Nestled amongst the limestone protrusions in northern Vietnam's Halong Bay are people living in floating houses. These are the floating villages; fishing communities built on wooden rafts tens of kilometres away from the mainland and accessible only by boat.
There are four floating villages tucked within the 1,554 square kilometers of the bay, with a total population of around 1,000 people divided into approximately 400 households. Their income is fish, which they then trade for other necessities such as clothes and building materials. With a lifestyle that goes back through the generations, these villagers are a unique community in Vietnam and have no property or ties on the mainland.
Originally, these fisher families would have lived on individual boats in a nomadic lifestyle around the water. During the dangerous typhoon season, boats would cluster together for protection against the waves and battering winds. Over time, this morphed into a village of floating huts and walkways to create a sturdier base for the fishing boats.
The creation of a fixed community helped their people in a number of ways. The larger body of construction provided more protection against storms than the single boats. It also provided a trading point where boats from the mainland could come to buy fish and sell needed supplies, negating the need for the fishermen to make laborious trips to shore themselves. Garbage could be collected together and recycled and as tourism began to flourish in Vietnam, the base provided a new source of income in the form of guided tours.
At least, I hoped this was a positive thing, since I was being rowed around the village in a bamboo boat and it was ace.
The floating village is not on a single platform, but rather in groups of four or five houses. The total area is fairly large, with residences scattered through the water between a few neighbouring islands. Boats (or a disregard for cold sea water) are needed to move between village sections. The houses seem to be small, one or two room affairs, but painted cheerful colours and look well maintained. The walls are mainly wood, with corregated iron on the roofs, although the odd property has branched out into a tiled top. While my internet browses on these communities came up with little extra information, I did discover a few people own televisions, so there must also be a generator for electricity.
On one of the larger groups of buildings was a village school. Floating education is provided up to the age of 12, and students must travel to the mainland if they wish to keep studying. Government supported scholarships exist for education on the mainland, but the cost of bed and board away from home still makes this choice prohibitively expensive. Officially, education in Vietnam is compulsory up to the age of 16, so it may be that the isolation of these communities means a blind eye is turned to children completing school at the age of 12. If so, it would make some sense if the boys also were excluded from the country's two years conscripted military service, but I did not think to ask as we were guided around.
A side effect of this difficulty with obtaining a full education is the lack of oppertunities. This applies not only to the young people in the floating villages, but also those living in the small rural communities on the larger islands in Halong bay. Growing up in these beautiful, yet isolated, locations leaves few choices aside from following the parents' taxing trade of fishing or farming. A few people now join the tour ships circling the area, many of which seem committed to putting money back into the communities that are part of their sightseeing attraction. The chef on our boat was a local from Cat Ba island, the largest in Halong Bay. However, ambitions to become an astrophysicist or ballet dancer are doubtless waved aside.
Despite a floating village being more sturdy than a single boat, storms can still place the little populations in danger. A safer option is to head to the mainland during the rougher months, but the mainland and floating communities have developed separately for so long that they struggle to mingle. In an attempt to circumnavigate this issue, the Vietnamese government has created housing areas specifically for the fishing families to weather the bad storms. This is used mainly by the women and children, while the men sit out the danger to hold down their homes. All in all, it's a beautiful looking life, but the reality has bite.