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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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:
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