Updated: Sep 14
Hạ Long Bay or Halong Bay was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000, due to the unique limestone mountains that populate the waters. I must say floating through this tranquil landscape felt unreal. It was nothing like I have ever experienced before. These tiny forest-covered islands form the beautiful Halong Bay, topping most travellers bucket lists when venturing to Vietnam.
Please be sure to check the weather if travelling during monsoon season, tours can be cancelled at short notice due to storms for your safety.
How to get there
Halong bay is a light 2-3 hour drive from the capital, Hanoi. It has excellent transport links as you are able to select from public bus routes, private minibuses, trains or even a seaplane when planning your journey. Shared buses from Hanoi (which look like a coach in the UK) will cost you around 250,000 VND return, which is about £9. If you have a bigger budget you may choose to take the scenic route, arriving by seaplane which will cost you around £100.
Halong bay tours
There are loads of companies that offer tours to Halong Bay suited to different budgets. There are 5* cruise ships that literally look like hotel rooms, more traditional Vietnamese cruise boats, day tours and junk boats. There are quieter boats and party boats.
Although some of the smaller boats can't offer you all the glitz and glamour of a 5* cruise, one thing they can provide is peace and quiet. I've heard stories of lavish spreads on these pricey ships, masses of tourists with entertainment going on all hours of the night. I guess some travellers will be looking to let their hair down for 2 days and be merry but if you're more interested in peacefully sailing through the islands then you may favour a smaller boat. The larger cruise ships are stunning though, the cabins look like hotel suites
The Cruise - My experience (video below)
Halong bay was absolutely stunning. I think if I hadn't been on a boat tour in Ninh Binh the night before, I would have been in awe even more. I was on a 2 day 1 night cruise which set off at around midday. We set sail, into the depths of the bay whilst the concrete horizon on the land slowly faded away.
The boat was fairly small, just housing 8 cabins if I remember rightly. There were some doubles, twins and one VIP room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The captain put the keys to each room behind his back so room selection was a bit of pot luck. My room was clean, comfortable and had a decent sized ensuite. The cabin window provided a spectacular view of the bay. We were provided with our inclusive lunch before setting off to go kayaking and hiking (which was a surprise to me).
Most cruises in Halong bay will offer activities. Due to the highly saturated market, tour companies will be competing to offer customers the best experience. It may take a while to select your operator.
The cost of kayaking was not included in my tour but was around 130,000VND roughly £5. This included life jackets, oars and kayak rentals for about 45 minutes. They didn't actually give us a specific time to bring the boats back, just literally said about 35 -45 minutes. I don't think there's even any way for the rental company to monitor how long you've been in the waters for.
I thoroughly enjoyed kayaking. Being so low down in the waters offers a different perspective of the mountains. It was beautiful.
Ti Top Island
After finishing up kayaking, our cruise captain collected us and we sailed out to Titop Island. If you're not a big fan of overpopulated tourist attractions I would definitely avoid this place. There's a bar, shops and deckchair rental services. The sand was apparently dyed white to appeal to tourists, it was a lot prettier than what I captured in pictures though.
If you've read my previous post about how I suffered trekking through the jungle; you'll understand that I was more than apprehensive to undertake another hiking expedition. I enjoy being able to breathe.
Toward the back of the beach, you'll find 400 steep steps that lead to a viewpoint of the island and its surroundings. This should only take you around 15 minutes, although I probably took longer. The humidity combined with the strenuous leg movements is not my cup of tea.
After some encouragement, I made it to the top. Would I do it again? No, but I guess decent view and all.
The evening: Dinner, Squid Fishing and karaoke
One thing I've noticed about Vietnamese people is that they will not let you go hungry. Meals in a group setting normally have about 10 courses no kidding. It gets to the point where you're so full but you just have to keep eating because it tastes so good. I'm not a big seafood fan but obviously, there was a lot on the menu due to the fact that we were in the middle of the sea.
After dinner, we were invited to partake in squid fishing which I loved. Another Vietnam first for me. The crew offered to cook the squid for breakfast but I declined because yeah yuck. This was also a lot harder than it looked. Squid are not stupid.
The night concluded with another round of karoake. This is a very popular activity in Vietnam, you'll find karoake facilities nearly everywhere.
Day 2 - Sung Sot Caves
This morning we woke up bright and early to do tai chi as the sun rose. I think it was about 5 am. Lovely gesture but I just wanted to sleep.
Next on the agenda was a journey through the caves. The caves have been modified for tourists, there is extremely bright lighting (for a cave) and there are paths that have been widened. This place gave me Indiana Jones vibes, it was absolutely huge and quite cool to have a look around.
Yay or Nay
I did enjoy Halong bay and I was happy with the number of activities offered. I will say though that by this point in my trip I was a little tired and it would have been nice to rest, which I did not really.
On reflection, 2 days 1 night tours are a bit of a scam. Yes, you get to absorb sensational views but are you really cruising for 2 days? Technically yes. For instance, you board the vessel on a Monday morning, sleep and depart on Tuesday. Yes, you've been on board for 2 separate days but if you board at 11 am on a Monday and depart at 10 am on a Tuesday you haven't actually been on board for 24 hours. One piece of advice I would give is to check the timings of cruises when comparing costs.
That being said I think you should at least visit once. This was unlike anything I've ever seen before and I did have fun kayaking!