HON HEO PENINSULA, Vietnam — When Sylvio Lamarche first arrived at this stretch of white beach between jungle-covered mountains in the mid-1990s, it was empty. His guidebook told him it existed, but it took three days of riding his motorbike down footpaths through dense scrub just to find the place.
“There was nobody there, I mean nobody, nobody,” Lamarche said. “It was paradise.”
For the past nine years Lamarche, a Canadian, and his Vietnamese wife, Loan, have run a laid-back beach resort here called Jungle Beach. The bungalows are bamboo huts with thatched roofs, slatted beds and hammocks. Guests eat communal meals at long shared tables. It is one of the last spots on Vietnam’s coast that recalls the days when travelers in Southeast Asia were long-haired backpackers with empty agendas.
But as Vietnam’s economy grew at a furious pace from 2000 to 2008, the country Lamarche had come to know changed. Nha Trang, 15 miles to the south, has gone from a sleepy working-class beach town to a burgeoning tourist mecca, with skyscraper hotels and hundred-million-dollar golf resorts springing up one after the other.
Just north of Jungle Beach, the village of Ninh Phuoc has swelled with new houses. Two miles up the coast, a huge shipyard opened in 2005, a joint venture between South Korea’s Hyundai and Vietnam’s state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin. In 2008, a Japanese hotel chain opened a small five-star resort right next to Lamarche’s, with tile-roofed bungalows and a swimming pool, and the government is driving a paved road out along the Hon Heo peninsula, which will bring more development.
For the people of the Hon Heo peninsula, whose annual incomes are well under $1,000, all this development is welcome.
But that's not true for the monkeys.
In 2005, a guest snapped a picture of some primates clambering on the rock faces of the 1,500-foot mountain behind Jungle Beach. Lamarche sent the photo to Tilo Nadler, the German primate biologist who directs the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Primate Conservation Program in Vietnam. Nadler identified them as rare Black-shanked Douc langurs.
Three years later, Nadler has turned Jungle Beach into a research station. A Vietnamese primate biologist is in full-time residence, and Nadler himself comes periodically from his headquarters in northern Vietnam to check on the langurs.
“There are only a few spots in Vietnam where this species occurs,” said Nadler, working on his laptop at a table in Jungle Beach’s dining area. The Black-shanked Doucs are mainly found in Cambodia and Laos, but even there the population may number only in the thousands. Unlike other Black-shanked Doucs, some of those at Jungle Beach have white marks on their forearms and red fur on their hind legs, and DNA tests on stool samples show they are unique.
Lamarche has trained his staff to watch for the monkeys from a telescope in Jungle Beach’s parking lot. Surveys are taken every morning and evening. So far they have identified over 100 animals, and Lamarche hopes that several times that number are living deeper in the mountains.
But the monkeys may soon be threatened. The provincial government plans to keep the 200 square-mile interior of the Hon Heo peninsula undeveloped. However, it has big plans for the southern shoreline of Van Phong Bay, where Jungle Beach sits.
Those plans include a $4.5 billion oil refinery in Ninh Phuoc, a little ways up the beach. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved the refinery Jan. 9, and it is scheduled for completion in 2013.
“I can say there are some quite big projects in our area,” said Nguyen Trong Hoa, chairman of the Van Phong Economic Zone Management Board. The board’s headquarters are in Nha Trang city, far from the beaches it supervises. On the first floor is a scale model of the northern part of the bay sprouting condominium towers and a shipping complex.
Hoa said Prime Minister Dung had also approved construction of a $4 billion, 2.6-gigawatt thermal power plant by the Japanese company Sumitomo. “This means we can develop towards the south of Van Phong Bay, to turn it into a big industrial park with oil refining, thermal power, petrochemicals, and so forth,” Hoa said. The bay’s deep waters, Hoa said, had attracted American and Russian investors to the construction of an international shipping port.
The board’s plans also call for the bay to attract tourism, and Hoa referred to it as “one of the most beautiful bays in Vietnam.” He said the goal was “to develop industry and tourism in a harmonious and sustainable manner,” and that the government had plans to protect the monkeys.
Environmentalism is becoming a more familiar concept in Vietnam, but it still lacks a powerful constituency. Last March the national government vetoed a South Korean company's plan for a steel mill in Van Phong Bay, partly on environmental grounds, but partly because it would have interfered with the planned port. And Vietnamese and Chinese tourists prefer big resorts to bare-bones bungalows like Jungle Beach.
Meanwhile, Vietnamese hunters shoot monkeys on the Hon Heo Peninsula to sell their carcasses for use in traditional medicine. Loggers cut lumber and make charcoal from trees. New roads will make it easier for them to access the forests. That leaves few interests standing in the way of further development.
“So far, I am the guardian of this mountain face,” said Lamarche.
It is a difficult role for foreigners to play — even if, like Lamarche and Nadler, they are married to Vietnamese women and have families here. Their sort of foreigners promises investments of tens of thousands of dollars for research and ecotourism. Foreigners like Japan’s Sumitomo and South Korea’s Hyundai promise billions.
“I’m raising my daughter here, my daughter is Vietnamese, so I think that qualifies for me to talk,” said Lamarche. “It would be a real shame if one day, my daughter gets asked by her grandchildren, ‘In this book I see these monkeys. Were there lots of them up there?’ ‘Yes, when I was a kid there were a lot, but we killed them all.’ What kind of heritage is that going to be for our children?”