By the time Michael Chai saw 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.
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 on 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 is 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 as US$80 in some travel agencies in Hanoi’s 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 are to 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,” 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 could not 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?”