Ethical tourism in Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

Vietnam has seen a major tourism increase over the last decade, and visitors all over the world have one thing in common: taking a cruise to the UNESCO Heritage site of Halong Bay, because of it’s simply stunning views. But is it still ethical to visit Halong Bay still?   

Halong Bay is a perfect example of overtourism – But it is not all bad news!

 

How to describe a perfect vacation in Vietnam without thinking about a cruise in Halong Bay!?

The opportunity to sail on a junk ship through hundreds of dramatic limestone mountains sticking up from a deep turquoise sea —  There are so many karst islands and rocks rising from the water in every direction that it looks mystic. There are caves, secret lagoons, and sea gypsies.

But this amazing description of paradise on earth also comes with a price. Like all the “hidden gems” on our Planet, Halong Bay is no different, and these places do not remain hidden for long.

Halong Bay is the most visited place in Vietnam and every year millions of people visit – to the point where the main bay is now filled with hundreds of boats, and there’s a film of pollution skimming the ocean surface. The drive from Hanoi is lined with giant billboards advertising theme park complexes.

Here’s my take on whether it’s still worth doing anyway, and how to have the best Halong Bay experience if you do.

 

Ethical Row boat tour Halong Bay

THE BAD: What are the main ethical problems with Halong Bay?

 

During the high season, Halong can have more than 300 boats in the water. Of course with this high number of boats sharing the same location, it can be not only an environmental disaster but also, a safety concern.

Check it out the main points you should be aware of when considering a tour on Halong Bay:

Pollution: It is a concern with the water quality, due to the hundreds of tourist boats lining the bay every day, and most of these boats don’t have proper sewage and water treatment. Tourist boats and cargo ships account for much of the pollution. Only 20% of tourist boats are equipped with standard water waste treatment systems, it says. Cargo ships are also responsible for the problem because they illegally discharge water mixed with oil. Plus, many boats do not use eco-friendly diesel and throw in the air tons of gas emission.

Locals fishing on Halong Bay Locals fishing on Halong Bay

 

Trash in the Water – It was dishearting to see that there are still people in the world that throw trash in the water. I saw some local people who live in Halong Bay throwing waste in the water, probably leftovers from their food preparation. Also, the information I got was that the fishermen and their families who live on the bay are the ones helping to pollute Halong Bay. As far as tourists go, I didn’t see anyone throwing trash in the water. By doing some extensive research, I learned that during the high season, you can see cans of coke and plastic bottles floating in the water. Boo to any visitor who does not care about the environment.

Environmental Destruction: I got the chance to visit a cave during my 3-day cruise in Halong Bay, and I have to be honest and say that what I saw broke my heart. Many boats were at the same location with many people visiting the cave at the same time – and I visited Halong Bay during the low season. I cannot even imagine during the high season. In my opinion, caves are very fragile places that should be preserved. The majestic formations of stalactites and stalagmites, sharing space with rainbow-colored lighting – lights are so damaging for caves as they promote algae and fungus growth – and lined with so many people touching the walls and formations.

Cave tour at Halong Bay One of the caves tour on Halong Bay

 

Safety: Unfortunately, the local government doesn’t have the proper Regulations and Safety Standards. Due to the lack of regulations, Halong Bay suffers from environmental issues and even fatal accidents. The bay has sadly fallen victim to dangerous conditions, like the tourist boat that sank killing 12 people in 2011. The silver lining to this tragedy is that new regulations have been introduced to tighten tour boat operations. These regulations include the elimination of wooden boats and a call for all staff on board to have high school diplomas. At least two staff members are required to have first aid training and boats have to be equipped with standard fire suppression systems.

Over-Crowded – If you are looking for a less touristy area, Halong Bay is not the place to go. The bay is over-crowded as it becomes a more popular tourist destination. We all know, the more boats and the more people, the more pollution. My concern is how long Halong Bay can keep its World Heritage badge unless they take action to control the influx of tourists and the preservation of this piece of paradise.

 

 

 

Booking.com over-tourism on Halong Bay Just a day on a low-season in Halong Bay

 

Lack of support for the Local Economy: If you care about supporting the local economy, Halong Bay can be a controversial destination. Many tour companies are foreign-owned and do not employ locals or contribute to the local economy. This can create a negative socio-economic impact on the life of the locals in Halong Bay. Tour companies using this area to make money, are taking thousands of tourists to explore the area, sometimes treating floating villages and local fishermen as “humans-zoos”, without giving back to the community.

 

 

 

Local fisherman on Halong Bay A local family home-boat

CONCLUSION: Is it worse to cruise the Halong Bay?

 

This is such a dilemma and hard question to answer – and since I went, even knowing the problem of over-tourism in Halong Bay, who am I to tell anyone to not go? It would be so wrong for me to dissuade anyone since I had a beautiful experience and memories that I will carry with me for a lifetime.

The good news is that you still can have a mystical Ha Long Bay experience that is ALSO ethical. And despite being a very touristy area, I was pleased to see that they still make efforts related to preservation. But there a few things we can do from our side:

Floating Village Ethical Tour Halong Bay Floating Village

 

Choose a reputable and ethical tour operator:  As always, do your research before your trip. Before I book a tour, I always try to learn as much as I can about how ethical the tours really are, and how the local tour companies care and help to protect the environment. During my research, I read good and bad things about Halong Bay tours, and after my research, I have no regrets about my choice. It may cost a little more, but you know you are not supporting unethical business.

My recommendations on responsible tour operators:

  • Indochina Junk – This tour operator is renowned for being a trustworthy ethical operator. They are committed to sustainability, local employment and empowerment, and minimizing their negative impact.
  • La Pinta Cruise – This was my choice to cruise Halong Bay. They employ local people, providing the opportunity for jobs. They also use eco-friendly diesel and respect preserved areas of the bay, only allowing tourists to go on rowboat or kayak.

Junk Boat on Halong Bay

 

Support Preserved areas – We still could see that there are some preserved areas of Halong Bay where people and boats do not have access. It was amazing to see. We flew our drone while in the middle of the bay, and what we saw was absolutely stunning. Because some of the islands are hollow inside, gorgeous natural pools form with the bluest water you can imagine. When we showed the images to the crew on the boat, even being from Vietnam, they were amazed with what they were seeing. They were also surprised, and informed us that no one is allowed to visit the islands and according to them, the majority of them remain untouched.

Go during low season: May and June are the quieter months to visit Halong Bay, as May is the start of the wet season and northern Vietnam sees about triple the amount of rain than the previous month. I found out that doing a cruise for New Year is also very quiet, but it was also cold(ish) since it is winter.  It’s an undeniable fact that worse weather attracts fewer tourists. More withdrawn and reserved passengers can find a host of enticing pulls during Halong Bay’s off-peak season, all stemming from the fact that there are fewer people on board and at attractions. The bay usually feels more open, where hours can go past without view of another cruise ship

 

Kayak view ethical tour in Halong Bay Some areas of Halong Bay do not allow junk boats to avoid pollution

 

Do your part to be an ethical traveler: Here are a few basics – avoid using single use plastic bottles, straws and help to reduce the amount of trash generated during your tour. Ethical operators will have a fully functional waste disposal system, but if you aren’t sure, keep it with you until you can directly dispose of it yourself back on land. I’m not even going to mention avoiding throwing your rubbish into the water…because you know that already.

Choose an alternative Bay: While this won’t do too much to reduce the environmental impact, the alternative bays are factually far less polluted and disrupted than their over-achieving sister, Halong. It allows you to have a far more local and authentic experience, and contribute your tourist dollars to the people who need it most.

My recommendations on less crowed bays:

 

Row boat tour of Halong Bay Kayaks - ethical way to tour Halong Bay The cruises offer kayak as an option to see the bay in areas where the junk boats cannnot go

 

I think your experience will vary tremendously based on the areas you visit, the time of the year you go, the number of days you visit for, and the type of tour you book.

Despite the high number of tourists and boats in Halong Bay, when I visited it was not overcrowded with boats or people.

The views are stunning and this place is really unique with all the limestone formations coming out of the calm turquoise water. It is definitely a worthwhile place to visit, especially if you are visiting at a low season time of the year.

The boat I was in had only 30 tourists, and normally this size boat could accommodate many more people. The number of boats on the water was also low, compared to the high season.  Besides that, the crew was super friendly and treated us well. It was not the New Year for them, but they made a fantastic New Year celebration for us.

As far as price goes, it was the most expensive part of my trip to Vietnam, since I paid the price for a 4-star boat with a room with a balcony during the New Year. Prices vary from $50 to $2,000 per night. But you can find something that suits your budget since there are so many options. One caveat is that you will need to book well in advance if you want to spend a night on a boat.

I have no regrets about my choice. I knew Halong Bay suffers from the high number of tourists visiting – but with a choice to go during a low season, it made my experience pleasant and I very much enjoyed the views and the nice relaxing days I had on the junk boat.

Halong Bay is definitely one of the most fascinating places you can visit, and it’s unique limestone formations rising from the calm bay waters makes this place so magical.

Here are my observations after I spent 3 days cruising on a junk boat

Halong Bay Ethical Tourism One of the island on halong Bay

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Halong Bay Cruise Review: Is it ethical to cruise Halong Bay?

How to describe a perfect vacation in Vietnam without thinking about a crusing Halong Bay!?

The opportunity to sail on a junk ship through hundreds of dramatic limestone mountains sticking up from a deep turquoise sea —  There are so many karst islands and rocks rising from the water in every direction that it looks mystic. There are caves, secret lagoons, and sea gypsies.

But this amazing description of paradise on earth also comes with a price. Like all the “hidden gems” on our Planet, Halong Bay is no different, and these places do not remain hidden for long.

Halong Bay is the most visited place in Vietnam and every year millions of people visit – to the point where the main bay is now filled with hundreds of boats, and there’s a film of pollution skimming the ocean surface. The drive from Hanoi is lined with giant billboards advertising theme park complexes.

Here’s my take on whether it’s still worth doing anyway, and how to have the best Halong Bay experience if you do.

BONUS RESOURCES:  In this crusing in Halong Bay guide, you can find all the best tips and practical information you need. I am making recommendations for the best options for crusing Halong Bay for every pocket and length of time.  At the end, you can find a bonus section for all the RESOURCES you need to plan and book your trip to Halong Bay, and to make your experience as easy, safe, and fun as possible.

Ethical Row boat tour Halong Bay

Cruising Halong Bay Guide - PIN IT FOR LATER!

THE BAD: What are the main ethical problems with Halong Bay?

During the high season, Halong can have more than 300 boats in the water. Of course with this high number of boats sharing the same location, it can be not only an environmental disaster but also, a safety concern.

Check it out the main points you should be aware of when considering a tour on Halong Bay:

Pollution: It is a concern with the water quality, due to the hundreds of tourist boats lining the bay every day, and most of these boats don’t have proper sewage and water treatment. Tourist boats and cargo ships account for much of the pollution. Only 20% of tourist boats are equipped with standard water waste treatment systems, it says. Cargo ships are also responsible for the problem because they illegally discharge water mixed with oil. Plus, many boats do not use eco-friendly diesel and throw in the air tons of gas emission.

Locals fishing on Halong Bay

Trash in the Water – It was dishearting to see that there are still people in the world that throw trash in the water. I saw some local people who live in Halong Bay throwing waste in the water, probably leftovers from their food preparation. Also, the information I got was that the fishermen and their families who live on the bay are the ones helping to pollute Halong Bay. As far as tourists go, I didn’t see anyone throwing trash in the water. By doing some extensive research, I learned that during the high season, you can see cans of coke and plastic bottles floating in the water. Boo to any visitor who does not care about the environment.

Environmental Destruction: I got the chance to visit a cave during my 3-day cruise in Halong Bay, and I have to be honest and say that what I saw broke my heart. Many boats were at the same location with many people visiting the cave at the same time – and I visited Halong Bay during the low season. I cannot even imagine during the high season. In my opinion, caves are very fragile places that should be preserved. The majestic formations of stalactites and stalagmites, sharing space with rainbow-colored lighting – lights are so damaging for caves as they promote algae and fungus growth – and lined with so many people touching the walls and formations.

Cave tour at Halong Bay

Safety: Unfortunately, the local government doesn’t have the proper Regulations and Safety Standards. Due to the lack of regulations, Halong Bay suffers from environmental issues and even fatal accidents. The bay has sadly fallen victim to dangerous conditions, like the tourist boat that sank killing 12 people in 2011. The silver lining to this tragedy is that new regulations have been introduced to tighten tour boat operations. These regulations include the elimination of wooden boats and a call for all staff on board to have high school diplomas. At least two staff members are required to have first aid training and boats have to be equipped with standard fire suppression systems.

Over-Crowded – If you are looking for a less touristy area, Halong Bay is not the place to go. The bay is over-crowded as it becomes a more popular tourist destination. We all know, the more boats and the more people, the more pollution. My concern is how long Halong Bay can keep its World Heritage badge unless they take action to control the influx of tourists and the preservation of this piece of paradise.

over-tourism on Halong Bay

Lack of support for the Local Economy: If you care about supporting the local economy, Halong Bay can be a controversial destination. Many tour companies are foreign-owned and do not employ locals or contribute to the local economy. This can create a negative socio-economic impact on the life of the locals in Halong Bay. Tour companies using this area to make money, are taking thousands of tourists to explore the area, sometimes treating floating villages and local fishermen as “humans-zoos”, without giving back to the community.

Local fisherman on Halong Bay

CONCLUSION: Is it worse to cruise the Halong Bay?

This is such a dilemma and hard question to answer – and since I went, even knowing the problem of over-tourism in Halong Bay, who am I to tell anyone to not go? It would be so wrong for me to dissuade anyone since I had a beautiful experience and memories that I will carry with me for a lifetime.

The good news is that you still can have a mystical Ha Long Bay experience that is ALSO ethical. And despite being a very touristy area, I was pleased to see that they still make efforts related to preservation. But there a few things we can do from our side:

Floating Village Ethical Tour Halong Bay

Choose a reputable and ethical tour operator:  As always, do your research before your trip. Before I book a tour, I always try to learn as much as I can about how ethical the tours really are, and how the local tour companies care and help to protect the environment. During my research, I read good and bad things about Halong Bay tours, and after my research, I have no regrets about my choice. It may cost a little more, but you know you are not supporting unethical business.

My recommendations on responsible tour operators:

  • Indochina Junk – This tour operator is renowned for being a trustworthy ethical operator. They are committed to sustainability, local employment and empowerment, and minimizing their negative impact.
  • La Pinta Cruise – This was my choice to cruise Halong Bay. They employ local people, providing the opportunity for jobs. They also use eco-friendly diesel and respect preserved areas of the bay, only allowing tourists to go on rowboat or kayak.

OPTIONS FOR ITINERARIES OF CRUISE HALONG BAY – 

Halong Bay: This is the most popular route, but as you can imagine, the most crowded area to visit. In some areas, the water is not as clear, as most of the tours will make stops in Surprising Cave and Ti Top Island.

La Han Bay & Cat Ba Island:  

Halong Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay: 

Junk Boat on Halong Bay

Support Preserved areas – We still could see that there are some preserved areas of Halong Bay where people and boats do not have access. It was amazing to see. We flew our drone while in the middle of the bay, and what we saw was absolutely stunning. Because some of the islands are hollow inside, gorgeous natural pools form with the bluest water you can imagine. When we showed the images to the crew on the boat, even being from Vietnam, they were amazed with what they were seeing. They were also surprised, and informed us that no one is allowed to visit the islands and according to them, the majority of them remain untouched.

Go during low season: May and June are the quieter months to visit Halong Bay, as May is the start of the wet season and northern Vietnam sees about triple the amount of rain than the previous month. I found out that doing a cruise for New Year is also very quiet, but it was also cold(ish) since it is winter.  It’s an undeniable fact that worse weather attracts fewer tourists. More withdrawn and reserved passengers can find a host of enticing pulls during Halong Bay’s off-peak season, all stemming from the fact that there are fewer people on board and at attractions. The bay usually feels more open, where hours can go past without view of another cruise ship

Kayak view ethical tour in Halong Bay

Do your part to be an ethical traveler: Here are a few basics – avoid using single use plastic bottles, straws and help to reduce the amount of trash generated during your tour. Ethical operators will have a fully functional waste disposal system, but if you aren’t sure, keep it with you until you can directly dispose of it yourself back on land. I’m not even going to mention avoiding throwing your rubbish into the water…because you know that already.

Choose an alternative Bay: While this won’t do too much to reduce the environmental impact, the alternative bays are factually far less polluted and disrupted than their over-achieving sister, Halong. It allows you to have a far more local and authentic experience, and contribute your tourist dollars to the people who need it most.

My recommendations on less crowed bays:

Row boat tour of Halong Bay

I think your experience will vary tremendously based on the areas you visit, the time of the year you go, the number of days you visit for, and the type of tour you book.

Despite the high number of tourists and boats in Halong Bay, when I visited it was not overcrowded with boats or people.

The views are stunning and this place is really unique with all the limestone formations coming out of the calm turquoise water. It is definitely a worthwhile place to visit, especially if you are visiting at a low season time of the year.

The boat I was in had only 30 tourists, and normally this size boat could accommodate many more people. The number of boats on the water was also low, compared to the high season.  Besides that, the crew was super friendly and treated us well. It was not the New Year for them, but they made a fantastic New Year celebration for us.

As far as price goes, it was the most expensive part of my trip to Vietnam, since I paid the price for a 4-star boat with a room with a balcony during the New Year. Prices vary from $50 to $2,000 per night. But you can find something that suits your budget since there are so many options. One caveat is that you will need to book well in advance if you want to spend a night on a boat.

I have no regrets about my choice. I knew Halong Bay suffers from the high number of tourists visiting – but with a choice to go during a low season, it made my experience pleasant and I very much enjoyed the views and the nice relaxing days I had on the junk boat.

Halong Bay is definitely one of the most fascinating places you can visit, and it’s unique limestone formations rising from the calm bay waters makes this place so magical.

Here are my observations after I spent 3 days cruising on a junk boat

Halong Bay Ethical Tourism
TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES

WHEN TO DO A CRUISE IN HALONG BAY

Tour Time: The whole tour can take around 1-3 hours since it’s not very large and it doesn’t take too long to explore the whole site.

Best Time to visit: The site is open from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Early in the morning is the best time to visit. Especially during the summertime, it can get very hot and humid, so if you want to avoid the heat. As you can see in my pictures, I visited My Song on a rainy day and it was also during winter time (Dec.), which made the temperature drop even more, and I am glad I had a rain jacket with me.

VIETNAM GUIDE BOOK

Prepare in advance for your trip to Vietnam. Here are some of the excellent guide books that can help you to prepare for your trip to Vietnam: 

VIETNAM GUIDE BOOK

Prepare in advance for your trip to Vietnam. Here are some of the excellent guide books that can help you to prepare for your trip to Vietnam: 

BEST CRUISE HALONG BAY

If you are planning to stay around My Son Sanctuary area, I have selected the best hotel options for all budgets: 

BEST ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS IN HOI AN:

Great Value: Countryside Garden Homestay

Boutique Hotel:  Paddy Boutique House Hoian

Best rated on Booking.com: Allegro Hoi An, a little Luxury Hotel & Spa

TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR VIETNAM TRAVEL

Considering that anything can go wrong with any trip, we don’t want to risk the fun, right? Risks are of breaking down, loosing your luggage, or even worse,  having an accident and get injured.

I recommend and also use reliable insurance through World Nomads. You can just do a quick quote below, and you will be surprised to find out how little it can cost, for the benefit you will get. 

RENTAL CAR IN VIETNAM

If you are planning to rent a car for your road trip in Vietnam, I recommend to request a quote from a reliable source and compare the prices from different car rentals available. 

THE BEST HALONG BAY BOAT CRUISE:

If you are looking for a convenient and easy way to crusing Halong Bay, I have picked some tours options that you may love:

My Son Sanctuary visit & Thu Bon River Cruise with Lunch: With this tour, you have the opportunity to experience rural Vietnam on a minivan trip to My Son and a boat tour with lunch on the Thu Bon River.

My Son Sanctuary & Marble Mountains Private Tour: Explore the ancient My Son Sanctuary and marvel at stunning panoramic views of Danang from the peak of Marble Mountains on a private tour.

Da Nang Full-day My Son Sanctuary Tour: Visit the Champa Kingdom of My Son, and watch the fantastic Cham Ceremony.

WHAT TO WEAR HALONG BAY 3 DAY CRUISE:

Comfortable clothes: gym attire can be a good choice! A rain jacket is also a great idea if it is on a rainy day.

Sturdy shoes:  I recommend wearing sturdy shoes if you are planning to visit all the sites and climb up to the top. Also, I visited it on a rainy day and turns very slippery, so wear sturdy and waterproof shoes to be safe. 

 

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5 thoughts on “Ethical tourism in Halong Bay, Vietnam

  1. Ryan Biddulph says:

    Stunning views Paula. We did not make it to Halong Bay, but did see equally gorgeous Ninh Binh with its HUGE karsts. Plus almost zero tourists hahaha….Excellent post.

    • Paula Martinelli says:

      Hi Ryan, Thank you and I am glad you liked it. Next time I will visit the other places on the Bay, I heard they are great places to visit that are less touristy.

  2. Dubrovnik island boat trips says:

    Vietnam is heaven for those who wants to travel on boat. Boating is quite famous in Vietnam and sailing through beautiful green mountains makes us wonder us the beauty of this wonderful places. Island boat trip of Dubrovnik is something you would like to check out as well.

  3. Emma says:

    Halong Bay was such a great experience and I read a lot of reviews before settling on my cruise company. They were focused on environmental concerns, recycling, and sustainable practices. I can see how Halong Bay can get out of hand quickly with over tourism. These are some great tips so that more people can continue to enjoy it too

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