When planning Vietnam, I heard Halong Bay was a must-see. After all, it is a UNESCO World Heritage and New Seven Wonders of the World site. So I did my research (searching Google Images) to see if it was worthy of my time and in an instant I knew I needed to see to go.
I was still a little apprehensive though. How great can it be? I heard there was trash, it was busy with tourists, boat conditions varied, and it was a long ride to get to.
End result – blown away.
First things first – the boat you go on and the amount of time you’re there will significantly impact your experience.
I booked the Halong Legacy Cruise through Lily’s Travel Agency (I do not receive any compensation for this review). We researched majority of the Travel Agents in Hanoi, everyone recommended her, and I would do the same. As for booking a boat, there are a lot of different options. Our cruise did their best to stay away from the other boats, so we had a more exclusive experience in Halong Bay.
Lastly, understanding most travelers are compressed for time, if you can, go for 3 days/2 nights. I promise, you will not regret it. The cruises run like clockwork, with the main boat returning to shore each day to pick up new cruisers. While the main boat returns to shore, those who elected to stay for 3 days take a separate (smaller) boat and do a more exclusive excursion (details below).
The itineraries are fairly standard across cruises (at least it seems).
Our driver picked us up from the hotel at 7:15am and was promptly on time (as we were the first). From our hotel we drove around Hanoi, picking up other guests and the guide, until about 9am, when we set off to Halong Bay. The distance to the Bay isn’t far, about 170km, but Vietnam’s infrastructure make the trip about 4 hours long. Without going into too much trip details, there’s a decent tourist trap rest stop half-way. All the cruises stop here, you can use the restroom, buy a snack or drink, or if you’re interested, a 14-foot marble horse (inside joke unless you’ve been!). When we arrived in Halong Bay, we waited about ten minutes and then ferry boat was there. Some of the larger cruise lines have waiting lounges (can’t tell you what these offer), but it wasn’t necessary for us, as the timing was perfect.
Aboard the boat you meet the crew, have a “welcome drink”, put your stuff away, then enjoy lunch. The boat food is of varying quality. I would say 50% was good, 40% was great, and 10% was eh. They do make accommodations for dietary restrictions, but Vietnam isn’t exactly food friendly if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or don’t eat seafood so be warned.
When the boat departs the harbor, you cruise to your first destination is Hang Sung Sot cave, an enormous cave in the side of a rock face. It’s interesting to see the sheer size and learn about the formation of the cave and the Bay. Every rock here has some caves and crevices so you’ll be wondering how if you don’t pay attention!
From the cave you’ll go straight to kayaking, which should last around an hour. If you’re doing the one night trip, this will be your only kayaking time. If you’re doing two nights, don’t worry if you don’t see much, tomorrow will be awesome.
Depending on when kayaking is complete, you may or may not have time to swim. Our boat didn’t have time, but once again, if you’re doing the two night trip, you’ll have time tomorrow.
Evenings on the boat are primarily free time. Before dinner there’s a spring roll demonstration on the top deck. Dinner is served between 7:30-8:30. As with all meals, it’s multi-course (about 6 courses). After dinner activities, karaoke and squid fishing, are optional. You may chose to head to bed early, as the next day’s activities commence at 7am.
Here’s where the 2/night cruisers separate from the 1/night (if you’re doing a one night, skip to Day 3). A small(er) junk boat arrives to the large boat around 7-7:30am and breakfast is served onboard, where you’ll meet your new guide and crew. The boat (slowly) makes its way further into Halong Bay to Bai Tu Long Bay. The main cabin serves as a dinning room, while the top deck is great for relaxing and sunbathing. Throughout the day you’ll have stretches of an hour or two to relax, read, sleep, and enjoy the scenery. If you’re an avid reader, bring a book.
The first stop is kayaking, which starts in a simple bay, but turns into an awesome experience, going through caves into deserted lagoons! This was easily the highlight of the ENTIRE trip for me. Our group totaled six, plus the guide, so we only had four kayaks. It was relaxing and completely unadulterated. When you get here, you’ll see what I’m talking about!
After kayaking, the boat takes you to a beautiful beach that lies against one of the rock faces. We swam in and around the beach for two hours and enjoyed lunch in the anchorage. You can kayak around the area, it’s very relaxing and one of the best beaches I’ve been to!
After the beach, you head to a pear farm in a secluded harbor. The process they use is interesting, but the whole farm is a sales point. However, if you’re looking for pearls, this could be a good stop.
After the farm, you’ll head back to the main boat and meet the “new” cruisers who will have just finished their activities of day 1! You’ll cruise to the anchorage you were at last night, do the spring rolls, dinner, and karaoke and squid fishing.
Its sad knowing your trip is coming to an end, but there’s one last excursion to a floating fishing village. In a few years the village will be gone, as the fishermen are moved to shore to protect the bay. While it lasts, it’s incredible to see the houses in such a pristine location in the Bay. You’re rowed through the village by a local on a sampan. It’s relaxing and slow paced. Enjoy the final moments, the sights and scenes of the bay, and being away from Hanoi.
After the Village, you’ll return to shore, and board the bus for the long journey back to Hanoi. Anyone that visits Halong Bay will always remember it, that much is for sure. I hope the country of Vietnam, Halong Bay tourists, and local governments take actions to protect the Bay and ensure it’s pristine condition (it could use a little cleaning as it is) for everyone. I’ve heard there are already caps on the number of tourists who can visit per day and there are limits on where boats/tourists can go, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
In closing, if you can, visit the Bay.