IN the time of legends, a great dragon landed on the shores of northern Vietnam, lashing its tail until the coast was crushed into fragments, creating 3000 islands that now dot the waters of Halong (or Alighting Dragon) Bay.
The bay is one of the wonders of Asia; a place of such surpassing beauty and natural heritage value that it has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
It is also the venue for a battle between an army of developers, who see its tourism potential, and a new dragon whose tail is again lashing the landscape, creating mountains of dirt and rocks and shrouding nearby towns and villages in clouds of dust.
The locals do not know which is worst: the threat of having deluxe resorts squeeze out their little fishing villages and turn residents into caricature extras for tourists or watching the region being torn apart by the insatiable dragon of open-cut coal mining.
Mining is not new to the area. For decades, workers have used primitive methods which require women to trail behind mechanical cutters and use their hands to throw the coal into bamboo baskets and then carry it to the loaders.
In 1969, more than 40 per cent of the area was covered in forest; now it is no more than 15 per cent. Every year, 300,000 tons of slurry are dumped in its rivers to be
washed to the sea.
Vinacoal, the country’s State-owned mining monopoly, claims modern machinery is bolstering production and cleaning up the environment and it has no intention of curbing its activities, which are mainly aimed at export.
Indeed, Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter of anthracite -the most valuable coal, with a carbon content of 92 per cent.
Most of Vietnam’s reserves of this dense, black treasure come from the Halong Bay area and Vinacoal knows modern technological extraction methods will cost jobs, so it is investing in labour-intensive industries for the area such as cement works, textiles, breweries, hotels and tourism.
In the meantime, you can still escape from Hanoi for a weekend away on Halong Bay, where traditional junks chase schools of fish and tourist launches explore the outlandishly formed limestone islets and mysterious caves that dot the landscape.
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