Ha Long Bay is one of, if not the top tourist destination in Vietnam and was the place Rory was most excited about visiting on our trip to Southeast Asia. And why wouldn’t he be? The place is dotted with approximately 2000 limestone islets jutting dramatically out of the emerald waters, most of which are uninhabited and feature karsts, caves, lagoons, beaches, and lush tropical vegetation. It’s so spectacular and bio-diverse that it was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and has been partially maintained and protected since then.
Ha Long Bay, which stands for ‘descending dragon bay’ is on the northeastern tip of Vietnam, in the Quảng Ninh province. Part of what makes it so cool is the old junk boats you see cruising around, and from what we could gather, our best option for getting on a junk boat was to purchase a cruise package from one of the many tour operators running out of Hanoi.
Choosing a Tour
We wandered the streets of Hanoi, scoping out the different travel agents until we found a cruise that sounded appealing and fit our budget. From what I gathered about Ha Long Bay is that you have three options; the luxury, mid-level, and the budget. Of course, us being broke backpackers we purchased the budget-friendly cruise, assuming that it would be the best option for us.
I had read many different stories about cruising Ha Long Bay, and the reviews seemed to be quite mixed. There were backpackers who had an amazing time on the budget boat, while others complained about it. There were backpackers who opted for the mid-level cruise and had a great time, while others hated it due to the non-backpacker crowd. We honestly didn’t know exactly what to expect. We figured we’d roughed it enough and could handle budget accommodations and amenities so we just went for it.
The bus journey to Ha Long Bay leaves from Hanoi and takes a about three hours. It’s uncomfortable and squishy and hot, like most budget buses in Asia. Once there, we had to wait outside for almost an hour for the boat to be ready. The place is literally heaving with tourists coming and going, it’s suffice to say it’s definitely not a hidden gem.
Song Sot Cave, aka ‘Surprise Cave’
No surprise here, sorry folks. After a very short time of being on the water, we pulled up next to a million other boats to visit the famous UNESCO maintained limestone cave. I’m not overly enthused by stalactites so forgive me for my negative reaction to a world heritage site. I was unimpressed, you are pretty much bumper-to-bumper with all the other tourists, shuffling single file on a man-made pathway through the cave. It’s lit up with all different colours of lighting which makes it look a bit too ‘touched’ to me. I prefer seeing these types of things in their raw, natural state, without the pressure of the man behind urging you to move forward resulting in blurry photographs.
Once you exit the cave, there is a lovely view over the bay, but there is so many people you’re forced to keep on shuffling! You descend the hundred or so steps back down to the dock and there is a mini-market with vendors selling fruit, snacks and drinks. It’s a tourist attraction so don’t be surprised by the high prices. Our crew made us hang out here for a while before letting us back on the boat, which led many people to end up buying things. *Guilty*
Note: I looked this cave up while writing this because I couldn’t remember the name, and it has four stars on Trip Advisor so take what I say with a grain of salt and be your own judge. I didn’t enjoy it, but everybody is different and you might think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.
The Floating Villages
Once everybody was back on board our junk, we cruised on until arriving at one of the four floating villages residing in the bay. There are about 4,000 habitants living in floating houses in four villages in the core of Ha Long Bay. They rely mainly on fishing and aquaculture as sustenance, though water pollution and the eventual decline of sea life endanger the future of their lifestyle and culture.
The scene is colourful and mesmerizing, the villagers float by on small boats offering fruit to anyone who will buy. Here, along with every other budget junk boat, we were offered to pay five dollars to kayak into a small cave in the rock formation next to the village. We waited until others had done it and opted out once they returned saying it wasn’t very exciting with little to see. We continued watching the villagers and snapping shots of the scenery instead.
It was blazing hot sitting on top of the boat in the middle of July, we all just wanted to go for a swim but weren’t allowed to jump in the water at all. After later learning that the villagers lack toilets on their floating homes, I was glad it was forbidden.
The rest of the day was spent cruising the bay, it got a little bit boring after a while, what can I say, I’m hard to please. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting, I just crave more action and exploration. Apart from taking photos and eating lunch, the remainder of the day was action-less. I don’t think I would do well on a long vacation cruise.
Sleeping on the Boat
Our evening sleeping on the boat was equally disappointing. There were at least twenty other boats all parked side to side, literally touching, and we weren’t anchored out in the bay with a picturesque view—we were right next to the pier for Cat Ba island. We might as well have gotten off and gone and stayed in a hotel where we could buy beer that wasn’t as overpriced.
All day everyone wanted to get in the water and once we had parked for the evening we were allowed to do so, unfortunately thunder and lightning blessed us a few minutes later and the swimming was cut short. The rest of the evening was spent sitting in the dining area chatting with other backpackers and playing cards. You could hear a lot of bad karaoke going on on other boats, so maybe our crowd was just a bit tamer than others.
You don’t get to chose your room, which is understandable, but we somehow got the short end of the straw and were placed directly next to the engine. The whole room smelt of fumes and was extremely hot with no air conditioning; it was so dizzying that we had to sleep with our door wide open—and even then we barely slept. A hotel would have certainly been more enjoyable but we wanted the ‘experience’ of sleeping on one of the junk boats.
Cat Ba Island
You can imagine the hustle and bustle of twenty or so boats docking at a single pier while all the tourists make their way off and onto their designated buses, there was a lot of waiting around on this trip.
There was a short hike in Cat Ba national park planned on the drive from the pier to the town. We both opted out, tired from a lack of sleep and ended up being happy with our choice as our fellow cruisers returned saying the hike was a bumper-to-bumper, ass-in-the-face kind of hike—complete with a swarm of mosquitoes devouring your pumping blood and no view at the top. I’m proud to say that I devoured ice-cream while getting some quality people-watching time in instead.
We stayed at the Sunflower Two hotel which was included in the package and was descent though it sat at the top of the hill in town, while all the bars, beaches and shops are at the bottom of the hill. The hotel wasn’t terrible, but I would have chosen differently had the choice been ours. Our dinner was served at the hotel and was so unappetizing that most people went and bought their own food, Rory and I ended up buying food at a bar later in the evening.
There are three beaches in Cat Ba town, the third being the best, and least frequented. It’s a fun place to go for a swim but this is a popular spot for Vietnamese vacationers as well, so it gets very crowded. I was just happy to be off the boat so I loved the beach, the water is bright blue and in a small bay with towering rocks overhead. Just as luck would have it, it rained again, after about ten minutes of swimming and we were left to make our way back up the hill to our hotel in the pouring rain.
There is so much to see and do in the Cat Ba Archipelago, I wish our time there wasn’t so short. We arrived late in the afternoon and were whisked away again early the next morning, needing to make it back to Hanoi. We met other backpackers on our cruise who opted to stay in Cat Ba and take the ferry back at a later date. This is a great option if you want to do the cruise but want more time to explore the island. Half a day just isn’t enough.
I have two pieces of advice for visiting Ha Long Bay, depending on your preference of travel style. Either a) spend a little bit more money for a cruise that includes kayaking the bay, a trip to a private island or some real hiking through Cat Ba national park. Pay special attention to the itinerary of the cruise, look up each stop to be sure it’s the real experience that you are looking for OR b) make your own Ha Long Bay tour. I thought about doing this at the time, but decided it would be too much hassle and went with a cruise instead. I very quickly realized that there is so much more to Ha Long Bay than the discounted route and that doing your own tour is both doable and advisable.
My experience cruising Ha Long Bay is the perfect example of why I dislike tours. The place is so beautiful and interesting that all you want to do is go explore, but when you’re restricted to a set itinerary, especially a budget one, you often don’t get to see it the way you want to. While there are exceptions, I tend to avoid tours unless absolutely necessary. If and when I go back I will surely be opting out of the cruise and doing it my own way because in my opinion, it’s just a better way of traveling.
Have you visited Ha Long Bay? What was your experience like?