Ha Long Bay (also sometimes spelled Halong Bay) is one of those places you’ve probably seen pictures of, even if you didn’t know it. It’s quintessential Vietnam. With thousands of limestone islands dotting the waters, floating villages scattered throughout, and dozens of three-level boats carrying tourists, it’s been photographed a million times. Ha Long Bay has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a must see if you are in northern Vietnam.
Ha Long Bay means “descending dragon bay” in Vietnamese. According to legend, the gods sent dragons down to protect the area from invaders. The dragons spit out jewels and jade, which turned into islands, blocking the invaders’ access to the bay.
Although you can get to some of the islands on your own, the most popular way to see the area is on an organized one, two, or three day tour. The bay is located about four hours from Hanoi, where most people start, so be sure to factor in travel time to your plans (a one day tour really only means a few hours on the water and a lot of hours on a bus). As in all tourist ventures, there are a range of price points from dirt cheap to quite expensive. I was trying to book a vegetarian cruise but did not get an answer from them in time, leaving me to book a last minute trip with Imperial Cruises through my hostel. I opted for the three-day trip to maximize my time in the area. This tour fell into the mid-to-higher range price at $220 (including a $40 single supplement), but was the cheaper of the options provided by this particular company.
The cruise included all meals (but not drinks, even water), one night on the boat, one night in a beach bungalow, two kayaking sessions, and a brief “cooking” class (in quotes because we made spring rolls, which isn’t really cooking, just putting things in some rice paper and rolling it up).
On the morning of the tour I got picked up from my hostel at 8 am. After about a half hour of collecting other guests from around town we got underway. About halfway through the four hour drive we stopped for a break at a handicraft shop featuring artists hard at work on beautiful embroidery pieces. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, everything in this shop – from the artwork to the snacks – was insanely overpriced. After our requisite break was over, we hopped back on the bus for the last two hours to Ha Long Bay.
We arrived around 12:15 and were sent into what was essentially a holding area of chaos. The place was packed with several busloads of people just arriving for their tours, as well as dozens of people waiting to be shuttled back to Hanoi. I have no idea how the tour guides keep track of who needs to go where, but after ten minutes or so a guide came over to the area where I was sitting and ushered several of us to a small transfer boat which would ferry us into deeper water where we could board our junk (that’s the name of the type of boat used, not an assessment of its seaworthiness).
The boat was actually nicer than I expected. There were three levels, including a dining room and sun deck. We were checked into our rooms (each with its own bathroom) before lunch was served. Not having successfully booked the vegetarian cruise, I was a bit concerned about the food situation. All the tours advertise their seafood buffets, which is obviously not what I was after. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried (at least not yet). The food on this boat was first rate. Each meal was somewhere around five courses and the staff was very accommodating to dietary requests. They brought me vegan versions of what they could and delicious alternatives for everything else. Plus the plates were adorned with vegetables cut into elaborate flower shapes, so bonus points for artistry.
After lunch and a bit of time to settle in and relax we headed out for our first kayaking experience of the trip. We jumped back into our little shuttle boat to take us to a floating house with kayaks tied up out front. With no explanation, verification of swimming ability, or questions about our kayaking experience we were given paddles and sent on our way. What could possibly go wrong in a maze of islands surrounded by a bunch of boats that all look the same?
The bay is beautiful and seeing it from the water level was a great experience. Unfortunately, however, it’s also filled with trash. I spent my 45 minutes of kayaking collecting as many plastic bottles, noodle wrappers, and chunks of styrofoam as I could. I’m not quite sure the crew knew what to make of me when I started handing them piles of junk to bag up upon my return.
Litter is one of my biggest travel pet peeves. There is just no excuse for it. No matter how sub-par a country’s infrastructure is, the historical challenges they may have faced, or the limits of their education system, surely we can all see that places are less nice when they are filled with trash. No one is like, “oh, this bay is so beautiful but I just wish there were like three more plastic bottles in this photo to really capture its essence.” And I’m not even the one who has to live amongst it…why would you do that to yourself? Ugh. Rant over. For now.
Anyway, after kayaking, we all spent some time swimming in the water around the boat. The water itself was quite warm, although still refreshing. Once everyone was done swimming, the boat set off again to get us into position to watch the sun set over the islands as we began to settle in for the night.
After dinner, we suffered through a half hour of the most awkward attempt at karaoke night ever. This had the potential to be fun, no doubt, except that none of us wanted to sing. The crew kept switching songs in the hope of finding one we liked, but to no avail. I mean, we liked the songs, we just didn’t want to publicly belt them out in front of a room full of strangers. We were all way too sober for that.
The next morning we headed out to see Surprising Cave, quite popular among the tour groups, judging by the huge crowds of people waiting to get in. The place was packed and, although nice enough, it wasn’t the highlight of the trip. Our guide tried to tell us a bit about the cave and its features, but there was just too much noise to hear or understand most of his explanations.
Once we returned back to our boat, those of us who were transferring to the bungalows were checked out of our rooms and picked up by another boat. The trip from our pick-up point to the resort was about an hour and a half, taking us much further into the bay than we had been so far. The number of islands increased and the environment felt very far from civilization. Along the way, we passed a floating village, a collection of very basic huts on floating platforms. Each of these belongs to fisherman in the area and include a built-out grid of nets (although I don’t know the details of how these are used). I tried to pretend they weren’t fisherman and just people who really liked living in nature… Also, many of these homes had dogs, which I can only assume are for protection or to warn of anyone getting too close to the house. The dogs seemed to be in reasonable health, but they don’t have anywhere to run. They only have the (very tiny, one room) house and the walkways between the fishing nets, which is very sad.
Finally, we arrived at Nam Cat Resort, where we would be spending our second night. The whole resort was on a small strip of beach carved into one of the islands. Lunch was ready when we arrived, but unfortunately there was much less awareness of veganism here than on the boat. Lunch was fine, as I ended up eating rice and tofu, but dinner and breakfast were a bit more challenging.
After lunch, we spent a couple of hours cooling off in the water and relaxing. Once the oppressive heat of the day began to dissipate, several of us set out to kayak around the island. The islands here are very rugged. They rise straight out of the water with very few places to come ashore. There was only one other spot on this island, just around the corner from where our resort was located, where a very small patch of sand offered a place to beach your kayak and have a picnic or relax. There are no trails and no way to reach the interior of (most of) these islands. We did, however, find an amazing little inlet on the back side of the island. There was a small break in the rocks but, once you went through, it opened into this isolated bit of amazingness, completely surrounded by jungle.
The morning of day three we loaded back into the transfer boat to take us the hour and a half back to the junks for our final few hours. The whole transfer process is very confusing because the boat picks up and drops off passengers from multiple junks, but, quite counterintuitively, you don’t always end up on the same junk you started with. I was in a group that ended up getting moved onto a higher end junk than the one we started with, which seemed nice at first. Unfortunately, though, my request for vegan food was not conveyed to this new boat and they had almost nothing for me to eat (besides white bread and fruit).
After lunch and our “cooking” class, we were back to shore and transferred once again to the chaotic holding area. There seemed to be even less organization for this return journey, but the good news is that pretty much all of the buses are going to the same place. We didn’t understand the system that was happening and finally asked one of the drivers how we knew which bus we were supposed to be on. His response, “take this one” as he grabbed our bags from us. “But do you know where we’re going?” I asked. “We’ll figure it out later.” Okay then.
So now having spent three days here, was Ha Long Bay worth it? Absolutely yes. Definitely see it by boat, but also try to check out Cat Ba Island. That’s where I thought we were going on our second night (although it’s not where we ended up) and is the one thing I wish I’d had time to add on. The bay is polluted, which is just the sad reality of a lot of beautiful places, but if you can see past that, the scenery is spectacular.