Arrive in the Vietnamese city of Hanoi, morning or night, and suddenly you’ll find yourself battered by the same question a hundred times over. Hotel desks, backpackers, taxi drivers, and tour guides will all ask: “When are you going to Halong Bay?”
And for good reason. 500 million years in the making, mythical, singularly unique and beautiful, the bay has been a UNESCO World Heritage site and bio-reserve since 1994. Its endless kilometers of vast, delicate limestone domes rise from a flat green ocean.
With wheeling seabirds, spotless blue skies and shorelines dotted with a warren of hidden caves, Halong Bay has sat at the forefront of Vietnam’s travelling to-do list for over a decade. Now, with the bay’s recently acclaimed status as a new wonder of the world, by The New Seven Wonders Foundation, business is indeed booming.
When I first visited the bay back in 2002, it was already getting busy. I remember dodging the motorbikes and street vendors of Hanoi’s maniacally busy French Quarter one morning on the way to book myself onto a Halong tour.
Even back then there was a generous selection of companies operating, and after a little haggling and a few sweet-milk coffees, I bought my ticket and left the next morning.
This time around it was 2011 and, nine years on, planning a trip to Halong felt like organising Agincourt, with almost 300 tour operators having materialised in the French Quarter’s backstreets and alleys, and prices ranging from $30 to over $200.
Respected tour companies had fallen victim to counterfeit shops, decorated seamlessly to resemble the originals. All offered ‘the best price’, posted fake positive reviews online, and told scare stories about the others.
Hotel staff wouldn’t let you step outside until you’d defeated them on the subject: (“yes, I went yesterday; it was a favourite of mine”). And I couldn’t help thinking - I wonder what kind of shape the bay’s in now?
Exhausted by the morning’s pursuit, I eventually bought a ticket at a knockdown price, slung my bag, and made out in a cramped minibus towards the docks at Halong City. On the ocean, those deep green waters and their breezy calm had been replaced by a thick traffic of junk boats and the chug of diesel engines.
Hardly a scrap of free ocean was left. I looked down at the water splashing on the side of our boat, where plastic bags floated jellyfish-like across the top-film. Sun-bleached cans, crisp packets and wine bottles knocked against the hull and spun gently in the boat’s wake. The place was broken.
Onshore, and inside the Hang Ðâu Gô cave system, the prehistoric walls strobed with flash photography. People balanced tripods on rocks and clambered over them, searching out that perfect photo. Given time, these haunting structures clearly couldn’t take it.
Recent studies had shown that increased levels of carbon dioxide, exhaled by ever-expanding tourist numbers led to an accelerated degradation of the limestone itself. The widening of cave entrances and coloured lights which flooded their interiors had also increased light levels, initiating an imbalance between their delicate flora and fauna systems, and causing a decrease in cave humidity.
Back on the jetty, a giant, rusting half-skeleton of a super-wharf was being built to accommodate larger vessels. Staggering amounts of mangrove forest had been cleared for its construction, leading to a sharp decline in many of the area’s marine species.
Halong was changing, and it isn’t for the better. The next day I was plonked on the bus back to Hanoi, $40 down and shell-shocked. The bay’s beauty was being relentlessly exploited - just one big cash-cow for anyone with a bit of capital to invest in a boat, a shop-front and a tour business.
So what now? How do you ensure this unique place is shared and conserved at the same time?
Unfortunately, the crux of the argument lies with Halong’s list of distinguished titles - come see the UNESCO site, the seventh wonder of the world; come see beautiful Halong Bay. For many companies these are purely buzzwords to drum up business - the higher the wow factor, the more tourists, and the more money is made.
However, several institutions have begun to address Halong’s problems. In October 2011, the World Monuments Fund included the bay on their 2012 World Monuments Watch, citing the pressures of increased tourism and development as a key threat to its stability.
The aim of this was to stimulate a response of eco-strategies and heritage-driven developments to ensure its survival. UN Volunteers, in conjunction with the Vietnamese Youth Union have begun to take progressive steps, which include educating local communities on the importance of mangrove forests, and replanting 500 hectares of previously cleared mangrove.
However, as with the UNV, The World Monuments Fund, ecological groups such as BREES (Biosphere Reserves for Environmental and Economic Security), Halong Bay Management Authorities, and UNESCO itself, the main focus appears to be on educating the area’s indigenous population on the dangers of overfishing and waste disposal.
No management strategy whatsoever exists that simply puts an annual limit on the number of tourists and tour boats allowed into Halong Bay. There’s no mention at all of the sheer numbers, more litter, and the resulting tour-orientated developments outstripping the landscape.
With a seven-fold increase in international tourist visits (300,000 in 1991 to over 2.14 million in 2011) it appears that the only way the country can go is up. And with growth of Vietnam’s GDP currently set at 7.34%, (making it the World’s 35th highest), this economic rise from the ashes tends to cloud the judgment of national authorities when it comes to priorities.
Yes, the survival of the bay can come only from regulation – fewer people per year, as denoted by bay authorities. And this would not be difficult to implement, as every foreign traveler is required to submit their passport and “check in” when staying anywhere overnight. This includes sleeping on a boat in Halong Bay, so these numbers could be monitored easily. In turn, prices would undoubtedly be boosted by Hanoi tour operators, and some would dry up. But hopefully, in the long run this could allow both business and the bay’s ecosystems to function.
Whilst green tourism is still in its infancy in Vietnam, several international organisations such as the UN, the EU and the Canadian Government have offered the country generous grants, aiming to further boost Vietnam’s economy through green tourism. Many travel companies have tentatively begun to offer green-focused activities and tours, mostly around the communities close to Ho Chi Minh and Dalat.
In the rest of the country, eco-tours are offered in national parks such as Nam Cat Tien, Ba Na and Cuc Phoung. The danger here is that given time and steadily increasing numbers, these presently lesser-visited areas may gradually begin to suffer the same problems as Halong Bay.
To combat this, within the national parks, strict eco-mandates must be constructed and adhered to, as simply running tours in areas rich in flora and fauna does not make them Green, sustainable or ecologically sound.
James Rippingale is an essayist, poet and freelance travel writer. Based in England yet seldom on home soil, he divides his time between American backwaters, Asian investigations and seeking out cultural oddities wherever he can. His work has been published by a variety of online and print journals.
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