A captain and a chief engineer who survived a deadly overnight boat ride have been placed in police custody as authorities begin a massive safety crackdown at the famous tourist site
Foreign tourists wait to board a tour boat at Bai Chay port in Ha Long Bay in the northeastern Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh on February 18.
Police confirmed on Sunday (February 20) that the owner of the Vietnamese tour boat that claimed a dozen lives on Ha Long Bay had overseen a similar accident two years ago.
Vu Tuan Hung, of the Quang Ninh provincial police, confirmed media reports that the boat owner, Truong Hai Company, was involved in another deadly accident in September 2009 while operating under a different name.
In the previous tragedy, a boat belonging to the company sank during heavy rain, killing three foreign tourists and a local guide. A subsequent investigation revealed that the vessel had breached several regulations, prompting authorities to pledge stricter enforcement of seaworthiness standards and registration regulations.
By February 20, the bodies of 10 victims killed in the latest accident had been returned to their respective diplomatic missions and families.
The dead, mostly foreign tourists in their 20s, drowned before dawn on Thursday (February 17) when their overnight boat sank into the waters of the famous tourist attraction.
The boat took on water so fast that sleeping passengers had almost no time to escape the torrent that filled their cabins, according to one survivor account.
The deceased included visitors from the US, Sweden, Russia, Britain, Japan, France and Switzerland. An Australian of Vietnamese origin and a tour guide from Vietnam were also listed among the dead.
Six crew members and nine passengers survived the ordeal, according to local officials.
Investigators suspect that a pipe in the engine's ocean water cooling system became disconnected some time during the evening, flooding the boat.
Authorities have pledged to prosecute all responsible parties and have launched a sweeping crackdown on safety standards.
Captain Nguyen Van Minh, 22, and Chief Engineer Do Van Thang, 27, were arrested on Saturday (February 19) evening, said Dang Duy Hau, deputy chairman of the Quang Ninh People's Committee, the provincial government.
On Monday, Minh and Thang were charged with violating safety regulations. Those found guilty of the offense could face up to 12 years in prison.
Deputy chairman Hau said that the most likely cause of the accident was water leakage caused by human error.
Investigators suspect that a pipe in the engine's ocean water cooling system became disconnected some time during the evening, flooding the hull with water.
Truong Hai has been ordered to suspend operations. Meanwhile, other tourism activities on the bay remain "normal," according to Hau.
He said authorities have begun inspecting the 100 or so boats licensed for night operations.
"We are going to examine the safety of all the tourist boats in Quang Ninh and Ha Long Bay after this accident," said Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Thanh Hung of Quang Ninh Province, which includes the bay.
1. Stuart McCormick (born in 1980, Britain)
2. Holly Michelle Pyle (1985, US)
3. Samantha Kay Taylor (1989, US)
4. Elena Voropinova (1962, Russia)
5. Anastasia Voropinova (1987, Russia)
6. Nakahara Jumpei (1990, Japan)
7. Laetitia Francoise Monique Noblecourt (1983, France)
8. Viola Birgitta Bankestad (1991, Sweden)
9. Anna Ellen Krok (1990, Sweden)
10. Baniamin Charly Gerber (1985, Switzerland)
11. Lam Ngoc Chau (1979, Australia)
12. Dinh Van Thang (1983, Vietnam)
"We are planning to forbid all night tours," said Hung, adding that a formal order would have to come from the local government.
A source familiar with marine practices in Ha Long Bay said that except for the operators of luxury tours, who have a strong focus on safety, "everyone else just gets away with doing whatever they want."
Officials from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism have announced that neither Nu Hoang (the tourism firm that arranged the excursion) nor the deceased guide were in possession of proper operating licenses at the time of the accident.
Travel agents said they feared the crackdown could affect business.
Nguyen Thanh Nga, of Minh Hai travel in Bai Chay, a tourist town on the bay, said the accident had created a "nightmare" for tour operators.
"We have a lot of worries," said Tran Van Tuan, director of Bien Dong travel in Bai Chay. "Of course, the authorities are going to tighten controls on tourist boats."
But an agent at Hanoi's Vietbrand Tourism, who gave her name only as Binh, said bookings were normal, with overnight tours resuming after a suspension following the accident.
Ha Long Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin about 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of the capital Hanoi, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Its 1,600 islands and islets form a spectacular seascape of mostly uninhabited limestone pillars made famous by the 1992 French movie "Indochine."
Vietnam is seeking to boost tourist arrivals which were far below some of its regional neighbors. Last year, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism logged five million visitors. Nearly half those visitors made their way to Ha Long Bay.