So you can’t come to northern Vietnam without going to Ha Long bay, its the reason half of the tourists come to Hanoi in the first place.
But our enthusiasm for seeing the UNESCO world heritage listed bay was deflated a bit by the tour-group nature of the options available – it seemed there were a thousand tour companies selling trips on boats run by 100 companies, but the only real choice you got to make was to take a 1, 3 or 5 star cruise.
I hate this kind of tourism. Want to see a bay that is world famous for the beauty of its 1,900 islands and floating villages? Then sign up for the ‘white person tour’. Even our tour guide told us there are only two routes that the boats take through the islands.
We have been on countless boats over the past few months in Asia, but we still hadn’t spent a night on one, and we really wanted to – so we signed up. We chose the three star option – paying $155 for two nights on the boat (this includes all food, activities, and transfers by bus to and from your hotel – its a 3.5 hour trip to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi).
Our guide – Hoi – was a wealth of knowledge, and gave a 30 minute ‘lecture’ onboard the bus that covered everything from the tour details, through to the history of Hanoi, why Vietnamese buildings are long and skinny, the desire for male children within Vietnamese society, and finished off with a hilarious impersonation of a pompous english accent as a means of describing the differences in language between the north and south of Vietnam.
A small boat took us from the port out to our home for the next two days – the ‘Christina Deluxe Cruise’. Sometime in the last few years, the directive came down from on high that all of the cruise boats in Halong bay must be painted white (its a one-party government here, so you do what you are told). Anyway, it worked really well – the fleet of 400 or so tour boats in the bay look idyllic against the turquiose waters.
After a welcome fanta, we were shown to our cabins, which were gorgeous, with large windows providing a constantly changing view as our boat cruised along.
The first day on the boat involved rigidly set out activities – first we were taken to the ‘Suprising cave’, on of the biggest caves in the bay. Hoi informed us it was named this as the french were quite surprised to find how large the cave was. Hoi enjoyed pointing out the most surprising aspects of the cave. “The next chamber is very large, and as you will, very surprising.”
Next it was kayaking – Asha and I visited a small floating village, where tiny houses are built on large polystyrene blocks. There were even a few dogs in the floating village, but we weren’t sure if they were the world’s most bored dogs, or soon to be dinner.
We spent the last part of the day at a beautiful beach, watching the sun dip down towards the horizon and swimming in the surprisingly clean water.
After dinner – a feast of steamed fish, squid dishes, and lots of things we couldn’t identify – we were invited to join in some karaoke or squid fishing. But relaxing in our room, watching the shimmering lights of the boats in the bay, was easily the best choice.
The funniest part of day one was watching the ‘Snack pirates’ in action. Women with large rowing boats bursting at the seems with chips, chocolates, oreos, coke, water, beers, wine and just about everything they can think to tempt a tourist, row around the bay trying to sell their wares. The snack pirates have a real knack of sneaking up on you, silently paddling up to your window. A couple of times I was lying in our cabin reading, when I was shocked by a voice at the window, “Hello, you buy something”.
No-one else onboard had opted for the 2 night cruise – they were either spending only one night onboard, or one night onboard and one night on Cat Ba island. The most appealing aspect of the cruise for us was having our own room onboard a boat for a couple of nights. So on day two, we were woken at 6:45 for breakfast (I wasn’t too happy), and then sent off on our own private cruise boat for the day (which could easily have held 40 people, while the Cristina boat took the others to their next destination. We would meet up with Cristina in 10 hours – but until then we had our own boat complete with a captain/cook, a local tour guide and a sundeck on the roof.
We spent the day visiting a pearl farm – where Asha found a pearl in an oyster (but didnt get to keep it), spent a few hours kayaking in the pristine waters in the Cat Ba national park (we got to watch baby monkeys playing in the trees), ate a seafood barbeque lunch onboard (seemingly prepared for 8 people) and relaxed on another sandy white beach.
Arriving back in Hanoi the following afternoon, we were very happy we chose to spend an extra night on the boat – it made the tour a bit more expensive, but it meant we got our own private boat and tour for a day, as well as another Halong bay sunset.
Yes, its damn touristy, and we don’t really like being on a tour where every activity, meal time and even the dishes themselves are all set out for you, but we really enjoyed Halong bay. Highly recommended.