How long in Halong Bay
After our first few days in Vietnam we turned to planning our first tour here, Halong Bay. Halong Bay is on the ‘must do’ list if you are visiting Vietnam.
Therein lies the problem, the choice of tour companies, agents and types of trip (one day, two day, three day and combined boat/ island tours), quality levels (standard, deluxe, five star) makes the choice bewildering.
Even on our flashpacking budget, we’re always seeking best value to fit our specific requirements, it isn’t necessarily the case that we’ll go with the cheapest option.
After quite a bit of blog, search on travel sites such as Expedia, and travel guide reading we settled on a two night three day deluxe tour, which gave us our first night on a junk and the second on Cat Ba island. Having decided that, you then work out what you want to pay – in this case I think it’s fair to say you usually get what you pay for. Armed with some prices from the internet, and recommendations, we went with Cristina tours. We booked this through our hotel, which actually offered the best price we could find anywhere.
The Journey to Halong Bay
The journey from Hanoi takes about four hours by bus, with a pit stop half way on the journey. As expected this is at a roadside souvenir emporium, come cafe, complete with overpriced local goods. John had his beady eyes on a rather large woodland scene tapestry (1m x 2m approx) which we could have purchased at the much discounted rate of US$650!
I on the other hand have much simpler tastes and would have purchased the hat, I’m wearing in the picture, but due to the weight of our bulging backpacks this wasn’t an option either.
By midday we were at Halong Bay harbour ready to board our deluxe junk… or so we thought.
Unfortunately, we had some bad news from our guide, there was a mini storm forecast for that evening so no-one would be sleeping on a boat that evening, we had to decide as a group what we wanted to do…
- Go back to Hanoi (we’d be charged for the two way bumpy journey)
- Go out on the day trip and go back to Hanoi the same evening
- Go out on a day trip and stay the evening on an island just off Halong Bay and see what the weather held for tomorrow
This was a shame because the weather was perfect with good visibility and lots of sunshine. I’d checked the weather forecast before booking, and no mention of storms.
We had to decide as a group, which option to choose. A very laidback Aussie guy, who I guess was in his early forties, opted to take the return bumpy 4 hour journey to Hanoi, for which the guide informed him he would be charged. The surfer didn’t even flinch, but decided to stay with the group.
The good news was this got the group bonding, as we all discussed our conspiracy theories about what was really going on. Eventually we all decided that option three was the winner, and we would take our chances!
Our newly bonded group got into the common cause of making the best of a disappointing start to the Halong bay experience. The group consisted of a Canadian Guy, a German Woman, A Young French Couple, Two Glaswegian Gals an Aussie Guy and us.
The day trip boat was certainly not a deluxe boat, or the clipper we’d booked. Our tour was packed in with other groups, who were similarly disappointed with the weather upset.
When booking we’d been promised a maximum group size of 12. The mood didn’t get any cheerier when the meal arrived. It was a bit of a lacklustre affair, and while it filled a gap, it did not really give us the wonderful Vietnamese dining experience promised.
By this time though our group was mostly giggling about our unfortunate circumstances.
The beautifiul views of Halong bay made us realise, that while the forecast storm and food were disappointing, this UNESCO world site remained as astounding as ever.
Post lunch we donned life jackets, grabbed our paddles and set off in our kayaks exploring the caves around our first ‘traditional’ fishing village of the two days.
To be honest I thought this would be a bit of a giggle but was surprised about just how much I enjoyed this. Even with the other groups paddling about there was something serene and peaceful about meandering around the limestone rocks and into the caves under your own steam.
It was then back on the boat for a longer tour of the bay before disembarking and visiting some land caves which again proved to be far more impressive than our cycnical group imagined.
The highlight though is the delight that the tour guides get in pointing out creatures that have been identified in the natural stalagmites and stalagtites over the years. To be fair some were quite ‘liflelike’ but others required a real stretch of the imagination to make them out. John and our Glaswegian partners in crime took to gently winding up our guide saying that we couldn’t quite make them out until he indignantly traced them out with his laser pen for the fourth time.
It was then time to head back to the harbour and take up residence in our hotel of the evening. On the way we discussed what we might expect when we got there, something akin to Fawlty Towers was our pre arrival verdict. When we turned up it wasn’t half as bad and our guide tried to big up the island we were staying on by telling us its claim to fame (2006 Miss Vietnam competiion finals and a pan asian volleyball tournament that was taking place at the beach), we sat their stony faced and unimpressed.
A group of us decided to head for the town and the adjoining beach for a quick dip before dinner and had a very pleasant hour lounging in the Pacific Ocean swapping travel stories.
Dinner at the Hotel was something else, and not in a good way.
The chef had obviously decided not to serve our international group with some traditional Vietnamese food. Instead he tried his hardest to put on a western meal with a soup starter and a fish, mashed potato, cauliflower and broccoli main with a dill sauce.
He really shouldn’t have bothered, it was awful, served luke warm and had hidden bits of seafood and meat in some of the dishes which the vegetarians and shelf fish allergy sufferers managed to spot just in time…
There was only one thing to make us forget the meal, have a good old giggle poring over the days events with quite a few bottles of ‘vintage’ Vietnamese Whiskey and Vodka. The night ended very late and we all staggered up the stairs in the early hours of the morning, certain that we would not be up for the 7.30am breakfast roll call from our guide.
When we did surface the next day (at about 10) there was good news all round, which helped offset some of the pain of our hangovers, the forecast was good and we would now get to spend our evening aboard the Deluxe Junk.
Halong Bay Done Right
Boarding the Cristina junk could not have been a more stark contrast to the packed day tour boat the previous day. The bar and entertainment area was delightful, when we went down to our cabins we found them to be spacious, comfortable with a fully fitted bathroom. The top deck was resplendent with padded sunloungers and as we sat down for our first meal all our moans and groans of yesterday were forgotten as we tucked into a beautiful lunch which featured a new ‘must try at home’ delicacy for me. Deep fried sweetcorn, imagine popcorn with added crunch and a sweetcorn flavour.
The rest of the day was spent doing a much less crowded tour around Halong islands in much quieter waters, kayaking and just before sunset climbing hundreds of steps to get to the top of Titop Island. It was worth the hike to catch the lowering sun, the 360 degree views and the hundreds of dragonflies flitting about its peak in the early evening.
John however decided the ascent was too much for him and opted for option two of staying on the beach sipping a beer.
What he didn’t know at the time was his chosen spot was inhabited with thousands of sandflies, who took rather a liking to his ankles and feet. As we got back on our small boat (which ferried us to and from our “Big Boat” as the guide called it) John’s bites and ankles began to swell rather alarmingly. He suffered all evening and for the next day, until he managed to get to a chemist, but it didn’t stop us enjoying ourselves. Serves him right I say.
Just when we thought the evening could not any better we got back on the “Big Boat” and were invited to jump/dive in the water from its upper decks. Like a big kid I kept going round and round for more goes. Bill, the forty something Aussie surfer, was a great sport and trumped us all by jumping from the very top of the boat.
All this high jinx nearly made us miss what has to be one of the most romantic sunsets I have ever witnessed. I was sat drying off on the top deck, with John, as we watched the most brilliant red ball of sun, drop below the distant Halong rocks.
We then showered, dressed for dinner and had another delectable meal on the boat before having a few drinks and rounding off the evening with some cuttle fish rod fishing off the back of the boat, which can be quite addictive and competitive we found – especially with Bill and I on board.
We then had a couple of cocktails on the boat as it slowly drifted around its anchor, which was quite hypnotic, before heading off to bed tired, relaxed and ready to be rocked asleep with the slow movement of the boat.
We saw some spectacular scenery, some wonderful weather and best of all got lucky with a great group of fellow travellers on board our tour. In the end I think the unfortunate storm was a blessing, bonding our group and saving the real treats to the second day made them all the more delectable.
To compare Ha Long Bay with Milford or Doubtful Sounds in New Zealand is compelling. For us, despite the hilarity of the tourist mayhem, there were moments when we could appreciate the grandeur and peacefulness of this UNESCO site in complete tranquillity. Awesome…….