Naturally, one of the highlight of a Hanoi trip would be the detour to the famous Halong Bay, recently nominated as one of the new 7 wonders of nature.
The trip was entirely arranged by the guesthouse (Hanoi Guesthouse) for me, so I had no idea what to expect really, other than that it was a 2D 1N trip where I would be staying overnight on the boat in the bay and maybe seeing some caves and swimming.
So I packed an overnight bag and woke up bright and early the next morning in anticipation of the trip. My new friends M & N from the guesthouse were supposed to join me, but unfortunately had to abort halfway during our trip up (that’s a story for another time!). There were some others in the HG lobby heading out as well, but apparently they were booked on different tours and were picked up by other buses.
It’s a loooong 3.5 hr bus ride to Halong Bay from Hanoi, so doing a day trip might not make much sense because after leaving Hanoi at 8am, you only reach the bay at about 1230pm after all the pick ups and rest stops. The day trips usually pick up in Hanoi at about 8am, and return by about 9pm or so – More than half that time is spent in the bus, so personally, a day trip isn’t worth it!
My tour company was called AST Travel, and also went by Cristina Cruise. A guy popped in about 8-ish and packed us onto the bus. First thing I noticed was all the caucasian faces on the bus… It’s a tourist thing after all and the bulk of tourists here are from America and Europe so I shouldn’t be that surprised… but what happened to all the tourists in the world man?
We spent the next hour picking up other guests from surrounding hotels. In total we end up with 17 people on the bus. I finally get Asian company when another 2 Asian guys get on, Mainland Chinese from the sounds of things, but they and 2 other girls would be doing the day trip and would be on another boat, leaving 13 who would be on our boat. Most of the group are couples, but there are 3 solo travellers – 2 Aussie girls and me, and a larger group of 4 guys.
Our guide was the chirpy chap who picked us up – Quan was his name but he asked us to call him Happy and he called us the Happy Group. Along the way, he gave us some history and background on Halong Bay and Vietnam in general. Pretty informative and he speaks good english as well.
About 10am we stop for a break at a rest stop in Hai Duong, where all the buses headed to Halong Bay stop. In addition to a large toilet, there’s food and snacks and souvenirs, so you can stock up there if you haven’t already done so before. We would stop here again on the leg back.
It’s about 1230pm and drizzling slightly when we finally reach Bai Chay port in Halong Bay. It’s packed full of tourists! Our guide hands us each a ticket (It’s only 60,000 vnd! Am wondering if it really only costs this much to visit Halong Bay on your own, or if it would even be possible to see Halong Bay on your own without a pre-arranged boat trip?) to get pass the barrier.
Our boat is parked a bit further out than the others, so we’re loaded into a smaller boat first. There isn’t much of an actual port – you basically climb down a bunch of stairs and hop on the boat, so i definitely don’t recommend bringing large luggage! I just had an overnight pack so that made it more convenient to hop on and off the boats.
We waited awhile as other boats left the port – apparently our captain was a bit delayed, but he finally jumped on and we were off! Well off a short distance to the actual boat, which looked pretty nice and spacious. The smaller boat was tied up to the big one and is brought along on our trip. After clambering onto the boat, we headed up to the main dining area on the main deck and got a lovely cold towel and an orange juice welcome drink and we were really on our way then… yay!
Our boat was called Cristina Cruise, and while it has the masts and I assume the junkish sails you see in all the Halong Bay press pix, we never see them up during our trip!
Up in the main dining area, Happy assigns keys and i’m with J, one of the Aussie girls i struck up a conversation with earlier that day. The other solo girl M gets a room all to herself (usually if you want to guarantee your own room, you need to pay a Single Surcharge)
Here’s our room #6.
We’re at the back of the boat on the lower deck, and 2 lucky couples got the rooms on the main deck – I would have loved those as it meant I could open the windows without people walking by them. But the rooms overall are pretty spacious and nice – there is air-conditioning, but only for the night when the boat stops so we don’t waste power. Also love that the toilet was decent – I’ve been on dive boats with really grotty toilets, or those that only flush when the boat moves… ugh.
The main deck is where the dining room and main hang out area is, and there’s a little area with some bistro like tables and chairs outside where the smokers head to after dinner. Oddly enough, the bow of our boat doesn’t have any railings, so while it means you can swing your legs off the side quite happily, if also means you might pitch off the boat if you trip down the stairs!
My favourite area is the upper deck, where the sun chairs are lined up! You get a pretty panoramic view of the bay from up here, and it’s where I spent most of the sailing time at… I’m surprised the others didn’t come up here as much! The chairs are comfy enough, though the cushions tended to retain water so you got rather damp if you sat on them after a drizzle.
There isn’t a standard junk though – I had a look at all the boats that passed by, and they all differ somewhat in terms of layout and size, so while what I’m describing here I think falls in the mid range – there are smaller and more daytripish boats, and I’ve seen some downright fancy looking ones too!
Halong bay is pretty impressive – filled with close to 2,000 of the limestone karst rock structures in various shapes and sizes and clear blue waters. Legend goes that long ago when Vietnam was under siege, the heavens sent down a mystical dragon which spat out a whole bunch of pearls that changed into these rocks, which crushed the invaders boats. This dragon that came down from heaven is also what Ha (Descending) long (dragon) Bay is named after as it liked the bay so much that it never left.
Practically everyone starts their journey into Halong Bay at Bai Chay Tourist Harbour, and most of the tours are timed similarly so at the onset, which explains the hordes of tourists we saw when we reached, and it feels a little like a whole fleet is descending upon the bay to conquer some foreign land in the distance (or fight the invaders, if you like the myth above).
There are a lot of boats in Halong Bay. When we were stopped in the bay at night, I did a quick count – there were about 40 boats in the bay, and if they had an average of 20 people per boat, you’re looking at 700-800 people in one part of the bay on any single night!
Oddly enough, whether cruising or stopped, it’s surprisingly quiet in the bay, and very peaceful just staring out at the water and taking in the islands all around. You do get the odd little putt-putting of the smaller motor boats, but it’s definitely a nice break from the constant honking that is Hanoi’s soundscape.
It was a pretty clear day when I was there, so the view was quite spectacular, though I have to say the mistiness in the distance added to the almost painting like feel of the view.
The bay is also filled with lots of hawks, which circled the skies and glided in flocks at times, occcasionally dropping to the water to grab a fish. Definitely very picturesque.
The 2D1N Tour – Day 1
We had lunch after settling into our rooms, in a nice long table setting so we got to chit chat with each other as well. While I initially saw all the faces as Caucasian, they turned out to be a little more diverse- 4 young Swedish chaps who mostly kept to themselves, another Swedish couple whom they met by chance (I can never pinpoint the Scandinavian language – I keep mistaking it for some sort of Eastern European dialect), there was a Spanish couple, an Irish guy and his Lithuanian girlfriend, the 2 aussie solo girls and me.
The meals on board overall were quite satisfying – the food was cooked homestyle, and there was quite a lot of it! You need to let them know beforehand if you’re vegetarian or don’t eat seafood though so they can prepare… Drinks were not included in our menu, but put on tab and settled after breakfast the next day.
Also, you’ll probably never have reason to go hungry with these boat ladies around. However, the boat may not allow you to buy from them, especially if they have their own snack and drinks bar on board.
We visited the Surprising Cave, or Hang Sung Sot. Is the cave as Surprising as its name implies? Well SPOILER ALERT for anyone headed there, the name is more for the surprise the French had when they first discovered the place back in the day. Or perhaps the surprise is that the cave is as big as it is – you wouldn’t imagine that, somehow, these large caverns in the rocks when you’re cruising the bay.
But be prepared for a workout! It’s a steep climb up narrow stairs to the mouth of the cave, and then you have to climb down again into the cave. One of the girls on my trip was wearing a short dress… bad idea! Personally, I didn’t think the cave itself was that remarkable, but our guide Happy did a pretty good job of keeping things interesting by giving us some history and culture tips, as well as pointing out the usual rock structures that look like other things.
One thing i didn’t love is that all the tours seemed to be timed similarly, so all the tourists arrived and left the cave about the same time. Also, they weren’t the strictest about walking off the platforms or touching the rocks, and there was graffiti too, so I hope the beauty of the cave will last for future generations, especially since it’s now a new 7 wonder of nature, there are bound to be even more people flocking there!
After the cave visit, we took our little boat to the floating village nearby where we got to kayak and explore the surrounding area. J and I took a kayak together and spent our time paddling and drifting around. The waters are so calm so kayaking isn’t too tiring, but you’ll still get pretty wet from all that paddling. Not so many pix as I didn’t carry my camera/phone with me, just in case I tipped over!
Thought they would do a kayak tour, but instead we were left to explore on our own… good and bad i suppose, but I thought a tour through some caves via kayak might have been fun!
The sun was setting by the time we were done (early, about 530pm because it was winter)
They collected us back to the boat and immediately we all dashed upstairs, and spent some enjoyable time leaping off the upper deck into the clear water below. It looks pretty damn high from up there! I manage it once, but decide to opt for the main and lower decks for subsequent jumps, though I still get water up my nose each time… The water is cold to me, but warm to J who’s used to colder water, and soon we’re the only ones left as it gets even darker, so we head in to get a nice hot shower (yay for hot water!) before going up to dinner.
Dinner was quite good, and after that, some of the group decides to try their hand fishing though they mostly come up empty, while the rest of us head up on deck to enjoy the moonlight, peace and chitchat.
But the Vietnamese crew soon coaxes us down and convinces us to imbibe in some traditional rice wine (with tree bark in it!) and Vietnamese Vodka, and they break out the Karaoke and the techno music. Man, they were a lot more happening than we were, as all of us slowly made our escapes back to our cabins! J and I stay up and chitchat in our cabin till the music dies down (man what a ruckus our boat must have been!) before falling asleep.
The 2D1N Tour – Day 2
The next day, J and I wake up to try and catch the sunrise. Now sunrise isn’t like what you imagine, seeing a fiery ball of fire rise in the sky. With all the rocks around and the mist, it’s very much more like the bay just getting brighter and brighter blue! So really… don’t bother waking up (at 5am!) and get some sleep!
The rest of us wake up for breakfast, and settle the tabs and all as the boat heads to Cat Ba island to drop off the people who were doing the 3D2N tour. We hang around in the port and I lounge up on deck with J while Happy takes the Swedish boys and the Irish-Lithuanian couple to Cat Ba island. In return, we pick up 3 girls who had been on Cat Ba island and a new guide, before making our way back to Bai Chay wharf. It takes about 45 minutes, and sadly, by noon, we’re back on dry land.
Lunch is catered at Thang Long restaurant just across the road from the harbour gateway, again it’s where all the tourists are shuttled after their boat rides. The food here is so-so, but what was crazy was that huge jar with dead snakes and a bird pickled in the alcohol, which is supposed to make one helluva drink. YECH.
After lunch at about 1pm, we get back on our bus, which unfortunately seems less comfy then the bus on the way up. There are also other people, returning from another trip by the same company on it as well so it was not as spacious either, and I get stuck right at the back, which means 3 hours of bouncing around because of the F1-esque driving… We stop at the same rest stop as before for a short breather.
The drop-off happens in reverse, and I’m back at Hanoi Guesthouse at about 430pm or so, with about 2 hours before my train to Hue! But that’s another story for another post, this one is long enough as it is…
Overall the trip was quite good! I paid US$75 for a 2D1N trip on a fairly nice boat, which makes for a mid-range kinda trip. Halong Bay is beautiful, but I thought there could have been more exploration of the bay rather than leaving us on our own after the cave tour. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of Halong Bay, a definite relief after that blast of Hanoi chaos on my first day.
There are pricier tours, about double the cost where the rooms are really fancy – like jacuzzi and champagne and private decks type of fancy. Then there are the cheaper ones or the day trips where the boats are not as fancy and you usually experience some overcrowding; Not the most reassuring, especially in the wake of the sinking which killed 12 tourists earlier in the year.
Some research has also revealed that perhaps it might be more worthwhile to head to the lesser visited neighbour Bai Tu Long Bay if you really want to avoid the tourists, because Halong Bay is fulllllllll of them. If I had more time, I would have liked to check out Cat Ba island, perhaps do the bungalow stay and relax there some.
Travelfish has a pretty good feature where they try the various types of Halong tours, and even suggests how you can arrange your own tours. I’m probably lucky because the guesthouse booked me in a decent tour, but you never really know if you’re going to end up with a reliable agency… if you’ve read the travel forums, there are just so many stories of people having terrible experiences.
But just relax, don’t skimp too much, and just enjoy. Halong Bay is a lovely, lovely place. I pulled this card from my Anywhere Travel Guide on the way back:
And I think sitting on the top deck of a junk, with nothing on your mind but breakfast as you take in the spectacular views of Halong Bay would definitely be soothing for any soul.