COVID-19 and the transformation of tourism

Hung, 51, had been a deep sea fisherman for many years on bigger boats but left in 2019 to help his daughter run the beachside restaurant they opened in 2017 in Hoi An, a old historic port, to enjoy the city. international tourism boom fueled by Western adventurers and package tours to Asian destinations.

The Van Hung inspects his round canoe filled with fishing nets. He bought the coracle in August for 8.5 million dong, or about $370, which nearly depleted the family’s savings. Fishing 800 meters from the shore.
Rehahn C for The New York Times

Tourists and most of his family’s income disappeared when the coronavirus emerged in early 2020 and, in a particularly cruel blow, in November a monsoon swept through his restaurant Yang Yang, perched on a dune.

Now, like many others in Hoi An who had given up fishing to work in the tourism industry as waiters, security guards or speedboat drivers, or had opened their own businesses to meet the needs of travelers , he’s back to what he does best: ride the waves for a living.

Hung, a small man with a shy stomach and an aching back, supports six relatives who live with him in a handful of rooms under a rammed earth roof with wooden shutters. They barely survive.

Since September, severe storms and, more recently, high winds and choppy seas have kept Hung out of the water, fearing his bathtub-sized boat could capsize.

Watching the waves in late February, with half of his restaurant’s brick bathroom still littered on the beach, he thought, “The day after tomorrow will be safe.”

Before a two-hour fishing trip, at dawn, Hung catches dawn noodles to spend the day. Next to it, his basket-shaped boat
Rehahn C for The New York Times

He hung floats and weights attached to fishing nets on the concrete slab in front of his house, waiting for the waves and wind to die down.
Rehahn C for The New York Times

The silence of the sea was almost meditative. But the empty network, meter by meter, worries Hung.
Rehahn C for The New York Times

So at dawn on a recent Tuesday, Hung got into his boat and paddled through a foaming three-foot swell. Some 1,200 feet from shore, in rolling aquamarine waters, he began to unroll a transparent fishing net. Extending out from the boat as you paddled, the net created a two meter deep screen that stretched over 450 meters and was ready to catch schools of fish.

Hung grew up in Hoi An, which for centuries was a fishing community nestled between turquoise seas and emerald rice paddies. The atmospheric Old Town is filled with sprawling wooden Chinese residential and commercial buildings and mustard-colored French colonial-era houses.

Over the past 15 years, Vietnamese developers and international hotels have invested billions of dollars in building resorts, while locals and foreigners have opened hundreds of small hotels, restaurants and shops in the historic center of the city and its surroundings. International tourists have flocked to the city, crowding the beaches by day and filling the old town by night. The pandemic hit the region particularly hard because Hoi An had become too dependent on foreigners. In 2019, 4 million of its 5.35 million visitors were foreigners.

Hung pushes his boat out to sea. A few dozen lone fishermen were also on the water in their coracle that day, some having ventured out in the middle of the night.
Rehahn C for The New York Times

When hotels sprung up around Hung’s home on Tan Thanh Beach near the Old Town in 2017, the family borrowed money from relatives to buy a few dozen sun loungers and straw umbrellas. and built a free outdoor restaurant on the dune behind the house.

Her daughter, Hong Van, 23, cooked seafood dishes like shrimp and squid spring rolls. His two sons helped cook and serve the tables, and he did the dishes. Hung quit the deep-sea fishing crew altogether in the summer of 2019, convinced that tourism was his ticket to a better life.

“I was happier,” Hung, who is a widower, said through an interpreter. “Working from home is relaxing for the mind, comfortable in the daily routine with my family.”

He earned five times more than the three million dong, or about $130, he earned a month at sea.

Yet restaurant tables emptied as the coronavirus crippled Southeast Asia and Vietnam imposed a nationwide lockdown for most of April.

Vietnam then suffered its second COVID-19 outbreak in July, 40 minutes north of Da Nang, as locals hoped for a nascent recovery in domestic tourism. This meant shutting everything down again for weeks in Hoi An.

With his savings nearly depleted. Hung knew he had to return to the sea. By August, he had mastered driving his round boat through the waves with a single oar. Her daughter was selling what was left of the catch on her Facebook page, but the seas became too risky when the 2020 rainy season was extended into 2021.

On his fishing boat, in calmer seas, Hung donned a plastic smock and gloves and began scooping up the net, rolling it into a mound. He took out such and such a baby jellyfish, transparent as an ice cube, and after 20 minutes the net brought back a 12 centimeter silverfish and a tiny crab, and 15 minutes later another small fish.

As the sea was tight, Hung rowed back. They would save a few cents by grilling the fish, he thought, instead of frying it and wasting oil. Dream of abundant catches.

“We have hope,” Hung said, “but I never know what’s going on underwater.”

PATRICK SCOTT, former New York Times business editor; lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Follow him on Instagram: @patrickrobertscott.


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