In some countries there are things you’re just going to end up doing. Go to China? You’re pretty likely to head for the Great Wall at some point. Go to Peru? Then the Inca Trail beckons. I’d say there’s an odds-on chance you’ll see the Eiffel Tower in whilst in France, the pyramids whilst in Egypt and Sydney Harbour whilst in Australia.
In much the same way, if you come to Vietnam, you’re going to go to Ha Long Bay, for it is to Vietnam what the Colosseum is to Italy and Red Square is to Russia. There, off the coast, not visible from land but reached by swarms of tourist ships, Ha Long Bay features 2,000 or so karst stone peaks (I assume someone counted?) rising through the surface of the ocean. A gentle meander on one of the old style junk boats through the bay is indeed a breathtaking experience. This place is picture-postcard Vietnam. You can’t come to northern Vietnam and not go to Ha Long Bay.
Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the knock on effects of mass tourism are doing Ha Long Bay more harm than good. The mad dash to claim every final tourist dong has meant the bay itself has become irreversibly polluted over the years, as the less scrupulous boat owners have liberally dumped waste from their boats over the side into the bay. Its such a sad sight, seeing scum floating on the top of what should be crystal clear water.
Its pretty much customary to book onto a tour to see the bay. Indeed, there are few other ways to see it. We opted for one of the cheaper tour options, booking through our hostel, and it was alright. I suppose you get what you pay for, but we did genuinely enjoy our tour. Our amenable young guide Huan made the two day trip lots of fun, not to mention demonstrating admirable patience while an older Australian bloke spent the whole time complaining voiciferously about the leg he’d injured on a bike a few days earlier.
Huan also led us on a short walk around the ‘enchanted caves’, which would have been a lot more enchanting were there not several thousand other tourists also looking around them at the same time as us. Huan did his best to carve a story out of the experience, insisting that this rock over here looked like an elephant, and that one over there was like a monkey. To say it took a stretch of the imagination to agree with him is perhaps understating the case.
We went for a swim in the bay as well, finding a secluded beach which we uniquely had all to ourselves. This really would have been lovely, had the water in the bay not have been filled with the detritus of a passing boat which had dumped a polystyrene box into the water. Said box had since fragmented and was being washed ashore into the bay as tens of thousands of white plastic fragments. Don’t get me wrong, swimming in the shadow of the huge karst mountains rising out from the waters of the bay was a spectacular experience. I’d just wish we weren’t swimming in water that was clearly very polluted.
Much of the rest of the tour was a tourist trap in every sense of the word. At one point we visited a pearl farm, where oyster shells are artificially inseminated to produce pearls. This was mildly interesting, until we were herded into a shop selling necklaces and earrings at extortionate prices. Exit through gift shop, again.
So, yeah. Can you tell I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole thing? Is that coming across? Because I was. Ha Long Bay is supposed to be iconic Vietnam. This is the place that gets top billing for any tourist coming to this country. Its on the front of all the brochures, its lodged in the consciousness of the whole country. Don’t get me wrong, drifting through the bay itself sat on the deck of a boat, sipping a beer, watching the spectacular karst peaks rise and fall in the distance is indeed a wonderful experience, and the best moments of this tour came when we were just sat idling along.
But when push came to shove, the filthy water and the constant touting just did enough to take the shine off what otherwise would have been a fantastic experience.
All too often the result of mass tourism seems to be to simply dilute a place’s character and authenticity. I remember thinking the same of tacky Riga with its Irish bars and American style diners; about the rebuilt and therefore phoney Great Wall of China; and of the touristified Terracotta Warriors, tucked away in a veritable theme park of tourist tat.
It pains me to say this, but I’ve got to add Ha Long Bay to that list of places that could be beautiful, wonderful, breathtaking, but aren’t because of the result of the sheer weight of tourism crushing down on them, and the inevitable race to cater for the lowest common denominator that this provokes. Add to that the state of the waters that lap around the beautiful islands, and you’re left just with that souring sense that it could be so much better.
All isn’t lost for Ha Long Bay. If they could find a way to clean the place up and police it effectively the bay would at least be a much nicer place to visit. As for the tourist tat – well, I suppose you’re always going to get that, and I’m not sure what the solution is. We did go on a cheaper tour, which perhaps inevitably leaves you more open to being touted at. It also remains true that drifting slowly through the peaks of the bay is a unique and enjoyable experience.
But for the time being, I’m sorry to say that Ha Long Bay needs to clean up its act – quite literally.