Once we had gone to experience the city and history of Saigon we decided that it would be nice to explore a little of the scenery in Vietnam. We’ve heard of Ha Long Bay from a few backpackers on our travels and everyone was saying what a great experience it was.
As we got into Vietnam and spoke to people that had recently been on the trip we started getting slightly different views, tales of bad boat companies, cramped conditions and rats.
We decided that this was not a time to penny pinch on the experience, and to actually weigh the options before us to make a choice that is frugal but not to the extent where we sour the experience.
You can get a Ha Long Bay tour for as little as $40 or as much as $200 per person, with a whole range in between. Having heard the tales of rats and bad food from people at the lower end of that range we decided to go up just a little from the bottom and paid $87 each for the experience. This included one night and two days on Ha Long Bay, food for the time we were there, as well as transport there and back. It also included some limited activities while we were there, such as kayaking.
For our tour everything was prearranged with very little “free time.”
We were picked up first thing in the morning and driven the three hours to Hanoi to Ha Long Bay – half way we stopped at a rest point for 30 minutes. One of those typical places where bus companies are paid to drop customers for a while. Overly expensive food and drinks, and plenty of tourist tat for you to buy, should you wish.
When we arrived on the boat we were given the keys to our room straight away, it was rather nice, even had an en-suite. Very small, but didn’t feel cramped – and to be honest it’s a boat cabin, you can’t expect any more for that money.
We were sailed out into Ha Long Bay itself to enjoy the thousands of islands that dot this area of Vietnam. We were not alone, there were hundreds of other boats around us. Our guide said that there are 300 overnight boats in Ha Long Bay at any one time. We spent some time just looking out at the islands and enjoying the peace and quiet.
We were unfortunate that there was lots of rain as we were moving into Ha Long Bay, a thunderstorm in fact. Once it hit we sheltered in the boat and were fed a good lunch while the rain cleared. There was some talk that if the rain didn’t clear we wouldn’t get to kayak, but thankfully it did and we moved to the kayaking station.
In a little mini bay you could kayak a two person boat around to your heart’s content, but if you wanted to go into the little cove with monkeys and interesting plants you had to pay 50,000 VND each – we opted for this. It was a little short, 30 minutes, but it was interesting and I enjoyed the combination of drifting lazily and some speed.
After the kayaking we went to a pearl farm. Not much to see really, a very basic introduction room with examples and very little description of what was going on. There was a room where you could see them implanting the “seeds” into the oysters that, hopefully, became the pearls later. It seemed very clinical and quick, they opened the oysters and were done in a matter of seconds. Depending on the type of oyster they are then left for a number of years to grow a pearl, then they are cracked open and the pearls, if there are any, are removed. The oyster itself is used for meat. I did feel a little educated but I feel they could do with some more descriptions of what is going on.
Then it was back to the boat again to be taken to the “Surprising Cave”. This is a series of chambers, each bigger than the last, full of interesting rock formations. Having seen many caves in the past I expected to be bored, but there were things there that I didn’t expect. The ceiling of the cave was pock marked, like a golf ball – I have no idea how that could have formed. The last chamber was massive and we spent about 15 minutes just walking through it.
Our last stop of the tour was a beach island. You could choose to either relax on the beach, or climb the steps to view point at the top of the hill. We opted for the latter and set off up the hill. Very tiring, by the time I got to the top I was breathing hard and needed a rest, but it was worth it. The view was incredible. Hundreds of islands stretching in all directions with boats and floating platforms dotted in between. I’ve never seen anything like it before and I think it’s my favourite memory of the whole time in Ha Long Bay.
Back to the boat again and we enjoyed a very good, and varied, evening meal. It even involved a demonstration on how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, which we even got to eat!
The morning after there was just time for a quick breakfast before we got back on the boat to go back to Hanoi.
I think Ha Long Bay was the highlight of our trip to Hanoi. The city itself is busy and crowded, it was good to get away from it to somewhere that’s calm and serene. It’s quite expensive on a backpackers’ budget but I think it’s definitely worth the money, just don’t go for the cheapest price!
After Ha Long Bay we are flying to our next country, the Philippines. We will spend a few days in the capital city of Manilla. It’s home to an ancient Spanish fort built when it was a colony, as well as quite a few old churches and a cathedral, all built in a western style. I can’t wait to walk the old walls and try to see what’s different from back home.