It’s 9 a.m. and Nguyen Thi Be, who has been selling coconuts for a decade on the 7.5-km-long beach five kilometers from downtown Hoi An, sits on a hammock and surfs on her smartphone.
The few tables in her shop are empty, though it’s now peak tourist season.
“Nobody is coming here anyway. Only neighbors drop by to chat,” the 53-year-old woman said.
“I used to be busy at this time, but now I am free all day and plays games on the phone to kill time.”
Be said her business had already been shrinking because of serious coastal erosion preventing tourists from flocking to the beach. Somehow, she managed, because some high-spending European tourists loved sunbathing on the famous beach. During the peak season, which lasts from September to April, tourists to Cua Dai mainly come from Europe.
But since the Covid-19 outbreak broke out in Vietnam last year, the beach looks like a “ghost zone,” Be said.
The government closed national borders and canceled all international flights in March 2020. Only Vietnamese repatriates, foreign experts and highly-skilled workers are allowed in with stringent conditions.
“Without foreign tourists, my business is worse than ever. I only open the shop from 6 a.m. until noon. Then I go home to rest,” she said.
Nguyen Van Hung, owner of a seafood restaurant near Cua Dai Beach, has a similar tale of woe.
Son opened his restaurant in 2018, a year after the beach reopened for business. Authorities had shut the beach down for three years to deal with the severe impacts of coastal erosion.
With most visitors choosing An Bang Beach nearby, Son’s business suffered even more but he held on, thanks to European tourists. The pandemic, however, has dashed his recovery hopes. His restaurant now functions with just two employees.
“On some days streets leading to Cua Dai Beach has almost no passer-by and locals called it the ‘ghost zone.’
“I have to close my restaurant as early as 5 p.m., because it is empty,” he said, sighing. Hung doesn’t know for how long he can maintain his business.
Be and Hung are among many tourism-reliant people – small business owners and workers – at Cua Dai Beach whose lives have been upended by the double whammy of erosion and pandemic.
Just a memory
Twenty minutes drive from ancient town Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage site, Cua Dai Beach was once a top tourist attraction and a driving force for the central town’s promising tourism sector.
Locals still remember the white sandy beach stretching a hundred meters into the sea, adorned with colorful clusters of wild flowers and coconut palms.
Tourists sunbathe at Cua Dai Beach in Hoi An, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong
But that remains just a memory now. Today, instead of rows of umbrellas and deck chairs, sacks of sandbags are piled up along the coast to prevent the beach from being damaged by giant waves.
Cua Dai, once ranked one of the most beautiful beaches in Asia by TripAdvisor users, has been severely eroded since 2011. Experts have blamed falling river sediment, sand mining and strong waves.
Local authorities have been trying to save the beach by building dikes made of sandbags as well as concrete embankments. Still, the erosion remains serious and gets worse after heavy rains and storms.
Restaurants and resorts along Cua Dai Beach have used their own money to reinforce the embankment with sandbags when a storm nears.
Hoi An chairman Nguyen Van Son said local authorities have spent thousands of billions of dong (VND1,000 billion = $43.63 million) to build anti-erosion embankments but the erosion has showed no signs of slowing down, especially during the storm season.
Son said the town last year spent around VND40 billion ($1.75 million) to deal with erosion at Cua Dai Beach.
“Hoi An relies on heritage and marine tourism for economic development. Without the sea, the tourism sector will be seriously injured. So, at all costs, we must find ways to save the Hoi An coast,” he added.
In the latest move, the central province of Quang Nam, home to Hoi An, last week approved a VND145 billion ($6.33 million) revetment project to protect Cua Dai Beach from further erosion.
The funds for the revetment, which would run 1.8 km from Cua Dai Beach to Cam An Ward, will be sourced from both the town’s and the national budget. The project is expected to be implemented over 420 days.
Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s top tourist attractions. However, it has been suffering the curse of erosion for many years. Much of the town is two meters or less above the sea level, making it vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges, according to a joint report released in 2019 by the United Nations Environment Program, UNESCO and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The town’s Cua Dai Beach has been losing between 10 and 20 meters of land to erosion every year for several years now, the report said.
Due to the severe erosion, many tour guides do not recommend Cua Dai to their customers for safety reasons.
Instead, An Bang, considered a “hidden gem” of Hoi An a few kilometers from Cua Dai, has emerged as a new choice. Tourism services are flourishing there, leaving Cua Dai residents in the lurch.
An Bang Beach in Hoi An. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Duc.
Those dependent on tourism, like Be and Hung, are hoping the government will work to save the beach, and therefore, their livelihoods.
Hung doesn’t dare to think about the future because all his money has been poured into the restaurant. He is hoping that the coronavirus crisis to end soon, so that foreign tourists can start visiting again.
However, with the pandemic situation worsening in several Asian countries including India, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, tourism recovery at Cua Dai Beach remains a distant dream.