By the time Michael Chai spotted the other boat bearing down on his craft, it was too late to shout a warning to the captain, and the vessels collided. Within a few seconds, he and 17 other Taiwanese tourists were plunged into Vietnam’s Halong Bay, without life jackets, fighting to survive.
Five people in the party of tourists drowned in Wednesday’s accident, trapped under the hull of their capsized boat, raising fresh questions over safety standards in one of Vietnam’s most visited attractions.
“I love this country, but I am worried about safety,” Chai said in a telephone interview Friday from Halong Bay. “The government should be responsible for this.”
Each day, up to 10,000 tourists from around the world sail Halong Bay, a UNESCO heritage site three hours east of the capital, Hanoi. For many, it’s the highlight of their trip to this scenic Southeast Asian country. But at least four deadly accidents over the last 10 years and many more alarming safety incidents recounted on travelers’ blogs have led to allegations that tour companies are cutting corners.
The hundreds of boats that sail the bay are of varying quality, from luxury wooden junks to much more basic vessels.
At the bottom end of the market, two-day tours can be booked for as little $80 in some travel agencies in Hanoi’s tourist-clogged Old Quarter.
The Taiwanese tourists had booked their cruise with one of the more expensive and well-regarded companies, Halong Paradise Cruises.
The company declined to comment for this article, saying it was too busy looking after the families of the victims.
Authorities say they are investigating Wednesday’s incident and will charge the boat’s captain.
Last year, 12 people from nine nations died when their boat sank in Halong Bay early in the morning as those on board slept. The captain of the boat was sentenced to 10 years in jail, the chief engineer to eight. An investigation into the accident found that crew had forgotten to close a valve that allowed the vessel to take on water after a pipe in the engine’s cooling system broke.
In Wednesday’s accident, Chai said the holidaymakers were returning to their cruise boat on a smaller, “shuttle” vessel after touring a cave in the bay. The tour guide was joking with them and there was no sign of danger when the shuttle craft was struck by a larger tourist boat operated by another company.
“I was the first person to see the boat coming, but it was too late, it was right next to me already,” Chai said. “The boat sank in less than five seconds.”
Chai said that people were trying to save themselves in the water, but that one of the strongest swimmers in the group – a former Taiwanese navy officer – had been knocked unconscious in the accident and couldn’t help.
Chai said there were no life jackets on the shuttle boat.
“There should have been better safety procedures. On the big boat and our boat, there were no medical or emergency supplies,” he said. “How can you run a company like this?”
Luong Dinh Long, a tour operator in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, said he feared the accident would drive away tourists.
Long said that after last year’s deadly accident, the authorities tightened safety measures that included a requirement that new boats be made of metal, not wood.
“I’m surprised that this accident happened to a luxury cruise company,” he said. “These accidents have a big impact on the Vietnamese tourist industry.”
Last year, some 6 million tourists visited Vietnam, 360,000 of them from Taiwan. Tourism is a vital industry in the developing country, providing foreign currency and jobs to many thousands. In Taiwan, the government issued a notice to tour agents to try and ensure the safety of the boats on the packages they sell. The impact of the accident in Taiwan was felt harder because three Taiwanese tourists also died Wednesday in a boating accident in the Philippines.
Canadian tourist Deb Haugh said she was planning to visit Halong Bay from Hanoi, but wouldn’t stay the night.
“We will go on a day trip, wear our life jackets and hope for the best,” she said.
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