Cruising in Ha Long Bay: Highlights and disappointments

This is a place I’ve been wanting to visit since I was a high school student. Even at a young age, my imagination was captured by the beautiful descriptions I read in my school books and the photos of Ha Long Bay I saw in the Internet.

When I started with Project 25, Ha Long Bay was on top of my list. But despite visiting Vietnam 3 times – all in the southern part of the country – I never had the chance to visit my dream destination. Ha Long Bay was too far and I didn’t have enough resources and time to go north during my past trips.

So when my mom asked where our next family destination should be, I immediately suggested Hanoi, given its proximity to Ha Long. I booked our flight and a few months later, I found myself inquiring in a local tour agency about an overnight cruise for 6 to Ha long Bay.

How to get there

Tet (Vietnam’s Chinese New Year) was not the best season to visit Hanoi. Almost all the shops were closed and the tours going to Ha Long were overbooked. Thankfully, we arrived during the last few days so we were able to push through with our planned itinerary. (READ: A walking tour of Hanoi: 7 places to visit)

We booked our overnight cruise through the Sinh Tourist. It’s one of the most popular travel agencies in Vietnam and I’ve had good experiences with this company during my past trips to Saigon. Although we had some problems with our schedule – a story for another article – we generally enjoyed our cruise.

I know some travellers prefer to go to Ha Long Bay by themselves and then arrange for their own boats in the city. I would’ve done the same if I wasn’t with my family and if my Vietnamese friends didn’t advise against it. If you want to do this, you can check Ha Long Bay’s official website for more information.

Cruise boats are docked along Ha Long Harbor. Tourists have to get a government permit before they can start their trip to Ha Long Bay.
Cruise boats are docked along Ha Long Harbor. Tourists have to get a government permit before they can start their trip to Ha Long Bay.

We were asked to pay USD 55 per person for the overnight trip. This included 4 meals, accommodation, transportation to and from Ha Long Bay, and an English speaking tour guide. It was a good deal so we didn’t have second thoughts.

During the cruise, we found out from our fellow passengers (who booked through other tour agencies) that they were asked for much more than what we paid. They were asked for USD 75 per person and some tour agencies they inquired in even asked for USD 125 per person! Please be careful with tour agencies in Vietnam. It’s a beautiful country but like others, there are also scammers who want to take advantage of tourists.

Most tour agencies will pick you up from your hotel early in the morning. We were picked up at 8:30 am and the trip took us 4 hours to Ha Long City. At 11:30am, we arrived at the docks of the bay. I was really excited when I saw all the beautiful boats lined up in the port. In a few minutes, I thought, I’d finally be in my dream destination.

Overnight cruise activities

Fog covers the world-famous bay.
Fog covers the world-famous bay.

After some 30 minutes of waiting for our government permits (everyone has to go through this), we finally boarded our boat and set sail. The picturesque islands drew closer as we entered the fog-covered bay. Slowly, the limestone karsts and islets became clearer.

The cruise boat had 3 floors with rooms, a dining area and a viewing deck. The cool breeze harmonized with the beautiful sights we were seeing.

As soon as we entered the bay, we were served lunch. We thought we’d be able to enter our rooms already but our tour guide said we’ll only be able to do so after 5pm. This helps them save the boat’s energy, he said.

Cruise boats wait for tourists visiting the cave.
Cruise boats wait for tourists visiting the cave.

Our first activity for the cruise was to visit one of the major caves in the bay. Many of the islands in Ha Long Bay have caves and beautiful beaches but only some of them are accessible to tourists.

The cave we visited was the Thien Cung Cave (Heavenly Palace Cave), considered by some as the most beautiful primitive cave in the bay. We alighted from our boat and climbed up a couple of steps to enter the cave.

The stalagmite and stalactite formations inside the cave.
The stalagmite and stalactite formations inside the cave.

Thien Cung Cave was really majestic. The tourism ministry put up different colored lights to highlight the beauty of the cave. It’s also a very tourist-friendly destination as there are concrete and marked paths inside.

It’s always astonishing to see nature’s grand design. To think that the beautiful formations in the cave – similar to the ones I saw in Puerto Princesa – took millions of years to form made me appreciate nature’s architecture and Architect more.

It took us less than an hour to visit the cave. We boarded our boat and went to our next destination – the floating fishing village.

This wasn’t really part of our itinerary but I guess most cruises stop here to help the locals. The fishing village was located in the middle of the sea. Our tour guide asked us if we wanted to take a 20-minute boat ride with one of the locals to see the interior of one of the islands. It only costs VND 60,000 so my family and I agreed to try it.

A local fishing village in the middle of Ha Long Bay.
A local fishing village in the middle of Ha Long Bay.

The small boat can seat around 8 people. A nice old lady rowed our boat, eagerly volunteering to take our photos when we reached the inner lake of a limestone islet. She also sang Vietnamese folk songs while elegantly guiding our boat.

Many of the islands have cave openings that lead to lakes.
Many of the islands have cave openings that lead to lakes.

The lake was magnificent though I wouldn’t want to swim in it. The waters looked deep and the silence of the surrounding gave a supernatural feel to the surrounding.

After our short boat ride, we headed to our last destination – also where our boat would drop anchor for the night. Near one of the docks in the middle of Ha Long, we stopped to go kayaking after finally settling in our rooms.

It was winter and the water was really cold. My brother and I shared one kayak, carefully making our way through the deep waters since our tour guides ran out of life vests.

We had fun but it only lasted for a few minutes since the sun was already setting. If we arrived a bit earlier in the bay, we would have swam in the open water – like what the other tourists in nearby cruise boats did.

Some disappointments

We had dinner in our boat after cleaning up. I thought there’d be a karaoke night because that’s what tour agencies advertised in their packages. To our disappointment, all the other tourists in the boat went straight to their rooms after dinner.

This is where our boat dropped anchor for the night. There are around 1,600 people living in the islands of Ha Long bay.
This is where our boat dropped anchor for the night. There are around 1,600 people living in the islands of Ha Long bay.

I have to admit that I was quite disappointed with my Ha Long Bay experience. The food served in the cruise boat was almost not enough for all the passengers. It also wasn’t as excellently prepared as the food served in the houseboats of Kerala.

There were also parts of the bay that had floating garbage. I know that cruises along Ha Long bay are major sources of income for locals so they should make sure they clean up and take care of their heritage. Some parts of the open water, for me, were not good for swimming since the waters had turned green because of too much algae.

I have no complaints about our tour guide because he was really accommodating and nice. But our transportation to and from Ha Long City could’ve been better. The shuttle bus was really packed and I pitied the other tourists who had uncomfortable sitting positions during the 4-hour trips.

I wouldn’t mind paying more for better service. Had we known that this was what USD 55 would give us, we would’ve chosen a more luxurious package.

Still a wonder in Southeast Asia

Despite these, I can still say that our overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay was still the highlight of our family trip to Vietnam – and one of the best in my trips across Southeast Asia.

Still a must-go destination in Southeast Asia.
Still a must-go destination in Southeast Asia.

Ha Long Bay is a natural wonder and I’m blessed to have spent two days cruising around it. This, I think, is the cherry on top of the natural beauty and lovely culture of Vietnam, a country I consider to be my second home.

When visiting Vietnam, make sure to go north. Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are good enough reasons to spend a week in that side of the country.

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