I cannot gush enough about waking up surrounded by nature’s purest green and blue.
Back in January, Shaun and I finally took a trip together to a place neither of us had visited before. Though we had already decided we would travel to South East Asia, it took a lot of research and deliberating before we finally settled on Vietnam specifically.
Though our trip was 10 days and 5 cities long, Halong Bay, in the northern tip of the country, was a huge highlight for us. About 2 hours from Hanoi, it is the perfect escape from the usual chaos of the city. Surrounded by rainforest caped limestone mountains and emerald water as far as the eye can see, Halong Bay is serenity, adventure and romance all tucked into one idyllic package.
IS IT WORTH IT?
There is a constant on going debate as to whether Halong Bay has become an over rated, crowded tourist trap. Some even say it would be better to book something in the neighbouring islands of Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay. Having visited during the off season, it wasn’t as crowded as we had anticipated, but most definitely is in the warmer months.
In fact, we were surprised at how cold it was, averaging 15°C the two days we were there. Perfectly warm enough to enjoy the views and hiking, but too cold to swim and snorkel for our liking.
While planning our trip, we realized the only way to visit Halong Bay was by joining an organized tour. So, we decided to book ourselves on a two-day-one-night cruise (a loose term in this case), through Klook. I’ve attached the link of the exact cruise we took below, but there were so many to choose from, all offering similar services.
WHAT’S IN A TOUR?
Included in the specific tour is a bus that will drive you from your hotel in Hanoi to the islands, if you are staying in the Old Quarter. If you are staying elsewhere, it is up to you to make your own way to the Old Quarter to be picked up in a prearranged place.
Note: Because our confirmation email said the bus would arrive between 7 45 and 8 15am, we were concerned something would go wrong, due to the lack of time specificity. However, we waited in the lobby for about 20 minutes, until they arrived, closer to the end of their allocated time window.
The bus itself was a small coach that was clean and felt very safe. Our tour guide Nemo used the first few minutes of the ride to introduce himself, give a run through of the itinerary and pass out water to everyone.
Once in Halong Bay, we took a tender boat to board the actual cruise ship (once again a term I’m using quite loosely here). It ended up being pretty decent, but the outside of the ship could definitely use a new coat of paint and a wash.
However, the inside was clean and well taken care of, and we got really lucky and scored the only room with a balcony! The upper area of the ship, though covered in slightly tacky lime green fake grass, offered deck chairs to lounge in and take in the view.
There were about 20 guests, divided among ten rooms on the lower and main decks of the boat. We were in a corner room on the higher floor, and though the rooms are probably all the same, we were happy to not be on the lower deck, where the crew make the food and keep the cleaning products.
Don’t misunderstand; both Shaun and I are crew on a ship ourselves! The lower space just seemed busier and not as clean comparatively.
The rest of our time aboard was spent engaging in the various activities throughout the bay area. Day one included trips to the oyster farm to learn about the cultivation of pearls and to kayak below the looming green mountains (a highlight of the cruise). We also visited Titop Island, where we hiked up a steep set of stairs to beautiful sunset views overlooking the bay.
Our cabin was really lovely, with big windows leading to the balcony. I will say, one of my favourite moments in Vietnam was lying in bed, taking in the glorious sunrise and its hues of red, orange and yellow cascading over the bay. The bathroom was a bit lacklustre, with a shower head but no shower. This could have been an issue but being such a short cruise, didn’t bother us.
After eating breakfast, we continued to Surprising Cave, one of the biggest caves in the bay. The cave itself is very impressive and contains three different chambers, each one bigger than the last.
Our tour guide then took us back to the boat, where we had a short cooking class and each made our own Vietnamese spring rolls.
The food itself was actually quite good. Consisting of Vietnamese, Chinese and American dishes served family style, every meal was a bit different and offered a lot of variety for everybody. I was especially impressed with the attention to detail when it came to allergies and food preparation. I don’t eat seafood, and was offered a separate substitute dish for every fish course.
WHY DO IT?
Though we enjoyed ourselves immensely, I would not say that this particular cruising company was the reason. It was lovely, but most of the boats in the bay seemed to be offering similar services in similar ways. What I would recommend however, is seeing Halong Bay this way, whichever company you may choose.
Staying safely on land in no way introduces you to the beauty that this part of Vietnam has to offer. In such a beautiful and diverse country, this UNESCO world heritage site needs to be seen from within. You need to feel the towering limestone mountains surround you and the peace that comes with it.
Though day tours are available, I highly recommend spending at least one night on the water. I cannot gush enough about waking up surrounded by nature’s purest green and blue. So, whether you choose to visit Halong Bay or its surrounding islands, let Vietnam show you all the natural wonders it has to offer. I still dream about it today.