Vietnam News

Ha Long Bay has been on my bucket list for years but it was a total letdown

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Ha Long Bay has been on my travel bucket list for over a decade, but as soon as I got there I wanted to turn around and leave. 

The UNESCO World Heritage Site in northeast Vietnam is known for its thousands of towering limestone islands covered in rainforest, surrounded by shimmering emerald water.

I’ve saved photos of it on Pinterest and Instagram for years, excited for the day I’d finally get to explore it with my own eyes. 

But when I finally arrived, I was greeted with polluted grey water, hordes of tourists, and absolutely zero wildlife – not even a spider or lizard in the trees.

Of course, the crowds I expected. It’s one of Vietnam’s main tourist attractions, with day trips and overnight boat tours advertised everywhere you look.

But considering it’s a UNESCO site, I figured they’d be doing more to look after the bay, through tourism caps or clean-up programs.

At one point we sailed past a giant ship, right in the middle of the bay, unloading coal onto a smaller boat, sending clouds of dust into the air and water, mingling with the diesel fumes of all the cruise ships that litter the bay.

Speaking of the water, you certainly wouldn’t want to swim in it, thanks to the oily slick on the surface, and the frequent bottles, plastic gloves, and unidentified garbage floating past.

One of the attractions in the bay is a cave with a path you can walk through, which should take about 20 minutes, maximum.

But it took closer to 50 minutes to wind our way through the cave (which, yes, was impressive) due to the sheer number of people traipsing along the path in single file.

After reading about experiences of crowded tourist boats visiting bays clogged with vessels, I spent a little extra cash on a two-night stay on a higher-end boat, with the expectation that it’d visit sites a little more off-the-beaten-track. 

Yes, we did get to visit parts of the bay where we saw no other tourists. But the pollution was still there, as was the lack of any biodiversity. 

Don’t get me wrong, there were fun parts. Kayaking through a silent bay to an island was a highlight, as was sitting on our boat’s balcony with a coffee in the morning, taking in the geological beauty.

But there are definitely places out there that are far better. 

For example, a couple of years ago I visited Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. It has similar limestone karsts and emerald water, but is way less crowded and has far more wildlife.

You can stay in floating bungalows, swim in the clean water, and spot monkeys, elephants and tigers. 

Perhaps I needed to do a bit more research before heading to Ha Long Bay, find a tour company that runs sustainable programs in the bay or visit different areas.

But the majority of people coming through will be heading to these congested areas, and will no doubt feel a little crestfallen, the way I did. 

Don’t get me wrong – I realise that by being a tourist in Ha Long Bay I’m contributing to its ecological decline. Perhaps the bay needs to be closed to tourists for a while so it can recover, like Thailand did with Maya Bay in 2018.

So if it’s also something that’s been on your wishlist for a while, maybe reconsider your trip.

By Jemima Skelley – – April 2, 2024

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