I n Northern Vietnam, thousands of grottos and limestone cliffs dot the emerald waters of Halong Bay. Junk boats ply its water, against the natural backdrop of dark green rock formations shrouded in mist. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments to evolve into the picturesque site it is today. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the attraction is easily the most famous site in the country and also the most visited – with nearly three million tourists cruising its waters every year.
Without proper regulations and safety standards in place, Halong Bay has unfortunately fallen victim to environmental issues and even fatal accidents. In 2011, a boat sank, killing 12 tourists in Halong Bay – shocking the world with the tragic news. According to several comments from travelers on Lonely Planet, this isn’t an isolated incident.
A Traveler’s Dilemma
Before arriving to Vietnam, we’d found ourselves in a dilemma – to visit Halong Bay and contribute to the existing environmental problems? Or skip it altogether but possibly miss one of the country’s most beautiful sites? Like many others, we’d heard many sing praises of Halong Bay and its dreamy setting; but we’d also heard plenty of travelers rant about the crowd, the pollution and the unethical behavior of local tour operators.
By the time we arrived in Hanoi, we were convinced we had to see it for ourselves. After all, this was our second time in Vietnam and we both love the country – both the good and the bad. We booked ourselves on a mid-range overnight boat trip (prices range from $30 to $200+, we paid $67 for ours) - with not much expectations and a glimmer of hope that it wouldn’t disappoint. But it did. And it opened my eyes to what tourism can do to a place. The beauty of the poetic landscapes is undeniable, but the sheer amount of environmental destruction is enough to put off any traveler with a conscience.
Even before boarding our boat, we’d found a thick layer of oil and bits of rubbish floating on the water surface just off the shore of Bai Chay town (an unattractive and artificial town built all the way into the bay). Our boat, Dugong Sail – a rickety white boat with a roaring engine – was obviously nothing like what the operator had promised. In all honesty, we didn’t do as much research as we should have. In a fragile environment like Halong Bay, it is important to travel with only ethical and responsible tour operators – and in this situation, we’d obviously made a mistake.
Environmental Destruction At Halong
Upon sailing into the open waters, it was clear we were not going to be the only boat around – around ten others were sailing in the same direction. Apparently every single boat followed the same itinerary. By the time we got to the cave, we were in the company of at least 20 other boats and hundreds of people climbing the stairways into the cave. As we docked, another boat was leaving and cruising too close to us for comfort. We watched, amused and slightly horrified, as it jarred right past us, missing us by just a few inches. Our boat followed suit, squeezing its way between two other double-decked junks – with the bow of the neighboring boat hitting one of our mates on the back (luckily it didn’t hurt him) – this time, nobody was laughing.
Back in the cave, we walked elbow to elbow with at least a hundred other tourists. The cave was rather impressive, with giant stalactites and stalagmites jutting from within and the ceiling reaching up to 8 or 10 meters in height. Unfortunately, the interior of the cave was lit up with kitsch rainbow colored lighting, and lined with signboards and steps – with coca cola cans and plastic bags strewn all over the place. From the top of the cave, we saw a massive construction project underway at its shore, turning the emerald water into a murky brown color – our guide told me they were building a port, to accommodate even more boats. I couldn’t help but cringe: was this not enough already?
We spent the evening cruising deeper into the Gulf of Tonkin, leaving behind the trail of junk boats and finding ourselves cruising silently into more pristine waters. The air was fresh, the sounds of eagles flying overhead echoed in the distance. We weaved past tiny uninhabited isles and only saw boats sailing in the far distance. At this point, I almost felt that the trip was worthwhile – and perhaps after all, Halong Bay wasn’t as destroyed as I’d imagined. But the next morning proved me wrong.
We awoke to the sound of boats setting sail all around us and our engine roaring even louder than before. Dropping anchor at a narrow bay, we hopped onto a floating village to get onto our kayaks for the morning paddle. Damp and dirty life-vests, rusty kayaks and broken paddles – nothing surprising. But as we paddled out into the sea, we saw our fellow traveling mates almost getting run down by a junk boat that refused to give way to them. Just last year, a pair of kayakers had actually been run down by a boat, but had fortunately survived the accident. I shuddered at the thought of it – safety apparently wasn’t a priority here at all. We paddled more across the channel – the smell of the contaminated water was unbearable by now and the pollution even more so - we were literally paddling amidst dead fish and clusters of rubbish.
A Tragic Case
By the end of the trip, we were more than ready to hop off the boat and leave the bay – a place so beautiful yet tragically destroyed by humans. It’s clearly one of the worst scenarios of how tourism can go wrong. Because of the influx of visitors coupled with the lack of safety rules, the market is saturated with irresponsible tour operators who are more concerned with gaining profits, than environmental and safety issues.
Fortunately, new regulations have been introduced to tighten the operation of tourist boats after the major accident in Halong Bay last year that killed 12. The Quang Ning People’s Committee has a new scheme on building tourist boats, including the termination of wooden boats. New requirements call for all staff on board to have high school diplomas, at least two are required to have first aid training and boats have to be equipped with standard fire suppression systems.
For now, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to visit Halong Bay – not until the bay is cleaned up and the situation controlled with new safety rules and measures. I can only wish that the situation will improve, but until then, we need to do our parts to educate the next generation and prevent another scenario like this in future.
What do you think? Have you visited other places that have been destroyed by tourism?