Designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, Ha Long Bay is famous for its 2,000 towering limestone islets which rise dramatically out of emerald waters. It is the type of place that steals your breath, and an experience I will file under ‘cannot be real’- joining the likes of Santorini and Venice.
Ever since watching Indochine (1992) a number of years ago I have wanted to laze on board the deck of a Chinese junk boat in Ha Long Bay. My experience of the bay wouldn’t involve Communists or a hunky Frenchman, nevertheless, it was a truly memorable 2 days.
It is everything you expect it to be and more. The islets are as tall, the water is as warm, and the sunsets are as sublime. The warm, gentle breezes , the chittering of birds and monkeys, and the sunsets over emerald waters gave us the overwhelming sense that we were in fact, in some sort of ancient paradise.
Where to stay
Opt for an overnight cruise. Ha Long City is merely a raffish collection of high-rise hotels and karaoke bars. You need to experience Ha Long bay from sunrise to sunset to properly absorb its beauty – and where better to do this than from the deck of a Chinese junk boat! We were lucky enough to have a private boat for our group which came complete with a private chef and barman – so we were well fed and watered as we soaked in the bay’s beauty!
What to do
See the caves: As if Halong Bay couldn’t get any more spectacular, what lies beneath will equally amaze you – a complex system of underwater caves that stretch as far as the eye can see. The caves are very safe for tourists to explore – set up with paths and lights. I recommend the Dao Go, Sung Sot and Thien Cung Caves.
Go for a kayak: Go for a late afternoon paddle through caves and between the islets. Have a swim as the sun sets and enjoy the reflections of the colours off the emerald waters. Don’t forget a waterproof camera (not that pictures will do it justice!)
Enjoy the sunset and the stars: Enjoy the sky and warm evening air with a drink on the deck of your boat.
Hike to the top of an islet: Many of the islets are inaccessible for humans, and attempting to climb them is strictly prohibited. Certain islets have been set up for tourists with walking paths and areas for swimming. The hike to the top is exhausting but worth it. Complete the hike to the top of Ti Top Island with a (much needed) swim at the bottom!
What to eat
Seafood, seafood and more seafood! My favourites were the barbecued shrimp and oysters. Enjoy with pepper, salt and lime juice. Simple but sensational!
Some words of advice
See my ‘words of advice’ on my Hanoi post for a comprehensive list of tips relevant to all of Vietnam.
Advice specific to Halong Bay
There are better ways to skimp on your holiday in Vietnam than on your stay in Halong Bay. A little extra goes a long way here! An extra $100-$150 a night can mean the difference between an uncomfortable stay on a clunky boat and a luxurious stay on a spectacular junk (pardon the oxymoron!) with a private chef. The latter will make the experience memorable for all the right reasons! We stayed on the Star Fish which I highly recommend.
We visited in June/July so it was HOT and very sunny (unusual for Summer which is usually monsoonal). We did not stop sweating, and there was literally not a moment we were properly dry. Drink lots of water and prepare for lots of sun exposure – hats, sunscreen, appropriate clothing etc.
There are some local people who live in bay and sell food and goods from their little boats. Before accepting an item from a vendor make sure to negotiate an agreed upon price. While most boat vendors are kind and fair – we did have an awkward experience from the window of our cabin where we wanted to buy drinks, and once they had handed the bottles to us, attempted to WAY overcharge us meanwhile refusing to take the bottles back. We spent the rest of the afternoon hiding behind our curtains!