Nothing I write can detract from the natural, stunning beauty of Halong Bay. It absolutely deserves its crown as one of Vietnam’s greatest treasures. This is the first problem.
Combined with the 2016 TripIndex naming Hanoi as the cheapest city for a summer holiday for the third year in a row, the influx of tourists continues to increase and overwhelm the already delicate ecosystem of the bay.
Local competition is fierce, and the result is that more than 550 cruise ships capable of serving 10 million passengers are docked in the bay, despite only around 2.5 million tourists visiting last year.
Mark Bowyer, an editor from the Rusty Compass travel website, has spoken about the impact this has had on the bay.
“Hundreds of boats cruise the bay each day and few of them have proper water and sewage treatment. The water is visibly dirty in places and there’s lots of rubbish floating around,” he wrote in October last year.
“Some of this is tourism-related and some of it is caused by the heavy coal shipping that takes place through the bay.”
On top of that, in July 2015, Quang Ninh Province saw its worst flooding for 40 years. This caused many of the area’s open coal pits to overflow into the bay, severely threatening the ecosystem. Dao Trong Hung from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology said he was concerned for the biodiversity of Halong in the wake of the floods.
“The toxins in the water will destroy various kinds of aquatic life,” he said. Coal not only contains high levels of sulphur, but also, in some areas, metals such as lead, zinc and mercury.
Health and Safety Gone Mad
Another big problem is safety. In 2011, 12 people died when a cruise ship sank. The valves connecting the junk’s engine cooling pipes to the water had been left open during the night, swamping the hull.
A passenger fell nearly 20 feet from the top deck of a cruise ship in 2010, because the wooden railings had rotted so extensively. Repairs, as they are optimistically called, usually just involve covering up rotted or broken parts with formica, or other shortcut solutions.
Despite local officials introducing new measures intended to cut down on the number of ‘cowboy’ companies operating cruises in the bay, in May 2016, four people were hospitalised after a boat carrying 40 people was engulfed by a fire and sank.
Vice Chairman of the provincial People’s Committee Le Quang Tung said that as of 2015, 81% of the Halong Bay fleet are wooden ships. Officials aim to replace them all with metal ships by 2030.
50 Shades of Green
Located near the Chinese border, the quaint, lush mountain town of Sapa is a haven for tourists seeking respite from the overcrowding, pollution and traffic of Hanoi. Except it isn’t, anymore.
In March 2015, Lao Dong news published a damning report on the state that Sapa has been reduced to, courtesy of booming tourist numbers and a failure to update the infrastructure to deal with them.
It speaks of dozens of new hotels, garbage left uncollected in the streets, and traffic caused by large buses arriving outside hotels throughout the day and doing 10-minute U-turns in the narrow streets.
Coordination of the chaos is left to tour guides and hotel staff, with the lack of police or urban management staff resulting in people taking extreme liberties with their parking habits and obedience of other laws.
Alternatives and Solutions
As visitors, we must carry some responsibility to ensure these places continue dazzling people for decades to come.
Throw your rubbish in a bin. Glare menacingly at those who don’t, whether local or foreign. Don’t assume the price of your visa or ticket entitles you to treat a place how you want, so show some respect.
Do some research beyond the first page of Google results, and only part with your money if the company receiving it have a proven record of giving a toss about safety and their impact on the environment.
Even better, commit backpacker sacrilege and go somewhere else completely. Trang An in Ninh Binh is often called the Halong Bay of the land, and for good reason. The river journey to the Perfume Pagoda in the Huong Tich mountains boast similar levels of natural beauty, without the toxic water and sinking cruise ships.
For a dose of peace and greenery, leave Sapa to the selfie-stick-wielding masses and head up to Ba Be Lake in the north-eastern province of Bac Kan for a trekking experience without the smell of diesel fumes and garbage.
If you crave the sight of rolling rice fields on picturesque terraces, take a trip to Moc Chau in Son La or Mai Chau in Hoa Binh, where eco-friendly hotels and homestays are slowly starting to emerge.
Vietnam has some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. The damaging impact of tourism doesn’t need to be permanent, and as long as everyone does their part, we can help to keep Vietnam beautiful forever.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication