15th February 2011
Hạ Long Bay. Vietnam’s darling. Vịnh Hạ Long in Vietnamese literally translates as ‘Descending Dragon Bay’ and you need few clues as to how this UNESCO world heritage site got it’s name. The large bay is a maze of thousands of monolithic limestone islets and karsts dating back to between 500 million (for the limestone) and 20 million (for the karsts) years ago. The unique site is a treasure trove of historic sites, biodiversity and geological phenomena.
So of course we had to go. After searching for ways of doing a DIY trip from Hanoi, to our disappointment it became apparent that the only way to explore the bay was as part of a tour. Having read plenty of scare-mongering about the safety of the boats and given the chilly temperatures, we decided on a long day trip rather than the more popular overnight tours. After several hours on a bus, we finally arrived at Hạ Long Bay port, a heaving, chaotic mass of tour groups being rounded up like sheep by their guides – wolves with dollar bills in their eyes. Large junks chugged in to the port awaiting their cargo and like a punter perusing a lot of second hand cars, I studied the line up and ear-marked the best looking boats whilst praying that none of the worst looking vessels would be ours.
Our chariot was adequate, a creaking mass of wood and windows. We pulled out of the port and joined the fleet of ‘apparently’ 1000 boats cruising around the looming islets. It was breath taking. The damp cold air created a thick eerie mist enshrouding the dark monoliths as though they were forgotten church towers on the misty moors. Occasionally the grey veil would drop and the rough, grooved textures of the limestone would be visible. We were taken to large technicolor lit caves hidden within the islets and guided around the bits of ancient rock that, if you look hard enough, apparently resemble an elephant, a horse, a couple, a dragon, a penis…and so on and so forth. We were shipped to the ‘floating fishermen’ from whom you could buy the catch of the day for your lunch. Of course the tourists assumed they would be dining on the fruits of Hạ Long Bay but the fish were actually caught out to sea and brought to the floating fish shop for tourists. I realise that as a vegetarian I have a happy-clappy animal lovers view on things but I couldn’t help looking upon the once radiant coloured cuttle-fish huddling limply in the corner of their tiny sea cage and feel a pang of sadness about the scene.
As we chugged back to port I reflected on the day. For certain I was pleased that we had seen Hạ Long Bay’s Descending Dragon but I loathe being herded, wasting time in the obligatory tourist shops from which there is no escape and being dragged through one contrived over-visited site to another. I just wanted to come and gaze at the splendour of millions of years worth of nature at work and drink in it’s ethereal atmosphere.
The following day we were shocked to learn that there had been a tragedy at the very site we had visited. In the night, one of the junks had sunk taking it’s crew and sleeping tourists with it. Eleven perished in the murky waters. There was a buzz in Hanoi as travellers with furrowed brows conveyed the news and warnings to others. We met a journalist who had been sent out to establish the effect of the news on Vietnam’s reputation and he explained that the police were still keeping a tight veil over the situation until a finger could be pointed with some certainty. As we were drip fed pieces of information it became apparent that it had been human error but the gossip (from staff, travellers and ex-pats) in the cafes yielded other warnings: cowboy operations, badly or untrained staff, unmaintained boats and poor safety to no safety standards (we were certainly aware of the latter as we noted the complete absence of life-jackets on board, let alone a safety briefing).
The Hạ Long Bay deaths are a travesty. The 22 year old captain, the under-qualified crew, the boat company for not training their staff or maintaining their boats, the tour company who sold the tickets and the local authorities for their inadequate controls are all to blame. I can only hope that this incident (along with the deaths from previous incidents) will encourage local authorities to ensure that standards of health and safety are put in place and maintained so that visitors can enjoy this incredible sight in safety.
In short, for us, Hạ Long Bay was a sad place.