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Karst Away in HaLong Bay

Going "green" in Halong Bay doesn't mean scrimping on luxury. For this amazing and eco-friendly cruise I head OTBT to Bai Tu Long Bay.

I almost didn't do Halong Bay. In fact, I didn't technically do more than its harbour.

In the last few years, prices have skyrocketed and Halong has become hell on water. Even your basic backpackers overnight party boat with bad food, bed bugs, rats and roaches now runs for US$80, but hell, you'd have to be desperate wouldn't you?

The other nasty is the sheer number of these cruises, many on dodgy boats pumping kitchen rubbish and effluent straight into the bay. Travellers report traffic jams at sea with boats converging on a site and jostling for space, bobbing about in a polluted sea.

It seriously sounded like the worst UNESCO site ever. A filthy cesspit of mass tourism. I had no intention of going and adding to it. But there was one area I remembered reading about, near Halong and just as pretty, but without the tourists, pollution, or infrastructure. Bai Tu Long Bay beckoned.

The choice of which boat was made incredibly easy by the fact only a small number of boats go properly into the bay, giving Halong the miss almost completely. Indochina Junk's "Dragon Legend" not only had a pretty impressive name but it also claimed "green" credentials. The boats were newly fitted out and didn't spew waste. The company supported outlying fishing villages with work that didn't involve making them a tourist attraction. They contributed to a mangrove reforestation project. And, through their 'for a Green Halong Bay" program, they raised local awareness to environmental protection with a rubbish collection project. Just as importantly, they catered for vegetarians and their reviews were consistently great. They weren't the cheapest but weren't the most expensive either.

I like to think I try to make responsible, sustainable travel choices and that means sometimes being willing to put my money where my mouth is. I could have not gone at all, but who knows how much longer it will be before the other boats invade and pollute this bay as well. After doing more research and chatting online with a sales agent to get a deal I booked it.

Sometimes, Going Green really pays off

And wow. I mean wow. Sometimes going green really pays off. After leaving Halong port, and heading in a different direction to everyone else, we didn't see another tourist boat until we moored that night and even then it was our sister ship on the 2 night cruise.

The boat was as gorgeous as the scenery. My discounted "smaller single room" had a sweeping luxury king bed, window seat, bath, silk dressing gowns hanging in the closet and the dramatic decor was styled in opulent Vietnamese tradition.

Lunch on the deck was just as luxurious, stunning scenery drifted by as plate by plate our 8-course Vietnamese degustation meal drifted in. Many of the Halong cruises serve simplistic buffets and western fried food. Other boats offered cabbage and rice as a vegetarian menu, but our amazing chef made no compromises to my gourmet 'com chay'.

Completely stuffed and needing exercise, we made our way to the kayaks. With only 8 kayaks in the water, we had the bays to ourselves and the fishermen. We weren't forced to cling to a narrow guided group, instead, we were encouraged to explore. I found myself drifting alone among the limestone. The water was a deep jade with the forested limestone rearing upwards. The karsts faded toward the horizon, each one progressively more faint until they became a ghostly blue in the mist. While hawks sailed in the sky above the only sound on the water was the occasional splosh of a paddle or a fish. The fishermen drifted in their boats, leaning on the oars as they waited to drag in their catch. Onboard a houseboat, a woman prepared dinner.

Knowing we were going out paddling again the next morning made the reluctant trip back to the boat more bearable.

Onboard day turned to dusk turned to night, the limestone catching the colours of the sun before becoming shadows in the darkness. A few fishermen's lights glittered on the water as a calm silence descended. It was a long way to the congested Halong from here.

Tourism in the Bays

Halong means "descending dragon bay". Halong being where the mother dragon descended and Bai Tu Long where her children descended. The legend is that dragons were sent by the gods to protect the Vietnamese people from invaders. The dragons spat jewels of jade into the sea, creating a protective wall of karsts.

Several hundred fishermen and their families still live in the bays but since the area was made a UNESCO site in 1994 they may well need the dragon's protection as HaLong will see close to 10 million visitors invade the bays this year. In contrast, the further reaches of Bai Tu Long Bay, sees only a few thousand.

Our passengers were mostly western couples, there was one Vietnamese family and 3 singles. The 3 of us lonelies shared a dinner table, getting along pretty nicely with a few glasses of wine. The evening degustation meal was as ridiculously lush as the lunch. Midway through the chef presented himself, telling us the love story behind one of his dishes. Another member of staff then serenaded us with music.

The staff were brilliant; the perfect mix of easy-going personalities and high-end professionalism. It's a service trait I came across often in Vietnam and never appeared to be tied to budget and it honestly makes travelling in Vietnam a friendly, but also efficient, dream. Our guide 'Smiley' had a cheeky sense of humour and was ever vigilante for plastic falling in the bay; James wanted to practice his English while teaching me Vietnamese and; our waiter was genuinely enthusiastic about the meal. "This isn't good," he told me as he put a dish down in front of me, "it is very good."

Almost all the passengers I spoke to were motivated to choose our cruise by 3 factors: the reviews; the lack of tourists; and lack of pollution. None of us expected the quality that followed.

Whichever way you cut it, a trip to Halong or Bai Tu Long Bay is still a pricey trip by Vietnam travel standards, but I can't say this boat wasn't value for money. And it's definitely one of my great 'green' experiences.

How to get to BAI TU LONG BAY

For a Green Halong Bay on the Dragon Legend with Indochine Junk



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