An overnight boat packed with sleeping tourists, including Australians, has sunk in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, killing 12 people – most of them foreign tourists, officials say.
Twelve bodies have been found, including those of tourists from Australia, the US and Britain, said Ngo Van Hung, director of Ha Long Bay’s management board.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not confirmed the death of an Australian.
DFAT said it was aware of the reports.
“Australian government officials in Hanoi are keeping in close contact with their Vietnamese counterparts to confirm as a matter of priority whether any Australians were involved,” a DFAT spokesperson told AAP.
Nine foreign tourists and six locals were rescued from the chilly water by other tour boats anchored nearby.
They were rushed to a hospital as teams scoured the area for more survivors.
Those rescued reported seeing a plank of the wooden ship ripping away, followed by gushing water inundating the boat and quickly pulling it down about 5am on Thursday (0900 AEDT) near Titov island, said Vu Van Thin, chief administrator of Quang Ninh province.
“Crew members tried to stop the water from coming in and alerted the tourists who were sleeping, but the water came in and the boat sank quickly,” he said.
“All of the 12 people who died were in the cabins.”
There were 27 people on the boat, including six crew members, Thin said. It was anchored alongside dozens of other cruise boats, and weather conditions were calm at the time of the incident.
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.
Thin said the 12 dead included 10 foreigners and two Vietnamese, Other officials said the dead comprised 11 foreigners and one Vietnamese guide.
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.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that one Japanese was among the dead.
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.
All of the dead had been sent to Bai Chay Hospital for identification. Giang Quoc Duy, deputy director of the hospital, said three foreign tourists, including men from the US and France and a woman from Switzerland, were admitted to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
“They were in a panic,” Duy said. “They were given first aid treatment and have already returned to their hotels.”
Online newspaper Dan Tri quoted Do Thong, provincial vice governor, as saying the tourists on board were from 11 countries, including the US, Britain, France, Russia, Denmark and Sweden.
Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourism attractions, located near the Chinese border in the Gulf of Tonkin about three hours east of the capital, Hanoi.
Many visitors opt to stay overnight on boats with sleeping cabins to cruise the picturesque bay, a world heritage site dotted with limestone formations.
DFAT says concerned relatives call the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre on 1300 555 135.