Vietnam battles plastic blight in idyllic Halong Bay and its famed limestone karsts

HALONG, Vietnam – Squinting in the bright light of a hot summer morning, Ms Vu Thi Thinh perches on the edge of her small wooden boat and plucks a polystyrene block from the calm waters of Vietnam’s Halong Bay.

It’s not yet 9am, but a mound of styrofoam buoys, plastic bottles and beer cans sit behind her.

They are the most visible sign of the human impacts that have degraded the Unesco World Heritage Site, famed for its brilliant turquoise waters dotted with towering rainforest-topped limestone islands.

“I feel very tired because I collect trash on the bay all day without much rest,” said Ms Thinh, 50, who has been working for close to a decade as a trash picker.

“I have to make five to seven trips on the boat every day to collect it all.”

Since the beginning of March, 10,000 cubic m of rubbish – enough to fill four Olympic swimming pools – have been collected from the water, according to the Halong Bay management board.

The trash problem has been particularly acute over the past two months, as a scheme to replace styrofoam buoys at fish farms with more sustainable alternatives backfired and fishermen chucked their redundant polystyrene into the sea.

The authorities ordered 20 barges, eight boats and a team of dozens of people to launch a clean-up, state media said.

Mr Do Tien Thanh, a conservationist at the Halong Bay Management Department, said the buoys were a short-term issue but admitted: “Halong Bay… is under pressure.”

Human waste

More than seven million visitors visited the spectacular limestone karsts of Halong Bay, on Vietnam’s north-eastern coast, in 2022.

The authorities hope that number will jump to 8.5 million in 2023.

But the site’s popularity, and the subsequent rapid growth of Halong City – which is now home to a cable car, amusement park, luxury hotels and thousands of new homes – have severely damaged its ecosystem.

Conservationists estimate there were originally around 234 types of coral in the bay. Now, the number is around half.

There have been signs of recovery in the past decade, with coral coverage slowly increasing again and dolphins – pushed out of the bay a decade ago – coming back in small numbers, as a ban on fishing in the core parts of the heritage site expanded their food source.

But the waste, both plastic and human, is still a huge concern.

“There are so many big residential areas near Halong Bay,” said Mr Thanh.

“The domestic waste from these areas, if not dealt with properly, greatly impacts the ecological system, which includes the coral reefs. Halong City can now handle just over 40 per cent of its wastewater,” he said.

Single-use plastic is now banned on tourist boats, and the Halong Bay management board says general plastic use on board is down 90 per cent from its peak.

But trash generated onshore still lines parts of the beach, with a team of rubbish collectors not able to block the eyesore from tourists.

‘Plastic pollution crisis’

Mr Pham Van Tu, a local resident and freelance tour guide, said he has received a lot of complaints from visitors.

“They read in the media that Halong Bay is beautiful, but when they saw a lot of floating trash, they didn’t want to swim or go canoeing, and they hesitated to tell their friends and family to visit,” he said.

Rapid economic growth, urbanisation and changing lifestyles in communist Vietnam have led to a “plastic pollution crisis”, according to the World Bank.

A report in 2022 estimated 3.1 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated every year, with at least 10 per cent leaking into the waterways, making Vietnam one of the top five plastic polluters of the world’s oceans.

The volume of leakage could more than double by 2030, the World Bank warns.

Ms Larissa Helfer, 21, who travelled to Vietnam from her home in Germany, said Halong Bay was beautiful, but the trash problem would be one of her strongest memories of the trip.

“Normally you (might say), ‘Look at the view! Look at the fishing villages!’” she said.

But here “you have to talk about the trash. (You say), ‘Oh God… look at the plastic bottles and things in the sea’. And it makes you sad.”

Ms Thinh, the trash collector, grew up in Halong and remembers a very different bay.

“It didn’t look so terrible,” she said.

“Of course, a lot of work makes me tired and irritated,” she admitted. “But we must do our work.” AFP


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