It’s the experience no trip to Vietnam is complete without – the Unesco World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay.
As soon as we arrived in Hanoi we began the stressful (in my opinion) task of shopping around and booking the trip. There are countless travel agents in Hanoi, most of which rip off the names of a few well established agencies thanks to Vietnam’s lack of copyright law, all offering seemingly amazing cruises for a vast range of prices. We had read about so many different experiences – the price paid seemed to be fairly irrelevant, as you’ll be shunted off to a random boat with people who have booked from other agents.
So after getting nowhere with travel agents, we decided to book a trip with our hotel, as Tripadvisor reviews consistently said their Halong Bay cruises were good. Taking the mid range option at around £60 each, we looked forward to it, reasonably confident it was going to be good.
The next morning we were picked up and immediately something wasn’t right as all the other young backpackers in our hotel reception stayed put for another pickup. No matter, surely we’d pick up loads of people on the way? Well we did but they were exclusively middle age and older Singaporean families, who were friendly but none spoke very much English.
Hanoi is around 150km from Halong City so we began the 3 hour drive. Our guide introduced himself and thankfully he was a really good laugh. Hopefully this might not be so bad after all?!
After passing a bus which had ploughed into a restaurant at the side of the road (with the driving in Vietnam I’m surprised this was the only accident we had seen) and stopping at a horrible rest stop which was purpose built for rich tourists and provided almost nothing in the way of useful things like cheap food and refreshments, we eventually arrived at the pier.
We boarded a small boat which took us out to our ‘junk’ where we would be spending the next 2 days. It was surprisingly decent quality and did actually match up more or less to what we were promised. We had a double room with private bathroom and AC (only available at night) which was quite comfy considering we were on a boat.
What does a Ha Long Bay tour consist of?
I had naively thought that a Ha Long Bay cruise was mostly about relaxation and enjoying the view but all the companies have a rather rigid schedule of ‘activities’ which make it very much an organised tour rather than a cruise.
Immediately after being shown to our rooms, lunch was served. The food was actually very good throughout the trip, and we gorged on plenty of seafood.
We weren’t allowed much time to digest lunch as we were soon off to ‘Amazing Cave’. I wasn’t expecting much but this cave was genuinely amazing! It hadn’t been spoiled inside, all that had been added was a walkway and some lighting. It was enormous, with plenty of stalagmites and stalactites, and some interesting rocks. At the end we reached an opening which provided a wonderful view across Ha Long Bay.
Immediately after was kayaking, where we were let loose for an hour (or so we thought) to explore all the different coves. After a bad start where we crashed straight into some rocks and feared we’d smashed a hole in the kayak, we finally got going. It was a great feeling being out on the open water with such amazing surroundings. We made our way back early thinking we would be the first ones but we were actually the last – everyone else was on the small boat waiting to go back to our junk.
Finally we had some relaxation time, so after a shower we chilled for a bit on the top deck watching the sun go down. Now this is the time when a beer would be nice, but just our luck, the boat we were on was being inspected and so to pass the inspection the crew had decided to hide all the alcohol and not serve any until the inspectors had left. Of course being Vietnam the inspectors had to have a lavish seafood dinner laid on for them, and they continued eating and chatting until long after our dinner was finished.
By the time they finally left, we went in search of a beer to find a completely deserted boat (it was about 9pm). All the other guests had gone to bed and the staff were having their own party on the small boat attached to the junk. We went over to them to see if we could buy a beer and before we knew it we were being invited onto the boat and being plied with additional beer and loads of seafood. Staff from all different boats showed up and we got to meet them all. Only a few could speak English but it was really good fun (drinking with Vietnamese people usually is!) and certainly made up for the dull atmosphere on the main boat.
The next morning it was back to military discipline (I’m exaggerating slightly) as we were woken up at 7.30am and ordered to breakfast. This was the only bad meal, aside from some fruit there was omelettes (not great for me as I don’t like eggs) and some rock hard stale sliced bread.
Next we were off to an oyster farm. I cynically expected this to just be a glorified jewellery shop and while there was a large jewellery shop, it was interesting to learn how they farm the pearls. We got to see an oyster being implanted with a round stone – I never knew that pearls always have a rock at the centre, so implanting a perfectly round stone increases the chance of a perfectly round pearl. We also got to see an oyster opened up – the pearl inside looked perfect to me but staff said they weren’t the best quality.
Once back on the boat it was time for our ‘cooking lesson’. Now we weren’t expecting much from this but it still surprised us how bad it was. Literally the lesson consisted of rolling a spring roll. Not preparing the filling in any way shape or form, just spooning a lump into a rice paper case and rolling it.
The spring rolls formed part of our lunch, which was eaten as we cruised back towards Halong City. We were soon leaving the boat and on a bus back to Hanoi, where we eventually arrived at about 5pm.
So did we enjoy the tour? Yes, despite me mocking it slightly. The bay is genuinely beautiful (though it was very misty and so didn’t look as good as most photos) and worth seeing. We weren’t huge fans of the rigid schedule but it may suit some travellers. Our main regret was not booking the cheaper tour, purely because we may have met some more fun people, and as always, it all depends who you are with.
If you want a bit more comfort by all means book the more expensive tour, it would definitely be good for families, but for us the budget one would have been better.