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November/December 2015

Few lands are so defined by their seashore as is Vietnam. A long, thin strip of a country, just 30 miles wide at its narrowest point, it has 2,000 miles of coastline from the north-eastern border with China to the south-western one with Cambodia. Over 5% of the workforce are employed in fishing. When hundreds of thousands fled after the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, they did so as boat people. For centuries, Vietnamese painting has been fascinated by the beauty of its coastal waters.

The photographer Ian Winstanley followed the coast from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to the capital, Hanoi, in the north, by train, boat and, for 400km, by bicycle. He was struck by the spectacular scenery, the serenity and the warmth of the welcome he received when he pedalled through the villages. But something else drew his attention: the uneasy sense among those living on Vietnam’s shoreline that their sea is under threat.

Unlikely as it seems from these pictures, whose milky palette appears to echo the tranquillity they capture, this sea is a cockpit of regional tensions. The clue is in the name. For Vietnam, it is the “East Sea”. The Philippines calls part of it the “West Philippine Sea”. But China calls it the “South Sea” and it is better known around the world as the “South China Sea”. China and, for historical reasons, Taiwan, claim sovereignty over almost the entire sea, including parts claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

Mostly this is a dispute waged in maps, newspaper columns and dry diplomatic forums. Sometimes, though, it flares up: in 1988 more than 60 Vietnamese navy sailors died losing a skirmish with China over part of the Spratly Islands, in the sea’s south-east. Since then, overt conflict has been avoided, beyond occasional scuffles between fishermen.

But in the past couple of years the terms of the conflict have been rewritten by China. Last year it sent an oil-rig to drill in waters that Vietnam regarded as its own. And over the past 18 months, it has been engaged in a frenzied construction spree, expanding seven tiny islands, rocks and reefs it controls by filling in the sea to create artificial territory capable of sustaining not just human habitation, but military activity.

This is of course alarming to the other littoral states. But it has also become one of the big disagreements roiling relations between China and America. Of the 80,000 or so ships, carrying one-third of global seaborne trade, that pass through the Strait of Malacca each year, most also ply the South China Sea. Their security has been safeguarded by America’s dominance of the western Pacific. Now China seems to be challenging that.

For many Vietnamese, this opens a new front in a centuries-old conflict. Despite the history of French colonial occupation and the anti-American war, Vietnamese nationalism is defined by the struggle to retain or regain independence from its overbearing northern neighbour. The oil-rig incident led to anti-Chinese rioting; millions routinely log on to the internet to urge the government to take a firm stand against perceived Chinese slights. These days, Vietnam is even cosying up to America as a strategic partner. But, for the fishermen, as Winstanley has documented, their life is still defined by the rhythms of the tides and the shrinking bounty of the disputed waters. ~ simon long

“I was on this beach, in the south, when Mui Ne returned after another unsatisfactory day’s fishing. He had caught little more than half a bucket of small fry. He was friendly, just going about his daily business. I found the people of the south more open than those of the north, who reminded me of the Chinese”

“It was about nine in the morning when the fishing fleet came in. It was an amazing sight; that many boats clustered together, all in the same blue and red. It was like the Spanish Armada, painted by Canaletto. It’s rare to see such an open scene – no trees or rocks”

“During the war, this fishing and farming community in central Vietnam was the base for large numbers of American troops. Now its beaches are full of tourists. Here the fishermen are coralling fish into traps. But it’s all very traditional and low-tech; I liked the graphic image produced by those dark sticks on the flat water”

“At dawn off Quy Nhon, everything seemed so peaceful, but the juxtaposition of the old wooden stilt houses and the newer villas in the background was an echo of what is happening up and down Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City we could almost see the buildings going up; supermodern skyscrapers towering over the shrinking older neighbourhoods”

“I took this shot from a boat, early in the morning. The islands were extraordinary, one of the wonders of the world; many are named after the animals they resemble. We saw – and heard – a cacophony of monkeys, who live on and among the rocks”

This is the world’s most extensive example of marine-invaded karst, a sprinkling of 1,600 limestone islets seemingly emerging from the sea. “I went for a swim; it was calm, but not the cleanest water I’ve been in”