When we were planning our trip around Vietnam, I was probably looking forward to visiting Ha Long Bay the most. Over 3000 islands poke out of the water as far as the eye can see, and it makes for a stunning sight. You sometimes have to look past a lot of boats carrying tourists, but the lasting memory from Ha Long Bay is the spectacular setting in every direction.
Getting to Ha Long Bay:
It’s possible to make your own way to the nearby Halong City, and then to Ha Long Bay but most people choose to book a tour from Hanoi instead. This generally includes transfer from Hanoi, and overnight accommodation depending on the tour. Halong City is 3 1/2 hours from the capital, and buses are frequent. From experience, a tour from Hanoi takes you from your hotel to boat, and is much more convenient.
Given that Ha Long Bay is – well – a bay, boat cruises will offer overnight accommodation and a selection of activities (plenty of 2 and 3 night packages were available too). For around $100, you will find a good quality boat with food and itinerary. Saying that, we saw plenty of offers in Hanoi for $30-50 tours, but I can’t vouch for their quality. The guidebooks suggest that it’s worth paying $80 or more to avoid a bad experience, and I’d second that.
We booked our tour through the May De Ville Backpackers Hostel, Hanoi (see my blog on Hanoi). If you’re staying at May De Ville, the tour company they use gave us a great experience. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the company, but most cruises offer very similar activities and visit the same places – the attraction is the scenery outside of the boat.
What to Do:
Our boat cruise was very well furnished after we were upgraded to a fancier boat because there were only 9 passengers. We were the youngest there and the only backpackers. That wasn’t a problem, but make sure you do your research before booking if you want a tour with people of similar age/budget.
After boarding our boat, we were given welcome drinks and food as we made our way into the bay. The journey takes about an hour, which we spent on the top deck with beers. Then, we made our way to the Sung Sot Cave. This is one of the biggest caves in Ha Long Bay and the view from the entrance is impressive (above). Inside, the cave is lit up to show off various rock formations that apparently look like dragons, birds, lions, and even Queen Victoria. While our tour guide was convinced that these animal-like rocks were visible, it just looked like a big cave to us.
We then went to a ‘quiet’ beach for a swim. It wasn’t quiet. Saying that, it was nice to have a swim to cool down, and you soon forget about the crowds when you look up from the water to see hundred of Ha Long Bay’s karst islands.
In the evening, we were given a Vietnamese-style spring roll demonstration, before retiring to the top deck for cocktails and the most incredible sunset. We could see other boats offering fishing using bright lights to attract the fish.
The next day, we woke early for breakfast and were given one of the best morning views to wake up. Sadly, this was soon interrupted by a lady on a small boat selling drinks and snacks to your cabin window using a fishing net.
We left the boat to kayak in a circular enclosed lagoon. Again, this was slightly crowded, but (at the risk of sounding repetitive) the scenery is the appeal here.
I’ve mentioned the crowds, and it’s worth saying that tours are limited to a specific section of the bay so they’re unavoidable. This is a government law to reduce pollution in the bay as it has become a tourist hot-spot. They even evicted local communities who lived and worked on floating villages, which seems a real shame. As much as I would have loved to see more of the bay and be surrounded by less tourists, these people shouldn’t have been made to leave their way of life.
Maybe we just went at the wrong time of year (early July), or maybe I’m being too picky. After all, I spent two incredible days in the middle of some stunning scenery. I shouldn’t complain that others want to see that too. I’ll remember the views and the sunset far longer than a few other boats also enjoying Ha Long Bay.
Most tours will offer their own food. For us, we were treated to some seriously nice, fresh seafood. I was never a fan of seafood, but the food I had on the boat was some of the best of the whole trip. If you don’t like seafood, there’s always the local boat vending machines.
For a more quiet experience, maybe a trip to a neighbouring bay (guide books recommend Cat Ba Island) would be better. Saying that, don’t let crowds put you off – Ha Long Bay is an essential place to visit in Vietnam. There’s nowhere else quite as beautiful.
After Ha Long Bay, we were taken back to Hanoi. Most people will go South from Hanoi, but we decided to go West to Laos. We’d read up on the country and spoken to other backpackers who’d been, and decided to spend a few days in a country we knew very little about. It turned out to be the best part of the trip. Check out my blog on Laos here.
Our time in Ha Long Bay features in my ‘Top 5’ Highlights blog, where I look at the best places we visited, stayed, ate and drank over the seven incredible weeks we spent exploring South East Asia. Take a look here.