Halong Bay was high on the list of priorities on my “must see” list of things to see in Vietnam. Believe it or not, the main reason for this was down to the Top Gear Vietnam special. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should look it up. It shows the beauty of Vietnam perfectly, alongside the usual larking about from Clarkson, Hammond and Captain Slow.
Halong Bay is one of the most iconic places to visit in Northern Vietnam. You can’t visit Hanoi (or northern Vietnam) and not do a Halong Bay tour of some sort. When you arrive in Hanoi you will see countless travel and tour shops all offering Halong Bay tours, many of which vary in price vastly but offer the same itinerary. Deciding on which tour to go on is a bit of a minefield so, after a little bit of research we decided to go on the mid-range option for $60.
The itinerary promised a 3 day cruise around the bay, including 1 night on a traditional junk boat and one night in a 3 star hotel along with Cave Visits and Kayaking around the bay. Most of the research we had done told us not to set our expectations too high on the standard of accommodation on both the Junk boat and hotel so we set off expecting very little. We were sure the scenery of the bay would more than make up for any accommodation short-comings.
On the first morning we set off early on a 4 hour bus journey to the bay. The bus journey was in a comfortable, decently sized, air-conditioned bus. After the obligatory stop off at a random, middle of no-where restaurant and handicraft shop we made our way towards the bay.
Upon arriving at the bay, we were met by swarms of buses and people all making their way towards the countless junk boats littering the bay. Upon collecting our tickets from the tour guide we were ushered down the gang-way with our back-backs and onto a smaller ferry that would take us out to our Junk boat. This was a trend that would be repeated several times during the trip. We soon got used to traversing narrow gang planks with our heavy packs on. It all felt a bit like the krypton factor.
The guide pointed out our Junk, the Asia Cruise, in the Distance and it looked impressive. So far so good we thought. Upon jumping off the smaller boat and onto the Junk we were greeted by a small dining room area decorated with wedding style seat covers. It all looked very impressive. The guide then gave us the key to our private bedroom and bathroom. The room was nicely decorated and the bathroom was even more impressive with a power shower (one of the best showers I’ve had so far this trip). Not bad for $60.
After a quick freshen up it was time for some Kayaking. We all jumped out at a floating house and jumped into our Kayaks. From here we were free to paddle up to the limestone peaks for a close up and explore the nearby floating village where the villagers go about their daily life. It was from here where it became more and more apparent the damage that mass tourism was causing to the environment.
The water was very dirty and there was lots of rubbish floating around. After Kayaking it was time to pay a visit to the “Surprising Cave”. I will keep the surprise secret just in case you will be visiting the bay yourself. Those with a keen eye may be able to spot it for themselves in the Photo Gallery. For anyone that that been to South East Asia before they will know that no tour is complete without a visit to a Cave, Waterfall or some form of Tribal village. After the cave it was time to return to the boat for a refreshing dip in the water. Those brave enough (including me) jumped from the roof of the junk while the rest jumped from the lower levels.
We had time to have a quick shower before heading up top for Dinner. The dinner was a mix of Seafood, fresh from the bay and Chicken and Pork Dishes. We were also shown how to make fresh Spring Rolls using fresh ingredients and rice paper. The dinner was very tasty, especially the seafood. Donna, who admits she isn’t a lover of seafood, also enjoyed it. A few beers later the Karaoke was cracked out but nobody was confident (or drunk) enough to give it a go. Much to the disappoint of our tour guide. To add insult to injury we jumped ship, literally, to the other Asia Cruise that was docked back to back with us. From here we joined a few other on the top deck for a few drinks and laughs.
The following day started out with a leisurely cruise through the bay. The scenery really is stunning and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. After breakfast and a couple of hours sailing it was time to jump off on Cat Ba Island for a hike through the national park. The hike was no walk in the park and included clambering over rocks and mountainous terrain to reach a lookout tower at the peak of the mountain. The effort was worth it though as it offered unbroken views of the surrounding rainforest. The trek back down was much easier and we were all glad to get back on the boat to relax.
According to the Itinerary that we were sold we were supposed to stay on Cat-Ba Island that evening in a hotel but that’s not what happened. Instead we were transported to an Island known as Monkey Island where we would be spending the night instead.
As it turns out this unexpected blip in the itinerary worked out in our favour. We we now staying our own bamboo bungalow overlooking the bay. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we approached the bay in the choppy waters. It was perfect. The only minor problem was we had to lug our stuff onto a small, unstable fishing boat because the large Junk couldn’t make it close enough to the bay. This proved a bit of a nightmare for one of the tour group, he dropped his hand luggage into the sea and got his laptop and phone wet. I think they both survived though.
Once settled on the Island we all took a power nap before trekking over the mountainous terrain to another part of the Island to visit a colony of moneys that were living on the Island. This is where my Mother and Baby Photo of the Week picture was taken. After the trek back it was time for a few rounds of Volleyball on the beach followed by dinner. Dinner was followed by a camp-fire and “happy hour” where coconut wine was passed around the group and a few songs were sang around the fire courtesy of Matt and his acoustic guitar.
The following day it was time to return to the mainland and make our way back to Hanoi. All in all the trip was an incredible experience and a must see if you visit northern Vietnam.
You can view all the photos from the tour by clicking here.