Authentically beautiful, this wonder of the world worthy of any travellers bucket list. Budget, mid-sized or luxurious – there is a trip for everyone who wants to see the sea of 1969 islands.
Halong, meaning ‘Bay of Descending Dragons’ was supposedly named after a captain reported seeing a giant sea snake while sailing the waters. Some of it’s 1969 islands are inhabited, such as the famous Cat Ba where many tours stop for a night. Many parts of the bay are protected by the UNESCO World Heritage Site name, ensuring development and subsequent ruin do not incur.
The easiest way by far is booking through a travel agent in the northern city of Hanoi. Our entire trip, including transfers, meals and accommodation cost us around US$80. This was a budget, 3 day two night tour and our boat was…questionable. But we got everything we had wanted out of it, from the caves to kayaking at sunset.
Others we met had differing tales. One group had travelled to the coast of Halong City and booked a trip from there – they had paid about $10 more than us for exactly the same trip. Others had turned up, jumped on a boat to Cat Ba and back for about $40. They had explored the caves and kayaked, but had not slept on the boats or had food provided. Instead, they were dropped off on Cat Ba on the first evening to find basic accommodation and to fend for themselves. Minus a dead fish head fight and a badly infected thigh, they did pretty well. In fact, if you can do it this way – do. You have far more freedom to enjoy the scenery than you would on an organised tour. If I had been able to spend longer on Cat Ba I would rather than in another metropolis like Hanoi.
Rickety, filthy with a stench of sewage if the doors were not locked shut, our boat was a sight from the start. And yet at the end of the day, it never really mattered. We only slept in it the one night while the days were spent on the island or up on deck, taking in the views. Our guide, Banana, was irritatingly chipper at the start. But he turned out to be helpful, funny and reassuring. On our final day we woke to be told that the weather too rough to travel, so boats had been stalled by the government. No one was allowed back to the mainland. Banana and the other guides got us all back to port, 50 crammed into a 25-person bus, to get onto the vehicle ferry. The journey was long and exhausting but we made it in time for dinner – our last evening in Vietnam.
Halong brings images of epically grandiose natural caves, turquoise waters and peace. There were in fact hundreds upon hundreds of boats, making the water look rather polluted and oily. The caves however were the biggest disappointment. Lit up by artificial coloured lights it felt more like a school disco than a natural wonder. The bins were strange penguins and there were more oversized American tourists than could surely fit up the wobbling platforms of our rickety boats. While kayaking to a red sunset over the mountains was an other worldly experience, the caves were better left forgotten. Cat Ba, a beautiful island with a hint too much tourism in the south, included a hike up a hill with a tiny Vietnamese joker who liked to scare us and run up steep trails squawking like a monkey. At the top, a female cement mixer pointed at my belly and said ‘pregnant?’. I said no. ‘Baby?’ she said. No. I awkwardly giggled, nearly cried, and quickly made my way back down the hill, distressed and terrified as the rest of the workers/travellers hysterically laughed. Thankfully, a Canadian threw his water bottle straight into my womb pretty soon after that (aiming for his other mates head), and took care of that matter. NOTE: I WASN’T, WAS NEVER, AND AM NOT PREGNANT. Take that cementer mixer/fortune teller woman.
Never miss out on this trip. Whether it’s a single day excursion or a three day cruise, take in the beauty of Halong Bay and try to ignore what tourism is destroying. Because there is still far more raw beauty than there is ruin. If you can, pay that extra 20-30 dollars. The comfort will take you further than you need, making it truly a perfect experience.
And remember, don’t throw dead fish at your friends leg. Even if you are from New Zealand.