Practically the first question you are asked by other travelers in Vietnam, or travel professionals, is “Have you been to Ha Long Bay?”. One of the premier destinations in northern Vietnam, the bay is filled with somewhere around 2,000 limestone karsts, which jut out of the water much like icebergs. Local legend has it that when Vietnam was faced with an invading navy long ago, dragons came out of the sky and defended the land. After the war was won, the dragons stayed, creating the rock formations. Archaeological evidence, while less entertaining, demonstrates that the bay has been forming for over twenty million years. Various civilizations have left markers in the bay, some as long as 20,000 years ago. More recently, the bay was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and attempts are being made by the Vietnamese government and people to protect the bay and clean it up.
I had been vaguely planning on doing this trip anyway, but after meeting some folks in Sapa who were headed on an affordable and timely one, I decided to invite myself to join them. One of the nice things I’ve discovered is how incredibly easy it has been to make last minute arrangements. Generally speaking, 24 hours is all the advance notice necessary. There are three different levels of Ha Long Bay excursions: low, medium, and luxury. Don’t do low. Medium is what we were on, and it was completely fine – the boat was comfortable, the tour guide was really nice, and we had fun. The difference with luxury is some small amount of creature comforts, an extra activity or two, and better dressed travelers. Not worth the price, to my mind (and we were dressed just fine thank you very much). Most trips are either two or three days, including travel time from Hanoi. The extra time allows you to visit Cat Ba Island, or more kayaking, etc.
After the four hour bus ride from Hanoi, we arrived at the docks and prepared to board. You take a small ferry boat out to the main boat, moored in the harbor. No matter what class of boat you have booked, the outsides are all universally dinged and dirty. The driving rules, or lack thereof, seem to apply on water as well as on land. Not enough space at a dock for your boat? Throw out some tires and go right in, the other boats will make some room. It certainly makes for some interesting moments: “He can’t make it in there….he’s trying anyway…oh god…well, some fresh paint will cover that.” But these boats are there to work, not look pretty, so I guess it makes sense in a way. We get a brief orientation from the tour guide, find our rooms (very acceptable for a brief trip), and get some lunch. We spend some time cruising through the karsts before arriving at Surprise Cave (surprise!). This is a massive cave system inside one of the islets. For many years long ago, it was used by the fishermen on the bay as a place of shelter during typhoons.
After the cave, we got back on the boat briefly for a short trip to where the kayaks were waiting. I didn’t take my camera with me since it isn’t waterproof, but it was really wonderful to go kayaking in the little lagoons and around the area. Passed a few of the local fishermen and avoided their nets, then nearly got turned around and couldn’t find our way back, but then we did. Yay, us. That was pretty much it for the day; back on board in time for shower, drinks, and dinner. The next morning, we got up early and headed to a beach for a quick climb, including monkeys (!) and a swim. Then sadly, the trip back to shore, followed by the drive back to Hanoi. Honestly, it’s hard to describe everything in more than a few words – simple, but fun! We were in Ha Long Bay during low season, when there are fewer boats on the water and the color are a bit less vibrant. Still very pleasant. Anyway, if you find yourself in northern Vietnam, it’s absolutely worth the trip to Ha Long Bay.