Responsible Tourism

Just before we were ready to go to visit a floating village in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, we gathered on the upper deck of our junk boat to get an overview about the floating village and the life there. Our guide Smiley started with mentioning a little bit about some of the background information that built upon some information I already learned from reading some materials that were provided as part of our cruise. But towards the middle of his presentation, Smiley talked about the unfortunate negative impact of human settlement and now increase of tourism on the nature. Quite unexpected to hear especially in a developing country especially when the tourism industry was booming in the area.

Smiley said that as the number of tourists increased, inevitably there was impact to the nature as pollution increased, rubbish produced and polluted the environment, and the traditional lives of the locals impacted with the constant visits of guests. In many cases, others looked to profit from such increased in popularity and demand for tourism, but neglected how their actions impact the actual nature that drew the visitors to come in the first place. He said the Indochina Junk, the company that owned and operated the Dragon’s Pearl and several other boats, was working with the local government to launch a program called ‘For a Green Ha Long Bay’ which aimed at educating the locals and the tour operators to help reduce the negative impact tourism has on the nature and the lives of the locals. They helped with rubbish collection, and also educated and provided more environmentally friendly materials to use in the floating homes. He also mentioned that parts of the proceeds from our tour actually went to the village that we’re visiting.

When I heard this presentation, while on one hand I was happy to hear that we seemed to go with a tour company that was environmentally responsible, on the other hand I was wondering how sincere that was, or whether this was all just a presentation to the foreign tourists so they feel good about themselves, and potentially help market and recommend the company to other tourists. I hate to be that cynical, but I guess unless I see more visible activities (e.g., perhaps also offering a more voluntourism type trips where guests can also participate in activities that help improve the locals), it remains to be seen whether that’s all just a show or it really is because they want to be ethically responsible.

I took the photo below while Smiley was giving his presentation to our group. You can see the village we’re about to visit in the background.

Responsible tourism presentation

Floating Village in the Bay

After we finished our breakfast, our tour guide Smiley told us to get ready to meet up on the upper deck before we started our second day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, with a visit to one of the floating villages in the bay. There are four floating villages in Ha Long Bay area, with a population of around 1,600 people total living there. Most are fishermen and their families. The villages are located in sheltered coves at the base of mountainous islands. The islands provide a natural protection from bad weather condition especially during the typhoon season. These communities have been inhabiting the area for quite a long time. They still live mainly from fishing, selling their catch to the nearby Ha Long City where they also get their supplies. Now with the increasing popularity of tourism in the area, the villages are also opening up for visits from tourists. Some even provided special events for tourists who come to visit.

I didn’t have much expectation about what we would experience through this visit. One thing I was interested in finding out was the comparison between these floating villages to the ones we saw in Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. Obvious difference was that one was in fresh water lake while the other is in a bay close to open sea. Both live on fishing, but other thand that, I guess we would find out.

I took the photo below when we were about to enter the village. You could see here two of the tourists on a row boat, and the row of houses that made up one side of the floating village.

Floating village

Mantis Prawn

After a long day that started very early in the morning at the train station in Hanoi and ended with kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Kristi and I were quite wiped out. We had a couple of hours of free, rest time that we took advantage of by taking a short nap in our nice cabin on the junk boat.

After the nice nap and freshening up, we joined other passengers in the dining room for dinner. After opening the trip with a feast for the lunch, I thought they had set high expectations for the meal that would be difficult to top. I was wrong. The dinner was actually equally if not more impressive than the lunch. The menu for dinner was as follows: kohlrabi salad with herbs to start, folled by deep-fried roll with herms, fried mantis prawn with salt and lemongrass, steamed crab with rose wine, sauted prawn with garlic butter, deep-fried chicken with read wine, grilled mackerel fish on hot pan, Ha Long fish cake with herbs, fried vegetables with garlic, steamed rice, and again fresh tropical fruit to close. Another impressive spread for a meal.

The highlight of the meal was the mantis prawn. When I was planning for this trip, I watched an episode of Bizarre Foods show on Travel Channel where Andrew Zimmern went to Ha Long Bay and tried some interesting dishes local to the area. The best one he had was the mantis prawn, which he described as a cross between two decadent seafoods, lobster and crab meat. I was wondering if we would have an opportunity to try it, and here it was, added to the menu in the last minute. It was prepared in a simple recipe, sauteed with salt and lemongrass. They looked quite strange as they resemble praying mantis — pretty scary looking. But the dish smelled so good, and Smiley and other Dragon Pearl’s crew encouraged us to try this as it’s the delicacy of the region. They helped us to peel the prawn; we had to be a little careful as there were sharp edges on the shell and the prawn’s legs. Andrew Zimmern was right about how delicious the mantis prawn meat is — it was among the best dishes I had in this trip (quite a distinction given that we had many excellent meals during this trip in Southeast Asia).

That was a great way to end the first day of our cruise in Ha Long Bay. Some of the passengers watched as our boat’s captain went out in the dark and tried to catch some squid. It was pretty neat, but after seeing one caught, the novelty kind of wore off and the exhaustion set in. Most of the passengers retreated to their respective cabins to end the day with a good night sleep.

You can see on the photo below me holding a mantis prawn in my hand before deshelling and eating it. Notice the size of it and its mantis-like look.

Eating mantis prawn

Kayaking

After an excellent lunch to open our cruise in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, our tour guide Smiley announced the next activity that we could participate in, kayaking in the nearby inlet. It was a bit chilly outside, but the water looked pretty calm and many of the passengers were pretty excited to hear about what we would be doing.

Kristi and I knew that this would be one of the activities during the cruise, and we were looking forward to it. However, neither of us had really done kayaking before. Several others in the group mentioned the same concern to Smiley. He told us not to worry; he could give us a little crash course, and we were not going too far from the boat especially for this first run. We also had personal floating device for each person that the crew helped inspected before we jumped off to our kayak. Mrs. Hoa, the lady who came with her children and in-laws, mentioned that she wanted to experience kayaking, but she wasn’t sure she’s up to it from fitness perspective. Smiley graciously offered to ride with her and do the paddling. In the end, all but one of the passengers ended up going on the trip.

Kristi and I went on the same kayak. We paddled around near the boat to get the bearings, and then as the group was ready to go, we followed everyone. Fortunately the water was pretty calm, so we didn’t have to work too hard agains the waves to follow Smiley’s kayak up front. He took us on a trip around an island, passing a beach with a small ancient graveyard where some of the local fishermen had their ancestors buried.

The trip took about an hour or so, long enough as a first excursion for some of us who were new to this. Kristi and I stayed mostly at the back of the group for most of the trip, trying to keep up with everyone as we learned to control our kayak. By the end of it I think we had a good handle of it.

The photo below was taken by Kristi who rode at the front of the kayak while we were cruising during the trip. I took some photos as well with my point-and-shoot (I didn’t dare taking my DSLR lest it get wet or fall into the water), but it was difficult to get good shots when sitting in the back. I also had to keep paddling so we could keep up with others.

Kayaking at Ha Long Bay

Calm Waters

After we settled in our cabin, we had some free time before lunch time to start our cruise in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Our junk boat slowly moved out the crowded port area towards the labyrinth of passageways among the thousands of rocks and isles in Ha Long Bay that made the place famous. We started following what looked like a main route to get to the open seas, so we saw many other boats, big and small. But eventually we would turn to a less crowded route, and not long after it seemed that we were alone in a quiet inlet.

Kristi and I went to the upper deck level of the boat to enjoy the scenery. It was colder than we expected, but I suppose it’s because we were in winter season as well. We just didn’t associate coastal Vietnam with cold before. Fortunately we had our gears ready since we just came from the mountainous region of Sapa. For a moment it was really nice to just stay quiet and enjoy the calm waters around with the surreal landscape around that looked like it came out of paintings or pictures that we’ve seen so many times. Then I thought about an article I read during the trip planning that talked about tourists had this iddylic picture in their head, only to be confronted with the reality that many others also had the same idea, and you end up having to enjoy the panorama with thousand other people on many other boats next to yours. Fortunately our tour company was true to their words as they mentioned that our particular cruise was supposed to be ‘off the beaten path’ and it would take us to areas that are less crowded and more secluded.

The photo below was taken from the top deck of our boat as we cruised out towards the rocks and isles of Ha Long Bay. You can see the layers of rocks and isles in front of us, and also a big ship going towards the open sea.

Cruising in Ha Long Bay

Luxurious Cabin

When I travel, I usually look for accomodation that is in good location and is reasonably priced. Cleanliness is obviously important for a room to stay in, but I don’t usually care much for extra amenities or decor that some high-end hotels may offer. For our cruise in Ha Long Bay, the cabin was pretty much what came with the package we booked through the tour company. We did see some photos on their website to get some idea of what it looked like, but sometime photos can’t really give you accurate picture of what you’re going to get.

After getting our keys from Smiley, Kristi and I headed to the lower level of the junk boat to head to our cabin with our luggage. Our cabin was among the smallest they had on the boat — we had one of the cabins with two twin beds. We were not expecting much after our experience with travel cabin on the train to Sapa (especially if it was built for ‘Vietnamese size’). But what we found was actually a very nice cabin. It was not large like a hotel room, but it was quite roomy, pretty cozy, and the best of all, it had a wonderful view to the Ha Long Bay scenery outside — not obstructed by anything at all. The bathroom was quite small; basically a standing shower and a small lavatory, but well designed and looked quite nice to match with the interior of the junk boat. They even had marble tiles on the floor of the bathroom. Quite odd considering we’re on a boat, but it did make it feel more upscale.

The photo below was taken from the corner of our cabin with my wide-angle lens. Notice the wonderful view from the cabin that we enjoyed in the two mornings that we stayed there.

Luxurious cabin

Welcome Aboard

After boarding the tender at the Ha Long City port, we slowly moved away from the pier and weaved our way among the many boats moored near the port. There were many junk boats around; we couldn’t tell which one was ours. After few minutes riding and guessing, we finally saw one junk boat in a distance that we seemed to be heading towards, and as we got closer, we saw several of the boats crew in uniform standing on the boat expecting the guests to arrive.

We boarded our junk boat, called the Dragon’s Pearl 3, which was in really excellent shape. It looked like an old, classic junk boat, but I think it’s actually quite a modern vessel, just made to look like the traditional junk boats that everyone would expect to see in Ha Long Bay.

Smiley our tour guide had us gather at a big room in the middle level of the boat — the dining room and where we would gather as a group for the meals and any group activities. He called each group of passengers to give us the cabin assignment and our cabin keys. Then we headed down to the hallway of the lower level to collect our luggages and head to our cabin to get situated.

The photo below was taken from the tender as we approached the junk boat. You can see two of the Dragon’s Pearl 3 crew members welcoming us to their vessel with smile. There were six of them including Smiley the tour guide who came with us to take care of all of our needs during the three-day cruise.

Welcome to Dragon's Pearl 3