Halong Bay is one of the most spectacular, and therefore heavily ‘touristed’ attractions in Vietnam. Stretching along the Northeast Vietnamese border with China it comprises thousands of limestone karst outcroppings and more than 750 islands of all sizes that dot the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
Legend has it that the bay, ‘Descending Dragon’ in Vietnamese, was named after a family of dragons sent by the gods to help the Viet people repel Chinese invaders. Spitting emeralds and jade (the islands) into the waters of the bay they created a natural defensive area that helped protect what became Vietnam. After their success the dragons liked the area so much that they decided to stay. They weren’t alone in their high opinions of the landscape – the area was formally inscribed as an UNESCO World
Heritage site in 1999, which of course led to an even greater influx of local and foreign visitors.Getting to Halong Bay from Hanoi couldn’t be simpler – the hard part is making a choice between the hundreds of hotel tours and local operators. We were very happy with the tour we arranged through our hotel, and after chatting to other travelers who had been to Halong. It seems that we had one of the better trips. The vast majority of options center around either two days and one night or three days and two nights in Halong. We chose the longer option and were glad we did.
Our trip began with a mini-bus ride (of about 3 hours) from our Hanoi hotel (where we had left the bulk of our clothes and large backpacks) to Halong Bay town. Our local guide, Son, took great delight in explaining with a huge grin that we shouldn’t worry about the 3000+ Vietnamese who die each year in the crazy traffic here because “Viet women and men make many many babies!”. At the port we boarded our luxury junk (traditional Viet sailing vessel) with about ten other tourists. It was to be both our transport around the Bay and our lodging for the first night. One note here for future travelers – be advised that although the tour to Halong Bay tends to be very reasonably priced (including all meals), they try to make up for this by charging exorbitant prices for drinks on-board ($25+ for wine, $3+ for beers etc) – and for all drinks that you bring aboard or buy on outings and bring back you will be charged ‘corkage’ – ranging from $5 per bottle of wine or 5000 Dong per bottle of beer (this applies to all drinks except water – so bring plenty of that with you to avoid the outrageous prices).Our first day, which was the least enjoyable, was spent exploring “The Amazing Cave” – which although admittedly rather large was perhaps a little too developed (and therefore less amazing than it probably was ten years ago) – the best part of which was at the exit from which vantage we captured some of our best photos in Vietnam so far. Aboard the junk again we headed for a local swimming beach (on yet another island) – which was also a little less than we had expected in that the waters and beach were quite dirty – mainly oil from all the junks that moor there (Denise’s white bikini came out a dark shade of grey and we could write in the oil on our arms and legs). After the swim (and much-needed shower) the junk sailed to another picturesque spot and dropped anchor for the night (surrounded by about 7 other similar junks – we suspect that they are required to overnight in set spots). Dinner was very nice (mainly seafood) and it was super getting to know all our fellow travelers. We spent the rest of the evening playing cards with Phil and Kirsty (an Aussie couple from Cairns) and their brother Andy – welcome to the Blog guys!.
The second day was so much better – and the hazy weather had cleared into bright sunshine. After packing and a quick breakfast we all transferred from the junk to a smaller taxi boat (picking up some new travelers along the way – notably Lachy and Lisa, also from Aussie – welcome to the Blog guys!). Our next stop was the far side of Cat Ba island (the largest in the bay) where we each chose a bike and cycled about 7km inland passing some amazing scenery of local villages, rice paddies, mountains and forests.
A short 3km walk into the jungle brought us to an abandoned ‘ancient village’ – which we had a few minutes to explore, before trekking back and riding back to the boat. We then took a short ride to the best beach we had seen in Halong – pristine white powdery sand, clean water, and sheer mountain cliffs rising out of the bay. It was here that we had some swimming/sunbathing time and that our guides set up our beach BBQ lunch! Great prawns, squid, fish, rice, veggies…ahh what a rough life!After lunch we headed to yet another spot where we moored alongside some floating huts to pick up our sea kayaks. Denise and I discovered that despite our pretty much perfect match in almost everything we are not good paddling partners! Still it was great fun to explore the bay and the myriad islands by kayak – and we all ended up in a truly magical place – where a ring of islands form a solid circle with only one opening (a low cave) that leads into a totally enclosed body of water – something right out of a movie. Throwing caution to the winds we jumped out of the kayak and swam for a while – it was perfect. We wished we could have spent more time kayaking but all too soon it was back to the boat and off to ‘Monkey Island’ – which was less enchanting – four or five monkeys scampering around a beach where we killed time by collecting shells and skipping stones. Our final port of call for the day was Cat Ba (‘Women Island’) town where we caught a short bus ride to our hotel for the night – the Holiday View hotel.The hotel was quite upmarket by Halong Bay standards – very modern if lacking some warmth – and it was comfortable. We spent the night at a local pool bar with the others from our group and had a fun evening – made even more so by the fact that the Springboks won the World Cup!! Yay South Africa!! The next day was a traveling one – bus to the boat, slow boat ride back to Halong Bay town, bus over land-bridge to the nearest island for a final lunch and then a 3 hour bus ride back to Hanoi.
Halong Bay definitely has its plus points and is definitely worth the visit – but you do need to be prepared to deal with its less exciting and more banal side – bearing in mind that you are one of several million visitors every year.