When you think about Vietnam, chances are an image of Ha Long Bay comes to mind. It is a huge attraction that draws millions of people every year. Maybe they would change their minds if they knew Ha Long’s secret.
Vietnam was at the top of my travel list for years before I booked a trip. In preparation, I picked up several books to catch up on the history and culture. One of them was Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton (2010). Hayton worked as a Vietnam correspondent for the BBC in 2006-2007. The picture he paints of Ha Long Bay isn’t pretty.
I don’t want to imply that Ha Long Bay is the only place with problems. It certainly isn’t. However, in Vietnam, there is a complete lack of regard for international environmental standards that we must discuss.
The Hidden Issue
One of the biggest problems is waste from tour boats. There are 500 boats cruising around the bay, some of them on overnight trips. According to the local marine law, most of these boats have primary treatment equipment on board. But, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes the following:
“…there is no collection point for this grey water, which renders cruise boats’ efforts in transferring grey water [from sinks] back to the land almost pointless, since this water cannot be properly handled and the vessels are forced to discharge into the bay.” (Grant Thornton report, September 2015).
For solid waste from toilets, there are some crude onshore facilities. but it is difficult for crews to transfer it over a rocky wall. The report quotes,
“I know many crews will choose to flush the dirty water or garbage directly into the water… it happens everywhere in Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and Cat Ba.”
You can read the IUCN report here.
We could talk more about the coal plant nearby or the huge amusement park Sun World Ha Long Bay that just opened (modeled after Disney World). The waste issue was enough to convince me.
What can you do?
If you choose to visit, check with the tour operator to ensure that waste is properly disposed of. Although you can’t ensure their answers are truthful, asking the question demonstrates your concern. (This is an appropriate question to ask in other parts of the world as well.) Tourists themselves cannot solve the problem. The government of Vietnam must enforce the law and provide adequate onshore facilities to accommodate the waste. Instead, it chooses business over protecting the environment.
My suggestion is to visit other places instead of Ha Long Bay. My fondest memories in Vietnam are away from the cities in the countryside. I promise to write more on that, but I’ll share this photo from central Vietnam in the meantime.
If you visited Ha Long Bay, what was your experience? Have you visited other places with similar issues?