Hoi An’s Beauty wont last forever: the destructive power of tourism

By Connor Newson

My initial impression of Hoi An was of admiration, despite it having an excess of tourists crowding the streets. This I don’t mind so much after being isolated in the monsoons of North Vietnam, with barely anyone else to talk to for a few days. Seeing other friendly travellers is actually quite a relief. However, this admiration soon turned to concern as I manoeuvred through the picturesque, UNESCO-recognised town, becoming acutely aware of a tragic downfall that looms over Hoi An as it is known today.

My intrigue for Hoi An came to fruition upon arrival when I was told by a local that once a month, the ancient town switch off the harsh bright lights of shops and streets and replace them with colourful lanterns, allowing the glow of the moon to shimmer off the river that runs through the centre. It just so happens that my visit falls on the same day. So I set off in the evening to explore.

As I walk I notice the moon’s struggle to break through the blanketing clouds as I walk out of a narrow and darkened alleyway. My eyes, desperately searching for light to pave my way as I turn onto another street, are instantly drawn to the hundreds of colourful lanterns suspended from wires above my head. Each one a different hand-painted design and each row an alternating colour.

The streets are now warm with a gentle glow and a charming flow of people strolling up and down. Along the street I see traders of Vietnamese food, Weasel coffee, clothes, local art, and Fairtrade crafts on every doorstep – attempting to coax myself and other tourists into their shops. I turn into another dimly lit alleyway and begin to hear the faint sound of traditional acoustic music echoing from the other end. A captivating sound, and one that begs for an audience. So I follow with a brisk walk.

As I emerge once again from the shadows of the backstreets, I see the clouds beginning to dissipate and the glimmering river comes into view ahead of me. It is swollen, seemingly at one with its artificial riverbanks, churned up and murky from the endless monsoon rain and yet surprisingly calm. Small wooden canoes and touring vessels sit idly along the ridge, with each gentle sway of a passing boat spilling water onto the sidewalk. I hear the music once more, this time it comes from a boat directly in front of me. A vocalist and two guitarists intricately pluck their notes for on-board couples to swoon over as they sit at their candle-lit tables. Like these romantics, I too feel compelled to dwell in the beauty of Hoi An. So I stand for a while, basking in an ambient concoction of colour and sound. To think how tranquil it must be to live here for a while, to take a stroll by the river in the morning and enjoy the quaintness of this little ancient town. My mind wanders a little longer until I am interrupted by a sharp tug on the sleeve of my right arm.

“Massage?”

I look down and notice a small woman staring back in anticipation. Confusion is my first feeling, at the sudden violation of my personal space as I come back to the reality of what is no longer a charming flow of people, but instead a flock of tourists. I retrieve my arm with a polite refusal and turn back to the music, but as do so she grasps my arm once more – this time forcing a promotional flyer into my hand.

“Happy hour. Very cheap just for you”, she says in an excessively loud voice. “Happy hour, you want?”.

Happy hour. Since when do masseuses offer happy hour on massages? And I’m pretty sure I don’t own any unique qualities that would justify singling out just myself for this – clearly a sales technique. Agitation is my second feeling, at the physical restraint cast upon me and the obvious lack of understanding my initial refusal. I refuse once more. This time I begin to walk away to avoid tarnishing the chilled mood any longer. However, as I attempt to navigate through a thickening crowd, I am stopped and grabbed repeatedly by locals selling Christmas cards, more promotional flyers, various ‘Happy Hour’ discounts, and a cacophony of voices quickly escalating around me.

“Yes, you buy?”

“Very cheap for you”

“Bananas?”

“Happy hour”

It seemed then that my mood had suddenly spread amongst the surrounding tourists. I looked around for an escape but instead noticed the general ignorant attitude towards these local traders. Rude responses, abrupt interjections, mocking sarcasm and belittling laughs from privileged holiday dwellers seemed more obvious. Then it dawned on me that after weeks of futile refusals, I too had somewhat adopted this ignorance in an effort to avoid the incessant pestering. My thought was that by not replying at all, I wouldn’t be seen as a willing customer. Feeling a little ashamed and guilty, my mind wanders once more as to why this rudeness seems so common amongst ordinary tourists and backpackers. I know already that it is partially due to a vocalised – and physicalised – hassling from locals. But what causes that? Tourism as a whole?

Tourism is evidently useful in bringing jobs and wealth to the area, which is why many locals grab the opportunity to capitalise from relatively wealthy tourists, putting themselves and their business – quite literally – in the path of their consumers. For local traders, it seems that to be persistent and proactive, or rather persistently intrusive, is to make money. Here, tourists have a tendency to become agitated by both the relentless hassling (even after saying “no” three times), and the arbitrary price-tags imposed on tourists (based on their assumption of perceived wealth). And so the reply is often a negative and somewhat sarcastic or ignorant one. The retaliation of the trader can sometimes be, deservedly, argumentative and insulting. Although it appears more so than not that any retaliation is suppressed due to the fact that she or he relies on this business.

I walk on with a fresh and compassionate attitude towards the local traders. Suddenly I am greeted with possibly the most beautiful attraction of the evening: thousands of candle-lit floating lanterns gently sailing down the river. A local tells me that the lanterns are said to bring good fortune – an admirable tradition. However as I watch the river a little longer I notice that no locals are partaking, instead they sell them to tourists who proceed to fill the river. What just seemed so beautiful to me had just become defined by the death of a local tradition and the subsequent commodification of traditional culture. Not to mention the masses of plastic, card and wax that continues to pile up in the river as hundreds of lanterns are sold for a small fee every day, and thousands sold on the night of a full moon. Where does it all go?

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So Hoi An’s downfall may be imminent. With the substantial increase of tourism documented by city’s Office of Trade of Tourism, specifically around the monthly lantern festival, we can only assume these effects will continue to¬†suffocate the beauty of the ancient town as a whole. The long-term effect of catering for a rapid increase in tourism has a disastrous impact on the environment, the local economy, and human sociality of such areas. Escalating consumerism requires the expansion of commercial urban spaces to accommodate trade, and a rise of waste and pollution follows – which is particularly obvious with the precarious water level and increasing amount of lanterns in the river. As a result, the living price within and around the ancient city increases and locals are forced to move elsewhere. However the opportunity for locals to capitalise on the incoming tourism draws them back to the centre for work. Market competition is therefore concentrated also. These deteriorating aspects are topped off with the vicious social spiralling between tourist-trader interactions.

 

It is a depressing thought only made more so by the juxtaposition of such a beautiful location. But alas, maybe something can be done. Maybe traders will stop wrapping bananas in plastic wrap and serving every single item of food in a separate plastic bag. Maybe consumers will become slightly more conscious of the economic position of local traders, and traders will realise and respect the right to refuse. environmental and social impacts of developing cities. I guess only time will tell.

In need of Shelter: Medika, Zagreb’s independent creative community

By Connor Newson

Its been a little over a month since myself and Jean began hitchhiking from the West of France towards Eastern Europe. By now I have become pretty familiar with some kind of routine, or at least understanding certain objectives that need completing before the day is out. This usually includes finding a place to sleep: a field, a park, somebody’s sofa or van, a cave, practically anywhere that wouldn’t mean being moved on by police at 2am (which has happened twice already) is suitable. Think our standards seem low? Me too, but I find this is the best way to truly experience local life. However today I didn’t expect to stumble upon Medika, a former squat turned creative and cultural centre, which sheltered me if only temporarily from the fast approaching winter.

It doesn’t take long for the 20kg bag on my back to begin taking its toll as I walk towards the city centre. I take refuge in a pub and make a list of other objectives to pass time: “buy new gas canister, find gloves and scarf, buy tomato to cook with, FIND SOMEWHERE TO SLEEP”. After an hour the rain subsides, so I pack up my things. As I do so the barman asks where my hostel is. I explain to him I don’t have one. “Actually I’m looking to pitch my tent, do you know anywhere?”. He tells me this is going to be difficult in a big city, and this I know all too well from sleeping on the streets of Modena in Italy two weeks ago. “You should check out a squat called Medika, they might let you sleep there if you wash some dishes or something for them,” he adds.

With some brief directions to work with I thank the barman and set about completing my task. Daylight quickly fades and I become exposed to the captivating, however wet, atmosphere of Zagreb by night. I navigate through the bustling centre of town, watching as people pile in and out of the packed evening trams on the main square. As I pass by the National Theatre I spot a tiny patch of grass concealed underneath a small bush surrounded by busy roads. “Just enough space to squeeze my one-person tent if all else fails,” I think to myself. I carry on, determined to find this safe haven.

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Finally, as the rain picks up pace once again, I reach a complex of buildings hidden behind tall walls. Every inch is a plastered palimpsest of thought-provoking graffiti. This must be it. I enter through the darkness of a passage until I stand alone in the middle of what resembles a concrete courtyard surrounded by more elaborate street art. The rain continues to fall, and there is little sign of life besides two rooms illuminated by dim flickers of orange. A man then walks out into the shadows from a door, struggling to pull a hood over his head whilst simultaneously lighting a cigarette somewhat unsuccessfully.

“What is this place?” I call, hoping to spark some sort of conversation.

“Well”, he replies in a heavy Balkan accent walking towards me. “It’s everything.” An ambiguous response. He then gestures over to the flickering orange windows, “that’s our library on the ground floor. It has a Free Shop [where people take or leave items of clothes as they need], a small information desk, and occasionally workshops. Above is the gymnasium, and a few bars and a club space are dotted about.” They seem to have everything. I ask to check out the library thinking – or rather hoping – it’ll be warmer inside.

As I enter through a very used looking door I interrupt a group of four people who all turn to me eagerly from a table in the corner.

“Are you here for the workshop?” A guy with blonde hair, Stan, asks.

“Unfortunately not, I wondered if I can just sit in here?” I reply.

He graciously accepts, hearing the rain hammer down more heavily now. I see a sofa in the middles of the room and sit, drying off my sodden clothes by a small log-burner to my right. The embers gently throw a flickering warm glow onto the shelves of books that surround me. Lining the walls are posters of political resistance, anarchistic drawings and paintings, humanist and feminist slogans confessing solidarity in support for equality. Meanwhile a small French pug is gnawing on a bone as big as her little head underneath the Free Shop (which is essentially a coat rack full of clothes and a few bags of scarves and gloves). I quietly coax her over and she complies, bounding onto the seat next to me.

Now I sit content, listening to the relentless downpour on the window panes whilst Stan explains how clay can be purified to make medicines and toothpaste. I feel relieved not to be on the other side of that door, for instead of facing the bitter elements alone on the street I now face the warmth of a log fire with the company of a canine companion. Soon enough the workshop is finished and myself, PhD Chemistry student Stan, Art student Erica, Language student Isa, and my new French friend – who is now curled up on my legs – are sat around the burner, drinking ginger and rosehip tea to nurse our shared cold. I become eager to understand more about Medika and Stan seems more than happy to give me the low-down.

Apparently, the space was formerly an abandoned medicine factory (which explains its name) until about a decade ago when it became occupied illegally by a group of people who wanted to use it for their own desires – otherwise known as a squat. Judged as unwelcoming to begin with, the early days of Medika lacked government and public support which is not unusual when it comes to the opinions of squat communities. But time passed and creativity flourished, the space has since transcended as an independent creative social and cultural centre. With its potential now acknowledged at least in part, Medika has acquired a partial legal contract with the city which means they rely on donations from its own facilities – such as Stan’s workshop – and subsidies from exterior organisations to pay the bills.

Whether this is a genuine understanding of creative subcultures on the council’s behalf, or an effort to utilise Medika as a strategic tool to draw in tourism and subsequent capital is a different matter. Either way it seems to be surviving for now. However Zagreb’s reputation of becoming a Global City is continuously proving more fruitful, so the probability of such cultural communities becoming susceptible to over-commercialisation is undoubtedly high.

I begin to question the often negative stigmatisation of squat-like social centres across Europe. Such generalisations only serve to limit the effectiveness of similar creative spaces. Moreover, these communities are usually born from a genuine desire to construct a space that allows the free collective creation and consumption of creativity, which is becoming increasingly important as more and more public spaces become privatised.

As late evening approaches, I again become aware of the outside world and my imminent mission to set up a small tent underneath a small bush on a small patch of grass, surrounded by not-so-small roads. However, on hearing this, Stan instead invites me to crash on his sofa. My need for shelter has been graciously welcomed by a likeminded soul in the confines of a former medicine factory – a perfect turn of events in Zagreb, besides the illness of course. But we have more hot tea for that inconvenience.

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