There is probably no better way to put an unknown place on the map than turning it into a tourist attraction… And tourism is big business, in Vietnam as much as in neighbouring countries in the region. With a coastline of over 3000 km, that’s a lot of beaches to develop. A lot of potential to attract tourists and inject foreign currency and investment.
Until two years ago, Tam Thanh was just another small fishing village. An assortment of crumbling and dilapidated buildings crammed together on a strip of land edging the shoreline. Most dwellings in dire need of a refreshing lick of paint. Mould creeping up dank walls, weathered wooden shutters bleached by the unwavering sun. An eternal battle lost to the unending cycle of nature’s forces.
Inspired by the popularity of mural villages in South Korea, in June 2016 a group of Vietnamese artists and volunteers joined up with their Korean peers to transform Tam Thanh from an impoverished fishing village to an artists’ gallery. Under the banner of ‘Art for a Better Community’ they wielded their paint brushes and fashioned tired walls, unseaworthy fishing vessels and enormous, stone water jars into blank canvases, in a bid to improve the economic fortunes of the villagers. The first project of its kind in Vietnam.
Strolling through the main street of Tam Thanh, on almost every corner and every wall images of village life unfold. Locals going about their normal day to day business: a woman sitting on the side of the road selling vegetables and fruit;
women displaying the catch of the day;
the local hairdresser (?) posing next to his painted image;
the weather-beaten face of a local fisherman, on the wall of his house;
a local girl, averting her pensive gaze away from prying tourist eyes;
the call of the sea through an open window;
and fun, of course..
Upturned boats, no longer suitable for use at sea, have been given a new lease of life and are scattered around the village, adding colour and vibrancy to deserted corners and empty, unused spaces.
And when I arrive in the early morning, the whole street is lined with painting easels showing off ‘take-home’ versions of the murals, encouraging tourists to not just take their own photographs but buy paintings and put more money into the local economy.
The village of Tam Thanh is a mere 40 km south of Hoi An – one of the most popular touristy towns in Vietnam – and can easily be reached by car or motorbike. Just a morning is all it takes to explore what Tam Thanh has to offer. Although a local newspaper boasts a daily influx of 500 tourists to Tam Thanh, when I walk through the village, it is still early and not too busy. Coffee shops and restaurants are waiting for customers… Everyone ready with a hopeful smile.
But what I enjoy most is the fact that Tam Thanh has not yet completely changed. Just beyond the mural covered houses in some of the side streets and alleys, there are still plenty of remnants of what the village looked like before. Picturesque in its simplicity and absence of added embellishments… and a place upholding age-old traditions.
Unwittingly I stumble upon an annual praying ritual performed by local fishermen and village elders at a full moon in the early weeks of the Lunar New Year. Enticed towards the beach by chanting and music, I watch a group of young men in colourful traditional garb pretend-rowing a longboat on the sand under the cover of a large tarpaulin. At the front three tables are overflowing with the usual accoutrements of religious ceremonies: incense sticks and food offerings, alongside a model boat. After the singing and prayers, offerings are made to appease the ‘god of the sea’ to ensure safe passage and return of all the fishermen who go out to sea. Food is scattered on the sand, paper offerings burnt and a model boat is carried far into the waves…
The ceremony and formalities finished, the group of fishermen – dressed to the nines – are all too happy to pose for a picture with me… How could I refuse???