Halong Bay isn't quite Lake-Havasu-On-Spring-Break crowded. But it's not far off.
By nightfall of our first day, we're anchored among hundreds of other boats holding anywhere from 20 to 100 passengers. Some look fresh from the factory, while others sport worn, weathered wood and a distinctly â€œseen better daysâ€ look. Our Christina Cruise is somewhere between – our stateroom features two oil paintings of Asian women dressed in â€¦ well, barely anything. Still, the shower works (just don't hog the water).
Boats aren't the point, though. People come to Halong Bay to see the stuff of National Geographic articles and UNESCO Heritage site beauty. The boats? They're just the means.
The Big Problem with Halong Bay
And that's exactly why there's so many boats – the karst islands popping out of the water are greenery-covered marvels, rare resources that deserve care and respect.
Which isÂ exactly why there needs to be fewer boats.
I feel like a hypocrite saying this: Because I'm on one of the boats, each one of them spewing fumes from engines and generators. Halong Bay and its tours are big bucks for Vietnam, employing guides and crews â€¦ bringing people to locations they'd not reach otherwise.
I don't know how to solve this problem. Fewer, bigger boats? Restrictions on how many are allowed to operate versus a Wild West free-for-all? I don't know. But Vietnam needs to figure out how to preserve and protect Halong Bay. You can see the high volume of traffic has on the islands, from murky water to piles of trash washing up on beaches.
Halong Bay is More than Scenery
Here's the thing about Halong Bay – the karst islands are beautiful. Sung Sot is a very cool experience, even though it's way overdeveloped for those who prefer real caving to show caves. (One of my suggestions for improvement: Make it easier to get around the outskirts of Cat Ba City so those who are so inclined can do some real caving in the less-developed caves.)
But my favorite part of spending two-and-half days in Halong Bay was spending a day in Cat Ba City. During our November visit, it was low season. Cat Ba City and its many hotels were all but deserted.
We just wandered the city and its outskirts (be sure to check the hilltop canon fort – it's well worth the walk). We strolled along some beaches. All that was nice, but what I enjoyed most was getting lost in a neighborhood behind the Cat Ba market. One moment, we're checking out fresh squid and dried mushrooms – the next, we're wandering past people's homes.
As I always do in Asia, I drew a lot of curious glances. But everyone waved and smiled as we passed their homes. The neighborhood was densely packed. Neighbors can smell each other's cooking, hear each other singing karaoke and toss the occasional errant soccer ball back out of their yard. It seemed like a very â€œall for oneâ€ environment, with people far less closed off from each other than my neighborhood in Arizona.
I know, it's odd that a stroll through a neighborhood is my favorite memory of Halong Bay – better than cruising the island on a battered mountain bike with a bunch of people from Christina Cruise.
Should You Go to Halong Bay?
UNESCO doesn't name just anything a World Heritage Site. And I have yet to visit one that isn't worth seeing.
And there's the conundrum. Going to Halong Bay made me part of the maelstrom of pollution, part of the proliferation of boats clogging the area. I voted with my dollar that the status quo is OK, and I still have mixed feelings about this. I'm an imperfect traveler trying to strike a balance between a desire to experience things and a desire to leave a smaller footprint.
I have no easy answer to this. That's just the way it is sometimes. All I can hope, at this point, is that Vietnam realizes what it has in Halong Bay. And that it makes the hard choices for us.
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