A worker collects garbage from Halong Bay in Vietnam on May 17, 2023.
Standing on a boat, squinting at the rising sun, Vu Thi Thinh picks up a Styrofoam log floating in the calm waters of Vietnam’s famous Ha Long Bay.
It’s not yet nine in the morning, but he has collected a mountain of envelopes, plastic bottles, and beer cans.
The most visible traces are the human impact that has degraded this Unesco World Heritage site, its famous turquoise waters with limestone islands that rise everywhere like towers.
“I’m tired, because I collect garbage in the bay all day without much rest,” complains Thinh, 50, who has been a garbage collector for almost a decade.
“I have to make trips to pick up everything in five to seven days.”
Since the beginning of March, a total of 10,000 cubic meters of garbage has been collected from the water, enough to fill four Olympic swimming pools, according to the Halong Bay administrative board.
The litter problem became particularly acute two months ago, when it was decided to replace the polystyrene cargo in the fisheries with more sustainable options, so that the fishermen throw the excess cargo into the sea.
Do Tien Thanh, an environmentalist with the Halong Bay Administration Department, said the objections are a short-term problem, but admitted that “Halong Bay is compelling.”
– Human waste –
More than 7 million people visited the spectacular limestone formations of Halong Bay, on the north coast of Vietnam, in 2012.
Officials expect the number to rise to 8.5 million this year.
But the popularity of the site and the rapid expansion of the city of Halong, which now has hotels and thousands of new luxury homes, have seriously damaged its ecosystem.
Environmentalists estimate that there were some 234 species of kingfishers in the bay. But they are about the middle.
There have been signs of recovery, with the coral cover slowly growing, while the dolphin population has begun to return to the ban on fishing in parts of the site, which has allowed their sources to increase.
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But waste, plastic and human, is a big concern.
“There are many large residential areas near Halong Bay,” said environmentalist Thanh.
“Residential waste from those areas, if not properly treated, greatly impacts the ecological system, which includes coral reefs,” he said.
The single use of plastic is banned from the beaches of Tornace and the administrative board of the bay says that the use of plastic on boats has been reduced by 90%.
But land-based trash still covers parts of the beach.
– The plastic crisis –
Pham Van Tu, a local leader, says visitors complain a lot.
“They read that Halong Bay is beautiful, but when they see floating mud, they don’t want to swim or kayak,” he said.
Rapid economic growth and changing lifestyles in Vietnam have led to a plastic pollution crisis, according to the World Bank.
The 2022 report put the amount of plastic waste generated each year in Vietnam at 3.1 million tons, with at least 10% cut into streams.
The volume of water reaching could more than double by 2030, warns the World Bank.
Larissa Helfer, a 21-year-old tourist from Germany, thought Halong Bay was beautiful but the garbage problem will be one of the main memories of that trip.
“They use to look at the view, to see the fishing villages,” he told AFP. “But you have to talk about trash here,” he said, “see the plastic bottles and things in the sea.” It’s sad.”
Tinh, a garbage collector, grew up in the area and remembers another bay.
“It didn’t look bad before,” he said.