When I think about the waters of Southeast Asia, the karst islands and emerald green sea of Halong Bay pop into my mind. And I’m clearly not the only one with this image in their head. Over 5 million people visit Halong Bay annually, which averages out to 16,000 people a day. On Friday and Saturday, my traveling partner and I were two of these tourists.
At the moment, most visitors come from Hanoi, joining a two- or three-day boat cruise that includes the transfer from Hanoi. Based on several recommendations, we joined a two-day cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay, a quieter section of the entire Halong Bay region. Since it takes four hours to reach Halong Bay from Hanoi, a two-day cruise amounts to twenty-four hours on the boat and eight hours on the bus. Given the strict regulations around what you can do in Halong Bay, however, this is plenty of time.
During our 24 hours on board, we got to kayak through a few small coves, swim off a beach, walk on an island and through a cave, and learn a few Tai Chi poses on the sundeck. Kayaking and sailing through the islands and islets is the real reason to join a cruise. There are over 3,000 limestone islands and islets (tiny islands) covering the 1,500 square kilometers that make up the Halong Bay area. From land, they all blend together to look like a series of hills. As you approach them on water, however, you can see the distinct lines of each land mass. Each island and islet is covered by gorgeous green foliage. Most are incredibly rocky and small, making it impossible for people to live on all but two of the islands.
The geological history for Halong Bay is similar to that of other karst areas: limestone mountains formed and then eroded. The mythological story, however, is unique to the area: In ancient times, the Vietnamese were facing an army invading from the north. A mother dragon came from heaven to help, dropping jade to form a wall in Halong Bay to block the invading force. The jade dyed the bay emerald and, as the stone eroded, became the karst islands.
Our tour guide was fantastic, speaking fluent English and providing extensive detail on the history and culture of the region. I was quite disappointed, however, by the other tourists in the group. Our boat was naturally small, but due to cancellations there were only twelve people. I have had more conversations on less intimate group outings. There was one obnoxious Canadian (this is not a typo; it was an obnoxious Canadian) that I could have done without. Everyone else was perfectly nice but basically silent. It was the strangest thing. Even during evening drinks on the deck, which are designed to get everyone to socialize, no one talked. Our tour guide felt so bad for us that he started regaling us stories about the bay. This suited me just fine, but I was still dissatisfied with the other passengers.
My travel companion was rather unimpressed, noting that it wasn’t as cool as Antarctica. Personally, I don’t think anything is ever going to be as awe-inspiring as Antarctica, so I refuse to compare all other natural wonders to it. I thought Halong Bay was quite beautiful, despite the clear issues of pollution and poor management.
Halong Bay, as noted above, is a huge tourist destination. Yet the province doesn’t benefit from tourism as much as they’d like. Halong City is a small city and has little to offer tourists. Thus, most tours come from Hanoi, and Quang Ninh Province can only make money by taking the boat trips. The province would prefer to keep money within its borders and is implementing a plan to achieve this goal. They have a tourism plan for 2020: After that year, overnight boat trips will not be permitted, so all tourists will need to stay in Halong City. In order to appeal to those tourists, the province is building a cable car, rollercoaster, waterpark, and Ferris wheel, as well as numerous hotels and resorts. In the meantime, they’re raising taxes and placing restrictions on overnight cruises. There’s so much about this plan that strikes me as problematic. First, I struggle to understand the province’s target demographic. Halong Bay is a natural wonder. In my experience, the majority of tourists interesting in checking out a natural space don’t care about resort towns. Furthermore, you can’t replicate Hanoi’s Old Town or museums, or make Halong City closer to the airport, so people may still start their journey in Hanoi. Even assuming that this plan made sense for the demographic, it will, of course, have a huge impact on the people of Halong City. There are only 22,000 people in the city, but many of them will need to relocate. There are also roughly 30,000 fishermen living in Halong Bay, and the impact of the plan on them is unclear. They live in Halong Bay on fishing boats or floating houses and rarely come to the mainland. Most of these are subsistence fishermen, fishing only enough to feed their families. People have been doing this in Halong Bay for 18,000 years and the government only permits those with traditional ties to the area to fish in these waters, ensuring their survival. Yet pollution is clearly a concern: there is quite a bit of trash in Halong Bay, all washing out of the nearby rivers. I can’t help but wonder whether increases in development will change fisheries policies or pollution rates and negatively impact the fishermen. In the end, it seems that this plan is more about bolstering corporations and the government than improving the local economy for all. Most people I talked to proposed this solution: tell everyone to visit before 2020. So, that’s what I’m doing.