by Tue Lam
|Tour boats operating overnight on Ha Long Bay have been equipped with safety devices and trained crewmembers to offer tourists a safe and spectacular trip.
|The French-styled Emeraude is one of the most luxurious boats operating in Ha Long Bay.
Visiting Viet Nam and Ha Long Bay for the first time, Indonesian traveller Mia Susanto and her Norwegian boyfriend, Arne Smemo, are having a great time on their holiday, but they are not totally without any worries.
A tour boat accident that claimed 12 lives, including 11 foreign tourists, in Viet Nam's picturesque Ha Long Bay in February last year was a tragic reminder for travellers to be careful.
"The incident crossed our minds when we decided to book a trip to Ha Long Bay," says Susanto.
"Anyway, here we are!" she shrugged while sitting leisurely with her boyfriend on the sun deck of the Emeraude - a French-styled boat - in the afternoon sun.
Like Susanto and Smemo, millions of foreign tourists enjoy the scenic beauty of Ha Long Bay, home to some 1,600 islands and islets that form a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars, an area known as one of the world's natural wonders.
Tourist arrivals to the World Heritage-listed site for the first quarter this year rose by 20 per cent year-on-year. More than one-fourth of 2.4 million arrivals were foreigners. Last year, the bay welcomed 6.6 million tourist arrivals, including 2.5 million foreigners.
In addition to day-time sight-seeing trips, tour operators in the bay offer overnight boat cruises that as CNN reported, provide visitors the chance to see "incredible sunsets". Many visitors to the bay are amazed at the landscape of limestone islands dotted in a sea of tranquil azure blue water.
Most tourists planning on visiting the bay find that a little homework before the trip is indispensable. Some simple research on-line will show that there are a wide range of tours to the bay, from budget-priced no frills tours to expensive cruises on luxurious vessels.
Following her friend's recommendation, Susanto picked the Emeraude to spend two nights in the bay.
"We feel quite safe with this tour operator," she says.
One of the Emeraude's captains, Nguyen Van Quan, has many years of experience out at sea. Quan has been working on the Emeraude as second captain for the past three years, and he now works with a French captain on what he regards as one of the bay's best boats.
"I can say that this boat is second to none in terms of safety equipment," says Quan while at the wheel.
"I have been the skipper of many different boats, some that were very modern, but none of them can compare to this one," he says, proudly pointing to the high-tech navigational and radio equipment that supports his work, including a GPS and radar system that features three-dimension images.
Quan also reveals that the Emeraude was originally built for long trips, like its 'predecessor' of the same name which travelled between France and Ha Long Bay in the early 19th century.
Though registered as an ocean-going vessel, the Emeraude was put into use on the bay because the owner saw higher profits here, he says.
"Luckily, as we have everything required for a safe ocean journey such as mariners' life buoys, flares, dry provisions and drinking water for a whole week, even if in the worst scenario occurs and the boat sinks, the passengers can surely be saved," says Quan.
But the experienced skipper also knows that last year's tragic accident on a tour boat was a result of human error.
"I had piloted many boats in far worse conditions than the situation the hapless vessel was in, but nothing ever went wrong," Quan says, emphasising that the boat sank during calm weather.
Nguyen Minh Bach, director of Quang Ninh Province's Transport Department, which is responsible for safety on tour boats in Ha Long Bay, confirms the cause of the tragedy.
"The boat sank due to the irresponsible behaviour of the captain and chief mechanic, who did not close a valve that led to the boat being flooded during the night," says Bach.
The accident, however, was a wake-up call for both authorities and boat owners, prompting them to gear up to ensure the highest level of safety for tourists.
A new rule has been in place since then with a certain "safety factor" required for every boat, particularly those operating at night on the bay.
More specifically, regular checks must be carried out to ensure bulkheads are watertight to ensure boats can not sink, says Bach.
The boats are ordered to be equipped with automatic fire and water alarm systems to alert boatmen as soon as there is an emergency.
The roles and duties of captain and chief mechanic are clearly defined, and there's always a crew member on duty around the clock.
Local authorities are also confident of enforcing the new safety rules, which are stipulated in the province's Decision 716 made last year.
"All tour boats have been part of the reforms aimed at improving safety," says Bach, adding that all boats now have safety devices such as Global Positioning Systems and salvage aids.
The Emeraude's purser Anne Sadang is full of pride to share that the vessel has applied all safety rules even before they were required by local authorities.
"For GPS, which is actually considered as a number one safety feature, we have used this for a long time, and we were the first tour boat in Ha Long to have it," Sadang says.
She also says the vessel has installed an alarm system that will go off once too much water starts coming into the boat.
It's not just the Emeraude that has these safety features but all tour boat operators on Ha Long Bay have ensured they meet the safety requirements, according to a representative of Ha Long tour boats' association, Doan Van Dung, who is also general director of the Indochina Junk JS Company.
Indochina Company, which owns 14 tour boats began installing GPS last year. The tour company now also runs regular drills for crew members, particularly in the lead-up to the storm season.
However, local authorities and tour operators are even more ambitious when it comes to ensuring safety.
As transport official Bach acknowledges: "Ensuring safety for tour boats is among the most crucial factors to getting tourists to come to Ha Long Bay."
That's why Quang Ninh is ensuring strict application of the safety rules with the aim of tightening them even further, says Bach.
In the long run, the province also aims to ensure the main part of all boats is made from steel or composite materials instead of wood, as is the case now.
Bach also says provincial authorities will classify the 482 tour boats permitted to operate in the bay into sub-classes to ensure more effective management of tour operators.
Dung says he also agrees that in order to attract more tourists to Ha Long and to keep abreast with trends in tourism, his company and many others will opt for high quality services.
"We hope to bring the first two four-star steel boats to the bay for use this year," says Dung. "They are among 14 vessels we plan to launch in the bay by 2016."
He also says he has plans to turn staff who work on the boats into more professional teams by working with consultants to map out new training schemes.
"The safety of the boat and professional skills of crew members are vital," he says.
After another splendid Ha Long Bay sunrise, the Emeraude sets off to take its passengers back to shore. Susanto and Smeto are among several passengers that chose to stay longer in the bay, with another day planned on nearby Cat Ba Island. There, another world of discovery is awaiting for the couple. —