Admit it. When it comes to visiting Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is the lure and you are the fish.
Vietnam has welcomed a major tourism boom over the last decade. The number of visitors skyrocketed from 3 million in 2008 to over 15 million in 2018. While Vietnam’s tourists arrive from all over the world, they (stereotypically) share one thing in common: a plan for Ha Long Bay.
It’s no surprise that the emerald water and limestone pillars of Ha Long Bay lure tourists from their guide books. The UNESCO listed heritage site is simply stunning, but in
Visiting comes at a cost, just not yours.
We’re going to dive deep into the issues concerning Ha Long Bay and go over the factors you should consider when aiming to visit Ha Long Bay (as) ethically (as possible).
Let’s get this fact straight: Ha Long Bay is without a doubt the poster child for unsustainable tourism in South East Asia.
So what exactly is the problem, officer?
There are two main areas of concern when it comes to this tourist trap. Let’s talk them out:
If you want to skip the juicy stuff and head straight to the guide, scroll down).
With over 300 boats in the bay at any one time, it’s no surprise that Ha Long Bay is branded as an ecological disaster.
The most obvious concern: pollution.
Whether you scroll through reviews on TripAdvisor or ask your best pal what they thought of Ha Long Bay, they’re going to mention the pollution.
While the local government took action in 2016 to combat pollution, it’s still a prevalent and obvious issue.
The bay is routinely dredged (clearing the seabed) to allow vessels to pass through, and if you didn’t think that was bad enough already, let me ruin your day: the sediment waste from the dredging is dumped on the shore. Sorry mangroves, sorry coral reef. You’re doing down with the bay, too.
There is also concerns with water quality, thanks to the hundreds of tourist boats lining the bay every day. Most of these boats don’t have proper sewage or water treatment.
Aquatic life and coral at the bay has also rapidly declined. In the 1980’s, live coral stretched out over 50% of the heritage site. Nowadays, there is literally no living coral left in the bay. You can take a guess at the stats for aquatic life: the number of species has firmly halved (source).
A lot of the caves in the bay are also tampered with. The aptly named show caves are reshaped (yes… the caves are literally carved to allow more tourist access) and illuminated. The light is problematic as it promotes algae and fungus growth, which is similar to the cave equivalent of cancer (no joke, it will kill them over time).
The cave’s micro-climate is also damaged due to the flow of tourists and heat, light and humidity (source).
Unlike other controversial destinations, Ha Long Bay is not saved by the idea of contributing to the local economy.
Most tourists opt for all-inclusive boat tours which are generally foreign-owned without employing locals or contributing to the local economy or community
The other issue is the lack of (genuine) local interactions and activities that lean towards poverty tourism.
Unfortunately, there is really not a lot of information regarding the socio-economic impact of Ha Long Bay on its locals. Stay tuned while a little more investigation gets underway!
Pretty gross, huh. So how do you avoid leaving a negative impact?
To visit Ha Long Bay completely ethically, I recommend you… don’t. By boycotting it, you’ll be able to spend your tourist dollar on the local community and avoid leaving your own personal negative environmental footprint.
You also won’t be supporting the multi-faceted exploitation of a world heritage site and its people, and your firm stance
might will shake things up a little.
If you’ve read this far and you’re adamant to visit, fear not my friend. I understand and am not judging you, but let’s chat a bit more about your options.
How can you have a mystical Ha Long Bay experience that is ALSO ethical?
You have two options:
Choose an alternative bay
While this won’t do too much to reduce your environmental impact, the alternative bays are factually far less polluted and disrupted than their over-achieving sister, Ha Long.
What this does do though: it allows you to have a far more local and authentic experience, and contribute your tourist dollars to the people who need it most.
The bays are all very similar (I would even go as far as to the say… the same) in terms of the views and activities, but you might get a little more bang for your buck in the other bays. Less people and less pollution.
Stay tuned for a guide to the alternative bays.
Your second option?
Check yourself, do your research, support the locals, and QUESTION EVERYTHING
- Choose an ethical and reputable operator
When it comes to choosing your operator, it’s a make or break situation.
This is basically the umbrella step: to experience the bay ethically you’re going to need a company that encourages that.
I can highly recommend YESD for a responsible travel choice. They employ the locals and commit to keeping the bay clean, giving 10% of their income to a community fund and organising scholarships for gorgeous little kids. How wicked is that?
Indochina Junk is also renowned for being a trustworthy ethical operator. They are committed to sustainability, local employment and empowerment and minimising their negative impact. They even hand out rubbish bags and commence a beach clean-up with willing guests. How amazing is that!
*Note: I am not in any way affiliated with either of these companies.
It’s cool to be ethical now, which means a lot of companies are slapping on keywords like ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’ to tickle your fancy without doing the legwork.
This is called greenwashing and it’s unfortunately super common.
I wrote a guide here on how to determine whether your operator is actually green or FAKE green! Check it out.
2. Choose a tour that is longer than just one night
A little bit of relaxing, a little bit of swimming, a little bit of eating… and then it’s over! If your tour lasts a single night only, there’s almost no room for an authentic local experience. You’re literally just seeing the locals in their floating fishing villages as accessories to your experience.
The key to ethical travel is engaging authentically with the local community. In order to check this one off, you’re going to need to give yourself some space to experience it.
I highly recommend booking a tour that lasts at least 2 nights. If this isn’t possible, choose an operator that focuses on local interaction and stick to it.
3. Stay at Haiphong or Cat Ba Island before or after your Ha Long Bay tour
Avoid large hotel chains or things blatantly catered to tourists. Opt for homestays and guest-houses and family run restaurants.
A big guide for Cat Ba island is also on the way!
4. Offest your carbon footprint
It’s a hot topic when it comes to flying, but did you know you can implement it into anything you do? It’s certainly not perfect, but hell, nothing is.
Think of it as keeping your balance. Your negative impact can be theoretically balanced by creating a positive impact elsewhere.
My friend Kate at Travel For Difference has a brilliant guide to carbon offsetting. Her post is focused on flying, but you can apply it to your boat trip too!
5. Be responsible for your own waste
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, right?
Ha Long Bay has been over-exploited by millions of tourists and operators for over ten years. Now that we can plainly see the damage, it’s our duty to do everything in our power to limit our future negative impact.
After (and even before) your trip, one of the most integral things you can do is speak up about it. Inject it into your conversations with those who ask you about your experience. Educate them and help them experience it ethically – it’s your duty of care.
Your turn! Have you been to Ha Long Bay or the alternative bays? Let me know in the comments below!
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