lanterns that hang across every street, bars by the river that play American pop music late at night, and dress shops with irresistibly low tailoring fees. In the past 10 years, the city has focused on significantly building up the tourism industry and expanding its status as an 'eco city' (similar to Portland, according to my host uncle). There is one local for every 196 tourists in the Cham Islands, a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

In some ways, this is a positive thing. The tourism industry employs a significant number of people in Hoi An, the city is supporting local farmers in starting up and running organic farms, and it’s becoming an established jump-off point for enjoying and exploring the central coast. But, there’s also a balance that comes into play in Vietnam, the country that the World Bank cites as most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Tourism also carries with it the consequences and cultural weight of two million extra bodies. More humans, more footsteps, and more consumption.

Today, our group stood on top of sand bags at a beach along the coast of Hoi An, which have been reduced by 100 meters of erosion in the past two years. The Marine Protection Agency (MPA) told us that they can’t pinpoint the exact causes of the erosion, but that it’s likely a combination of tourism, rising sea levels, and natural erosion patterns. The community is in the process of dredging sand—$100 a bag—to replace the beach that has been lost, but there’s no set plan for how this will continue in the future. Tourism has decreased since the erosion happened, development within 100 meters of the beach has been halted, and locals—who now live far from the coast because of hotel development— have less access to the beaches from which they used to fish.

My classmates and I stood on the beach, trying to envision an extra football field length of sand stretching out in front of us. It’s saddening and scary, almost unbelievable, to think about that kind of change unfolding in just two years. Then, complicated by the fact that some of that erosion is inevitable but made more significant because of dependence on the tourism industry, it becomes harder to conceive and approach the problem.

Being here as a student tourist makes me feel new things about the role of travel, of learning through translation, of outsiders coming in to appreciate a place. Travel necessitates thinking about and understanding climate change and tourism’s footprints in regions of the world that are most vulnerable because that’s where, in many cases, the impacts are becoming more visible.

The MPA is working with locals to find solutions and strategies to decrease erosion and mitigate its consequences. Our translator said that locals are “professors of life.” They are said to play a central role in coordinating with the agency and the government to find ways to reduce erosion, build more beach, and fight against the rising tide. There are no concrete answers for how to move forward yet, but it’s a group effort that involves collaboration and adjusting across industries. No one policy, person, or factor is at the core of causing damage, or driving the change that follows.

One of my classmates said something during a community debrief on Vietnam that’s been a positive and empowering reminder as we look at the numbers, hear from people about the injustices of climate change, and become increasingly unsure about any sort of consensus: the people most vulnerable to climate change will be able to adapt most effectively because they’ve been in a historical position that necessitates adaptation to injustices and natural disasters.

That’s one of the many flaws of the West’s ideas about what prevailing and succeeding looks like—the conception that our long held, more rigid ideas about making change will allow us to emerge on top.

This hot mess we’ve gotten ourselves into doesn’t have one solution, and there’s no one way to get out. Our commonly held ideas about how to create change, through rigid policies and top down decisions, aren’t necessarily the most logical. It’s what we know. But I don’t think that this way of thinking will hold forever, or that it’ll be what gets us through rising temperatures, shifts in energy, and adjusting on local levels.

That’s where driving in Vietnam, intuitively and with the idea that involved parties are acting to make a change based on their contexts, comes to mind.

There’s something to be said for the makeshift, constantly moving, evolving, and flexible structure of navigation here. It, too, has its flaws. But I think there’s a lot to learn by watching and learning from more community-based approaches, in places that have been set up to adjust to nature over time.

You find a way to balance, because there is no other way; you move forward.

Julia Thomas SC ’17 is a history major and environmental analysis minor. She is currently on a comparative study abroad program traveling to Vietnam, Morocco, and Bolivia, and her new guilty pleasure is Vietnamese coffee.