Troubled waters

The limestone pillars of Ha Long Bay have long been admired, but increasing tourism and water pollution threaten the surrounding biodiversity and nearby communities.


In a sense, it’s only right that a place of such mysterious beauty should have its own mythology. Long ago, when local people were building Vietnam into a country, foreign invaders attacked them from the north. But the gods sent help, and a family of dragons came to protect their land, spitting fire and jewels that, once hitting the sea, turned into small islands. These formed a fortress of towering rocks to overwhelm the enemy, which arrived by boat. After winning the battle, the dragons decided to stay; hence the name ‘Ha Long’ – ‘descending dragon’.

Whether the legend is true or not, the near utopian landscape of limestone pillars, green islands and steep cliffs would not be out of place in a fantasy world of wars and dragons. The archipelago, located in the Gulf of Tonkin outside the north-eastern coast of Vietnam, consists of 2,000 islands and islets, covering an area so large that some are reportedly still unexplored. The stone peaks are often gathered in clusters, some towering 100 metres above the water. The islands are home to tropical forests and blue lakes (one island has no less than six) while beneath, murky caves are hollowed out. Many are accessible by boat. For the adventurous traveller, it is a wonderland of unexplored territory.

How was it all constructed? The rocks got their shape long ago through the sea’s repeated regression over the limestone karst. Today, many islands are named after their outlines, such as Voi (elephant), Ga Choi (fighting cock) and Mai Nha (roof). Since they were formed, the underlying limestone plateau has sunk, causing the water level to rise and make it a bay. But it didn’t increase by much and, excluding where the old river channels used to run, the water is mostly no deeper than ten metres.


But Ha Long Bay is more than just sea and rocks. A variety of ecosystems flourish in the area, such as tropical and mangrove forests, seagrass beds, seaweeds, and communities found in caves and on cliffs and mountain summits. Figures from the bay in 2003 reported 184 species of coral reefs and more than 50 species of snails, crabs and sand worms. On the islands, squirrels, antelopes and iguanas reside. In the waters, 400 species of fish were thought to exist. How many are left is unclear.

The fishes are crucial to the bay’s community of just above 2,000 people. For generations, the locals have lived off fishing and can still be seen working from small wooden boats drifting quietly around the giant limestone pillars. Nobody is exempt from work, and even five-year-olds master the art of casting net. The families’ homes are untraditional but practical; floating villages tied to the mainland, formed of houseboats and bamboo rafts. It is an industry vulnerable to social and economic changes but, despite the UN advising the locals to move inlands after making the bay a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, they have remained faithful to their ancestral traditions.

Perhaps inevitably, however, their livelihood is being challenged. As is often the case at historical sites, the ancient way of life is being destabilised by an influx of tourism and the changes it brings. The surrounding biodiversity is threatened by wastewater, littering and heavy boat traffic (some shipping routes run straight through the site), while fish is disappearing. Some of what is caught is shipped off to domestic markets. And as visitors keep arriving, the economy is becoming more commercial. Some villagers have adapted and taken smaller tourism jobs, such as rowing people around the site, but it is not enough to make ends meet. As a result, some want to move. Others want to stay. But they do agree on one thing: it cannot continue like this.


There are attempts to manage the site. According to the UN, the Vietnamese government says it has tried to implement mechanisms to curb water pollution from commercial and industrial sources, but that this is difficult due to the surrounding area’s legislative framework. Various UN and voluntary projects have taken place, such as community education projects, coral reef restoration, waste treatment as well as initiatives to expand the environmental protection and spark further investment in the monitoring equipment.

Yet at the current rate, it is not enough. Reports still exist of tourists breaking off stalagmites and dropping litter in the sea. Reportedly, some cave mouths have been widened to allow tourists inside, resulting in more light streaming into the grotto, destabilising the intricate natural interplay of the ecosystems inside. Human waste from portable toilets is still a problem. And while the UN recognises the Vietnamese government’s efforts, it acknowledges more action needs to be taken.

Photos: Igor Plotnikov, Ifstewart, Vu tuan khanh [all via].