We broke up our time in Hanoi with a 2 day 1 night cruise in Ha Long Bay. This is one of the top tourist attractions in Vietnam and an absolute “must do.” As a result, every Vietnamese person and their mother runs a tour there or can connect you with a guy who knows a guy who has a boat who can show you around. There are literally hundreds of options at vastly different price points and it’s hard to know exactly what you’ll get.
To be honest, I was sort of “meh” on even going to Ha Long Bay. Yeah, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and supposed to be all amazing and whatever, but it just seemed SO touristy and that it might be one of those things that’s so hyped that even though it’s not bad, it feels like a bit of a let down. Also, there are so many horror stories about people paying for a “cruise” and being stuck on an awful boat that’s full of rats and awful food. This is Vietnam and if you’re not careful, you WILL be scammed. Hell, even if you ARE careful AND speak Vietnamese you’ll STILL get scammed. It’s just a part of traveling here.
This being the case, we decided to book a tour that was perhaps slightly above our price range but we wanted to guarantee that we’d have a good time. It was definitely the right call because we had a really amazing experience.
The day starts early with an 8:30 am pick up at the hotel. You drive four hours due east to Ha Long City, which is in my mind one of the most awful places in Vietnam. It exists solely for awful hotels for Chinese tourists who, I guess, don’t want to drive to/from Hanoi to see Ha Long Bay. From there you get on a small boat, which takes you to your bigger boat where you stay the night. After some of the marine mis-adventures we’ve had on this trip (INDONESIA, I’M LOOKING IN YOUR DIRECTION) I was shocked that we were REQUIRED to put on lifejackets while on the smaller boat AND that the first thing we did on arrival to the big boat was to receive a safety briefing.
So, what is this Ha Long Bay thing, anyway? Well, “Ha Long” means “Descending Dragon.” We were told some crazy story about where this name came from (involving dragons from the sky or some other insane thing) but honestly I’ve forgotten. Basically, it’s a HUGE bay (like, unbelievably huge) full of these amazing rock formations. Your boat cruises along for a few hours through AMAZING scenery and then eventually drops anchor for the night. All the while you eat and drink with your fellow passengers.
There were about 15 of us on the boat. 4 Malaysian girls who were friends from university who were quite nice but mostly kept to themselves. A retired Malaysian couple who were HILARIOUS. They just talked and talked about everything and nothing and every so often the young Malaysian girls would roll their eyes about something they said. It was like they were embarrassed of their eccentric auntie and uncle. There were also several other couples (From England, Australia/Singapore, and Poland) in their 30’s who, like us, are doing long-term travel. We ended up really hitting it off with the English couple and spent the entire night drinking beers with them on the deck. They’re from Yorkshire in northern England (for “Downton Abbey” fans, the girl sounded EXACTLY like Daisy.) I really admire them. They had never left England and had just worked in their small town for a decade. One day they said “We’ve never seen the world. We need to go explore” and they just up and left. Very brave and admirable — particularly for people who had never traveled before!
Unfortunately, the weather for our cruise was not good. It was overcast the whole time and pretty cold for SE Asia (Probably about 60 degrees, which for us, being used to highs of 90 every day, felt RIDICULOUSLY cold.) Even so, the scenery was AMAZING and I cannot recommend Ha Long Bay enough. The pictures we took don’t really do it justice and I can only imagine what it’s like when the sun is shining.
You don’t spend the entire time on the boat. You also go exploring some of the small caves or climb up some of the karsts to get a nice view.
You can also go to a totally artificial beach! Unfortunately it was WAY too cold to swim. That didn’t stop Kat from getting her beach jollies, though:
We also went kayaking! What’s that? You don’t believe that we, largely non-athletic types, enjoyed some kind of outdoor sporting activity? You’re right to doubt me. I wouldn’t believe it either. Fortunately, I have photographic evidence of said event!
The kayaking was actually my favorite part of the whole thing. It was really fun paddling around because the bay is entirely calm and flat and we got to see some really great rock formations. We also saw some monkeys, which loyal readers will recall, are Kat’s sworn enemies. She saw them and exclaimed “Monkeys! Those little bastards!”
I would post more photos of the bay but unfortunately they really don’t do the place justice (the water and sky sort of look the same color in the photos because of how gray it was). You’ll just have to go and see it for yourself. Just make sure to avoid these guys: