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The worst thing that Halong Bay has going for it is the fact that it is in Northern Vietnam. It is a lamentable shame that such a remarkable landscape and stunning site of such natural beauty exists within such an otherwise bleak, inhumane part of the world. At the end of this post, I will reveal the best way to visit Halong Bay, without the regionally induced headache.
Don’t get me wrong–Halong Bay is one of the more beautiful places on the face of the planet and is well-worthy of a visit, but industrialized Northern Vietnam has to be one of the most despicable, dreary expanses on the entire globe. The mountainous region of Sapa and the northwest is meant to be stunning, but lowland North Vietnam from Hanoi to Halong Bay is a hole of cold and gray; the architecture, the weather, the people, all cold and gray.
Hanoi itself is a beehive of motorbikes and traffic with 6 million residents. Halong Bay is a 3.5 hour ride east out towards Halong City and the South China Sea. Don’t be surprised if the 3.5 hour journey turns into 6 due to yet another motorbike accident (horns trumps traffic lanes as a general rule). Upon reaching Halong City, there are many package tours that will arrange for overnight excursions on boats through Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island. As a general rule, unless you’re paying the for the top dollar boats, the entire experience will be more of a nightmare than an adventure. Horror stories on these package trips are outnumbered only by the number of limestone islands bursting from the Bay.
On our particular trip, our friends were charged double for no particular reason, the “kayaking” section was at an impromptu 6am while still dark, the boat had failed to pack bottled water (as tap water induces stomach illness), and the boat had been overbooked and we were forced to sleep in the kitchen. Next to the generator. With a karaoke boat anchored next to us crooning Michael Jackson until midnight. No chance of a refund though. It’s a corrupt cash economy in North Vietnam that is economically lawless at best. What is again unfortunate is that being out on one of these Vietnamese “junks” under the stars is an otherwise beautiful moment that is simply dampened by pent up frustration. Bottom line on the junks: An experience with amazing potential ruined by inept corruption an inefficiency.
One of the best natural features of Halong Bay are all of the caves. Comprised of over 3ooo islands, many of the limestone peaks play host to hollow caverns that are veritable subterranean amphitheaters. One of the more magnificent–and heavily visited– is Sun Sot Cave (Surprise Cave). Inspiring in its natural wonder, this is one thing the tours can’t screw up. While out on the water en route to the caves, it is possible to view many of the local merchants selling fruit out of dug out rowboats, and fisherman returning home with the latest day’s catch.
Another main component of Halong Bay is Cat Ba island, the only populated island in the entire bay (not counting the various floating villages). While half of the island is conserved in dense National Park land, Cat Ba town itself is absolutely dreadful. A seedy port town at best, the nicest part of the town are the 3 sandy beaches a short walk away that hug the panoramic cliff. Many of the joint boat tours offer “trekking” in the park as part of the package. Don’t be fooled…this is a 30 minute climb up a well worn path with about 200 other people. The best trekking in the park is arranged with a day company in Cat Ba town away from all of the group tours.
So, that all being said, would I go to Halong Bay again? Absolutely, the place is beautiful. But, I would do it differently on my own terms, which would be as such: Arrange my own transport to Halong City and hop on a junk for a day trip to the caves and Cat Ba. Disembark at Cat Ba and spend the time on the island arranging private treks at my own leisure through companies in town. Once finished with Cat Ba, take the cheap Hydrofoil to Haiphong on the mainland, and then it’s just a 2 hour train/bus to Hanoi. That’s the best way to do Halong Bay, this gorgeous spot in the unfortunate location, that according to a South Vietnamese local, is run by “stupid, crazy, hungry dogs.”
(Above picture is wine soaked in snakes, cobras, lizards, starfish, seahorses, and whole ravens. Apparently, it is a potent Vietnamese aphrodisiac…)