Ha Long Bay: A UNESCO Site… For Now
Ha Long Bay in North Vietnam was on our list from the very beginning. A beautiful collection of thousands of limestone islands, Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But maybe not for long. UNESCO may pull Ha Long Bay off the list, just like it considered doing for one of Vietnam’s other sites.
THE LEGEND OF HA LONG BAY
Ha Long means “descending dragon” in Vietnamese, which is an apt description for… something. Nothing in Ha Long really resembles a dragon, but don’t let that deter you. Legend has it that a dragon dropped jewels and diamonds into the bay. The jewels turned into islands, blocking the ships of countries that attempted to invade. When all of the threatening navies were turned away, the dragon decided to stay in Ha Long Bay. The tale seems a bit far-fetched, but you need a story like that to explain the thousands of small islands and their bizarre formations, especially if you’re the first nation of Vietnam.
The Bay itself is stunningly beautiful. As you sail away from shore, the islands seem to spring up in every direction. It would be easy to get lost here in a world of mysterious beauty. Some of the islands show signs of life – a beach or a cave to explore – but many of the islands look untouched. We spent quite a bit of time in silence, admiring the scenery.
TOURISM, UNESCO, AND HA LONG BAY
Ha Long Bay has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. It even made it on the 2012 list of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Hurrah!! But all that recognition comes with a price.
The only thing that outnumbers the 1,700 or so islands in Ha Long Bay is the tourist boats. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. The tourist boats leave the harbor at the same time, spend the night in the same place, and head back to shore at the same time. They comprise a large armada, crewed by visitors from all over the world, invading the quiet serenity of the bay. They are never out of sight. According to Vietnam’s own news service, Ha Long Bay may come off the UNESCO list because it is overrun with tourists. Interestingly, UNESCO considered pulling Vietnam’s Imperial City of Hue off the list in 2013 because of pollution.
I’m not saying don’t go. Not at all. You should absolutely go. Just be ready for boats in every direction. They didn’t bother us at all.
GETTING TO HA LONG BAY
The bay is about 3 hours from Hanoi in North Vietnam. Every hotel, hostel, guest house, and travel agent will have info on Ha Long Bay. It will require no effort to find out all you need to know.
On our way to Ha Long Bay, our cruise company stopped our bus at a “humanities shop.” Apparently, “humanities shop” in Vietnamese means “overpriced tourist junk where the bus driver and tour guide get a free meal.” We stopped for 45 minutes each way. It’s nice to walk around and look at all the marble carvings, but a complete waste of time.
PICKING A HA LONG BAY CRUISE
Not all junk boat cruises are made equal. Far from it. Some are absolutely awful, and some are great. If you have a recommendation from a friend, go with it. The better junk boat cruises will pick you up from your hotel before the cruise and drop you off after. That makes it effortless. We took Oriental Sails for a 2-day, 1-night cruise, and we had a great time. Friends also recommended Handspan Cruises, which also looked great.
In most cases, food and activites are included, like kayaking, hiking, and relaxing on the beach. Drinks are not included and are outrageously overpriced. Hide a bottle of wine or two in your baggage and drink for free in the privacy of your own room.
Ha Long Bay is an amazing place to visit – easily one of the most spectacular natural places we’ve seen on our trip. But it’s also a stark reminder that we need to find a balance between the desire to see a place and the need to sustain it. Hundreds of junk boats meandering around Ha Long Bay will destroy this natural wonder over time. That would be a tremendous shame, since Ha Long Bay is so incredible as it is now.