Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located off the coast of northern Vietnam. With more than 1,600 uninhabited islands, towering limestone pillars, and remarkable caves, it’s not surprising that the emerald green waters of Ha Long Bay attract more than 5 million tourists per year.
"The heritage of Ha Long Bay is not just the landscape; it is also the people.” I came across this quote, from Nguyen Kim Anh, just before making my trip to Ha Long, and it’s something that I’ll never be able to forget.
You see, even as I sit here now, reflecting back on my travels, the most memorable part of my trip was not weaving in and out of massive rock formations, nor was it kayaking through limestone caves, or lounging on private beaches. Not even a little bit. The most memorable part of my cruise through Ha Long Bay was the time I spent passing through the fishing villages, learning about and interacting with the local people and families, who have called this place home since the early 1800s.
I quickly learned that these communities, comprised of nearly 2,000 people who live on boats and floating wooden houses, depend on fishing to survive. Life on the water is all they have ever known. Sadly enough, pollution from their waste, and from the thousands of tourist boats that flock to these waters each year, is killing all of the fish; wreaking havoc on the environment; and destroying their livelihoods.
Seeing the faces of these people, put me in touch with just how impactful—both positively and negatively—tourism can be for local people. On the one hand, it broke my heart to know that these people were losing their jobs and their homes due to pollution from tourist boats. But on the other hand, I learned that because of the substantial economic impact of tourism in the area, the Vietnamese government was finally starting to care about helping these people, and about conserving the environment. In fact, I learned that two years before my visit, the government had begun a relocation assistance program, to help move families from these fishing villages to the mainland. Implementing this initiative meant that the children would have better access to education; there would be less waste in the water, and families could be trained to look for new sources of income.
A few years have passed since these relocation initiatives began, and more and more tourists and tour companies are getting involved. In fact, local organizations are now partnering with villagers and fishers to provide new, community-based tourism services. Now, villagers can potentially earn money through tourism and don’t have to be so reliant on fishing. Instead, fishers can interact with visitors to discuss their history, share their culture, and partake in sustainable activities, such as leading local beach cleanups.
For me, the beauty of Ha Long Bay will always be about the interconnectedness of the people and the landscape. This trip was a monumental one for me, in that it woke me up the importance of responsible tourism. When it comes to the gift of travel, we have to remember to look beyond the surface. We have to remember to connect to the source—to the real people, the real families, and the real communities who call these places home. Let’s think about how we can leave something good behind when we visit these places. The future of tourism depends on it, and on us.
Abby Faires is an East Coast native turned Denver transplant. In 2013, she received distinction as the University of Colorado School of Journalism’s Outstanding Graduate, where she also obtained a B.A. in Journalism, News-Editorial, and a certificate in International Media. At the core of her writing lies a true passion for education, wellness, and responsible travel. Abby has been living abroad and is currently making her way across Asia. Up next: South America!