In an effort to stay positive, the photos in this article show just The Good aspects of Halong Bay

Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site and the 7th wonder of the natural world, is the most visited area of Vietnam.  More than 2,000 limestone karst formations rise straight up from the turquoise water of the bay. Type it’s name into Google image search and you’ll get thousands of postcard-like photos. With such an impressive resumé, and within a few hours of the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, how could we not see it?

Halong Bay, Vietnam

A fisherman passes through the mist-covered karsts in Halong Bay

The Good

Halong Bay was actually one of the few must-sees on our travel list for this trip. We knew it would likely be touristy, but skipping it would mean we would forever regret not seeing it. Like the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower, it just seemed like something you have to do.

The limestone formations are truly breathtaking and a once-in-a-lifetime sight. The blue water creates a stark color contrast to the blackened cliffs and even on misty days, like we had, it was unquestionably impressive. There are just so MANY of them! What an adventure it must have been for fisherman hundreds of years ago to discover (and no doubt get lost) in the countless coves and inlets all over this area.

As part of our three-day tour, we got to explore a bit of the biggest island, Cat Ba, on bikes. Zooming through the peaceful jungle underneath the massive cliff overhangs was a welcome treat, as was visiting the small villages along the route. We also really enjoyed our accommodations in the beach stilt bungalows tucked away from the bigger bay in a tiny cove. Waking up with the towering karsts outlined against a bright gray sky will be an unforgettable memory for us.

Halong Bay from one of the several boats on our cruise.

Halong Bay from one of the several boats on our cruise.

The Bad

Just like the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower, Halong Bay is suffering from it’s own popularity. I’ve been in some touristy spots before, but this was over the top. The tours are relatively inexpensive at $180 for 3 days (although we overpaid, as we found out by asking the others on our boat) and sound really appealing: Kayaking! Visit caves and a floating village! Trek to the top of a karst! Cooking classes on the boat! All in the uniquely beautiful setting of Halong Bay! Buses from Hanoi and elsewhere arrive all day, every day with tourists of all kinds pouring out onto the port: western backpackers, vacationing seniors, neighboring Chinese and curious Vietnamese.

We were shuffled along like sheep by a nervous guide – in and out of neon lit caves choking with tourists and then onto a small platform selling chips and beer (the floating village?). We were yelled at to get in kayaks and quickly paddle around that small island – only twenty minutes! Go now! Take picture, here! Now go! It seems that all the tours follow more or less the same itinerary, meaning we only had about 20 minutes for our group to check each of the boxes: caves, kayak, climb, check, check, check.

At one point, Seb counted over 50 boats docked in the small bay between some of the main attractions. There is no authenticity, no charm and no time to delight in the natural wonder of this place. We are just sheep being shown where to take pictures so we can show people back home that we were indeed in Halong Bay.

This is mass tourism at it’s worst.

Captain of our ship, "Lemon Cruises" in Halong Bay

Navigating through the limestone formations in Halong Bay

The Ugly

With all the boats crowding the bay, with all the small resort towns and villages, with all the thousands of tourists trooping in here every single day (and this is the low season!), it is no surprise that pollution is starting to be a serious and visible problem.

Diesel fumes from the hundreds of cruise boats and charters hang low on the bay and you can see a layer of smog from miles away.  Bits of trash and debris collect in corners of inlets and a scummy layer of oil and grim tints the turquoise waters. Dead jellyfish float along the surface looking almost identical to the plastic bags floating alongside them. As charming and fun as it was to stay in an isolated bungalow on a small island, we were shocked to see that our shower drained directly into the sea – and likely the toilet too. The idea of swimming in the small inlet became understandably unappealing.

One of the hundreds of cruise, charter or fishing boats in the bay.

One of the hundreds of cruise, charter or fishing boats in the bay.

Talking with the others on our boat and staying on the island, everyone had more or less the same feeling. Some of our companions were back after having visited 7 years ago, and they were surprised to see how deteriorated the environment was becoming. If things continue like this, Halong Bay will become a mere shadow of it’s former self. Bad reviews will discourage people from coming. The pollution problem will further worsen the area. It’s sad, really.

One more good thing came from this experience; it has confirmed our desire to avoid these mass tourist spots if possible in the future.

Evening in a popular boat docking inlet in Halong Bay.  We counted more than 50 boats that evening.

Sunset in a popular boat docking inlet in Halong Bay. We counted more than 50 boats that evening.