After our first few hectic days in Hanoi we decided it was time to head out of the city. Halong Bay was top of our list; a great chance to experience one of Vietnam’s UNESCO world heritage sites, cruise around and take in some of the stunning islands, as well as escape the humidity and chill out.
You can visit Halong Bay independently, catching a bus from Hanoi to Ha Long City and then hopping on a boat out to the caves and islands dotted just off Vietnam’s northern coastline. After looking at the costs and the amount of faffing around this would take, we opted to go to a travel agency and let them sort all this out for us. Simple, or so we thought.
There are tons of tour companies offering similar trips, usually for two or three days with one or two nights stay on the boat. Investigating them carefully is a must. First off, if you’re expecting to see the traditional junks, all polished wood and billowing sails, you will be disappointed. Most of the boats are more akin to Channel ferries, varying in degrees of cleanliness and size.
Ethnic Travel came is as the most reasonably priced (just under $100 per person – average $115-$125) for a two day cruise with one night sleeping onboard. This included transport to and from Ha Long City, all meals and the chance to kayak around the caves. They picked us up from Hang Giây Street, not far from backpacker central Ma May Street – where their office is located. Driving us in a mini bus to Ha Long City (a 4 hour ride) at the port we swiftly boarded our home for the next couple of nights. The boat was clean, our room had AC, the food was tasty, but best of all was the lack of onboard karaoke. A lot of the cruisers are more like party boats, which kind of takes away from the serenity of Halong. One of the best experiences for us was sitting out on deck at night star gazing, watching the fishermen chugging along the bays. Not something that a half-cut rendition of ‘Baby One More Time’ would’ve enhanced.
Apart from choice of vessel and onboard activities, the other thing that really sold Ethnic’s package to us was the route their boats take. Bypassing more popular stops, we set out east and then down almost as far as Cat Ba Island. This meant that for the best part of the trip we were the only boat in sight, not eyeball to armpit with other tourists.
Halong Bay is every bit as beautiful as the guide book says (about the only thing it’s got right so far). Sailing through the rocks with nothing on the horizon but jagged teeth sticking out of the water is both surreal and peaceful. It wasn’t until we kayaked out (my first such odyssey) that we really appreciated their scale or how imposing they are. We also had time to go for a dip. Diving off the boat in to the Gulf of Tonkin, we swam out to the ‘party cave’, a place for locals and young’uns from the floating villages to hang out – a far cry from cheap cider on a swing set in the park.
The only thing we’d probably do differently would be to stock up on bottled water beforehand. On board a small 500ml bottle will set you back about $1, whereas on land that would get you two 1.5l bottles, so you’re little bit at the mercy of captive prices.
It was the perfect break from Hanoi’s hustle, ready to move on to Huế and our first night train experience.