(HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM) – Three and a half hours from Hanoi lies Ha Long Bay. It is oft touted as Vietnam’s most spectacular sight. There are some 1,969 limestone islands covered in greenery as they jut out of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Now, the problem is that there are 500 or so cruise ships jammed into the bay. Half of them are day cruises and the other half are overnighters. So, what was once unspoilt beauty is now incredible beauty littered with cruise ships.
If you see what I have seen in pre-cruise Barcelona, Dubrovnik, and Venice versus the post cruise ship versions, you can readily see what cruise ships do. They dump hordes of tourists that inadvertently destroy the charm of the tourist site.
Ha Long Bay’s beauty is preserved to a great degree because the hordes of tourists are confined to their boat, unless they wish to visit caves, pearl factories, go sea kayaking, or traipse among the floating fishing villages.
I urge you to visit Ha Long Bay, but you and I may have missed the boat by a least a decade. It’s best to keep an open mind and try to ignore the garbage bobbing in the water and the plastic bags gripping the rock base of these islets.
I did some night squid fishing with bright lights reflecting on the water and I could not help but notice the poor water quality with, what looked like, sewage waste foam and loads of garbage drifting by. Whatever peace one might derive from squid fishing was lessened by the hoots from the myriad of cruise ships anchored for the night.
The port area, called Paradise City, is undergoing heavy construction with the apparent goal of creating a seaside resort. What ecological impact Paradise City will cause is yet to be seen.
Make no mistake, Ha Long Bay deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The management department of Ha Long Bay states that some two million tons of garbage is collected daily from Ha Long Bay’s shores. Three million tourists visit this site yearly, according to Vietnam’s General Department of Tourism. The trash is only collected as far out as 700m from shore, after having been dumped into the water from sewage pipes or fishing vessels operating near the coast.
Ha Long Bay currently employs a team of four trash collecting boats at a cost of 5.8 Billion Vietnamese dong a year. Just wait until Paradise City has been fully developed. While the spectacular scenery will remain as such, the environment in which it is observed will have deteriorated even more than it is now.
There is still time to enjoy its beauty, but my personal view is that Ha Long Bay is going, going, and soon will be gone. And, once the two-lane highway from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay is completed, it will only serve to make it more accessible.
A bit of advice. If you want a more serene locale, head up the coast 11km to Bai Tu Long National Park and take your cruise from there.