Ha Long Bay: Where Tourism and Scenery Struggle

Erik Olsen’s post on the World Heritage Sites ratings sent me on a browsing hunt to find out details about some of the places I’ve visited. Ha Long Bay in Vietnam caught my eye.

Ha Long Bay
Score: 50

Halong Bay received a 50 rating, partially because of tourism’s effect on the environment. Tourists do things like throw garbage into the water, for example. I went to Halong Bay a few years back by signing up at Kim Café in Hanoi for a group tour that included an overnight hotel stay, a boat tour, a cave tour, a guide and lunch-maybe two lunches. None of the people in our group (about 20) dumped garbage, but the trip did include a mishap that might explain why there are now cement walkways in the caves and lights, two of the things the World Heritage raters noted as problems.

Before the cave tour we were given information to bring closed-toe shoes that tie and a flashlight. Instead of, “If you don’t have them you don’t go,” we were allowed to treat this as a suggestion. My husband and I, and a woman we befriended, had closed-toe shoes and a small flashlight between the three of us. We opted not to rent other flashlights at the cave entrance. Several of the other people had sandals and a few flashlights between them. Off we went into a wet cave that was slick and dark. The three of us told the guide we weren’t prepared to go any further. Our tiny flashlight barely lit an inch of the cave’s floor in front of us. The other people forged ahead.

That was about the time we heard a loud thump and shouts of, “Are you okay?” One of the travelers didn’t see a big hole and took a tumble. Luckily, it was just a broken collar bone and his friends knew how to truss him up to keep his arm stable until they could get him to a hospital. That took the return trip by boat across the bay and hiring a taxi to go to another town.

A few days later in a restaurant, I noticed a westerner with a cast on her arm. Turns out, she had gone to Halong Bay. Given that the scenery is one of Vietnam’s tourist draws and tourist dollars is one way to boost the economy in rural areas, I can understand the walkways and added lights in this place that was more beautiful without them.

It sounds like the balance between environmentalism and protecting treasures is a battle that might be surging for awhile-like forever. The need for tourist dollars to survive is a force to be reckoned with. It will be a fine day, however, when garbage management is part of human nature.