Twelve people, most of them foreign tourists, died Thursday when their tour boat suddenly sank while they slept in Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s top tourist destinations, officials said.
A survivor recounted a frantic attempt to escape from below deck as the vessel went down abruptly before dawn in calm weather in the picturesque bay, renowned for its many limestone towers.
“Oh my God… The ship is sinking. We need to get off!” George Fosmire, a 23-year-old American, remembered his girlfriend warning after the listing ship tipped her out of bed in their cabin.
Fosmire, his voice breaking, said he feared his girlfriend and another young woman in their cabin did not escape the rushing waters.
“The whole thing took between 30 seconds and a minute,” said Fosmire, who managed to escape through a window.
“I had to put my face to the ceiling to suck any air,” he recalled after he and other survivors were rescued by other boats in the area.
The 12 dead included 10 foreigners and two Vietnamese, said Vu Van Thin, a local government official in Quang Ninh province.
Immigration police in the province said the foreign victims were believed to comprise two Americans, two Russians, two Swedes, and one each from Britain, Japan, France and Switzerland.
Sweden confirmed that two of its citizens — both women in their early 20s — had died in the tragedy.
France’s embassy in Hanoi confirmed that French people were “involved” in the incident, but their fate was not yet clear.
Thin said the Vietnamese victims included a tourist and an interpreter for the overseas visitors.
Nine tourists and six crew survived the accident, he said.
Many Halong Bay tour boats have dining facilities and cabins for tourists to spend the night on the waters.
“According to our initial information part of the boat suddenly broke,” but bad weather was not to blame, Thin told AFP.
Halong Bay, located in the Gulf of Tonkin about 160 kilometres (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”.
It is not the first time disaster has struck at the popular tourist attraction.
In September 2009 three foreign tourists — two from Britain and one from France — died along with their local guide when their vessel overturned during heavy rain on the bay.
Official data show that in the first 10 months of last year more than 2.3 million tourists visited Halong Bay, evenly split between local visitors and foreigners, with almost 200,000 boat trips during the period.