Vietnam: The beauty of Halong Bay is under threat from destruction
Standing on his junk, his eyes dazzled by the rays of the rising sun, Vu Thi Thinh scrutinizes a block of polystyrene floating on the calm waters of famed Ha Long Bay.
This postcard setting, one of the most famous in Southeast Asia, is a victim of its own success. Amidst the famous limestone blocks, its beauty has been spoiled by debris from trash, plastic bottles and other soda cans in the ocean.
Ms Thinh has been traveling the gulf on her boat for 10 years to try to stop the impact of human activity on this Vietnamese site, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“It takes me five to seven boat trips every day to collect everything,” he told AFP.
– Four Olympic swimming pools –
According to Halong Bay’s Administration Department, over the past three months, 10,000 cubic meters of garbage – enough to fill four Olympic swimming pools – have been collected from the water.
The situation is particularly dire because recent clashes between fishermen have led some of them to destroy their old polystyrene buoys by throwing them overboard.
Twenty boats, eight boats and a team of ten people were deployed by the emergency authorities to clear everything, according to state media.
Beyond this specific problem, “Ha Long Bay is under pressure”, recognizes Do Tien Thanh, in charge of the site’s conservation.
In 2022, more than seven million visitors will arrive on Vietnam’s northeast coast to admire spectacular limestone karsts topped with tropical vegetation.
Officials are expecting eight and a half crores this year.
Cable cars, amusement parks, luxury hotels: Halong City has bet all its economic development on tourism, but the marine ecosystem is already showing results.
In the Gulf, there are now only about 100 types of coral left, more than double the original number according to conservationists, even though fishing bans in some areas have helped to correct the situation.
A population of dolphins has been sighted, the first time for 10 years.
– “The Plastic Pollution Crisis” –
Curators point out that single-use plastics are banned on board tourist boats, but man-made waste is a major concern, as “there are a lot of residential areas near Halong Bay”.
And the municipality does not have the means to properly treat all this household waste.
Some wash up on beaches in front of dumb tourists in large numbers.
Larissa Helfer, a 21-year-old tourist from Germany, agrees that Ha Long Bay is beautiful, but the litter problem is one of the most vivid memories of her trip to Vietnam.
Normally, we should say to ourselves: “Look at the view! Look at the fishing villages”, she underlines to AFP.
But here, “you have to talk about litter, (you say) ‘Oh my god… you see plastic bottles and things in the ocean’. And it hurts you”.
“My clients read in the media that Halong Bay is beautiful, but when they see a lot of floating garbage, they no longer want to swim or canoe there, and they hesitate to recommend it to their friends and family. To come,” admits Pham Van Tu, a local guide.
According to the World Bank, rapid economic growth, urbanization and changing lifestyles have led to a “plastic pollution crisis” in communist Vietnam.
A report released in 2022 found the country to be among the world’s top five ocean polluters, generating 3.1 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, of which at least 10% ends up in the water.
That figure could more than double by 2030, the organization warned.
On their wooden boat, rubbish piles up around Mrs Thinh, who remembers a very different bay 50 years ago when she was a child.
“It was a different experience,” she says.
“Of course, this work tires me out and makes me angry,” she admits. “But we have to do this.”