Earlier this year, eyebrows were raised and funny bones tickled when it was announced that, following an official order, all tourist boats on Halong Bay were to be painted white or have their licences revoked. Just another of those crazy ideas that tourism officials occasionally come up with, no doubt to be forgotten about within days.

 

But unfortunately this idea didn’t go away and the law has been put into full effect, with boat companies told to paint their boats 100 percent white by the April deadline or have their vessels confined to port. The reasoning behind this is to “improve the image of Halong Bay”, which is certainly something that needs to be done — however, the colour of the boats is the least of Halong’s worries.

 

Last month I went to Halong to check out a few boats and also to see what the new white paint law has done for the Bay’s image. And all I can say is troi oi. It’s been a disaster. Where once traditional brown wooden junks sailed the Bay’s waters, now it is full of dirty looking white boats, the brown wood already showing through after just a few weeks. One operator told me that, given the current weather conditions, it is virtually impossible to paint boats properly at this time of year; another told me that his boats have to be repainted once every seven to 10 days at a cost of over VND21 million per boat — a huge overhead that will inevitably end up getting passed onto the customer, thus making an already pricy destination even more expensive. And pity one particular operator who launched a brand new fleet of 22 private junks late last year, only to have to bring them back to port just weeks later for repainting.

 

A State of No Resistance

 

In a country where businesses collaborate rather than purely competing, the operators would have responded to such a decision by simply saying “no”, and/or going on strike. In Vietnam, where to protest is to lose face and where to cooperate with a rival business is simply unthinkable, there was no resistance. Yet if the boat operators had refused to play ball and simply stopped sailing, the damage to Halong Bay’s (and Vietnam’s) image would have been such that I have no doubt the ruling would’ve been rescinded.

 

As it is, garbage still floats in the Bay; illegal boat touts harass tourists on shore and beggars and hawkers harass them out on the water; tourist boats all visit the same overcrowded caves and floating villages; and now the charm of the Bay, typified by its stately wooden junks, has been further eroded by an illogical and unnecessary ruling.

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