It was 5 am and I was alone, sitting in a kayak, peacefully sailing among thousand strangely sculpted limestones poking out of the remote Pacific shores of Northeast Vietnam. The rising sun was gently shining through the humid haze and I saw a small fisherman standing on a solitary houseboat in the distance. I was paddling towards him, having hoped to catch a glimpse of his daily life.
In the emerald waters of Descending Dragon Bay, down beneath my kayak, live three species of dolphin, seals, few hundred species of fish, mollusk, arthropod, and countless beautiful hard and soft corals. Rich plankton makes it a home for Ngoc Nu, a rare pearl oyster.
The silent melody of singing birds was being disturbed only by a faint roaring of small fishing boats and barking dogs in the distance.
It felt, for a while, like I had found the lost paradise…
But with every paddle stroke, the tip of my kayak collided with plastic bottles, pieces of styrofoam, and million different kinds of garbage floating around. There was a strange oily coating on the surface and I hadn’t seen any fish.
When I approached the houseboat, an astonished fisherman in his forties came forth:
I said hello and offered him a hand-rolled cigarette. With a shy hand gesture, subtly bowing my head down, I asked to take an inside look at his floating home. He lit the cigarette and in a whiff of salty air puffed out a cloud of smoke in front of my face.
Strangers rarely stray here and I was pleased when he gave me an approving nod. I anchored the rope to the pier and with his help safely got off the kayak.
Then he stared at me with one eyebrow slightly higher than the other…
“Peter” – came quietly out of my mouth while I was pointing on my chest,
“Thuàn” – said slim fisherman and invited me to come in.
His dwelling was humble.
One small wooden shanty at the end of the fifteen-meter wharf floating on several empty barrels and blocks of styrofoam, with two tiny fishing boats anchored on both sides and a bunch of fishing nets and tools in the middle.
We went inside the shanty. His wife was squatting on the floor, cutting and cleaning fish with a knife. She had seen me coming so she wasn’t surprised but didn’t look pleased either.
“Xin chào” – I said hello to her.
She didn’t reply and with frowning eyes annoyingly mumbled something on Thuàn. Although I didn’t understand the words, it was obvious that there was not enough fish in a small bowl in front of her.
There was no wastewater treatment in the shanty. Their daily release of detergents and chemicals, together with human feces, went directly into the emerald sea…
The atmosphere seemed to be a little tense and Thuàn indicated me to follow him out. We went to the other side of the wharf; straight to a small motorboat with empty fishing nets inside. Evidently upset, he also mumbled something with distinctive gestures, alternately pointing on the boat and on the sea. After few seconds of silence, he suddenly untied the rope, jumped in the boat, and started the motor. Then he puffed out the last bit of smoke, threw the cigarette butt into the sea, and swiftly left for fishing with no further words.
“Tạm biệt” – I said goodbye quietly and he slowly disappeared in the humid haze…
I went back inside the shanty and the women was looking at me with her frowning eyes:
“Tiền bạc” – money; she said while asking for cash with an obvious hand gesture.
“I don’t have any money, I’m sorry…”
I was subtly bowing my head down again, showing open palms. I didn’t want to bother her so I went back to my kayak, untied the rope, and sat back in. While I was leaving, she allowed me to take a picture of her.
“Cảm ơn bạn, tạm biệt” – thank you and good bye, I said.
She didn’t reply anything; just stared at me as I was slowly sailing away with a strange feeling…
A lot of questions went through my head that day and I was eager to understand what had just happened. I’ve found some facts later.
These people were forced to move inland in 2015
More than 300 households, whole families with children, were resettled to the pre-built resident area near Ha Long City. They were accused of severe pollution of Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it seems to be a half-baked truth.
As a result of the resettlement, they had lost what was their bread and butter for more than a hundred years — fishing and marine aquaculture. However, the majority of them, like Thuàn and his wife, soon returned to their floating homes to continue fishing illegally.
But the floating villagers are neither the only nor the biggest source of decimation in the Bay of the Descending Dragon.
In fact, they are the least ones…
Every day, about two tons of bottles, cans, plastic bags, cigarette butts, and other garbage collected by environmental workers, are transported to the central wharf of Ha Long city for treatment.
They try to clean the main area of the bay to be more appealing for tourists.
But the most of the floating trash comes from those more than 3 million tourists visiting Ha Long every year. Moreover, tourist boats, as well as fishing boats, don’t strictly follow the regulation — their wastewater and trash often go into the sea.
In highly populated areas around the bay (Cam Pha City, Hoanh Bo, Van Don, and Quang Yen), there is no wastewater treatment plant.
In Ha Long City’s central area, there are four wastewater treatment stations, but they can deal only with 35 percent of more than 30,000 cubic meters of wastewater a day. The rest goes… guess where?
The Bay also bears waste from petroleum units, shipyards, building industry factories, and — the worst of all — coal mines.
UNESCO world heritage site is surrounded by 5,736 HECTARES of open-pit coal mines and three coal-fired power plants. State-owned Vinacomin’s treatment stations can only treat 74 percent of the toxic wastewater from mining.
In 2015, the coal grounds were washed away to the bay by the largest downpours and floods in the past 40 years.
Coal waste, pouring off those giant open-pit coal mines, kills off phytoplankton and leaves other creatures without food. Heavy metals — arsenic, cadmium, and lead — cause long-term damage to the fragile environment.
The magnitude of the pollution is hard to imagine. It is not even recommended to touch the water anymore, nor to swim in it or eat the fish from the bay.
And, the inflow of waste still doesn’t stop…
Although I haven’t found the paradise I was looking for, I didn’t feel disillusioned.
After several hours of paddling through the emerald waters between these massive and sometimes hollow monolithic islands, my mind stripped the floating waste and oily coating away and I could feel the true magic and perpetual beauty of this place.
In a whiff of salty sea air and a gentle breeze, with gigantic caves and countless secluded sandy beaches around, my mind sailed hundred years back in time and I imagined pirates hiding their treasures behind. I imagined crystal water full of fish, corals, and seashells with pearls. I imagined frolic dolphins and the spirit of the Descending Dragon in the virgin bay, guarding his precious jewels against the ignorance of Man.
I had put my paddle aside for a while and slowly closed my eyes. Then I was there; peacefully sailing in the lost paradise…