The infamous rainforest covered peaks of a staggering 1,900 limestone islands pop out of nowhere in the foggy distance of Vietnam. The massive bay itself spans for 1,553 square kilometers, which to me, is unfathomable. We were able to only see a small area during our one day, one night cruise.
A small crew, including our guide Minh and eighteen guests spent those twenty-four some odd hours enjoying the views, indulging in the provided meals, visiting the largest cave in the area and a pearl farm. We woke to Tai Chi at 6am, a beach excursion, stunning view point hike, and a spring roll cooking class before we returned to the port.
This all was wonderful, and we got exactly what we paid for. I can add it to the list of World Heritage sites I’ve visited, which is totally rad. But, something caught me off-guard. On our way into the bay, Minh told us a story. At first, I thought he was pulling our legs, because it was April Fools Day and all. Then I thought, ‘Well this is not the way to get people to come back, speaking of, where my money at?’ Minh told us that as of that day there would be no more kayaking in Halong Bay.
We were all slightly disappointed, to say the least. More so, we were confused. According to Minh, over the past few years more and more restrictions have been added. At first, the iconic wooden ships all had to be painted white, thus changing a traditional and recognizable part of the bay. Then, only cruise boats were allowed into certain areas, assumingly for tourism purposes. The cave we visited is one of those places. I have no idea how many tourists visit that impressive cave daily, but you had best believe that souvenir kiosks are strategically set up right outside the mouth. The cave is also artificially and manually drained out so that tourists can venture in. Gotta love human interference #nope.
Later, restrictions like the ‘no swimming’ and ‘no scuba diving’ rules came into play. And the latest, no kayaking. I’m sure some cruises will still provide kayaking as an option, while running the risk of fine. It seems that big brother is always watching the ships out there, for any chance to charge them and create problems.
It doesn’t surprise me that the list of restrictions is constantly lengthening. Some for safety reasons, others for sake of the environment, and so on. You’d think with all the rules there wouldn’t be garbage in the water, but that was an unfortunate reality. It would take a lot more effort than some rules that may or may not be followed to actually protect the bay. Rules and more rules; my biggest question involved the color change on the boats that the people prized so highly.
Some theories were thrown around, like plankton dying from the dark color of the boat being reflected into the water, or a toxic lacquer in the paints. Although there could be a logical reason why the color was changed, I can’t help but think it is just a power struggle between the boating community and the larger, more powerful corporations and governmental officials involved in the area. Thinking about the port area itself- upon arrival you are met with a Disneyland vibe. Literally, there were Disney characters on the light poles, but also an eerie silence. It was noticeable and you could tell that the massive resorts, perfectly paved roads, and continuous construction were all manifested on a built up piece of sand. A barren wasteland of sorts. The port area is all manmade, providing a place for pick up and transfer to the larger cruise ships. The streets are otherwise empty. With one coffee shop in the area, it all looked unnatural. Of course, a couple miles away stands Halong City- a bustling place that probably houses most of the staff who operate the countless ships that go out everyday.
Regardless, with the way it’s going, it seems that one day tours won’t be allowed within the bay. Environmentally, the lack of people will improve the wildlife in the area, because people are the worst. Economically, it could ruin an entire livelihood of people.