For what has been the ultimate bucket list since I was child, this legendary part of Vietnam truly did blew me away. After spending some time exploring Thailand, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam, Halong Bay was one of the landmarks in South East Asia that I desperately wanted to see – more so for the emerald waters, incredible island and the breathtaking karst formation.
But it was indeed beautiful.
Featuring over 1,600 limestone karsts and isle that took 20 million years to evolve, this UNESCO world heritage has been the pride and joy of Vietnam – and I couldn’t agree more. The sister’s bay – Bai Tu Long is also another option if the Halong Bay feels too touristy for you.
From Hanoi it’ll take roughly three to four hours just to get to the bay itself, in which you’ll have to pass through Bai Chay (Halong City) and make your way to the harbour. Upon arriving you’ll be greeted by vast green limestone, vegetation-covered islands dotted with innumerable grotto, and the view is simply amazing.
If you’re expecting Pirates of the Caribbean kind of scene, be prepared to bail your eyes out – as what was one a magical bay with traditional red and brown junks has painfully turned into chipping white paints of wooden boats. Recent government regulation has ordered all the operating junks to be painted white to avoid collision during foggy weathers, and this immediately took away the rustic majestic sight that made Halong Bay so special – but it still is a well worth visit.
SPENDING THE NIGHTS AT HALONG BAY
I’ve noticed a lot of people doing the one day trip and truth to be told, it’s not exactly the best option to experience Halong Bay. Considering that it took roughly four hours to get there (and 4 hours more to get back to Hanoi), chances are you’re spending a little less than four hours at the bay itself, and cramming everything else together is not fun.
Do spend more days in Halong Bay – it’s worth it!
While the day trip are generally preferable for those on a rush (and cheaper as well!), the overnight stays however is the better option. Not only will you get to sleep on the boat itself while soaking in the view, there will be other activities as well such as kayaking, hiking, caving and maybe a visit to the floating village or even Cat Ba island (which I heard was absolutely awesome!).
I took the 2 days 1 night option which was good enough to fulfill the long time bucket list – but I wished I’d spent more time venturing into this region and took the 3 days 2 night option instead, because Halong Bay is just that amazing.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT CRUISE
I would normally go for the cheapest, most budget savvy alternative out there – but when it comes to Halong Bay I decided to forgo on being too frugal, because what you pay is really what you get. Prices may start as low as USD 30 for a full day trip, to a jaw dropping USD 400 for a few nights of luxurious stay.
I’ve met travellers who did the Halong Bay tour for cheap and found themselves crammed with 20 other day-trippers, mediocre food, rats, and bad facilities. So a heed of warning if it’s too good to be true. And there’s the safety issue to ponder as well. In 2011 there was an incident in which a tourist boat sunk in the middle of the night, killing 11 tourists with it while they were asleep. And all this happened in a mere five minutes.
My advice is to invest in a good reputable cruise – preferably those with good feedbacks. Don’t be afraid to ask around for the best deal, and it doesn’t have to be fancy either. You can get a decent mid range tour and still be able to enjoy everything.
Admittedly it took me quite awhile to settle on a Halong Bay cruise. It was the Tết New Year and most of the operators were closed. It doesn’t help when everything’s really expensive for the holidays. I had to travel around Hanoi from one agency to another before settling on a decent mid range overnight cruise. Luckily I truly enjoyed every moment of it.
THE PHOENIX CRUISE (2 DAYS 1 NIGHT)
The 2 days 1 night Ha Long Bay Phoenix Cruise (website here) definitely lies on the mid range luxury group, because I paid USD 130 for it. The price is inclusive of city transfers, food, accommodation, kayaking, hiking, caving and many more. It was definitely expensive and I was actually unsure if I should invest that much money.
But the service was lovely and our tour guide was very accommodating. Everything else was very well-organized. Out of all the budget savings I did throughout my travels, this was one of the best splurge I’ve ever made – and it was well worth of that USD 130 I’ve spent.
In all honesty, I have never been on a cruise before. The Phoenix was a lot to take in, but it was really, really nice. Imagine a mini Titanic on scenic bay, that’s what you get with all these mid range cruises. It was very well maintained, extremely clean and the room had a really spacious bathroom with hot waters and I definitely didn’t had much to complain.
The food was absolutely amazing. Throughout the cruise we were fed like a king – spoiled with servings of fresh seafood, five-course gourmet dinner, top-notch Vietnamese food and even wine and champagne to top off the list (though at an additional cost). There’s even spring roll cooking classes! The service was impeccable – and I’ve never felt so pampered. After traveling around like a homeless person for the past month the cruise definitely was a nice change.
The only downside when it comes to these luxurious mid range cruise is the crowd. In Phoenix, we were surrounded by old retirees, family members and honeymoon couples – basically those who can afford such luxury cruises. Thankfully I was accompanied by another traveller I met at the hostel so it wasn’t exactly that boring, at least there were few conversation going around (and midnight squid fishing. It was fun).
But most of the time I would find myself lounging on the top deck, sipping sparkling juice (too poor for wine) while soaking in the view – all this while cruising slowly across Ha Long Bay and that was the most content I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
THE SUNG SOT CAVE (SURPRISE CAVE)
The Sung Sot cave was included in the cruise itinerary, and we visited this on the last day before making our way back to the city. The climb was a steep one as you have to work yourself up through the stairs, but the view on top was worth it.
And just like its name, you’ll be greeted with a huge surprise as you enter the cave (sorry if I spoiled this for you but heyyy)
…and you’ll see a red thing going on. Yeap. Surprise.
The cave was surprisingly large and airy, considering that the entrance was so small and the entire grotto is made up of two large chambers. But the formations were fairly interesting, that is if you’re not bored with stalagmite and stalactites and the science behind it.
KAYAKING ACROSS HALONG BAY
Kayaking across the Halong Bay was fun as you get to explore into hidden tunnels, observing the limestone formation up close and having a good laugh over the fear of having a capsized kayak (which, actually happened to one of the tour group nearby. The water was freezing cold but you gotta admit, it was rather comical).
We came upon one of the little islands where you can have a quick dip and swim (it was too cold though!) and we actually hiked all the way to the top and was greeted with this amazing view. It was so amazing that we stayed back all the way till sunset, and thankfully we didn’t have to kayak back to the boat as they waited for us nearby.
We didn’t truly visit the floating village as we were pressed for time, but we did passed by the village on our kayak adventures.
Sometimes the locals would approach you through your cabin’s window trying to sell you souvenirs and trinkets. They would even offer you fresh seafood where you can ask the crew to cook for you. And while they were very persistent (like every other Vietnamese trying to make a living) they do make a remarkable sight as they passed by, back into the emerald waters.
Overall it was an unforgettable experience indeed. To finally venture into Halong Bay after spending a lifetime daydreaming about Northern Vietnam felt so surreal. It was like being enthralled by a dream. And God’s creation is just amazing.
A QUICK NOTE FOR THE BUDGET TRAVELER
It still is possible to make an independent trip to Ha Long Bay with Cat Ba island as your starting point, and book separate excursion from there. USD 130 is considered a standard 2 days 1 night pricing for good reputable junk companies (such as Bhaya, Indochina Junk etc). But if you’re really pressed for budget, the Saigon Cafe Travel is another option. It was my first choice (the Christina and the Lemon cruise) but it was closed for Tet, so I didn’t go for that. Another option is Vega Travel but it’s just a couple of dollars cheaper than Phoenix though.
I’ve also met travellers who did the Halong Bay for USD 80 for 2 days 1 night from random travel agencies and found them to be OK. So do walk around and ask for the best deal. Or you can simply book straight from your hotel desk if you’re too lazy. And remember, if the deal’s too good to be true chances are they’re shitting on you.
That’s all for now, and till next time!