Ha Long Bay is the one trip that you can’t afford to miss in Vietnam. This probably sounds frustrating to some backpackers/holiday makers wanting to see everything in a couple of weeks, but the 2 nights, 3 days of paradise really is an excellent use of your time.
The problem is, how are you supposed to know which tour to book? There is a minefield of information with endless options at your disposal. I will try to simplify what I’ve understood about Ha Long tourism as best I can. Don’t book in advance. Hanoi (where most people are based before the tour) is bursting at the seams with travel agencies. Yes, some of them want to rip you off and may well provide you with a somewhat less than idyllic trip, but the best way to get around this is talk to people. Ask around for recommendations from fellow travellers and you will soon find the right tour for you. There are three general types of tour you can take; party boats, mid-range and luxury. As fun as the infamous Hanoi Backpackers booze cruise sounds, I personally think you’ll have longer lasting memories if you sign up for a trip that won’t cripple your liver. In the end we booked through an agency (hotels will charge you a fair bit more because of commission) and we paid $118 for 2 nights, 3 days of the views of a lifetime. The agency ran a group of boats called “Imperial”, each of which had slight variations in quality of food and accommodation depending on what you wanted to pay. Most of the tours offer a similar itinerary. Here’s what we experienced…
After a four hour bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Long City, our perfectly adequate boat took us out into the captivating views of verdant jagged limestone cliffs, deep green waters and piercing blue skies. This is what I’d been waiting for: instant serotonin hits of dazzling sunshine, intense colours and sea air.
Blissfully dazzled by our environment, we sat down to lunch with the rest of our crew: two Brits, an Aussie and a group of chirpy twenty-somethings from Singapore. I had pretty low expectations of the food that was included in the tour, but we were in for a very pleasant surprise! Dishes and platefuls of delicious fresh seafood and salads were brought to our table. There was so much variety and the quality was incredible considering this wasn’t one of the “luxury” tours – we were very happy sailors!
Shortly after lunch and a bit more cruising, we were taken ashore to visit the “Surprising Cave”. Vietnamese has lots of very blunt name for places like this, there was another one called “Amazing Cave”. I asked our guide if the cave was “surprising” and she told me that yes, there would be a surprise. See if you can spot it.
I was very excited about our next stop – the beach! After a week in South East Asia I finally got to enjoy some sun, sea and sand. It was pretty busy as this was a stop for a lot of the tours but I was happy to share this piece of paradise with the fellow cruisers.
As daylight started to fade we got back on the boat to watch the striking sunset from the top deck before dinner and a classic combination of evening entertainment: karaoke and squid fishing! To be fair the squid fishing was a bit lame, I’m pretty sure the squid have learnt to stay away from the hundreds of tour boats sprinkling the bay. Being a singing addict I had to join in with the karaoke which the Singaporeans were totally rocking – it’s a bit of a pastime in SIngapore like it is in many East Asian countries, no beer required! I finished off the evening with a bit of star gazing before heading to bed to be rocked to sleep by the gentle waves.
The first day had really delivered and I was satisfied that I was finally finding some paradise locations on my travels. What I didn’t realise was that the best was yet to come! The second day of our tour was spent on one of the Cat Ba islands on a little private beach called Nam Cat. Beach bungalows, white sand, warm water, spectacular views and unlimited kayaking, it was the kind of place that is so inconceivably beautiful you just have to laugh!
Our third day took us back to the mainland after a bit more cruising and a quick cooking class on the boat. I could easily have stayed on that beach for longer, it was a bit of a shame we only had one night there.When I think of South East Asia, this is what I’m looking for. I know I’ve got a lot of beach times ahead of me! Ha Long Bay has so much to offer purely in its natural beauty. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of each tour but so try not to get hung up on the small stuff – just kick back and enjoy the incredible views!