Plans to turn Hoi An into Vietnam’s first eco-city are underway, but mounting problems leave many wondering if it is just a dream. Story and photos by Katie Jacobs.

Silk lanterns bathe the streets in pale light, illuminating the ancient facades of the quiet buildings. In the darkness, as the living retreat to their homes and hotels outside the Old Quarter, Hoi An is left to the ghosts of the past. Although the merchant trading years are long gone, Hoi An is still, in a way, a trading hub for Vietnam. But these days the trade is tourism. The tourism industry is not only increasing the region’s wealth and development, but also living costs and a myriad of environmental problems. In order to curb the problems, a partnership between the Vietnamese government, UN-HABITAT and Portland State University (PSU), plans to turn Hoi An into Vietnam’s first eco-city — or an environmentally sustainable city — by 2020. This initiative will not only require a much-improved environmental management plan but also significant community involvement.

Eco-tourism Hoi AnPutting the ‘eco’ in development
So how will the Hoi An eco-city define sustainable development for the area? By creating a balance between economic investment and environmental protection, says UN-HABITAT urban specialist Juhyun Lee.

Jack Tran, who grew up in a nearby fishing community and owns a small eco-tour company, is trying to do just that with his buisness. “There are many people using the term eco-tour, but they don’t seem to understand what it means,” he says.

Unlike many companies that organise a homestay and call it an ‘eco-tour’, Tran not only encourages the removal of litter, but also actively works with local communities to improve livelihoods and environmental protection. While there are a few small organisations, such as Hoi An Eco-Tours, that strive to promote sustainable development, the future success of the Hoi An eco-city is far from assured.

Environmental challenges
As Hoi An strives to become Vietnam’s most environmentally-friendly city, problems continue to mount. With the majority of coastal vegetation removed to make way for new investments and hotel developments, beaches in the area are succumbing to the sea. Local resident Amy Morison says the problem is only getting worse. “Hoi An’s nearby beaches have reduced considerably in the past decade, with sections disappearing altogether at high tide,” she says.

Ironically, the large developers are both aggravator and victim, according to Lee, the UN specialist. “Their continual development has led to the destruction of the environment they rely upon,” she says, “with many resorts and new developments now threatened by the destabilising coastline and diminishing strips of sand.”

Plastic, the universal evil, is also a continuing problem. While the streets of the Old Town are swept regularly, you don’t have to go far to find it dumped in half burnt piles near the waterways. In 2010 a ‘no plastic bags’ campaign was launched in the town. The effect has been negligible, says local business owner Nadine Ziegeldorf. Plastic bags are still given liberally at all stores and markets. “People don’t know what to do with their rubbish,” Ziegeldorf says.

While the eco-city project is attempting to improve environmental education, it is still rudimentary. “People feel it is below them to pick up rubbish,” says local conservationist and business owner Hans Van der Broek. Van der Broek recently gave up organising beach clean-ups after locals stopped participating.

The development of a solid-waste plant will hopefully improve the situation. However, Van der Broek adds that more needs to be done. “Improved education and an expansion of rubbish collection beyond the wealthy neighbourhoods are crucial for sustainable change,” he says.

According to Lee, water remains one of the town’s biggest issues. “Half the town does not have a reliable source of clean water,” she says. This is due in large part to increased levels of ground water salinity from mangrove destruction and the lack of a formal sewage system or wastewater treatment facility. The consequences of this were confirmed in 2012 when a Japanese study by specialists from Osaka Prefecture University found that Hoi An’s water supply is severely polluted and poses a serious health risk. Despite various discussions and plans, no clear solution has been settled upon. Work on a much needed wastewater treatment plant, commenced in 2010 by the French company VINCI, has been postponed due to lack of funds.

Hoi An as an eco-city
Although the government has adopted the UN-HABITAT/PSU eco-city suggestions, environmental protection seems to have been pushed to the side in favour of development.

“Reality does not always square with the plan,” Lee says. “Money and investment continue to override sustainable development.”

The Cua Dai Bridge project, a major expansion of the surrounding road system, will inevitably lead to increased river dredging, land reclamation, resettlement and disturbance of crucial mangrove and water coconut forests. While sustainable development does not renounce investment, the true goals of the Hoi An eco-city — whether designed to protect locals, the environment, or both — remain unclear.

Hoi An as an eco-city will hopefully mean more than a few trash cans in the Old Town and annual participation in Earth Hour. In order to make a lasting change, the process must have the commitment from all levels and the cooperation of all aspects of society. If the Hoi An eco-city plan can move from discussion to action, the result will hopefully be a town where economic development and tourism are united with a commitment to strong social and environmental protection.

Katie Jacobs is a Hanoi-based writer who has worked in environmental development for four years and has a master’s degree in international urban and environmental management.