pollution & bad construction threaten Vietnam's beach gems

Vietnam's beaches are under dire threat from many directions, and sadly, there are few signs that a reversal will arrive before significant more damage is done to beaches across the country.

It is the same, sad situation seen in many developing countries: the people who do the most damage to beaches are often the locals who benefit most from them. Ignorance and greed are the underlying causes, and they are beach killers. But in Vietnam the problem is compounded by the government system, which breeds politically correct officials low on technical knowledge. Many officials are motivated to promote their own careers above caring for the country. Beaches hardly rank at all in official concerns, and even severe problems on the coastline are ignored unless they have critical impact on communities, and those affected shout for help.

That the water on the country's two most famous tourist beaches is dirty and badly polluted might surprise some. But this kind of problem is surprisingly common, and certinly not unique to Vietnam. In nearby Thailand two of the most famous beaches, Pattaya and Patong, also have water that varies from 'maybe' at best, to outright dangerous to human health.

Vietnam, it seems, is not learning from the mistakes of its neighbours. Nearby Thailand has the most successful beach tourism industry in the region, the envy of and role model for countries like Vietnam and Myanmar. But the environmental problems stemming from the huge boom in Thailand's beach visitors are many, and serious. A number of Thai beach resorts have been so thoroughly over-developed that their new, ugly jungles of concrete now overwhelm and degrade their once-beautiful beaches. Both Pattaya and Patong have fallen back onto sex tourism and entertainment to sustain and expand their non-beach economies. But will Vietnam follow this route if it's beaches are equally degraded?

With strong central government and draconian control over land ownership, Vietnam is in a better position to take hands-on control of its tourism development and guide it wisely. But what chance is there of such wisdom emanating from the dark corridors of power in Vietnam? Foreigners in the resort business in Vietnam don't hold many hopes, citing high levels of corruption, and perhaps worse, unpredictable decision-making processes that churn out arbitrary edicts from the unfathomable backrooms of party politics. Communist party policies sometimes appear irrational, and are thus understood to promote hidden interests rather than the national good.

And beaches? There's no evidence that they get any high level consideration at all.

Phu Quoc's top beach Duong Dong, or Long Beach, already badly polluted

Phu Quoc Island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, looks rather Thai-style, and is currently the darling of beach tourism promotions in Vietnam. It's this country's hopes of emulating Thailand's great success in the beach tourism business.

When a reporter for the environment magazine The Ecologist visited Phu Quoc in 2013 he was quite taken aback, writing this scathing report,

'But diverting your gaze to the beach-head, the romance is quickly washed away. Bobbing gently in the surf, cloudy condoms, soiled tampons and crumpled coke cans alert you to the fact that something’s afoot in paradise. And it’s about to get worse.' by Jak Phillips, The Ecologist, 24th June, 2013.

Duong Dong Beach, Phu Quoc's 'main' beach, holds about 80% of its beach resorts and is burdened with multiple pollution problems. The source of the pollution mentioned above is very obvious indeed, and an intractable problem that the strongest government is unlikely to be able to solve. The small river around which the island's main town is built is its main fishing boat anchorage, sewer and rubbish pit. So much filth is poured into the boar harbour each day that the water is deadly black, a stew of decomposing animal and plant waste, plastic and unimaginable uglies.

Condoms and tampons? Of course, and all other refuse from a throw-anywhere society. Hundreds of fishing boats wash stinking by-catch into the river. The town's central fresh market is right on the water's edge, and from here volumes of vegetable waste, fish guts, plastic and black water adds to the putrid mess each day.

The river empties its black filth into the ocean just 700 metres from the main resort beach, and the currents mix and carry some of it right along the shore for visitors to swim in and reporters to see.

Sadly for Duong Dong Beach, that is only the first of its worries. This four-kilometre stretch of beach has numerous drains pushing black water both over and under the sand right in among the bathers.

Mui Ne Beach's pollution problem smells rather fishy

The other beach where bathers need to be especially wary is Mui Ne, the country's most popular stretch of sand with over 80 beachfront resorts along its ten-kilometre length. But don't worry about old condoms, here its fish guts, plastic bags and nylon netting that might tangle your toes, all swept down from the big fishing village that gives the beach its name.

The source of Mui Ne's pollution is there for all to see each morning as the fishing boats return from a night's work. Men haul their catch to the beach where their wives sort and clean it, with large quantities of refuse left right there on the sand. It includes quantities of dead by-catch that will decompose on its way towards the tourist areas.

Next, the fishermen clean their nets in the beach shallows, discarding yet more rubbish and dead sea life. Piles of plastic and other refuse that the nets have dragged from the offshore bottom are then turned back into the water by the beach. Not surprisingly, the water close to shore here is as black as tar, and only those driven by necessity would dare walk in it.

That water moves south along this coast – thus from fishing village to tourist resorts – is evidenced by the build up on sand on too many rock walls and barriers constructed along Mui Ne and nearby bays. Huge deposits of sand are pushed south by the currents to build up on the north side of the barriers, leaving the back sides with nothing but bare rock.

The water in front of the high class resorts at the southwest of Mui Ne Beach, farthest from the fishing village and thus the safest area, arrives with a greenish tinge. It's not bad enough to smell, and many do not notice it when they swim. But on some days when the colour is distasteful it does make some visitors hesitate before taking the plunge. Or return to the hotel pool.

It's almost ironic; the two most famous beaches in both Thailand and Vietnam are among the most polluted. There should be a lesson in there too, for both countries, but it seems no-one is listening. Only the silent cacophony of incoming dollars catches real attention.

Vietnam's beaches are burdened by walls of ignorance and waves of greed

The problem, building beach walls where walls are not needed, is again rooted in ignorance of the damage that a wall can cause when big storms whip up powerful waves. And ignorance of the fact that leaving space between the waterline and permanent buildings is the best means to avoid future problems. However, there is also a cultural bias at work here. A look at traditional Vietnamese beach resorts shows that the locals use the beach in entirely different ways to Western visitors. Traditionally, most Asians have gone to the sea not to spend time exposed on the beach but to relax and eat in view of it. In the shade, please. Building a well-covered restaurant as close to the water as possible was a primary goal, and the wall was needed to protect that beach-hugging restaurant and other buildings close to the sand.

Greed must surely compound the ignorance behind many of the beach walls. Are land owners are so fearful that the ocean might take some of their precious land that they will fight for every inch with concrete? It appears so. In Vietnam it appears that the majority of new beach resorts begin by first building a wall to mark and protect their property. But the ocean often fights back against those walls, stripping away the sand and leaving the walled resort facing rocks and a drop-off.

The photos of central Mui Ne show what happens when man tries to control the ocean, rather than work with it wisely.

building right on the beach brings future problems

Many cultures have proverbs about the dangers of building on sand. It's well recognized as the worst possible foundation, and that danger for buildings is ratcheted way up when sand's beach-building buddy, storm-driven waves, arrive.

So why do beachfront resort developers break the known taboos? Even in developing countries where laws are weak and there is little scientific study of problems on the beach, the dangers are self evident. Countless structures already built on or too close to the beach have been turned into beach carnage. Vietnam's beaches display countless examples of how the ocean destroys structures on the beach – for all to see, and some to ignore.

Aside from the walls and buildings of individual resorts, local governments in Vietnam have built, and are still building, sea walls across beaches. Often the purpose is to stop the migration of sand along the coast. While this is often successful in building sand up on one side of the wall, it helps strip the beach on the other side of its natural supply of the ever-shifting grains.

Is this a way for local officials to reward some resort owners, and punish others? The satellite images and our Phan Thiet photos show just how badly the coast has been mangled in front of the Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort by the building of a beach wall on its north side. A huge build-up of sand lies on the other side of that, while the resort is left with no sand, just waves crashing on its sea wall.

In Australia and the USA, where building on coastlines is a well-studied science, construction on or near beaches is generally forbidden. Or, in special cases when there is a reason to do so, scientific studies of the future effects are carried out in advance. Vietnam may lack these scientific resources, but there are any number of simple, first lessons in their neighbour's mistakes to learn from.

Yet both people and organizations continue to build structures onto beaches without serious consideration of the long-term effects. It's creating a bigger burden of problems for tomorrow, and degrading some of the nation's most valuable assets, the country's beaches.

by John Everingham