Hoi An is the most popular destination in Vietnam. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and going there is like buzzing back to the seventeenth century when it was a major port influenced by Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and Indian traders.
Because the Old Town area was relatively untouched by the Vietnam War (or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it), the townscape still holds its old world charm. At night the streets glow with handmade lanterns in red, purple, green, and gold. Vendors sell votive candles for buyers to float down the Thu Bon River with a wish. And the smell of white rose dumplings and incense fills the air.
But make no mistake.
It’s a tourist trap of the highest order and nearly every activity inside Old Town is geared toward foreign visitors. Tours of old family homes and chapels are designed to dump you into a gift shop at the end. The same goes for the lantern, silk-weaving, and ceramic workshops. And on the quaint streets, where motorbikes are prohibited at certain times of the day, hawkers greet you repeatedly with “Hello, you want to buy something?” as they shove lanterns and shiny whirligigs into your hands.
But a fifteen-minute walk outside of town in any direction reveals the real culture of the area. And it’s easy to see that fish and fishing predominates. Women spread shrimp on the ground to dry while fishermen pop their square nets up and down the shore. At night, ships head deep into the Cua Dai Sea to capture mackerel, small squid, and other local fish species to sell at the early-morning market.
Lately, however, the fish du jour has ended up feeding more pigs than people. Word has gotten out that the fish is bad—but not before scores of villagers ate the still-breathing ones they found among the heaps of dead. They didn’t know these fish had been poisoned by cyanide, phenol, and iron hydroxide, the deadly cocktail of chemicals Formosa flushed into the ocean while cleaning its wastewater pipeline. Once the people realized the situation, they turned the daily catch into pig feed instead of the family dinner.
When I asked our guide, Quoc, what he made of the contamination, he said, “It’s horrible. It’s affected 300 kilometers of the central coast. We like international investments from all over the world—America, France, Britain—but not China. They don’t care about the environment, the people, the workers. Nothing. We don’t want that.”
Even though Formosa is a Taiwanese-owned company, many Vietnamese people consider it a symbol of China’s economic influence in their country because Beijing claims Taiwan as Chinese territory. It’s a touchy subject and one with a volatile history. In May 2014 rioters attacked Formosa’s Chinese workers, leaving ninety injured and two dead. Activists have also criticized bauxite mining by Chinese-owned companies in the Central Highlands. They argue that Vietnam could easily become a dumping ground for companies looking for countries with lax enforcement of environmental safeguards.
So where does the state stand on all of this toxic “spill” business? And why did the businessman on the Danang flight warn me and my husband not to trust the government? (They say it’s black; it’s white.) According to newspaper reports, early on the government’s official stance was no stance at all. As more and more villagers turned up sick, the government withheld for weeks what it knew—even from the doctors treating those who were poisoned.
Understandably, the government wanted to be sure about what was killing the fish. But according to scientists, the water tests should have been completed within seven days. Skeptics think corruption and the hidden influence of foreign interests at the expense of Vietnamese livelihoods caused the holdup. After all, companies like Formosa stand to make a lot of money for certain people—a notion that doesn’t seem particularly Communist. But neither does what happened next.
(Stay tuned for the final installment …)