Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

by Christy on

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

At first glance this floating village looks small and peaceful, resting in the shadows of the towering limestone cliffs that dot Vietnam’s infamous Halong Bay.

But upon further inspection it becomes clear that this water-bound community is a bustling linchpin of the local tourism industry. Hundreds of (pseudo-)traditional Vietnamese junk ships ferry tourists around Halong Bay to explore snorkeling sites, hidden caves, white beaches, and floating villages like this one.

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

As our towering boat moors alongside the small structures floating on plastic barrels and wooden planks, I can’t help but wonder how long the village has been here.

Is it an old village, dating back hundreds of years, that has only recently seen an influx of foreign visitors? Or has it been constructed specifically as a “destination point” for tourists like us?

We disembark our junk ship and climb aboard a small boat with a local at the oars. She doesn’t speak, but takes her time slowly and silently paddling us in a large loop around the village so we can take photos of the brightly colored buildings flying an over-abundance of communist flags.

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

We see numerous dogs scurrying around the wooden planks; some barely notice us float by but others stand guard, barking frantically when our boat dares to pass too closely.

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

But it’s the people we see that I’m most intrigued by. What’s life like growing up in this small, floating community?

Are residents encouraged to lounge outside so we have something more than buildings to look at? Do they resent living their lives in a fishbowl, or are they happy to have the source of income it provides… or both?

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

We’re never given the opportunity to talk with anyone in the village (beyond buying some fruit from a small boat before we reboard our junk and set sail), so I have no one to ask questions of.

I don’t even know if they’d resent the hassle of having to answer my inquiries, but for me it feels strange to pass through their lives with no engagement beyond observation.

So later, once we’re back on the junk ship, I ask the tour guide some questions. He doesn’t seem to know much, and only answers vaguely, but I learn that the young children go to school there in the village, older kids take a boat to the mainland, everyone is taught to swim at a young age, and of course they are all very happy to have visitors come and see how they live.

As far as answers go, it seems that’s all I’m going to get.

Floating Village in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Would you feel uncomfortable visiting a floating village like this? Have you ever been to one?

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Gerardo el Gallo May 28, 2012 at

Yes, Ibeing a Cuban -American I can tell you that what you experienced is typical of every socialist regime that manages to take full contorl (unlike the struggle still going on within Wesdtern Europe today, and to a lesser extent, but still alrming, here int eh U.S). The “fishbowl” tourism is exactly what you encounter in Cuba, though they have let up just a little. If you speak with the “natives” they are either very evasieve, or they look over their shoulders if they want to be canded- worryfing about the “ears” all around them. EVery neighborhood in Cuba has the official “eyes and ears” of the state. Everyone knows who they are and has to put u with them.
But ten years ago toursists could not have any direct contact with the people of Cuba. The “people” could not enter the designated tourist areas at all unless they had permission from the state. All tourists were followed by agents of the state, and of course the “guides” were all agents and still are. Eastern Europe during the Soviet occupation was even worse.
What you experienced is typical of all socialist regimes. I’m glad to see how astute the two of you are- you figured it out on your own and weren’t blined by the PC discourse here at hoime. I really admire both of you for a number of reasons.

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Christy June 3, 2012 at

Thank you so much for the comment, Gerardo! It’s really interesting to hear from your perspective about the similarities between Vietnam and Cuba. When we first traveled to Vietnam we actually forgot that it’s a communist country because it seems to have such a free market, so we didn’t think about some of the other aspects of communism that it still might uphold. Thanks again for sharing!

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Chrystal McKay May 28, 2012 at

I saw a village like this on my Vietnamese junk boat tour as well, but I didn’t get as close. I tried asking questions of my guide but he simply sang Brittany Spears songs to us. Although this was entertaining, it lacked the educational purposes my curious mind desires. I saw a video about one of these villages from the 1960′s about a group of boys who built a soccer field on their island and then went on to become a world famous soccer team. I should find that again.
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Chrystal McKay May 28, 2012 at

I looked it up – it was a floating island from Thailand from the 1980′s. I should research before I type. haha.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Oh no, Britney Spears songs?! That’s both highly UN-educational and annoying.

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Ayngelina May 28, 2012 at

Nellie from Wild Junket also just wrote about Halong Bay and how tourism has become detrimental to the area. It’s sad to hear that others are finding the same.
Ayngelina recently posted: Disconnecting in Hana

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Christy June 1, 2012 at

I just read her article as well – I thought it was spot on.

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Micamyx|Senyorita May 28, 2012 at

I had the same strange feeling when I did the Tonle Sap tour in Siem Reap last February. I wonder how the locals who are living in the floating houses feel whenever boats with tourists come and take their pictures. Some of the kids even went to us with snakes in their shoulders then would charge us $1 per picture. I’d love to do a short film about that matter soon.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

I think that would be a great film topic – it’s so difficult to actually learn what goes on behind the scenes, so a documentary-style film that involved the locals’ perspective would be very enlightening.

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Camels & Chocolatetwitter: LunaticAtLarge May 28, 2012 at

It’s so different than the Halong Bay you typically see in magazines. I really wish I’d gotten to see more of Vietnam than just Saigon (a city I actually really liked, oddly enough).
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

We really liked Saigon as well! We tend to like big cities, but in addition to that it had great energy.

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Natasha von Geldern May 28, 2012 at

I visited HaLong Bay 10 years ago and already found the experience over-touristy and disappointing. I didn’t get up close to a floating village like you did but felt pretty uncomfortable with the whole thing. Such as shame as it is SO gorgeous.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Wow, 10 years ago it was already like that? How sad to think what it will be like in another ten years…

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Amanda May 28, 2012 at

The experience seems… awkward. I think that’s the word I’m looking for. It’s too bad your guide couldn’t tell you a bit more… it definitely suggests that perhaps the area is no longer benefiting from tourism in a positive way. :(
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

That’s exactly it – so awkward. And even more than that, I couldn’t help but feel that we were doing more harm than good by being there.

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Natalietwitter: turkishtravel May 28, 2012 at

Even though it is a tourism magnet, I would still like to visit this village. Like you say, curiosity about the locals and their daily life. Have you not been able to find out anything further from the internet?
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

I think there are a few villages like this scattered throughout Halong Bay, so I couldn’t find info on this floating village specifically (we weren’t given a name). There’s some stuff on the internet talking about how great visiting these floating villages can be, then some general rants about how they’re all touristy and dehumanizing, but nothing specific.

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Captain Chris May 29, 2012 at

These pictures are off the hook. Absolutely stunning. We’ve always wanted to visit this village, but we haven’t had the chance to get there yet. This is the next best thing for now.

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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Thanks, Chris – glad you like the photos. :)

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Laurence May 29, 2012 at

Odd, I was just reading over on timecrunched about tours like this. It’s always interesting to find out about how different cultures live and work, but I think this sort of thing would make me feel a bit weird and voyeuristic. Tourism is basically voyeurism, but this seems a bit further than I’d personally want to go.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Ha, tourism really is voyeuristic in a lot of ways. And that’s not necessarily a terrible thing, as long as there’s some balance.

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robin May 29, 2012 at

Talk about picturesque – the idea reminds me of the boathouses they have in Kashmir.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

It certainly was picturesque, and the cliffs provide a stunning backdrop for a village!

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Christy May 29, 2012 at

I’m very impressed with your photos from this place. We stopped here briefly and now I wish we had been allowed to get off the junk and explore more of this village. I love that you really contemplated the lives of these people and asked questions. I bet your guide doesn’t get that too often.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

It would be strange to visit a floating village like this but not get off the junk ship — they’re so big and hulking, it would feel like you’re even more distant from everything. The small ride through the village was pretty nice in that regard.

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Sophietwitter: SophieR May 29, 2012 at

I saw a similar floating village in Thailand many years ago. We didn’t stop, just sailed past. Sounds a bit sad the situation in Halong Bay.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

It’s interesting that floating villages crop up in a lot of countries – they’re so unique and interesting, I guess I can see why Westerners are intrigued by them.

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InsideJourneystwitter: InsideJourneys May 29, 2012 at

This must have been an uncomfortable situation for you. I’ve been in a situation that made me feel like I was intruding, but in our case, our tour guide led us into it.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

I think it can be even harder to be led into an awkward situation by a tour guide, as that makes it more difficult to leave if you’re uncomfortable.

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Lillie of AroundTheWorldL.com May 29, 2012 at

Ahhh! I have a photo of the exact same place!!! http://www.aroundtheworldl.com/2009/10/24/the-waterworld-people-of-halong-bay/

Love your article. Thanks for sharing!
Lillie of AroundTheWorldL.com recently posted: Kobus: How a Job Teaching Online Gives Freedom to Travel

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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Ha, it does look like the same one! Though I wonder if there are multiple around Halong Bay that have buildings in a similar style?

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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) May 29, 2012 at

My husband and I have been talking a lot lately about how we feel about certain types of tourism as we prepare for our upcoming trip. Certainly the point of travel is to be exposed to cultures, people, and ways of life we are not exposed to at home, but it’s really uncomfortable to realize that certain indigenous cultures are being exploited for tourism. It’s fascinating and oh so foreign, but it’s one thing to form genuine connections with people, another to gawk at them like attractions in a carnival. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but I think the fact that you’re even thinking these kinds of things shows your heart is in the right place.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Kudos to you for thinking about these issues, Steph! I think the problem is you never really know what an experience will be like until you’re in it. Well, maybe that’s not 100% true — most people know that visiting a long neck village is a terrible idea w/o needing to see how much “interaction” there will be. But sometimes an experience has the potential to be good… but then it just falls short.

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Adamtwitter: travelsofadam May 29, 2012 at

Interesting to read – really brings me back to when I was there this time last year. Lovely photos!

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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Thanks, Adam!

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dtravelsroundtwitter: dtravelsround May 29, 2012 at

I feel like there are many places like this in SE Asia, set up strictly for attracting tourists. While it seems like an interesting place to visit, I feel like it only exacerbates a towns need to survive on tourist money rather than live their lives as a part of their own culture. But, it still looks like a really interesting place to visit … great photos!
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

I agree! Is it just me or is SE Asia really unique in this? I wonder is it’s similar in Latin America or South America, for instance.

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Ayelet - All Colorestwitter: allcolores May 30, 2012 at

I love that you looked for ways to learn more, I imagine how it would be weird not to be able to talk to people who live there at all. When I was in Argentina, people who weren’t in the tourism business told me they prefer the non-touristy times, when places aren’t as packed and they have serenity in town and in nature.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

Yeah, traveling in the off-season seems to help a lot, but the strange thing is that this WAS the off-season in Hanoi!

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Ali May 30, 2012 at

I didn’t make it to Halong Bay when I was in Vietnam, but I’d love to go back. But this definitely isn’t an aspect of it I have ever heard about. I’m sure it’s an interesting life, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to have so many people looking at you all the time. Certainly different.
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Christy June 1, 2012 at

I’m sure you’d get used to it (to a certain extent), but the power dynamics are just weird. I just keep thinking that they shouldn’t have to get used to it, y’know?

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Jeremy Branhamtwitter: budgettravelsac May 30, 2012 at

Yes, this is definitely not the Halong Bay we are used to seeing and reading about. This village is quite unique. I am not sure how I would feel about it. They have to know by living as they do that they aren’t going to live secluded lives. Like you, I would want to talk to them about it but whether they like it or not, I think it is something they get used to.
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Scott - Quirky Travel Guytwitter: quirkytravelguy May 30, 2012 at

I’m fascinated by floating villages. I’ve only seen them on tv. The ones that are real are really interesting but this one sounds suspect.
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Christy June 3, 2012 at

Yeah, unfortunately it was quite suspect. Bah humbug.

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Becki | BackpackerBecki May 31, 2012 at

I went to Halong Bay back in 2007 and never once stopped to have a look around a floating village. It’s a shame that it has become another money making scheme and I’m sadly hearing more and more stories about how this area of Vietnam is changing rapidly and becoming fairly…ruined. From what I remember, the villages were quite out of reach and the only interaction we had with the locals were the ones that came to our boat trying to sell treats. I agree re: Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake too, parts of that were very disturbing, although I’m hoping to go back and homestay there doing eco work to try and gain a different perspective.

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Christy June 3, 2012 at

It’s such a shame how much tourism can negatively change an area. Vang Vieng in Laos always comes to mind – that poor village has been totally ruined by dumb backpackers flocking there in hordes to get wasted and tube down the river.

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Cathy Sweeneytwitter: TravelingWithS May 31, 2012 at

Whether or not this village has been set up for visitors or not, you captured some wonderful photos. I especially like the ones with the children. Too bad that you weren’t able to get answers to many of your questions, but it was still quite an experience.

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Christy June 3, 2012 at

Thanks, Cathy. :)

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Kieu ~ GQ trippin May 31, 2012 at

We land in Hanoi next week and I plan to visit the village. Mostly out of curiosity too. But also because I’m hoping by being Vietnamese and knowing the language, I might be able to dig a bit deeper as I’m just as curious as you are. It does seem a bit.. awkward as Amanda put it. But stunning photos! We can’t wait to hit the motherland.
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Christy June 3, 2012 at

Oooh, you definitely should ask around and then let us know if you learn anything!

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Stephanie - The Travel Chicatwitter: thetravelchica June 1, 2012 at

I do think places where the only thing you do is travel through the village and stare at people is a little unsettling.
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Christy June 3, 2012 at

I think that was my problem – the only thing we did was float through and stare at people. How is that any different from a zoo?

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Raymond @ Man On The Lamtwitter: m June 3, 2012 at

I visited this exact village in January of this year, and while I did think it was sort of cool that people actually live in a floating village, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad about the fact that “rich” white folks like you and me were streaming past day in and day out, gawking and snapping photos of their kids. It was enough to stop my snapping.
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Christy June 3, 2012 at

The thing is, I think there can totally be a way to get this type of tourism right! Floating villages are unique and interesting, and it makes sense that people want to learn about them. I just think there needs to be more, y’know, actual learning.

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Michele @ Malaysian Meanders June 5, 2012 at

When I took a 3 hour river cruise out of Kuching (Borneo), we stopped at a relatively isolated fishing village. Since we were the only tourists there, I didn’t get the feeling that the village was like a fishbowl. I welcomed the chance to walk around and hear a little about what the guide had to say about it.

I didn’t realize that Halong Bay was so touristy. I just watched a travel show with it (I’ll admit that it was Samantha Brown’s Asia: Vietnam), and they made it seem that it was such a special, uncommon treat to come upon a floating village. I’m glad to have your viewpoint about it.
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Christy June 7, 2012 at

I think it would be great to visit a small village like that in a more subdued way. But when it becomes so touristy (like Halong Bay) that dozens of huge ships are docking in the middle of their town, it gets weird. It’s interesting that the show you watched portrayed it as unique or special to visit a floating village; I think most tours visit at least one during the trip.

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Sunish Sebastian June 7, 2012 at

This floating village looks just amazing. This remind me of the old Kashmir lake house boats.
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Christy June 7, 2012 at

That’s interesting – I’ll have to check those out!

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Mary @ Green Global Travel July 18, 2012 at

We took a water taxi along the outside of a floating village in the Peruvian Amazon. We kept a respectful distance and just observed how people lived.
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