We high-tailed it out of Hanoi and headed for the (relative) peace and quiet of Halong Bay, a very touristy (but beautiful) location about 3 hours east of The City that Broke Us. Halong Bay is known for its hundreds of islands with limestone cliff formations…it is quite an unusual place, and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It kind of made me think of Milford Sound in New Zealand—if all those big cliffs got together and multiplied like rabbits, they’d make Halong Bay.
The way that most people see Halong Bay is on a one, two, or three day cruise aboard one of the many “junks” (Chinese-style boats) that motor around the bay. The junks are built with fake sails, which are quite charming at first, and then kinda silly as you look closer (since the sails are so obviously decorative).
It takes 3 hours (one-way) to drive out to Halong Bay from Hanoi, so we opted against the day trip. The 3-day trip includes a one-night stay on the junk and one night on Cat Ba Island. One thing we’ve learned from our trip so far is that we really love being on boats. We sleep like babies on the sea…Jeremy has even suggested that we rig up our bed on some wires to mimic the gentle rocking you get on a boat. I hope he’s joking.
Anyway, we thought a 3-day trip might be a little too long for us, so we opted for the 2-day/1-night trip with an overnight on the boat (you can also choose to stay on land if you are prone to seasickness). As I mentioned in my previous post, there are (possibly) hundreds of people selling tours to Halong Bay from Hanoi. The price for a 2-day/1-night trip can range from US$35 to US$200! Lonely Planet suggested that most people who pay a little more than the rock-bottom budget trips (US$35-45) are usually happy that they did so…the budget trips tend to serve small meals, the accommodation is a bit sketchier, etc. They had us at “small meals.”
So, we set about looking for a mid-range tour of Halong Bay. We went to about 10 different tour agencies and finally settled on Vega Travel, which charged us US$72 each for the trip. This was a bit steep for us, but we couldn’t find anything in the US$50-60 range—tour prices seem to make big jumps rather than small ones—from US$40 to US$70 to US$150.
It’s worth noting that when Grace and Susan went to Halong Bay in 2004, they paid only US$20 for their tour. That is how much prices have risen here in the past 5 years…the rock-bottom budget tours are now twice as expensive!
A couple of realities about Halong Bay tours:
1. There are TONS of boats out in the bay. Don’t expect to be alone out here, because you won’t be.
2. The boats all travel (more or less) the same course (or, it seems, some of them travel the same course, but backwards).
So, the fact is, more than likely, someone who pays US$45 will get the EXACT same tour as someone who paid US$200. The only difference will be the accommodation and the food.
We thought a US$30 premium for a nicer room and good food was too steep, but we are happy that we cruised Halong Bay in the Vega boat, mostly because we met some really nice people on our tour. There were 10 other people on our boat, including a Russian family of 3, two Aussies, a Turkish/Swedish couple, two Indian girls, and a Belgian guy who teaches English in India. Everyone was super nice and we really enjoyed hearing everyone’s travel stories. We spent the most amount of time getting to know the Aussies, Brad and Suzanne, who live in Melbourne (holler!).
On the first day of our cruise, the boat headed for Surprising Cave (yes, that’s the name). It is called “Surprising Cave” (spoiler alert!) because of a large stalagmite that looks like a penis. Classy. We weren’t really surprised by this, but we were surprised by how big the cave was. We thought it was going to be a lame little cave that you stick your head inside. But no, it’s huge! Like, it took us a good 15 minutes to walk through it.
The typical Halong Bay cruise also includes a hike to the top of Titop Island, where there are stunning views of the swimming beach below.
After the hike, you jump in a kayak and paddle your way to an enclosed lagoon. Jeremy and Brad decided to go for a swim after our kayaking session, and jumped from the top of the boat.
That weather wasn’t great while we were in Halong Bay, but the overcast fogginess made the atmosphere kind of dramatic, and we got some thunderstorms that night, which was super cool! It was neat to see all the islands illuminated by lightning as we ate our dinner.
Once again, our experience in Halong Bay was one in which the company of two other cool travelers really made it for us. So thanks, Brad and Suzanne, for hanging out with us!
Our time on the Vega boat was totally fine. The room was quite nice and the food was great and plentiful. We still think it’s overpriced at US$72, but that’s the lowest “just-above-rock-bottom-budget” price we could find, and we’re grateful for the cool group we met on the boat.
And Halong Bay? Definitely worth seeing, but we’re glad we only did the 2 day cruise (our instincts were right…3 days would have probably been too much). If you ever make it to this part of the world, just keep your expectations in check…there are tons of motorboats out here, which inevitably leads to pollution and crowding. Vietnam is trying to get Halong Bay listed as one of the “New 7 Wonders” of the world (we don’t really know what this means). Hopefully the government can do something to keep the boat traffic in check and preserve this natural beauty.