A good college friend once described to me a tour she took to the Yangtze River. Her advice if I ever decided to go was to never look down, because the smelly water was filled with garbage. She concluded matter-of-factly in the way she does that, “As long as you don’t look down, you’re fine.” Lowered expectations.
This was exactly how I felt in Halong Bay, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And it would be a wonder, if it weren’t for the vast amounts of trash in the water. By this time, I was used to just how much the Vietnamese like to litter. They think nothing of finishing a bottle of soda and then tossing it out of the window of buses, taxis and trains. I tried to hand someone in a store a plastic safety seal from a bottle of water to throw away for me, and she pointed down, as in, “Throw it on the floor, where it will be swept up someday and will end up choking a baby seal to death in the ocean when it mistakes it for food.”
We knew some of what to expect of Halong Bay. We knew how overpriced the cruises were in relation to the delivered product and services, and how you have to really lower your expectations. Because as a blogger wisely pointed out, “The Vietnamese will promise you the world, but will only deliver broken dreams.”
N and I had opted for the two-night three-day tour — which tacks on an extra night in top of the tour that most tourists go on — after talking to a solo American traveler who told us that the extra day really made up for the shitty herding around she experienced the first day.
So how this works is that the first day, both the one-nighters and two-nighters do the same things. The second day, the one-nighters do a half-day tour and lunch before being ferried back to the buses going back to Hanoi. Meanwhile, the two-nighters are taken on a day boat on a kayaking and swimming tour of the area. By the time we get back to the big boat, there is a fresh batch of one-nighters who have arrived, and we do the half-day activities with them the next day before heading back to Hanoi.
We knew exactly what to expect that first day. We arrived, had lunch in the dining deck with the 18 or so of us on the boat, made polite small talk with the people we were assigned to sit with, piled onto a ferry and visited a floating fishing village to kayak or be row-boated around the rock formations Halong Bay is known for, piled back onto the ferry to rest for an hour on the big boat and piled back onto the ferry to check out Ti-Top Mountain where we hiked up to the overlook at the top. We were drenched in sweat by the time we got up to the top but it was worth it for the view of the bay.
What I really wasn’t expecting was just how dirty the water is in Halong Bay. Look down into the water at almost any time and you’ll spot what at first looks like a jellyfish (there are big ones in the bay) but will often end up being a plastic bag. Plastic bottles and styrofoam boxes in all stages of break-down (because these things don’t ever decompose) are everywhere, and random plastic items like cheap colanders and colorful instant noodle packaging bob on the calm green water.
After descending from Ti-Top, we stood in a sweaty group as we surveyed the small “beach” for swimming. Not only was it packed with tourists and locals looking to cool off, but there was a nasty-looking foam floating by the water’s edge. The only thing keeping the garbage from floating into the area was a rope cordoning off the “swimming” area. Our new friends finally decided to take a dip but N and I decided to wait for the next day’s swimming, which was supposed to be much better. I watched young kids getting water in their mouths and happily splashing around and wondered just how polluted the water really is.
As soon as we got back to the boat, we were herded up to the deck for a “sunset party”, where we each got a glass of almost undrinkable Dalat wine and a communal plate of fruit. We talked about traveling with our new friends, a young Polish and French couple who were traveling around the world for seven months, and a young French guy who was spending a few months in Hanoi on an internship at a French-based company. We had dinner, tried out the squid fishing off the back of the boat (unsuccessful) and ended up sitting on the deck getting to know each other and swapping travel tips in the little time travelers often have when we briefly cross paths.
The next day, after breakfast with our buddies, we were unexpectedly separated from them before we had time to say goodbye. They had been quickly herded onto a ferry right after breakfast, and we were put on a day boat with three others (a French and Thai couple, and a Norwegian lady) for a quiet day of kayaking and swimming.
We arrived in a cove, hopped onto tandem kayaks and followed our guide Gom into a tunnel which spit us out into an enclosed cove. We were starting to explore it when our guide’s kayak unexpectedly tipped over, spilling her and the Norwegian woman into the water. We paddled over to help — or more like watch helplessly from our kayaks — while the French guy helpfully hopped out of his kayak to come to their rescue. After much tugging and flipping (and some bad cuts from the oyster shells sticking up from the rocks on the shore) to empty the kayak of water, we left the cove and parted ways with our guide, who was bringing the wounded Norwegian woman back to the boat to get her bloody foot patched up.
We paddled ourselves into another cove but quickly turned and left as soon as we saw how stagnant and gross the water looked. We slowly made our way back, drifting on the water and looking up at the towering boulders sticking up from the water from all sides. We got back on the boat to head to a “cleaner” area to swim, and as we anchored next to a buoy, I looked down into floating plastic and styrofoam garbage. We reassured ourselves that the other side of the boat was cleaner, and ignored the plastic bags slowly making their way around the boat to encroach on our swimming spot. N was the first to jump in from the side of the boat, and we followed suit. The water was salty (yes, I got it in my mouth and up my nose) but refreshing, and we floated around in the quietness of the bay. Hunger pushed us to swim around the boat towards the ladder, and we pushed garbage away from us as we made our way there.
They stuffed us with food that was surprisingly decent and varied, and we were off to see a pearl farm, which ended up being owned by Vinapearl. I really hate these kinds of stops, which are unnecessary and a way for these big companies to try to get tourists to buy shit. Hey Vinapearl, if you want tourists to buy your shit, why don’t you clean up a little? The oysters are practically all dead or dying of the pollution in these waters. So we did the obligatory walking around while the guide explained everything, and we did the obligatory walk through the big store selling all sorts of cheap-looking pearl jewelry.
We climbed back on the boat and were on our way to an island with monkeys and a beach for swimming, and I knew to keep my expectations low. And I was right, as soon as I spotted an overcrowded “beach” with about ten day boats parked alongside each other. Our boat decided to squeeze in between two parked day boats, and there was some ramming and shoving around as it slowly pushed its way towards land. We didn’t get far, but this was about as far as we were going to wedge ourselves in so we all hopped onto one of the boats we had just rammed and walked through it to get to the island.
We sat by the beach in the heat and watched the locals having the time of their lives. This was about the moment that I realized I was over Halong Bay. After about a year of doing our own thing, we weren’t used to this kind of hectic tour schedule, and it was mentally exhausting. We were tired from the heat and tired of being rushed around from one place to another. More importantly, we didn’t realize we would be directly contributing to the pollution of the area.
On our way back to the big boat, we sat by the front of the boat and asked Gom if the cruise companies participate in any clean-up efforts. She shrugged and said that on days when the weather wasn’t great, the companies would spend the day pulling garbage out of the water. “But not very often…” She looked out towards the water and I wondered how much longer it will be before Halong Bay looks and smells just like the Yangtze.
We got back to a new group of young tourists, including four loud American guys who looked like they got lost here on their way to Amsterdam or Bangkok. The rest of the trip was uneventful, mainly because we wanted it that way. We skipped the tour to Surprise Cave (also called Amazing Cave) the next morning and opted to spend the extra time looking out of the window at the bay and grabbing an extra hour of sleep. When everyone returned and we were asked to check out of our rooms and go upstairs, the five of us two-nighters watched uninterestedly on the fringes as the one-nighters dove into learning how to roll spring rolls.
I found myself becoming eager to get back to Hanoi, away from this hot mess of a bay. A part of me was angry, not only at the lack of effort put into keeping clean what is probably the most famous tourist destination in Vietnam, but also at myself for participating in the pollution. Don’t get me wrong. Halong Bay will take your breath away, as long as you don’t look down. I’ll wait for the Vietnamese to promise me a world in which they take care of the land they love so much, and the beauty of Halong Bay isn’t a broken dream. It’s not too late. A few tips for travelers heading to Halong Bay:
- Shop around for the right cruise. Everyone will sell you their cruise as if they alone have a unique experience for you. This is untrue. Everyone will be doing exactly the same thing, on and off of the boat. The only difference is the quality of your boat, room and food. You won’t be spending a lot of time on the boat, but if cushy accommodations are your thing, you probably want to opt for the 5-star cruise ships.
- Stay for two nights. If you have the time, it’s definitely worth it to stay that extra night. Otherwise, you will experience Halong Bay in a whirlwind.
- Bring your own water. The boat will charge you for all beverages you order on the boat, and the prices are high. If you choose not to bring anything, another cost-effective option is to buy from the women who row around selling drinks and snacks from their little boats. You can negotiate pricing with them.
For more photos, check out our Flickr album.