Halong Bay: When Tourism Goes Wrong

Posted on May 9, 2012 by

In 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?  

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

25 Responses to “Halong Bay: When Tourism Goes Wrong”

  1. ayngelina May 9, 2012 3:31 am #

    I was there five years ago and it really is beautiful but clearly things are getting out of hand.

  2. budgetjan May 9, 2012 3:40 am #

    We were similarly conflicted – to visit Halong Bay or not? Eventually we caught a bus from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island. The $8 included the boat over to the island from Haiphong and bus to Cat Ba town. Then we paid about $24 AUD to go out on a climbers boat. While the climbers were doing their thing on the outcrops, about six of us kayaked in Lan Ha Bay. Having never been to Halong Bay proper (where the mass tourism is),we could not compare the two areas, but we were impressed with Lan Ha Bay, which is actually part of Halong Bay. There were not a lot of boats and no noticeable pollution. That was in April 2011. We spent the day on the boat. Kayaked morning and afternoon and had lunch prepared by the crew. We relaxed on the deck in bean bags and had a few cold beers on the way back to the island as the sun was low in the sky. We were happy.

    • Nellie May 15, 2012 11:51 pm #

      Hi Jan, thanks for sharing your experience! I\’ve heard so much good stuff about Cat Ba island – a pity we didn\’t manage to get there. Lan Ha Bay sounds very pleasant – it\’s great to hear there are still areas that are unaffected by mass tourism and pollution. I heard that many Halong boats are re-routing to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is a much more pristine area. I tried asking around when we were in Hanoi, but most operators didnt offer that service. I have to say that my opinions above are just based on one boattrip around Halong Bay, and might not suffice to conclude the extent of damage inflicted upon the region, but I sure hope I\’m wrong – if not Halong will probably not keep up its UNESCO status for long.

  3. A Montrealer Abroad May 9, 2012 5:05 pm #

    That's really too bad to see how consumerism can overtake a country's most beautiful assets. Fingers crossed people in high places will tend to this unbearable problem, and soon!

  4. Barbara May 9, 2012 10:42 pm #

    A cautionary tale for sure. Thanks for this interesting post.

  5. Gobi Gear May 11, 2012 1:58 am #

    Nellie – this article is great. Really well done and thought out. We experienced the same issues when there in 2009. And sadly, in other parts of the world these problems are prevalent. As a botanist/environmental consultant, I really appreciate people with as much reach as yourself writing about these issues. Thank you!

    • Nellie May 15, 2012 11:54 pm #

      Thanks Chez for the encouraging words. I had my hesitations when writing this – as Vietnam is very controlling of the type of media coverage it gets online (a particular article on National Geographic that labelled Nha Trang beach as the most damage beach in the world, got banned in the country). But after hearing how it\’s resonated with many people, I\’m glad I\’ve come out and expressed my opinions and hopefully this will get people thinking before going to Halong Bay.

  6. Jenny Boyle May 11, 2012 8:04 pm #

    I travelled to Halong Bay in 2000 and was disappointed to find hundreds of plastic bags in the water. Although they looked more like jellyfish floating around it was, I thought a sign of things to come. I hope in the future it can be improved and cleaned up with stricter environ laws.

  7. Theodora May 14, 2012 3:24 am #

    The Halong Bay region is huge and it depends where you leave from and which operator you go with. We went from Cat Ba island, had a boat to ourselves, and picked our own caves and beaches and places to sleep, and it was lovely, with clear water — that was 18 months ago (we paid $180 for three people for 2 days and 1 night). We had lots of caves and inlets to ourselves.

    So, I think, pick your operator carefully and start from Cat Ba. It takes longer, because you need to get to Cat Ba and arrange the boat yourself, but you will have a better, and lower impact, experience than the mass group boats they funnel out of Hanoi.

    • Nellie May 15, 2012 11:57 pm #

      Theodora, I\’m really happy to hear your experience was good! It\’s a relief to hear that there are still pockets of clean and undisturbed areas around Halong Bay. As what Jan mentioned below, focusing on Cat Ba Island sounds like a better idea than going on a cheapish cruise around the bay. I also mentioned in my post that we seriously made a mistake by not doing our research and randomly picking a tour operator – that definitely makes a big difference to the experience.

  8. Jarmo May 16, 2012 5:19 am #

    Halong bay is tricky, it's definitely a worth a visit if you are in Vietnam, but I can definitely understand when you say tourism has gone wrong there. There are a *lot* of boats around, and you will see quite a lot of garbage on the shores, which really is a shame as the place is amazing. We were in Hanoi last year and decided to go for a cruise, one night on the boat and one on the island. And at least ours was done great. When the boat sank the anchor for the night, there were no other boats in sight, and the island we were staying the other night was also fairly secluded. So I'd recommend spending a bit more and being careful about choosing the company to do it with.

  9. Steven Scott May 20, 2012 9:52 pm #

    Very interesting and honest travel post. Vietnam is certainly a country of contrasts….and as a developing nation, has many problems with pollution, general safety and welfare, and sanitation standards and customs. Western tourists must be aware of these things, and choose their itineraries accordingly. Tourism in Vietnam is both a blessing and a curse…..and tourism control is no easier a task for the government than is population control. I truely love Vietnam in spite of it's problems…..such beauty and culture should not be wasted on short term economic gain.

  10. cathy May 21, 2012 9:06 am #

    wow – sad hear you had a such a negative impression of this beautiful sight. You definitely picked the wrong boat. We had a fabulous time on our 3 day 2 night on the Dragon Pearl almost the same week you were there. Our boat went to a part of the bay where there were very few boats. Stop by my blog in a few days and see our post.

    • Nellie May 21, 2012 4:49 pm #

      hey Cathy, thanks for sharing! Yes, we definitely should have done more research when deciding which boat to take. But I did put in some careful thoughts to make sure my experience wasn\’t tainted just because of the boat – and after speaking to a few friends who went on different boats – I realised the pollution and environmental destruction wasn\’t simply something the boat experience could affect. Nonetheless, thanks for the recommendation – it\’ll be useful for those who want to go to Halong Bay with a responsible operator.

  11. Jane May 21, 2012 11:00 pm #

    I completely agree with your assessment, Nellie. In fact, based on my trip there in 2009, I just advised a friend visiting Vietnam to skip Halong Bay for these very reasons. It’s very sad that such a beautiful place is now a mess, and the fault is completely due to over-tourism.

  12. Dan August 26, 2012 10:41 pm #

    I have to wonder, why terminate wooden boats? I want to see the place cleaned up but at the same time authentic or not the junks are part of the image, it wouldn't be the same with modern vessels. And an aluminium hull will sink just a readily as a wooden one if not properly maintained.

    • Nellie September 27, 2012 5:34 am #

      You've got a point there. Terminating wooden boats does not exactly resolve the issue, the issue here is a serious lack of environmental awareness. I guess the termination would be an immediate solution, but would it be enough to solve the problem in the long run?

  13. vietnamtourism001 October 8, 2012 10:00 pm #

    Halong bay is the pride of Vietnam when it is recognized by UNESCO. it is majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious: words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay. Imagine 3000 or more incredible islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong Bay is pure art, a priceless collection of unfinished sculptures hewn from the hand of nature. You also visit it through http://www.vietnamtourism.org.vn.

  14. Fran October 11, 2012 8:14 pm #

    I was similarly disheartened with places in Thailand such as Phi Phi, Koh Samui and others. Areas of natural beauty, spoilt by humans chasing the money.

    And this was years ago, can't begin to imagine what they are like now.

  15. The Saffron Girl October 26, 2012 12:29 pm #

    We just returned from a trip to Vietnam and also went on a cruise on Halong Bay aboard the Treasure Junk from Handspan. We couldn't have been more pleased with the experience, although we did see some garbage floating in the bay. Also, there seems to be some sort of project to help the floating villages gather up their garbage and have it collected by the authorities (or at least that's what our guide told us). I don't think it's just an over-tourism problem, but rather the issue of the government and locals not paying enough attention to how they need to care for their environment.
    I do want to add that, although our experience was quite fantastic, there are dangers to be aware of, some more serious than others, like the quality of the boats (there have been various accidents and incidents involving deaths), and scams. We seemed to have been victims of a scam by the pearl farms to which we were taken by our Handspan tour. We purchased a pearl for $50, being told it was a natural, Vietnamese pearl grown at the farm in Halong Bay. After some research, once at home, we've learned it's a Chinese freshwater pearl worth about $1! Beware of the scams in Vietnam, not only in Halong Bay, but everywhere!!
    It's a shame things like this happen tainting the reputation of a beautiful country, which is developing and growing its tourism industry. But it's better to be aware than fall into the trap.

  16. Keith Kellett January 24, 2013 1:53 am #

    I haven't been there, but it's 'on my list'. However, having read this, and about Charley Boorman's experience in 'By Any Means', I'm starting to have my doubts. Maybe, for now, I should just enjoy the photographs?

    • Nellie January 30, 2013 5:26 am #

      I wouldn\’t recommend visiting Halong Bay until they get their act together. Perhaps it\’ll be soon…

  17. Joe Staiano January 24, 2013 11:51 am #

    Mmmm… a morning kayak paddle… sounds glorious. Contaminated water! Dead fish! Clusters of rubbish! Unsafe boats! Must have missed that page in the tour brochure. I have been to HaLong Bay and agree. I read this post w great interest and found myself thinking some very prejudicial thoughts that I wanted to share and hear what Wild Junket readers think. At first, I found myself placing 'virtual' blame on local (from Asia) tourists, it is hard to imagine a western tourist just tossing their plastic bag or coca cola can overboard into the sea, or on the floor of a cave. I was in a conversation the other night with friends about "beautification", and how that takes a back seat when there are fundamental human needs still to be addressed (health, education, unemployment, poverty etc). I would also guess that well-intentioned tourists place their soda cans in a trash bin… but perhaps there does NOT exist any system for removing and handling that waste such as in more developed countries. This blog and one's similar that point out and name incidences of "IRRESPONSIBLE" tourism are so valuable. KNOW. SHARE. Comments?

    • Nellie January 30, 2013 5:25 am #

      hi Joe, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I have to disagree with your initial thoughts, as I don\’t think only local tourists are to be blamed. And honestly whether you\’re Asian or Caucasian or African has got nothing to do with your ethics. I think ultimately, it is the tour operator and boat owners\’ responsibility to conserve the environment. There doesn\’t seem to be any proper system of waste removal in Halong Bay, and even if there is, local operators don\’t seem to put any emphasis on dumping waste the proper way. I had an interesting discussion with fellow travelers on the boat in Halong Bay, and they also brought up the issue of how environmental concerns usually take a back seat when there are other issues to be addressed (which is usually the problem in developing countries). It perhaps boils down to education – I think educating the local operators on the importance of protecting their environment is key to saving Halong Bay.


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